Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The problem, Gen. Dubik (2), is that we don’t understand what we are getting into

A nation shouldn't expect a World War II­-level victory unless it is willing to put forth a World War II-­level effort -- and pay a World War II-level price.


By John Haas

Best Defense respondent

Why doesn’t the United States win wars anymore? It’s an increasingly common question these days, for (what should be) obvious reasons. I’m currently writing a book on it, and the Atlantic has an article on the topic, by James Fallows, coming out soon.

So I was intrigued to see Tom’s quote of the day last week from Lt. Gen. James Dubik’s article in ARMY where he complains of our “odious” habit of “winning battles . . . while losing the war . . . .”

Dubik’s brief describes what he believes America must do to start winning wars again. He closes his argument by invoking World War II: “We have waged war well before,” citing that war as his example. “We can do it again if we put our minds to it.” Perhaps.

Citing World War II as proof that we can be what we once were should raise a question in our minds: Why does Dubik reach back seven decades to find an example of a successfully waged war? There has been no shortage of wars since. I suspect that’s because the general believes (as I do) that whatever successes we have had since 1945 have been ambiguous (Korea, the Gulf War), won from adversaries so pitifully over-­matched as to serve as no example at all (Grenada, Panama), or simply didn’t qualify as military victories at all, whatever other merits their defenders may see in them (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya). General Dubik argues that our recent failures have largely been due to our exclusively “tactical focus.”

He believes we need a more vigorous debate about “proper war aims”; a more dedicated and competent process for selecting “strategies, policies and campaigns” that can deliver victories when followed; an effective coordination of military with non­military governmental efforts; and, more care to ensure popular support for the war from start to finish. I don’t want to give the impression that the general’s argument lacks nuance — it does not — but that’s my reading of his thesis.

His implication seems to be that if we can get those factors right again — as he says we did in World War II — we can escape our current odious situation of winning battles while losing the war. He may well be right that we have problems in all those areas. Nevertheless, it is not simply the case that by fixing them we will then be able to win any war we choose. It may be the case that, even if we fix them, victory won’t be an option for any of the wars some Americans are currently recommending (Syria, Iran) or might recommend (North Korea, Libya).

Before analyzing our current predicament, let me make three quick claims about World War II (I won’t argue much for them here, however — for that you’ll need to read the book):

First. World War II was one of the most unusual wars we have fought, and we should not use it as a template to judge subsequent wars. In terms of the issues at stake, the degree of U.S. mobilization and commitment, and the contributions of allies, it was unique. We will not see its like again, nor, given its death toll of some 60 millions, its destructiveness, and the instability that followed, should we want to.

Second. While it was a grand victory, and while America probably performed better on General Dubik’s list of desirables than at any other time, it is not obvious that the quality of our effort — as impressive as it was — was the key to victory. It’s impossible to imagine the United States prevailing in Europe, for example, without the heavy ­lifting of the Red Army; indeed, we were also quite keen to ensure that the Soviets would join in the war against Japan, and it’s likely that the threat of their joining us in the occupation of the island played a crucial role in the Japanese surrender, atom bombs or no.

Third. Most importantly, it’s quite likely that the degree of our commitment, the quality of our military and diplomatic performance, the effectiveness of presidential leadership, and even the coordination of the various sectors of the government, were themselves products of the fact that the war we were fighting was for the very high stakes that World War II was. If that’s right, then we cannot simply boot­strap our way into a more efficient and coordinated effort for causes that, frankly, simply don’t qualify as existential. Who rules in Kabul, or Damascus, or even on the Korean peninsula, simply aren’t the challenges to national well­-being that World War II was perceived to be at the time — and almost certainly was. Indeed, the common thread running through all our unambiguously militarily successful wars — the Indian Wars, the Civil War, and World War II (and perhaps the Cold War) ­­ was a general agreement among all sectors of the nation that the stakes were incredibly important and thus justified the effort, expense, and sacrifice expended.

If I am correct, then, a nation should not expect a World War II­-level victory unless it is willing to put forth a World War II-­level effort, garner World War II­-level cooperation from allies, and pay a World War II­-level price. My follow-on contention is that no nation will do that unless it perceives itself to be faced with a World War II­-level threat to its well­-being.

You can probably predict my next claim: We face no World War II-level threats to our well-­being, and as strong as Richard Haass’s argument is that the Gulf War was a war of necessity. I would argue that all our wars since 1945 — as well intentioned as they may have been, as warranted in a limited way as their apologists may say they were — have been wars of choice. At the risk of seeming flippant, necessity means you have no choice, choice means you do. When a war is a war of choice, any rational society will periodically weigh the price necessary to achieve a complete military victory, and if that price appears as if it’s going to be too high, they may reconsider the prudence of their original choice. Like a reckless consumer shocked by their credit card bill, they may regret the choice and re­evaluate their priorities.

General Dubik made an astute observation in another article last year when he wrote, “Understanding the kind of war one is waging is crucial to waging that war, and a war’s end is a mutual affair.” In light of that, it is surprising that as he analyzes the factors that he believes are responsible for our less than satisfying record over the past seventy years, nowhere do we find any mention of the enemy. When George Pickett was asked why the South lost the Civil War, he is reported to have said, “I kinda think the Yankees had a little something to do with it.”

Our enemies — and not just our own bureaucratic paralysis, strategic confusion, or inefficient implementation — surely have a little something to do with the shape our recent conflicts have taken. To be sure, the temptation to factor them out is a strong one. The disparities at almost every level of war-making capability between our adversaries (whether Viet Cong or even the NVA, or the Taliban, or Iraqi insurgents) and the U.S. military are so glaring as to render the conclusion seemingly absurd.

“How can it be,” we asked ourselves back in the sixties, “that the same nation that defeated the Japanese and the Germans in less than four years can be stymied by a rag­tag band of Vietnamese peasants who use water buffalo to plow their fields?” Like the Viet Cong, neither the Taliban nor the Iraqi insurgents had an air force. And yet, here we are, again. It is perfectly logical to assume that the problem must lie in Washington, or the media, or in the fecklessness of the American people.

Raymond Aron noted all the way back in 1962 that “unindustrialized peoples” had found a method of compensating for the technological and economic disparities between themselves and the West: “In the conflict between political units, ingenuity and resolution can inspire the weaker unit with the secret of a lasting if not victorious resistance.”

We’ve been encountering the strength of that resistance for decades now, and lamenting our failure to fully understand the kinds of wars we are waging because we don’t understand the dynamics of the societies where these wars occur. What some recognized after our war in Southeast Asia was being repeated half a century later: “My country had taken over another country,” Anthony Shadid reflected, and “we understood remarkably little about it.”

General Dubik couldn’t be more correct when he places “selecting proper war aims” at the top of his list of what America’s war planners need to do better. For a war to be worthwhile, however, most Americans want to leave behind not just a desert, but a better peace — a society that, inevitably, will look somewhat more like our own. In the 1940s, we succeeded in achieving that aim. Since then, our record has been spotty. If our definition of “winning the war” includes the transformation of the society in question, we need to think about more than our own capabilities. We need to ask whether we understand the society enough to have confidence that the aim is achievable.

John H. Haas teaches U.S. history, U.S. foreign relations, and many other things at Bethel College in Indiana. He has spent the current semester writing a book tentatively titled Does War Work? thanks to the generous support of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1