Best Defense

Essay contest (16): What we need to do is admit that we are unable to win our wars

Admit that the United States of America, as a government, a military, and a society, is functionally and cognitively incapable of winning a war.



By Michael C. Davies
Best Defense essay contest entrant

Admit that the United States of America, as a government, a military, and a society, is functionally and cognitively incapable of winning a war. Any war.* That is the most important thing. Obviously this cannot be done publicly, both for national security and national narrative reasons. But internally, it is the fundamental step that is needed so the next steps can be taken. Because nothing else will enable the drastic, revolutionary, and far-reaching changes necessary to meet the realities of the information age.

As much as the U.S. military and the political class would like to dismiss the character, execution, outcome of the wars, operations, and missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere since September 11, 2001 as an aberration that distracted them from their “core competencies” and “real” war, it is precisely this belief that makes winning wars impossible. The character of warfare changes according to circumstance, history, and players. It is “war” — the use of force to achieve a political end state — that is unchanging. Not the other way around.

The vast, disconnected, and varied analyses conducted on the “lessons” from the wars of 9/11 can actually be summed up into a few broad categories. The sum of which speak to the unequivocal inability of the United States, in totality, to win any war in the foreseeable future.

  1. The incompetence in crafting end states, whether in planning, in execution, or even at all in the first place, is constant and structural. As victory is precisely and only defined by the creation of new orders via political constructs, any war has failed before it even began under these circumstances. And the situation will only be worsened by a non-existent, poor, and/or biased understanding of the local circumstance in which the action is occurring.
  2. When force is used to achieve an end state, that force must be in accordance to the character of the conflict it is engaged in. Which means it must be coherent, competitive, and executed precisely to bring about the very end state desired. If any of these are inconsistent, as now with a mostly-irrelevant and non-competitive force structures that has devoured strategy, you have an execution gap that makes good strategy impossible.
  3. The U.S. national security system is so dysfunctional that it is incapable of formulating coherent or effective strategies in the first place, let alone execute them across the civilian and military spheres. A system built on 60 (or more)-year-old structures will always fail regardless of what fringe efforts are made. Structure is your strategy after all.
  4. For all the angst directed against the other 99 percent that did not serve, it has been forgotten that this was intentional. The American people did all that was asked of them — went to the mall, Disney World, and waved the flag. And as Congress never fully authorized any of these wars, put it all the national credit card, and in fact funded them in a way that led to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, failure should not be a surprise.
  5. America’s domestic sources of power are a drag on any effective global strategy. Whether it be the obvious: the deficit and the debt, energy, education, infrastructure, and immigration, or the more sub-surface problems such as “too fat to fight,” it is clear that while certain parts of American society can and has adjusted to the information age well, governing institutions have not, and therefore the entire country lags behind.
  6. Allies, partners, and friends are a vital source of American global might. But they can also be constraining. Yet, for all talk of coalition management, coalition effectiveness is disregarded in the creation of end states, execution of plans, and tactical necessity of coalition engagement in the first place.
  7. Denying the structural power of the international system, or attempting to break this system when it is the genuine focal point of American global power is self-defeating on a grand strategic scale. The ability to mold it to the demands of American power, as well as have it reject American efforts while simultaneously financing the very thing it has rejected and then remaining intact throughout the Financial Crisis and after is a testament to its intrinsic power.

It is not a matter of picking one idea to make the U.S. military better, it is about restructuring the entire U.S. national security system iteratively with the social contract so these things reinforce one another to meet the new strategic realities.

*This does not exclude chance, externally imposed structures, or extraordinary circumstance.

Michael C. Davies is a freelance researcher and editor. He spent nearly five-years at the National Defense University in various capacities working on issues related to the lessons of the wars of 9/11. He is the co-author of Human Terrain Teams: An Organizational Innovation for Sociocultural Knowledge in Irregular Warfare and co-editor of Changing Mindsets to Transform Security: Leader Development for an Unpredictable and Complex WorldHe is one of the progenitors of the Human Domain concept. He has conducted lessons research for various parts of OSD, the intelligence community, the joint staff, and the special operations community. His views are his own and most definitely do not reflect the views of his co-authors or any part of the U.S. government.

Image Credit: YouTube

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

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