National Security & Defense

The Real Reasons the U.S. Can’t Win Wars Anymore

U.S. soldiers conduct a joint foot patrol with Canadian and Afghan National Army troops in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in 2009. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
A response to Bing West.

In his National Review article “Three Wars, No Victory — Why?” (February 18, 2021), Bing West, my former colleague at the Pentagon and the Naval War College, lays out a compelling case for why the U.S. — which he argues is the most powerful country in the history of the world — has lost the three major wars it has fought over the past 50 years: Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Bing divides blame for each of these losses among three hubs — namely, the military, the policy-makers, and the popular mood among the people of the country. He argues correctly that the policy hub, or the policy-makers, were primarily responsible for the failures.

While I have some experience in each of these conflicts, having served in Vietnam and having visited Iraq three times and Afghanistan once, it does not match that of Bing, who is one of the bravest people I have ever known. However, I still believe that he presents a sometimes incomplete and misleading picture of why we lost these three wars.

For example, in analyzing the Vietnam disaster, he ignores the fact that the war was fought under false pretenses. President Johnson received congressional authorization in 1964 to begin the massive escalation in Vietnam in response to an alleged attack by the North Vietnamese on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. But, even before the congressional investigation, it was clear to any experienced naval officer that what the administration claimed had happened was bogus. I remember my commanding officer in VP-1, who had flown combat missions in World War II and Korea, telling us that the attacks did not happen the way it was claimed. This was something that Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who was Bing’s and my boss at the War College and who received a medal of honor for his courage as a POW in Vietnam and who was in the area at the time, also affirmed. As did a naval officer who convinced Senator Wayne Morse (D., Ore.) to become one of the two senators who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. (Both lost their next election.). When this came to light, it also increased opposition to the war among the American people.

Another reason we failed in Vietnam is that the war was never winnable in the first place. Bing argues that our poor military strategy from 1965 to 1968, bad policy decisions, and the popular mood doomed the Vietnam War. These factors played a role, but in truth only heightened an already existing reality — a reality made clear to me in 1966, when my colleagues and I got lost coming back from a meeting with SWIFT-boat officers in the northern part of Cameron Bay, South Vietnam. As we rode around aimlessly trying to find our way back to our base, we came upon a Catholic monastery. A priest there gave us directions and fed us. But as we were leaving, one of the monks asked me in French (which I had studied in school) why we thought we were going to make out any better in Vietnam than the French. President Eisenhower was conscious of this when he refused to bail out the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, even though most of his national-security advisers, including then–Vice President Nixon and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Radford, recommended it. But Army chief of staff General Matthew Ridgway, who prevented us from losing in Korea, helped convince Eisenhower not to intervene, because he, like the monks I met, believed Vietnam was unwinnable.

Similarly, the majority of the American people turned against the war in Vietnam not just because there was a draft, as Bing correctly points out, but because of how the privileged were able to avoid the draft, thus leaving it to the lower class to bear most of the burden. For example, the four most recent presidents who could have served in Vietnam avoided that war and the draft by dubious means. Bill Clinton pretended to join the Army ROTC; George W. Bush used political connections to get into the Air National Guard, when President Johnson made it clear that the reserve component would not be activated to fight the war; Donald Trump, of course, had his family physician claim he had bone spurs, (Trump himself cannot remember which foot); and Joe Biden claimed that the asthma he had in high school prevented him from serving even though he brags about his athletic exploits while in high school.

Similarly, in his analysis of why we did not win in Iraq, Bing ignores the fact that the Bush administration got the U.S. into war falsely claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, in criticizing the Obama administration for withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, Bing ignores the fact that Obama had no choice. He did this because in 2008 the Iraqi government, which we had helped install, made it clear to us that it would not sign a Status of Forces Agreement unless we agreed to withdraw completely by the end of 2011.

I saw this firsthand when I worked in the Obama campaign and in the summer of 2008 met with Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister. When I asked him about the agreement to withdraw, he told me it was a non-negotiable demand. When I relayed this to Denis McDonough, who was on the campaign trail with Obama and eventually became his chief of staff, he was surprised and asked me if I was certain about what I heard. In 2009, while on a visit to Iraq, I brought this up with several Iraqi government officials in the parliament and the executive branch and received the same answer. Finally, in December 2011, when Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki came to Washington to finalize the deal, I and several others, including Obama’s first national-security adviser General David Jones and future Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, met with him. I asked him directly if there was anything President Obama could have done to keep the troops in Iraq. He essentially said that Bush made an agreement and the U.S. must stick to it. At the meeting, Jones said Obama was willing to leave 10,000 troops.

Bing also ignores the fact that the Bush administration never publicly or privately praised Iran for its help in Afghanistan but actually publicly criticized that nation. I saw this myself. On 9/11, I was working at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. After the attacks, the Iranian ambassador to the U.N. invited me to dinner and told me to let our government know that Iran detested the Taliban and would be willing to help us in Afghanistan. I relayed this to the Bush administration, and Bush’s representative to the Bonn Conference in December 2001, which established the Karzai government, told me that the Bush administration would not have succeeded without the Iranians. Iran’s reward? In early 2002, Bush put the country on the axis of evil. It is an understatement to say that as a result Iran no longer played a positive role in the region.

Finally, in his Afghanistan analysis, while Bing correctly points out that our military could never transform Afghanistan, he is wrong to argue that we should remain indefinitely in the country to avoid damaging our reputation. Many who fought in this 20-year war already believe our reputation is damaged and want us to leave before it is damaged further. Sunk-costs logic should not apply here.

How bad will it be if we agree to leave on May 1, as Trump agreed to, and the Taliban takes over, especially for women? When I visited Afghanistan in 2011, I asked a Taliban official how they would treat women if or when they took over. He told me not to worry — that they would not treat them any worse than our allies, the Saudis.

Bing’s article should be read by all those who believe that the U.S. can develop and sustain democracies by using military power. However, they should keep in mind that there are some other factors that also play into this decision.

Lawrence Korb, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a retired Navy Captain, served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration.


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