Since World War II, America has clearly won only one of five major conflicts: Operation Desert Storm. Korea was a bloody stalemate, Vietnam an “outright military defeat,” and both Afghanistan and Iraq — America’s two longest wars — hardly look like victories. At least that’s the contention of Dominic Tierney, contributing editor at The Atlantic and Swarthmore political science professor. Yesterday, he launched a new book, The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts and promoted it with a lengthy Atlantic essay outlining the reasons for American failure abroad.
While I have long taken issue with the notion that the military has truly “lost” its wars, there is no question that most of our postwar conflicts have been much longer than anticipated, less decisive than hoped, and far more costly than promised. In analyzing why, Tierney explains the gap between America and its recent enemies with startling (and refreshing) clarity: “It’s limited war for Americans, and total war for those fighting Americans. The United States has more power; its foes have more willpower.”
The first sentence of that quote is unquestionably true. Our jihadist foes use every weapon at their disposal, deploy them indiscriminately, and have no regard at all for innocent life. They will do whatever it takes to win. Our nation, by contrast, sacrifices American lives to protect the innocent, deploys the smallest possible fraction of its military force, and will withdraw well before victory is secured.
But the distinction goes beyond time and tactics to — as Tierney notes — sheer willpower. The best military in the world is ineffective if a critical mass of our citizens lack the will to deploy it effectively and then endure through adversity. In fact, those two concepts are related: The perception of effectiveness is inextricably linked to the willingness to endure. Americans are losing the will to fight because we first lack the willingness to deploy the military effectively.
While only a small minority of Americans are true pacifists, there is a much larger number — mainly in the Left and segments of the libertarian Right — who are functionally anti-war, at least when it comes to the use of American military power. The functional pacifist doesn’t reject all war, but he does reject war the way it’s traditionally been fought. The functional pacifist declares as a “war crime” virtually any civilian death, conceives the ideal form of warfare as somehow more “clean” than even big-city policing, and places ever-escalating constraints on the use of force.
This pacifism reconceives the military as essentially armed cultural engagement, and it attempts to regulate true military conflict out of existence. The Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) has been reconceived as “International Humanitarian Law” (IHL), with European interpretations of use-of-force restrictions gaining increasing currency within even the American military. During my own military training, for example, I noticed substantial differences between my initial LOAC training in 2006 and later LOAC/IHL training in 2013. Even as our enemies grew more ruthless, we placed ever-greater restrictions on our use of force.
At the same time that the Left and the libertarian Right reconceive the use of force, excessively idealistic conservatives exaggerate its potential cultural and political effectiveness. As I’ve argued before, our political leaders can’t ask the military to remake nations and cultures. For example, had the Surge been conceived solely as a military effort to crush al-Qaeda, it would have been an unmitigated success. Instead, the Bush administration aspired to use the Surge not only to defeat our enemies in the field but also to establish key political benchmarks that proved entirely unattainable. Of course there has to be some government in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that government need not be a democracy, and if the goal is democracy (as the example of Korea shows us), it need not happen anytime soon.
Given the combination of a military stripped of many of its best tools and tactics and then tasked with accomplishing the culturally impossible, is it any wonder our conflicts grind on and on?
Given the combination of a military stripped of many of its best tools and tactics and then tasked with accomplishing the culturally impossible, is it any wonder our conflicts grind on and on? Even hampered by absurd rules of engagement, we’re of course too strong to face military defeat, but we also render ourselves too weak to truly win. Nor will we ever have the ability to remake violent, tribal societies within the timeframe demanded by political and economic realities.
In such an environment, a failure of will is nearly inevitable. Indeed, it’s remarkable how long we’ve fought in spite of such constraints. To avoid repeating those mistakes, it’s time for bold political and cultural leadership to remake our view of both the awesome power and profound limits of American power. We can do both more (in terms of raw power) and less (in terms of precision) militarily than most Americans realize. We can do far less culturally than most Americans hope. Will the country embrace strategies that allow the military to inflict catastrophic losses on the enemy without replacing our defeated foes with virtuous and efficient democracies? Can we handle a victorious war and a messy postwar?
I’m doubtful. In the absence of an immediately perceived existential threat, Americans will persist in their naiveté, denial, and ideological blindness. At the same time, they can’t — over the long term — tolerate an ascendant jihad. So I fear history will repeat itself, as America will have just enough will to avert catastrophe but not enough will to win.
— David French is a lawyer, a staff writer at National Review, and a veteran of the Iraq War.