Why the US military keeps losing wars.

by Fabius Maximus

Summary: The previous post asked why the US fields the best soldiers but loses so often. Perhaps because “It’s not our fault” has replaced “No excuses.”

No More Excuses

My previous post asked why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often? It provoked fascinating discussions in the comments here and elsewhere. Here are my guesses about possible answers. Given the hazards in our world, growing worse, this is among our most serious problem.

Death of the “no excuses” military

Armies that win respond to failure with “no excuses!” The Prussians got their asses kicked by Napoleon at Jena-Auerstedt in 1806. A group of senior officers – including ScharnhorstGneisenauBoyenGrolmanand Clausewitz – implemented deep reforms to the army. Subsequent generations built on them, eventually leading to their great victories in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

This is America’s tradition as well, although on a smaller scale (not yet having met our bête noire). After two years of defeats, some almost terminal, the Continental Army wintered in 1777 at Valley Forge. They could have issued cheerful press releases and given inspirational speeches to the troops. Instead they reorganized and trained despite the brutal weather and lack of adequate supplies.

The Battle of Kasserine Pass in February 1943 was the US Army’s first major engagement with Axis forces in WWII, and a brutal defeat. Eisenhower responded by sending Major General Lloyd Fredendall home and appointing Patton as commander of II Corps. There were also changes in organization and equipment.

Armies that lose respond to defeat with excuses. How has America’s military responded to its defeats after Korea?

The Atlantic cover: Jan-Feb 2015

(1) It’s the American people’s fault!

This is a popular answer. James Fallows explains in “The Tragedy of the American Military“ in The Atlantic.

“Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1% under fire in our name. …

“America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts. …these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy. At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.”

The applause from military officers was deafening. It is not our fault! That is the mantra of armies that lose.

Even more common are complaints that the American public does not support wars like Vietnam or the WOT long enough, or with enough money – or does so with too many constraints (i.e., let the military “take the gloves” off and win). These are odd claims considering the massive devastation American inflicted in Vietnam and in Iraq, at such fantastic cost – with the WOT in its second decade. But to a losing military, no amounts of money spent or blood spilled are enough. Since more was possible, failure was not their fault.

Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam
Available at Amazon.

(2)  It’s the politicians’ fault!

“The disaster in Vietnam was not the result of impersonal forces, but a uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisors.”

— Last paragraph of Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by H.R. McMaster (1997).

This is another excuse that never grows old. Failure is not the fault of the Army or Marines as institutions, or their culture, or their officer corps, or their methods. Let’s blame the politicians and the politicians in uniform whom they appoint as Chiefs!

The classic example of this is McMaster’s book about Vietnam. It helped catapult him from a captain victorious in battle onto the fast track leading from Lt. Colonel to Lieutenant General to National Security Advisor. His book was greeted with excitement by his fellow officers. Feel the enthusiasm in the reviews in Parameters, a journal of the Army’s War College. It’s not our fault!

Conclusions

“No Excuses” is the motto of armies that win. But that spirit appears dead in the modern US military. Perhaps that is why we lose.

Instead of “no excuses” we hear It is not our fault! Understandably so, for that is the most comforting of mantras. But it exacts a heavy price. It reduces the pressure that powers the painful process of learning and changing. Failure to learn is an illness that can offset any amount of power. So our military dresses up methods that have failed in scores of wars by foreign armies against local insurgents, trying them again and again.

Other posts in this series

  1. Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?
  2. Why the US military keeps losing wars.
  3. Possible solutions, paths to a better future for the US military.