When Failure Is an Option

For most of my life with a few hiatuses the United States has been at war. It might have been called a police action, an intervention, an invasion, or something else but it has been at war. It has lost many of those wars. Have you ever wondered why?

For insight I recommend you read John Waters’s interview of Clausewitz scholar Donald Stoker at RealClearDefense. In it Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are all considered and, to some extent, the outcomes explained. Here’s a snippet:

No one blames the troops for our failures in Korea, Vietnam, or Afghanistan. Rather, it is “the political leaders who have forgotten that victory matters,” historian and Clausewitz scholar Donald Stoker told me recently over the phone. And since the politicians do not believe that victory matters, our troops have found themselves trapped in endless wars that lead to defeat or stalemate, a doom loop of poor planning-leads-to-poor results, where the pursuit of war itself becomes more important than defeat or victory.

The failure to pursue victory can take many forms from the civilian leadership failing to communicate the political goals to the military leadership to the political goals having been impossible from the start.

My own view is that we should never go to war unless failure is not an option.

We are presently at war with Russia. I am sure that many will disagree with that assessment but when you buy the weapon, transport the weapon to the battle zone, sight the target, aim the weapon, and do everything but pull the trigger, I think you’re at war and arguing differently is sophistry.

What are our political goals? Ukraine’s? Are we able to achieve them? Are we willing to achieve them?

4 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    My favorite definition of war:

    The use of organized violence by political communities to achieve political ends.

    The key question usually revolves around the question of whether organized violence can, in fact, achieve the political goals.

    And a related problem is that political goals are often not well defined and they also shift over time.

    A third factor is there is a limit to the scope and level of effort for the organized violence rooted in costs and risks.

    With Ukraine, I do not believe my definition for war fits our involvement, but we are clearly doing many actions just short of war, which really makes this a clear proxy war.

  • steve Link

    Agree that it is a proxy war and for the most part both sides are following well established rules during the Cold War. This is much different than Korea, Viet Nam or Iraq/Afghanistan. Our goal should be to support Ukraine so that it has its best shot at retaining its sovereignty. Fortunately its not really us but rather most of Europe and us helping.

    We had poorly defined goals in the above wars and as they were nominally defensive wars or ones aimed at changing regimes we were either supporting very poorly run regimes or we helped put in places ones that were pretty awful. We just weren’t going to “win” in those situations.


  • Zachriel Link

    The nature of armed conflict has followed a progression. Infantry ruled for millennia. Then cavalry ruled for centuries. But, with the advent of gunpowder, peasants became citizens. That’s because they could make the occupier pay in blood.

    Gunpowder weapons are essentially defensive in nature. A few people in a good position can hold off large numbers of attackers. As gunpowder weapons grew more and more powerful, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Civil War to WWI, massed attacks became human meat grinders.

    The tank changed this equation somewhat, but short of extermination, there’s no way to hold onto a population that refuses to be held. They can always cause the occupiers to bleed, and occupation becomes an open wound.

    Military power is important, but only if it leads to a sustainable political solution. In Afghanistan, for instance, the U.S. had to work with the Taliban, though it took twenty years of carnage before the U.S. was willing to face this fact.

  • bob sykes Link

    Over the last 250 years, Americans have fought over 440 wars. Almost every war fought since the end of the Soviet Union was started by the US. We even instigated the Russo-Georgia and Russo-Ukraine wars. In every instance, we attacked a country that was at peace with us.

    As to Ukraine, it lost whatever sovereignty it had when we attacked it, and removed its only democratically elected president, Yanukovych. We also sabotaged Minsk I and II and the March peace treaty. (Boris’ was sent to do that.)

    The Ukrainian war is really a war by our Ruling Caste against Russia, an attempt to destroy it and partition it. The Wall Street financiers are still smarting from Putin’s overthrow of their wholesale theft of Russian industry and resources. Fortunately, their evil schemes have backfired.

Leave a Comment