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Why Can’t America Win its Wars?

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Why Can’t America Win its Wars?

Stephen B. Young

As part of his January 2, 2019 cabinet meeting, President Donald Trump may have petulantly disparaged his resigning Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, but he did ask a Lord Voldemort question – one which should not be spoken aloud. He raised for the world to consider why can America no longer win its wars?

He asked about General Mattis “Well, what’s he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too god. Not too good. I’m not happy with what he’s done in Afghanistan.” Trump put the problem curtly: “You can talk about our generals. I gave our generals all the money they wanted. They didn’t do such a great job in Afghanistan. They’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for 19 years”, adding: “I want results.”

The record of American disappointments is indeed impressive for money spent and results obtained: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, the War on Terror.

Further, an inability to obtain a favorable balance of power can be seen in the South China Sea, Yemen, Libya, the Ukraine, North Korea, and the Middle East. Today, near insurgent conditions in much of Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras negatively impact American domestic tranquility through drug sales and illegal migration.

As Carlos Ghosn in better days advised: "If you don't find the solution, it's because you didn't see the real problem." If we have been unable to win our wars, it has been because we have not seen the real problem – which is that the forms of power we bring to conflicts are not well suited to producing victory. We need to address this problem with a more sophisticated understanding of power itself.

A suitably sophisticated understanding of the nature of power, a conceptual framework leading us to ask the right national security questions about what to do, when, and how, was provided by Clauswitz. He proposed that power is a continuum from politics to war fighting.  A party in conflict can deploy forms of power all along the continuum, separately or in combination.

Clauswitz’s continuum is better graphed as a Gaussian distribution – a bell-shaped curve with the less frequently used forms of power at the extremes (unilateral forms of power) and the most efficacious forms centered around the median (multilateral combinations of powers).

At one extreme is very “hard” power and on the other very “soft” power.

In the middle are found combinations of various forms of power – psychological/emotional, political, economic, insurgent -These combinations include powers brought to bear independently by multiple players.  The middle of the continuum is multi-lateral and deployment of powers most often results from alliances.

Our default position in conflict resolution seems always restricted to the extremes of Clauswitz’s continuum: “hard” power or “soft” power. Thus, we rarely avail ourselves of the most effective forms of power – “associative” power closely integrating our powers with those of others on our side in the fight.

Going forward the priority national security problem we need to solve is “who can help us win?” We can then decide where to apply “associative” power by asking the question “who can make a difference?”  We then align with those who can help us and remove from the conflict or greatly marginalize those who are opposed to the outcomes we seek. 

As noted, our national security policies have relied primarily upon only two forms of power – “hard” and “soft. Both “hard” and “soft” power are applied unilaterally so they put the onus of success mostly on ourselves.  Our leaders for decades now have wrongly defined the needed effort as a unilateral one, undertaken in the main by Americans and those they hire and supervise.  If we see the fight as a unilateral one, we will gravitate in our choices of strategies and tactics to either “hard” or “soft” powers.

“Hard’ power is our use of kinetic violence against enemies. Our national security strategy has mostly and wrongly defined the path to victory as a “hard power” technical one of removing violent actors from a tactical area of responsibility.

General William Westmoreland, once commandant of West Point Military Academy, once told me that the modern strategic doctrine of the American army derived entirely from General U.S. Grant’s theory of war. Grant once said “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.” Today that doctrine is sloganized as “find, fix, fight, and finish.”

That was our strategy in Vietnam (search and destroy; war of attrition), Iraq, and Afghanistan.  It is even deeply embedded in our COIN approach to counterinsurgency.

But the cause of the challenges we faced in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere is bad governance, not armed insurgents. Bad governance generates the insurgents who, as Mao correctly said are “the fish which swim in the sea of the people”. Leave the people badly governed and an insurgency can go on forever. As Admiral Stavridis once pleaded “You can't kill your way to success in a counter insurgency effort. You have to protect the people, get the civil military balance right, train the locals, and practice effective strategic communications.”

“Soft” power, on the other hand, is our attempt to rally others to defend and fight for our values – democracy with free and fair elections, constitutional checks and balances, human rights, free markets, feminism, etc..

The melting point of “soft” power, when it turns useless or even into resentment of our intentions, happens when it blinds us to the political realities of the conflict situation. “Soft” power can isolate us from important others. “Soft” power does, however, have a “feel good” quality because it provides a pleasing ratification of our own hubris where we never need to doubt our right to impose our will, proving once again that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. (see: Stephen Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy)

If we want others to work with us, to sacrifice on our behalf their lives, liberty, and pursuit of their visions of happiness, it is actually their “soft” power, not ours, which will mobilize their energies and draw forth their commitment to the battle.  To add their will and strength to the correlation of forces in the conflict, we need to bind their soft power to ours through partnership and collaboration.

To use “associative” power vis-à-vis China, we should go over the heads of the Communist Party and its government and speak directly to the Chinese people themselves. Most of all we need to challenge the cultural presumptions of the Party to rule what the Chinese call “All-Under-Heaven” (TianXia) and remind the Chinese people that the imperial system being reinvigorated by Xi Jinping to rule “All-Under-Heaven” is not Confucian in origin and does not reflect the highest morality of the Chinese people.

Second, we can seek to secure alignment with us of other peoples who do not want their destinies dictated by an “emperor” in Beijing.

To use “associative” power vis-a-vis the Kremlin, we need first to understand the deep cultural drivers of Russian ethnic pride.  Russian autocracy and its desire to dominate others arises out of a presumption that Russia was chosen by God to be the “Third” Rome after the loss of the first Rome to Catholicism and the second Rome, Constantinople, to the Muslims.  As in China such a cultural conceit is not particularly vulnerable to attack by our “hard” or “soft” powers. A dialogue with the Russians through their intellectuals needs to be opened. Russians need to be welcomed into the moral community of the West. At the same time, we should publicly question the contemporary relevance of the Third Rome ideal proposing necessary Russian superiority.

To use “associative” power in the War on Terror and finally win it, we again need to start by understanding that the power ultimately sustaining Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism is a fanatical cultural belief, a fire in the mind, which cannot be exterminated by force of arms alone. Nor will it ever yield on its own to our “soft” power ideals.

The form of power driving Islamicist violence is psychological in its roots and needs to be resolutely opposed by those within the Muslim religion who have the credibility to marginalize such thinking and feeling.  To defeat violent extremists in the Muslim Ummah, we must ally with those Muslims who read the Qur’an differently from the Salafis and the Iranian Ayatollahs. Our “associative” power in the fight against Islamic extremism should use Qur’anic concepts such as ijtihad - human freedom of thought, shirk – the hubris of acting in place of God, or the covenants which the Prophet Muhammad made with Christian communities.


About the Author(s)

Stephen B. Young served with the CORDS program in the Republic of Vietnam from 1967 to 1971 as a Deputy District Advisor in Vinh Long province and as Chief, Village Government Branch. Young's service with CORDS was recognized by President Richard Nixon, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and CIA Director William Colby. A fluent speaker of Vietnamese he has written on human rights in traditional Vietnam, Vietnamese legal history, Vietnamese nationalism, and with his wife translated Duong Thu Huong's novel The Zenith into English. Young is a graduate with honors of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is a former Assistant Dean of the Harvard Law School and Dean and Professor of Law at the Hamline University School of Law. He is Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table and the author of Moral Capitalism and The Road to Moral Capitalism. His most recent book is The Theory and Practice of Associative Power: CORDS in the Villages of Vietnam 1967-1972.


America does not really understand War. Our professional military understands Fighting, but not war and winning, it suffers from professional arrogance, If we just cut off one more head. We say that there is a new for of war and we call it Hybrid Warfare, how about it is just a war and our opponents are trying to take us to a form or range (think MMA) of fighting/conflict that we are not use to and are not good at. Their whole nation or organization is trying to stack the deck in their favor and trying to use our weaknesses against us. They go at it as a whole nation state or whole organization affair. We think of war as a separate function of a professional military and not a Whole Nation Affair. Plus our military does not learn from its mistakes, case in point look at the US Army Iraq analysis, the COS basically said the same thing that was stated after Vietnam. It is time to rip off the band aid and place blame. hit the nail on the head about USSOCOM. It appears that it is really a top cover command for JSOC and the DA/CT Mafia, and look what it has given us, just one more raid, just one more. Playing Chess when the enemy is playing Go. We are at war every day all the time with our competitor just like any corporation is.


Thu, 02/07/2019 - 3:13am

There is some confusion in the article but I think it is clarity of writing rather than soundness of thought.  I think revisions would make it better without changing the point much if at all.

The Central American nations cited, for instance, were minor sideshows to the Cold War, which is over.  I wouldn't call them wars.  However, the effects of the USSR and USA destabilizing and creating chaos and corruption we are still dealing with, so the overall point is correct, IMO.

Some of this is semantics.  We won Iraq II in a matter of months in 2003, but then failed to win the peace.  Other terms like stabilizing or nation building or similar also apply but fall in and out of fashion.  The big point is that we could defeat Iraq with minimal troop commitment and a short time span, but to stabilize, or win the peace, or build a nation, we needed vastly larger amounts of troops, huge sums of money not just for troops but for water, trash, schools, police, electricity, port infrastructure, business startups to include impartial and effective legal protections and regulations, all the other parts people need to live day by day.  Decisions like disbanding the Iraqi Army only made this problem so much worse.  I'm talking about is that while the 18 nation coalition invaded and conquered with about 380K total troops, we needed more like 1M to stabilize and rebuild.  A platoon on every street corner with armor and air support.  Some way to guarantee the trash gets picked up on time and the power grid stays on, which means garrisons at power plants and transformers and regular patrols of transmission lines.  Engineer troops to rebuild.


Winning the peace is far more expensive than fighting the wars.  The Marshall Plan didn't even start until 1948, and it took years to be effective, but we had already spent 2+ years stabilizing and occupying after the actual war was done.  The real turning point for when Germany and Japan could be considered victories are when their products were competitive against American products.  VWs and Hondas overtaking Chevy's and Fords in the 1970s.  Timescales, we are talking decades at a minimum.


We still have combat troops in both Germany and Japan.


Wed, 02/06/2019 - 7:05pm

Expectation management.  Are all wars supposed to end the same way?  Americans think so.  The Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI, and WWII all ended with a uniformed enemy acknowledging our victory with a formal agreement.  Even Gulf War I ended with Iraqi generals signing a battlefield surrender.  So we expect all wars to end that way, and we are troubled when they don’t.  The real trouble is what we think of as the norm is actually the exception in world history.  Conflicts can go on for generations not only with no universally acknowledged victor, but until descendants of the original combatants arent really sure what it’s all about anymore.  Conflict is messy and disorienting, but we still expect a nice neat treaty ceremony to end it.  If we don’t get that, does it mean we failed, or that we are just engaged in an older form of warfare? Instead of more parades, we need to pay more careful attention to history. 

RT Colorado

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 9:41am

The data is indisputable, America doesn't win wars anymore, but then it doesn't have to. References to any source prior to 1945 is quaint history, but irrelevant. America ascending the throne as the world's dominant power and the introduction of nuclear weapons after World War Two changed the paradigm of what constitutes "successful war fighting". While I am not a devotee of George Friedman, in this regard he is correct in that America doesn't have to "win" wars anymore it merely needs to maintain the status quo of its primary national security needs...mainly free and safe navigation of the oceans, maintaining American military superiority in the Western Hemisphere and keeping foreign powers away from our shores. In those key requirements the United States has been reasonably successful and probably will continue to be into the mid-century. Having made the first premise, the next important thing to clarify is that America can not continue to fight wars of "Nation Building" and especially multiple versions of it simultaneously. American foreign policy has been "distracted" by changes in American society and Terrorism. The only thing to do about changes in American society is to follow the lead of the people, but we can change the way we fight Terrorism.


Wed, 02/06/2019 - 8:30am

Star Trek solved this problem in 1967: A Taste of Armageddon -

Never ending computer wars had too many rules that made war too tidy. And the wars went on forever. The solution was to make things a lot more violent.

If you want to win wars then start killing civilians, lots of them. Keeping killing civilians until they publicly announce surrender. Isn't that how the US defeated Japan by dropping atomic bombs on their cities?

Stop using precision weapons.

In Afghanistan, start killing the civilians who support the Taliban, ever if those civilians are in Pakistan.

Concerning Russia and China, cancel New START and immediately begin increasing the US nuclear arsenal. The US should position itself to wipe out all civilians in Russia and China. Also, the US arsenal should be able to attack Russia and China multiple times over a 2 year period. This will ensure that underground bunkers can't protect people.

Are you horrified by my suggestions, just like Anan 7 was in Star Trek? My suggestions are indeed a war crime, but that just means the West will never win another war again and should never enter into any new wars. Let's just hope the US never goes to war against Russia and/or China because it will lose.

Bill C.

Tue, 02/05/2019 - 12:04pm

In reviewing the matters that I have presented in my two comments below, let us consider that the U.S., now it would seem, has decided:

a.  Instead of doing revolutionary war "right" (see my comment immediately below) has decided, instead,

b.  To simply cease to exist as a revolutionary power. 

(This after all -- for a revolutionary power -- is EXACTLY what a return to such things as [a] political, economic, social and/or value "diversity" -- and such things as [b] "sovereignty" -- actually means.  In this regard look to the Trump NSS and NDS.) 


a.  By way of the U.S's such amazing surrender, copitulation, defeat, etc. (which is on the same scale as the Soviets' similar ending as a revolutionary power cir. 1989?)

b.  The U.S. now believes that it has rids itself of the need to do "revolutionary war." (Either "right" or "wrong.") 

(Talk about your radical steps !!! Talk about "throwing the baby out with the bath water" !!! Talk about "giving away the farm" without getting anything in return !!!  Holy Crap !!!)

Thus to suggest that:

a.  This discussion of "Why Can't American Win Its (Revolutionary) Wars?

b.  This may serve no real purpose; this,

c.  Given that the U.S. -- cir. 2017 and much like the Soviets before us -- has now formally abandoned its revolutionary stance and identity.

(What about our enemies, such as Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, ISIS, AQ, etc., etc., etc., now in this new scenario? 

With our such surrender, they intend to -- much as we have seen -- move forward, advance, take advantage of this situation.  This, given that

a.  By way of our such abandonment of our revolutionary stance and identity," they [our enemies]

b.  Sense and smell weakness; such as they have never, ever, seen before re: the United States?)

Bottom Line Up Front: 

If one's revolutionary war goal is to "change entire societies" (see my Theory No. 1 item by COL Gentile [2009] in my initial comment below), then one must be prepared to bring to bear the "elements of power" needed to achieve this exact such objective. 


In this "elements of power needed to change entire societies" regard, let us: 

First look to our article above -- wherein the author states: 

"If we have been unable to win our wars, it has been because we have not seen the real problem – which is that the forms of power we bring to conflicts are not well suited to producing victory."  And:

Next look to my Theory No. 2 quote (by Special Forces COL Bjelajac [1962]) -- which is to be found in my initial comment below:

"The decisive factor is more in the nature of power. And the success of the revolutionaries, in this regard, can primarily be attributed to two extraordinary factors, namely, their closeness and appeal to the populations -- that is their ability to win over the populations -- and their ideological conviction."

Given that BOTH of these such items emphasize the appropriate "forms" and/or "nature" of power, let me provide a couple of additional/follow-on paragraphs from the COL Bjelajac 1962 article (which is entitled, by the way, "Unconventional Warfare:  American and Soviet Approaches."):

"Communists, although champions of materialism, have succeeded in perfecting a method of exploiting human factors, which they correctly regard as being of primary importance. On the other hand, the Free World, inherently less materialistic, tends to think and act more in terms of the material elements of a given situation and less out of consideration for human factors. As a result, Westerners operate under a self-imposed handicap and thus engage the Communists inadequately prepared. Their troops and means which are much superior in numbers and organization show themselves impotent in front of an enemy which, by all outward appearances, looks inferior.

The offensive employment of unconventional warfare -- to extend political and strategic positions -- has been almost solely the weapon of the Sino-Soviet bloc in the Cold War. The Communists follow a pattern of active and aggressive promotion of their goals, while the United States and allied countries have used unconventional warfare primarily for the protection and safeguarding of their interests. 

Among the techniques used (by the communists) to implement revolutionary warfare strategy and to attain their goals, the selection of cadre, organization, deification of the masses and psychological impregnation are the most important. Leaders, speakers, propagandists, activities, organizers, officers, volunteers and others are trained. Revolutionary cells are established to control different circles and organized groups in all sections of society. Parallel communists hierarchies are organized starting with the cell of a local committee to the central communist party. This becomes the party's invisible machine by which unions, sport, and cultural associations, veteran societies and others are controlled. The conflict embraces all segments and groups of society and, in fact, is concerned with every single aspect of social activity. It is and must be a fight for the minds of the people. That side which is victorious in this aspect of the struggle is virtually assured ultimate victory."  (Item in parenthesis above is mine.)

Conclusion:  All this seems to beg the question:  

Is the reason why American cannot win its recent "changing entire societies" wars; is this because America believes:

a. That inside every foreignier there is an American wanting to get out.  And that, therefore   

b.  America really doesn't need to do (before, during and after conflict) any "offensive" -- "changing entire societies" -- "work?" (Such as that described in the three quoted paragraphs immediately above.)

You must isolate your battle space - the major Lesson Learned (but not practiced) from Vietnam, so you can deal with the enemy on your terms and prevent any assistance from entering the country. This also applies to being in "hot pursuit" across any neighboring border (as in Laos and Cambodia).

Two theories as to "Why America Cannot Win Its Wars:"

Theory No. One: 


The new American way of war commits the US military to campaigns of counterinsurgency and nation-building in the world’s troubled spots. In essence it is total war—how else can one understand it any differently when COIN experts talk about American power “changing entire societies”—but it is a total war without the commensurate total support of will and resources from the American people. This strategic mismatch might prove catastrophic in the years ahead if the United States cannot figure out how to align means with ends in a successful strategy.


(From Gian Gentile's 2009 "A Strategy of Tactics: Population-Centric COIN and the Army.) 

Theory No. Two:


"It must be understood that the success of the revolutionaries is not due to the application of new principles of warfare, or psychological warfare, or to the technical efficiency of the revolutionary forces and their tactics, or to the terrain, in spite of their importance. These factors, no matter how favorable, would not be sufficient for success. The number of warriors armed with rifles and hand grenades also is not the decisive factor. The decisive factor is more in the nature of power. And the success of the revolutionaries, in this regard, can primarily be attributed to two extraordinary factors, namely, their closeness and appeal to the populations -- that is their ability to win over the populations -- and their ideological conviction." (See Page 79.)

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the above:

If one is engaged in "revolutionary war" -- then one must pick one of the two approaches above; this, so as to have a reasonable chance at achieving one's "revolutionary" goals?