The American way of war

It’s really unfair, and very unwise, to go on getting into fights like this. We’ve failed to win four out of our last five major wars since 1945:

  • Korea – truce
  • Vietnam – defeat
  • Gulf war 1 – victory
  • Gulf war 2 – withdrew
  • Afghanistan – withdrew

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.

— Contemporary American folk saying

The unfairness lies most egregiously in asking our sons and daughters, to fight and die, to win, and then decide “oh, this is unpleasant and untidy” and quit. Unfairness also lies in asking taxpayers to pay for it; and in asking allies to believe us, to fight on our side when in the end we don’t honor our promises.

Unwisdom lies partly in the messages that we send. With each successive war we engage in, it seems easier and easier to make us quit. We communicate vulnerability and indecisiveness. Also, if you’re considering in joining us as an ally you can expect to be left holding the bag afterwards. Consider the fate of our allies in South Vietnam in 1973. We were able to help some evacuate. Some escaped on their own and eventually came here as refugees. Others were executed or jailed. Consider also the Iraqi and Afghani interpreters, promised visas to the US and then abandoned.

There is a lack of wisdom in so easily giving up what you’ve won. With both the Vietnam War and Gulf War 2, plausible narratives exist that we walked away with those wars essentially won, as summarized below.

The Viet Nam War, Won
By 1972 the process of Vietnamization was complete, American ground troops were gone and the South Vietnamese were doing quite well with American logistics, air and naval support. The North Vietnamese decided in that year to test things with a major offensive and were soundly beaten. The North Vietnamese then decided to enter peace talks, Richard Nixon sold out, and Congress withdrew support from the South Vietnamese. Game over. The previous narrative is condensed from one offered in an article in The New York Sun.

Gulf War 2, Won
By 2008 Iraq was stabilized. The Iraqi Army was able to fight and win battles without support from American ground forces. Oil revenue was flowing, and the economy was rebounding. Charles Krauthammer wrote in a Washington Post column:

Al-Qaeda decimated. A Shiite prime minister taking a decisively nationalist line. Iraqi Sunnis ready to integrate into a new national government. U.S. casualties at their lowest ebb in the entire war. Elections approaching. Obama was left with but a single task: Negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) to reinforce these gains and create a strategic partnership with the Arab world’s only democracy.

History should teach us that wars are messy and dangerous. Don’t get in a war unless you intend to win.

Bottom line
So what do we do? I used to think the fix was ‘don’t get involved in wars without overwhelming public support’. However, the American Revolution and the Civil War were both fought, and won, without overwhelming public support. Retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, a former CENTCOM commander and allegedly the ‘most revered Marine in a generation’ says that America doesn’t lose wars, it loses interest. That insight seems to fit well with recent history: if it doesn’t go the way we want, we lose interest.

I wish for two things:

  • When (not if) we get into another war, let’s understand it probably won’t go well. Be prepared for adversity. If we don’t have the stomach for it, don’t start.
  • Respect our troops and allies by honoring the commitments we make to them.

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