Small Wars Journal

Why Does the U.S. Military Have Such a Staggering Record of Failure?

Why Does the U.S. Military Have Such a Staggering Record of Failure? By Harlan Ullman and Arnaud deBorchgrave, UPI

… Using the end of World War II in 1945 at a starting point and including the Korean War (1950-53) and Vietnam Wars (from 1959 when the first Americans were killed to withdrawal in 1974), Americans have been in battle for 37 of the past 72 years or well over 50 percent. And the record has not been impressive. Korea was a draw. Vietnam was an ignominious defeat vividly portrayed by the poignant image of the last Huey helicopter lifting off the roof of an apartment building in Saigon.

The only outright victory was the first Iraq War in 1991 in which President George H.W. Bush had the sound judgment to limit the objective to ejecting Saddam Hussein and his army from Kuwait and then withdrawing the bulk of our forces. Tragically for the nation, Bush's son, George W. Bush, presided over arguably the greatest American strategic catastrophe since the civil war --the second Iraq War -- a conflict that produced the Islamic State and is still being waged today without an end in sight.

Several observations are as dismal as this past history of military failure. First, few Americans are even aware or concerned over how long this nation has been engaged in armed conflicts over the past seven decades. It is quite a staggering record for a country that seems to place great value in its "exceptionalism" and its attempts to spread democracy around the globe.

Second, few Americans even raise the question of why, with what we believe is the greatest military in the world, our record in war and military interventions is so failure prone. And, third, in light of public disinterest, what can be done to ensure success whenever military force is engaged in major conflict or interventions? …

Read on.



Fri, 02/17/2017 - 1:21pm

<Competent company and battalion commanders weren't rotated based on a schedule.>

Up until the last 12-15 months of the war, successful leaders were actually rotated quite frequently during WWII in all services. While much of that was due to replacement of combat losses, the US made a concerted effort to cross level competence and experience into newly created units and ships. The process for this started upon mobilization in September 1940.


Thu, 02/16/2017 - 7:36am

In reply to by Bill C.

Possibly. This subscribes to the idea that American foreign policy historically rejected war as an instrument of policy, rather than a last resort, so collectively, we're uncomfortable with it. I'm not sure that idea passes the giggle test when considering things like the Mexican War in 1846, or the Spanish-American War, or a half-century's worth of banana wars, but there's as much evidence to support it.

Re: the two noted "success" stories (World War II and the Old Cold War), might we say -- given the existential nature of these such conflicts -- that the reason for our victories in these such conflicts was because our enemies WERE NOT able to successfully employ a "political attrition" strategy against us? (In both the WWII and Old Cold War cases, this is because the possibility of an existential defeat was so real, and the consequences of such a defeat so appalling?)

With the noted "failure" items, however, (too many to list) -- and given their essentially NON-existential character -- might we say that the reason for our defeats in these such conflicts has been because our enemies HAVE BEEN able to successfully employ a "political attrition" strategy against us? (Thus, whether we are talking Korea, Vietnam, Iraq Part II, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, etc., etc., etc. -- and as evidenced by our continued and prosperous existence in spite of same -- the idea and consequences of defeat are seen as being [a] much less consequential/inconsequential and, thus, [b] much more tolerable and not worth the price of continued and/or greater war.)

(Bottom Line: If our very existence and future prosperity is seriously in question, then we win. If our very existence and future prosperity appears not to be in question, then we may well lose and go home.)

Thus, to answer the title question: "Why Does the U.S. Military Have Such a Staggering Record of Failure" in exactly this such "non-existential conflict + enemies successful political attrition strategy = we go home" manner?

(Note: With the Brexit, the Amexit* (re: the election of President Trump), etc., many of our enemies may believe that their "political attrition" strategies have finally born amazing fruit. This, given that the governments of the U.S./the West -- and as per the demands of their populations of late -- are ALL now seen to be in "full retreat" mode; this, for the first time in modern history?)


A term apparently coined by Dr. Taesuh Cha re: the American people's increasing embrace of the idea of the United States being freed from the burdens of global leadership and responsibility. In this regard, see the final paragraph of his article: "The Return of Jacksonianism: The International Implications of the Trump Phenomenon" found here:…)

First and foremost, the U.S. has a bad habit of going to war without a clear idea of a realistic definition of "victory". We still look at war as a bizarre sort of sporting contest, where the winner takes all (or at least dictates terms), and the loser accepts the results (rather than figuring out how to continue the conflict). That defines American history's love affair with WWII. Had MacArthur and Truman not gotten greedy in Korea and stopped with the original mandate (restore the boundary between the ROK and the DPRK), that would have been chalked up as a win, too. We misidentified a civil war and insurgency in Vietnam as a repeat of Korea, which left our measurement of "victory" flawed from the start. Desert Storm was George H.W. Bush trying to learn from Korea, and it could have worked if the Saudis were up to providing their own defense, and we could have minimized our visibility in the region again. Likewise, OEF and OIF could have worked had we not overstepped the original objective -- depose hostile leadership, and then put the locals back in charge...with warnings.

Second, we've progressively tried to make war less painful for the taxpayers. We haven't done a general mobilization since Korea. While reserves played much more of a roll in Desert Storm and OEF/OIF (because post-Vietnam, the Army was designed that way), DoD tried to save money by using reservists like contract labor, calling them up for short durations, sending them home, then recalling them again. That worked for DS, because it was short...the extended nature of OEF/OIF proved disruptive as reservists found themselves bounced back and forth between active duty and civilian life, stable in neither. And the political decision to go to war on credit -- thereby not upsetting voters with a war tax -- eventually played havoc with our economy.

This is less a military failing than a strategy failing, although once having accepted a soup sandwich, military culture resists demanding a spoon. But mostly it's national leadership either not understanding the strategic nature and limitations of war, or believing that if our intentions are virtuous enough, the world will go along with us. Hope still isn't strategy.

J Harlan

Wed, 02/15/2017 - 12:38pm

The problem is that all of the wars post 1945 have been optional (the actual security of the US was not in question) and fought by a permanent officer corps. Combat has simply been a career check mark. In 1943 capable aggressive officers weren't maneuvering to get to grad school. Competent company and battalion commanders weren't rotated based on a schedule. NCOs weren't pacing themselves because they were on their third tours and expected to come back for a couple more. Tactical success or failure had little bearing on whether the individuals days in combat were over or not.

Whether the AVF is simply collation or causation is not provable but certainly the situation where officers can be promoted after failure (or "stalemate" as it is now called) is hardly conducive to victory.