1 June 2015

Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win.

Martin van Creveld, among our time’s top historians and military theorists, asked for a submission to his website. I provided this essay about modern war, a summary of themes often discussed here during the past 8 years. It’s probably the most important contribution to readers of the FM website. The West’s failure to learn this simple lesson is among the greatest of our weaknesses, so large as to offset the power of even the greatest of nations. 

The local fighter is therefore often an accidental guerrilla — fighting us because we are in his space, not because he wishes to invade ours. He follows folk-ways of tribal warfare that are mediated by traditional cultural norms, values, and perceptual lenses; he is engaged (from his point of view) in “resistance” rather than “insurgency” and fights principally to be left alone.

— David Kilcullen in The Accidental Guerrilla (2011).

Most of the West’s wars since WWII have been fight insurgencies in foreign lands. Although an ancient form of conflict, the odds shifted when Mao brought non-trinitarian (aka 4th generation) warfare to maturity. Not until the late 1950’s did many realize that war had evolved again.

It took more decades more for the West to understand what they faced. Only after the failure of our occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq did the essential aspect of this new era become known, as described in Chapter 6.2 of Martin van Creveld’s The Changing Face of War (2006).

What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Eritrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.
The two kinds of insurgencies
In January 2007 I gave a more detailed explanation to van Creveld’s conclusion. As a simple dichotomy for analytical purposes, we can sort insurgencies by the degree of involvement of outside armed forces (of course, there are other ways to characterize 4GW). 
Violence between two or more local groups, who can form from any combination of clans, governments, ethnicities, religions, gangs, and tribes. 
Violence between two or more sides, where at least one is led by foreigners – comprising, as above, any imaginable combination of factions. 
{ Read the rest at Martin van Creveld’s website.
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25 thoughts on “Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win.” 

The upshot of FM’s analysis suggests that America should strive to “win” 4GW conflicts by not starting them. This can easily be done by curtailing America’s endless unwinnable foreign invasions (calling them “wars” isn’t really accurate, because most of America’s post-1945 military incursions have involved invasive transient military occupations, rather than traditional efforts to destroy opposing armed forces or capture territory. In fact, even when America has captured territory in its foreign military incursions, it typically abandons the territory soon thereafter. C.f, Operation Desert Storm in 1991.) 

Ultimately this prescription for solving America’s military problems requires change in America’s civilian leadership and in our population, not in our military. 

If American presidents and America’s congress and the American people stop giving the U.S. military impossible missions (Viet Nam: “win their hearts and minds”; Iraq: “create a laboratory of democracy in the middle east”; Afghanistan: “bring order to a fractured set of fiefdoms which has never been conquered in 3,000 years”; Somalia: turn a libertarian hellhole run by warlords with armies of drug-addled Ak-47-toting children into Topeka Kansas circa 1955), our military will function well. 

Ultimately, American delusions are epitomized in the text of the AUMF, a document as insane as anything ever issued by a drug-crazed lunatic screaming from a soapbox on the streetcorner. Among other impossible goals, the AUMF calls upon the president 

to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons. 

The president is therefore required by this bizarre document to do whatever is necessary to make sure that America never gets attacked by terrorists ever again, at any time, no matter how distant in the future. In the James Bond movies, this was called “a plot by an evil mastermind to take over the world.” According to the AUMF, the president of the United States must become the lord of all space and time, able to end every threat to America forever and ever, at any time no matter how distant in the future, by any enemy, no matter how insigificant today. That’s crazy. It’s also completely impossible. 

The AUMF also represents a symptom of serious mental illness. An earlier section of the AUMF describes the 9/11 attack as a “threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by these grave acts of violence.” This is delusional. The 9/11 attacks knocked down two skyscrapers. That’s nothing compared to the 3,500 nuclear warheads the USSR had aimed at us for 50 years — yet America’s population and politicians went mad with hysteria because two buildings got knocked down, while Americans didn’t seem to feel the need to blow up every other country in the world and turn itself into a police state to defend itself against the threat of Soviet nuclear annihilation from 1947 to 1991. Clearly, something has gone wrong with the American population and with their politicians. They’re suffering symptoms of mental illness involving a psychotic break with reality, and severe paranoid delusions with morbid hysterical affect. 

As further evidence of the mental problems exemplified by the AUMF, consider the section in which the collapse of two buildings in downtown New York gets described as “such acts continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” Knocking down two buildings in New York is an “extraordinary threat” to America’s national security? On what planet? Collapsing the twin towers of the world trade center creates an extreme threat to the “foreign policy of the United States”? How? This is crazy. Al Qaeda could blow up 100 skyscrapers in America, and it wouldn’t threaten this country and it certainly wouldn’t threaten our foreign policy. 

The AUMF seems to describe a nation so fragile and so vulnerable that even the slightest violent event would cause America to teeter on the brink of collapse. This is crazy. That’s not the country that defeated the Nazis in WW II — that’s a nation full of hysterical crybabies cowering and whimpering in their beds with the sheets drawn up over their eyes while they shriek for their collective mommy. Out here in the real world, nations have sufffered infinitely greater war damage than the 9/11 attacks (Stalingrad in Russia; Cambodia in the U.S. carpet bombing; Afghanistan during the 1840s attacked by the full might of the British Empire) and those countries didn’t feel compelled to go berserk and run around the world invading every other country on earth in reprisal. 

Documents like the AUMF and the USA Patriot Act represent symptoms of severe mental illness in the American population and America’s politicians. Reform of America’s military seems contraindicated prior to treatment for these severe mental disorders of paranoid delusions and psychotic breaks from reality. 

I’m not alone in making this diagnosis. 

[Col. Andrew] Bacevich cuts to the heart of the problem: “The biggest mistakes have been those made by the civilian policymakers who have committed the military to unnecessary and unwinnable wars.” 

Source: “Why Does America Keep Losing Wars?” Vice.com, 8 April 2015. 

Does U.S. credibility matter? If so, how much? Is it more important for other states to have high confidence that the United States will fulfill its overseas commitments, even when doing so might be expensive and not necessarily in America’s best interest? Alternatively, is it better if other states have high confidence in America’s judgment, i.e., in its ability to analyze emerging international problems and devise effective responses to them? 

As anyone who’s studied the history of U.S. foreign relations knows, American leaders have been obsessed with credibility ever since World War II. If other states ever doubted U.S. power or resolve, so the argument ran, communists would be emboldened, deterrence would weaken, and America’s allies would be intimidated and neutralized, leaving the United States isolated and friendless in a hostile world. This concern led American leaders to constantly reiterate their pledges to defend allies all over the world, led Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to fight on for years in Vietnam, and drove U.S. efforts to acquire some sort of “nuclear superiority” over the USSR. Even today, whenever something bad happens almost anywhere in the world, hawkish voices will immediately proclaim that America’s credibility will collapse if Uncle Sam does not do something now. (..) 

Unfortunately, this obsession with credibility was misplaced. For one thing, a state’s “reputation” for being tough or reliable didn’t work the way most foreign-policy elites thought it did. American leaders kept worrying that other states would question the United States’ resolve and capability if it ever abandoned an unimportant ally, or lost some minor scrap in the developing world. But as careful research by Ted Hopf, Jonathan Mercer, and Daryl Press has shown, states do not judge the credibility of commitments in one place by looking at how a country acted somewhere far away, especially when the two situations are quite different. In fact, when the United States did lose, or when it chose to cut its losses and liquidate some unpromising position, dominos barely fell and its core strategic relations remained unaffected. 

1) “America’s endless unwinnable foreign invasions (calling them “wars” isn’t really accurate, because most of America’s post-1945 military incursions have involved invasive transient military occupations, rather than traditional efforts to destroy opposing armed forces or capture territory.” 

That’s an absurdly narrow definition of war. It’s a protean social dynamic, among the most varied and complex. 

(2) “Ultimately this prescription for solving America’s military problems requires change in America’s civilian leadership and in our population, not in our military.” 

That’s only somewhat true. The military has massive influence on the wars its told to fight. A unified “that’s dumb” would shut down many of these wars that are popular only with sustained cheer-leading from DoD. 

(3) “The AUMF also represents a symptom of serious mental illness. … Documents like the AUMF and the USA Patriot Act represent symptoms of severe mental illness in … America’s politicians.” 

I am always amazed at Americans who casually describing the acts of our elites as stupid, incompetent, or crazy. These people — such as our bankers, generals, hawks, and politicans — are thriving on a scale almost beyond imagination. Our generals, the neo-cons (Robert and Kimberly Kagan), the politicians who support them (Hillary) — they’re all doing well. Certainly better most of those in antiwar groups, the military reform community, and the 4GW scribes (and me). So I will disagree with your very odd characterization. 

when you say successful famous people have made gross mistakes, perhaps you should ask yourself if your goals are their goals. 

Two reasons for that. First, I’ve written this essay many times since the first in January 2007 — each time a little better and clearer. 

Second, MvC is a major name. I put more work into this article than usual. 

In November 1967 General William Westmoreland arrived at Andrews Air Force Base. When asked how the Vietnam War was going, he replied… 

“Very, very encouraged. I’ve never been more encouraged during my entire, almost four years in this country. I think we’re making real progress. Everybody is very optimistic that I know of who is intimately associated with our effort there.” 

Martin Van Creveld (MvC): excerpt from “The Decline and Rise of the Humanities” 

“Political correctness is the blight of the modern humanities. So fearful are universities of being sued that they are actively preventing their faculty from speaking his (or her) mind on any subject, and in any way, that might be the least “offensive” to anyone. To understand what it is all about, read and re-read Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain. There a highly respected professor, referring to two students who had never showed up, asked the class whether anybody had seen the “spooks.” It quickly turned out that the students in question were black. But the professor, not having set his eyes on the students in question, could not know that. This, as well as the fact that most people do not even know that “spook” can be used to mean “black,” did not save him from being crucified. His colleagues turned against him. He lost his job, his wife died of chagrin, and he became an unperson.” 

When we first invaded Iraq, I couldn’t imagine in my worst nightmare that my kids might end up fighting in this war. 

Now, it’s a possibility. Maybe, we’ll sober up so my grandkids won’t be affected. 

This is diagnosis, description of the problem. The weakest part of this is my analysis of the cause. But far more difficult and important is prescribing a cure. I believe the first step is getting people to see this simple insight. Yesterday’s post about Kukis’ article — even he does not see it, which suggests that Bacevich does not either — shows the steep learning curve ahead. 

“This is diagnosis, description of the problem. ” 

Che Guevara was an MD. regularly shot people in non vital spots to subdue them, subdued them , then healed them. Crazy shit 

I have heard that doctors are over-represented among revolutionaries and terrorists (distinct but overlapping categories) for mysterious reasons. 

I disagree a bit on your take on Kukis and Bacevich. In my mind, they are complementary to what you and MvC are writing. While you’re describing the problem, they’re examining the legitimacy of our actions (just war) through the lens of Reinhold Niebhur. 

Both are important. You’re describing why we have a problem, and they’re alerting us that we must give up control if we wish to ever regain control and confront our problems. 

I agree about that aspect of their work. But their analysis of our wars — like James Fallows — is hopelessly confused, does not see how they fit with the wars of other nations since WW2 (the big picture), and ignores the major lessons. 

Hence my analogy with the military reform and 4gw communities. They were right, also. But that is not enough. 

If being right is not enough, they would ally themselves with Russia,China, SouthAmerica, the full works, The USA is such a vast rich country, what need to go fuck the world up? Can the USA relate to the world in a manner that is similar to a peer basis. 

Why not an Honest Panamerican Union? 

NOTE: Dont Bring Bush Jr.next time, please, we beg you. we just kind of dont like him at all. Bring us Rand Paul if you have to :) 

But generally speaking, ALCA? ALCARAJO!!! al= to the carajo= Carajo 

Literally meant the lookout basket in the top mast of a Spanish galeon ship. Sailors would get very sea sick when assigned to this post, so when they would think of becoming mutinous, the captain would send them up to the carajo as punishment. Hence the Spanish interjection meaning anything from get out of here, go fly a kite, go fuck yourself, etc… 

An incredible amount of work and effort in this Post. And you provide your own answer on how we can Win. And maybe it surprises you, too. We can’t and we simply won’t. It’s a Wall and we can only barely see it….Deline the problem…let alone begin the climb. You quote Westmoreland and Petraus and tell us it’s all about the money and the power. Then add in that it will take the Military underlings and citizens to put a stop to these Failures. 

I mean that is just not going to even start to happen in your lifetime. As you say or offer us, War is a protean social dynamic. If that is so, and that is a fair assessment, then these are deep metaphysical issues and Dr. Martin’s article on the Humanities is a better place to spend time.
Or as you like to offer up for consideration periodically…..best consult a Priest or a Philosopher.

Until then more hand wringing is one response. 

“that is just not going to even start to happen in your lifetime” 

I don’t understand your certainty about this. The recognition process has already begun, as shown by the citations I give. The articles by Fallows and Kukis, although flawed, show progress. These things can move with blinding speed once they have begun. Look at gay marriage. 

“then these are deep metaphysical issues” 

That conflates two distinct issues. I was talking about the narrow issue of the US altering when and how it wages war; little metaphysical about that. Thomas was talking about the definition of war. 

You are right about gay marriage and I would very much like for you to be right about reforming how and when the US wages war but I fear that you are very wrong. 

My skepticism comes primarily from the fact that gay marriage didn’t affect the careers of thousands of high ranking officers and their very large support network of neo-cons and neo-libs but the changes you advocate would. 

That doesn’t mean that we should give up, it just means that we need to prepare for a long and (metaphorically) bloody campaign against the liars and idiots while hoping that it is easier than expected. 

While the future is the unknown country, you are looking only at one side of the ledger. A lot more people oppose gay marriage than care about our military police either way. Also, there are large costs — not just money, but broken and dead bodies — to our belligerent geopolitical strategy. Most of all, our strategy does not work in any rational sense (other than profiting a few special interests), and so can generate opposition by the large public and corporate forces that have an interest in a better foreign policy. 

I give no forecast about the outcome (I have a good forecasting record because I make so few). I just point out that the dynamics of the situation are more complex than you describe. 

“he is engaged (from his point of view) in “resistance” rather than “insurgency” and fights principally to be left alone.”

“From his point of view” ??? Who else should have a view on one’s existence.. What were the Indians(from time immemorial), for that matter Chinese(in 5th century), Portuguese(16th century), Dutch (17th century) and the English(18th, 19th & 20th century) were doing in Srilanka. They all go somewhere to poke their fingers in other peoples’ affairs and then call the people who say no, terrorists, insurgents etc. Now it seems that poor fellows cannot have their own point of view. 

Law of the nature is “Aggressor will be the ultimate looser”, not the technology or the strategy 
History shows that there is no such law. Aggressors often prosper. 

In Europe (narrowly defined) every big aggressor has been defeated since 1648. That’s a hard-earned result of a specific society, not nature. 

In the nuclear era aggression against other nuclear powers is suicide. Technology at work, not nature. 
“Who else should have a view on one’s existence” 

You have that backwards. Killcullen does not say that there is only one view. He says, correctly, that there are always multiple views. I see myself. You see me, differently. Nobody’s view is privileged. 
FM proclaims: “I don’t understand your certainty about this. The recognition process has already begun, as shown by the citations I give.”

Utterly wrong.

There is zero recognition of the problem with America’s wars inside the Beltway, among people who matter.

Military reformers have loudly and convincingly pointed out the manifold problems with America’s grand strategy and with our military since the 1970s. This has had absolutely no impact whatsoever among the people within the Washington D.C. community of pols and thinktankers and appointed national security honchos and elected U.S. officials.

The point that many commenters are making is that 1) the Washington D.C. insiders are completely impervious to criticism from outside the Beltway, and 2) the behavior of the Washington D.C. insiders is, to quote the commenter MikeF, “Insanity.”

FM’s hand-waving about “recognition of the problem” obscures this issue. The real issue is that America’s politicians and military operate in a zero-defect environment: no one within the Beltway is ever allowed to make any serious criticisms of cite any significant problems with the U.S. military. And, indeed, the speeches we hear from U.S. elected officials or American military commanders uniformly follow the formula: “America is the greatest country in history, America’s military is the greatest in the history of the world, and all we need to do is tinker around the edges to improve our already marvelous military and splendiferous foreign policy.”

The chorus of criticism from outside the Beltway to which FM alludes is as meaningless as the chirping of crickets to the people inside the Beltway. As proof of which, the “recognition of the problem” that FM mentions has gone on since the 1970s, and absolutely nothing has changed in the U.S. military in any substantial way over that time. Except that all the bad trends in the U.S. military have gotten worse during that period. 

Over the last several years, we have consistently taken the fight to terrorists who threaten our country. We took out Osama bin Laden and much of al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’ve targeted al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, and recently eliminated the top commander of its affiliate in Somalia. We’ve done so while bringing more than 140,000 American troops home from Iraq, and drawing down our forces in Afghanistan, where our combat mission will end later this year. Thanks to our military and counterterrorism professionals, America is safer. 

[Barack Obama, “Statement by the President on ISIL,” 10 September 2014. 

Almost every sentence in that statement is provably false, yet absolutely typical of the boilerplate we hear from inside the Beltway. It’s an example of what Andrew Bacevich calls “Washington rules” is his excellent book “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.” And the Washington rules are simply not amenable to change from outside the Beltway. 

How much does “the West” put into winning? Do they really want to win? And if they do, then what? 
For ISIS this war is their lives.

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