Best Defense

On Lulofs’ thoughts about war: The good old days you remember? Never happened

By John Haas Best Defense guest respondent Sean Lulofs’s "Thoughts about Fallujah" is a welcome addition to what’s becoming a wide-ranging debate over America’s strategic posture at this difficult time in our history. This is a debate we all need to be having, and Lulofs’s sincerely expressed view is an important one to attend to. ...

National Archives
National Archives

By John Haas
Best Defense guest respondent

Sean Lulofs’s "Thoughts about Fallujah" is a welcome addition to what’s becoming a wide-ranging debate over America’s strategic posture at this difficult time in our history. This is a debate we all need to be having, and Lulofs’s sincerely expressed view is an important one to attend to. It is worthy of our attention if only because it is representative of the thinking of the vast majority of our fellow citizens.

Lulofs presents us with a jeremiad: Once upon a time, Americans got the job done; now, "we’re just not built to win anymore." What happened? Don’t blame the military — it is still as effective as ever, or would be, if only our national leadership wasn’t so "piss-poor." Of course our leaders only become our leaders because the people have elected them, so they have a share of the blame, too. Our leaders are more concerned with "public opinion" than doing what needs to be done to win decisively, says Lulofs. These same people then turn around and refuse to "hold our leaders accountable for completing the mission of the war." Of course, that not only the U.S. military, but militaries worldwide, have routinely blamed the politicians and the people as insufficiently supportive of their men (and women) under arms should not dissuade us from considering that, this time, the complaint may be right.

America’s military declension, says Lulofs, has been an affair of "the past 50 years." He appears to hold Eisenhower — with his willingness to cut our losses in Korea in 1953 — responsible for initiating our losing streak. It’s unclear why he begins there. It was Truman, after all, who "lost" China and went on to reject Douglas MacArthur’s victory strategy in Korea, settling instead for containment in Asia. It was Truman also who failed to take on the task of driving the Red Army from Eastern Europe, settling for containment there, too. By my estimate, Lulofs should be claiming that the United States has labored under a cloud of infamy for at least the past 70 years. Be that as it may, Lulofs knows who is responsible for America’s decline: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, another Bush, and Obama, and all the voters who elected them and then failed to hold them to account.

Not content to complain, Lulofs points toward a solution, too: If America wants victories of the sort that gave us "the defeat of the Axis powers" in World War II — our last decisive military victory — it will need to overcome its "unwilling"-ness to win, rediscover its "willpower," and demonstrate "resolve." In other words, international affairs aren’t very different than football games. We may be down for the moment, but it’s still only halftime, and coach is reminding us that if we could only dig deep, find some gumption, and believe in "true victory" again, the good old days will come back.

As I said, large numbers of Americans find this sort of analysis thoroughly attractive: Part Ralph Waldo Emerson, part Émile Coué, part Dale Carnegie, and thoroughly Hollywood, it’s sentimental and naïve talk of the sort we’ve used for more than a century to silence our insecurities and convince ourselves we really can "get out there and shine!" It’s also enormously dangerous. One would think Americans had learned by now that the world isn’t as susceptible as we’ve wished to "I think I can"-ism. 

But, then, what about those good old days? The ones when America won decisive victories over enemies that only understand "strength and force"?

The first thing to be said is there were precious few of them. Lulofs’s notion of "victory" is at the heart of what Russell Weigley called "the American way of war." Articulated most forcefully by Douglas MacArthur, it has always been more a dream than a reality — at times a deadly aspiration, and also, given our blithe ahistoricism, a myth.

Of the dozens of armed conflicts the United States has engaged in over the centuries, only three have followed the decisive "victory" script: the Indian Wars, the Civil War, and World War II. All had unique features that cannot be replicated by simple force of will.

Each, for example, was perceived at the time as an existential conflict, a zero-sum game where it was believed that America’s future and well-being was at stake. Failure, we believed, was not an option. (Most historians probably agree with those estimates, though they might offer some caveats on the Indian Wars.)

That kind of belief, as necessary as it is for sustaining the kind of massive military efforts required to produce "victory," cannot simply be willed into existence out of thin air. President Obama can talk until he’s blue in the face, but he will not convince Americans that the United States has an existential stake in determining which faction of kleptocratic Pashtuns rules Kabul.

These "victorious wars" were massive commitments (well, two of the three were). Each death in the Iraq War brings immeasurable pain to those closely involved, but the national commitment to the war is reflected in the numbers: About one per 20,000 Americans of military age gave the ultimate sacrifice. One in 25 Americans of military age died in the Civil War; if it were held today, with losses proportional to our current population, there would be around 7,000,000 casualties. In World War II, with 12,000,000 men and women under arms, about one in 160 military age males died, and the financial burden was huge — the U.S. government spent more than 120 percent of GDP to achieve that victory.

Is there any way Americans could come to believe that whatever (considerable) effort it would take to pacify Ramadi is a rational policy option?

The Civil and Second World Wars each involved an onerous draft, significant taxes, the reorganization of the private sector around the war effort, troubling infringements on civil liberties (far beyond merely collecting metadata), and the mobilization of huge propaganda campaigns to keep the people in line.

Again, eliminating the most extreme of Sunni Islamists from Fallujah may sound attractive, but even our most robust effort would still leave only slightly less extreme Sunni Islamists in charge. I doubt any amount of propaganda will convince Americans of the wisdom of sacrificing whatever blood and treasure it would take to secure a more desirable outcome.

If you want a World War II-style victory, you need to put forth a World War II-level effort. That’s simply not going to happen unless we face a World War II-level threat.

As for the Indian Wars, we will not see their like again, so we should expunge them from our memories, at least insofar as they beguile us into believing they’re anything like a model for the future. The Indians could offer courageous and effective resistance on occasion, but the final outcome was never in doubt. Disorganized (relative to the United States), out-manned, out-armed, demoralized, and (most of all) devastated by diseases, the white man was winning the West, no matter what.

I won’t elaborate here on the Revolution, 1812, the Mexican War, or Grenada, but none of them even begin to rise to the level of "decisive military victories." Indeed, even World War II — our most iconic war — didn’t end quite the way we recall. In Europe, it was a Soviet war: Without their effort, with its massive casualties, eroding the Wehrmacht, it is doubtful the Allies could have prevailed. Indeed, they might never have gotten off Omaha Beach. In Asia, even our atomic bombs couldn’t compel the Japanese to agree to a truly unconditional surrender. The threat of Soviet occupation played a much larger role in Japan’s capitulation than we prefer to appreciate.

In sum, the good old days weren’t quite what we think, and our recent failures are more a salutary recognition of reality than a failure to measure up to the standards of the greatest generation. We have fought the way we’ve fought for the past 70 years not because "on or about December 1947, American character changed," but because we are fighting different enemies with much less at stake. If we ever align the America of our imaginations with the America that really has been and is, we may find ourselves waking to a vision that, while less romantically satisfying, might also find us inflicting less unnecessary tragedy on ourselves in the pursuit of glories that never were.

John H. Haas, Ph.D., teaches U.S. foreign relations, American history, and the political geography of North Africa and the Middle East at Bethel College in Indiana.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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