The Only Way to Win America’s Wars Is to End Them

W.J. Astore

Today, I saw another article on why America is losing its wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  The gist of this and similar articles is that America’s wars are winnable.  That is, if we bomb more, or send more troops, or change our strategy, or alter our ROE (rules of engagement), or give more latitude to the generals, or use all the weapons at our disposal (to include nukes?), and so on, these wars will prove tractable and even winnable.  This jibes with President Trump’s promises about America winning again, everywhere, especially in wars.

Sorry: The Missions Are Never Going to be “Accomplished”

Nonsense.  The U.S. military hasn’t won these wars since the wars themselves are unwinnable by U.S. military action.  Indeed, U.S. military action only makes them worse.

Consider Iraq.  Our invasion in 2003 and our toppling of Saddam kicked off a regional, religious, ethnic, and otherwise complicated civil war that is simply unwinnable by American troops.  Indeed, the presence of (and blunders made by) American troops in Iraq helped to produce ISIS, much-hyped as the current bane of American existence.

Consider Afghanistan.  Our invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban, at least for a moment, but did not produce peace as various Afghan factions and tribes jostled for power.  Over time, the U.S. and NATO presence in the country produced instability rather than stability even as the Taliban proved both resilient and resurgent.  U.S. and NATO forces have simply become yet another faction in the Afghan power game, but unless we want to stay there permanently, we are not going to “win” by any reasonable definition of that word.

You could say the same of the U.S. military’s involvement in similar conflicts like Yemen or Syria (look at the mess we made of Libya).  We can kill a lot of “terrorists” and drop a lot of bombs, spreading our share of chaos, but we aren’t going to win, not in the sense of these wars ending on terms that enhance U.S. national security.

This hard reality is one that the U.S. military explains away by using jargon.  Military men talk of generational wars, of long wars, of fourth generation warfare, of gray zones, of military operations other than war (which has its own acronym, MOOTW), and so on. A friend of mine, an Air Force captain, once quipped: “You study long, you study wrong.” You can say something similar of war: “You wage war for long, you wage it wrong.”  This is especially true for a democracy.

America’s wars today are unwinnable.  They are unwinnable not only because they are not ours to win: they aren’t even ours.   We refuse to take ownership of them.  At the most fundamental level, we recognize they are not vital to us, since we don’t bother to unify as a country to declare war and to wage it.  Most Americans ignore them because we can ignore them.  The Afghans, the Iraqis, the Syrians, and so on don’t have the luxury of ignoring them.

Trump, with all his talk of winning, isn’t going to change this.  The more he expands the U.S. military, the more he leans on “his” generals for advice, the more he’s going to fail. Our new commander-in-chief needs to learn one lesson: The only way to win America’s wars is to end them.

11 thoughts on “The Only Way to Win America’s Wars Is to End Them

  1. Exactly. As you and I both conclude, we don’t win our wars because Congress does not have the stones to debate and declare them (or, conversely, deny them). Of course, the Constitution being dead – which is what “it’s a living document” means – AUMFs are more than adequate to get congressmen off the responsibility hook. Returning to conscription will fix 99% of it, but we will lose the country before that happens.


    1. I agree, Walt, as long as the kids of the top 1% are drafted first. Since the richest people benefit the most from our country, surely they’ll want to give back and serve in the military, defending America. Right?


      1. Nixon ran on ending the draft, his dem opponent on revising the law to eliminate unfairness. Of course, Nixon won, but Congress revised the Selective Service laws anyway. The 1% will get the call in turn.

        Most citizens don’t know this. Also, that during Vietnam, many at the top of our culture chose to volunteer as opposed to being drafted. That wasn’t all bad.


      2. Walt: yes, a few of the “nobles” did volunteer. But most didn’t (I don’t blame them — just stating facts). Clinton dodged; W. Bush found a safe haven in the Texas ANG; Cheney dodged; Trump dodged. Kerry served, yet somehow his service was Swift-boated as dishonorable.

        I don’t think presidents have to be military vets, but I will say military service teaches you a lot about the military, about our country, and about the diversity of America.


  2. “…Most Americans ignore them [wars] because we can ignore them…” Over the years I have read quite a lot on the topic of American foreign policy, -have expressed some of my own opinions as well- however, perhaps, this concise statement best captures the overriding theme of the continuing mess. Less than 1% of us in this country have actually served on the ground, or above, in the air over these so-called battlefields. Why should the country care? And for those who see these wars as either unwinnable or immoral, what difference does their dissent make when our political party’s reside within the spectrum or, no boots on the ground, but special forces and bombing is acceptable, to, combat brigades plus “bombing the shit out of them?”

    Anyone in Washington DC who stands outside those parameters is labeled at best an isolationist, at worst, a traitor and possible lap dog of Putin. The mainstream press is basically an unwitting public relations arm of the Pentagon when it comes to foreign policy. Are we living in dangerous and troubling times? North Korea? Iran? Terrorism? I wont waste my breath, or bandwidth, as it were, making my case for the previous assertion because, maybe worst of all, friendly political debate, especially online, seems practically impossible.

    Maybe we’ve always been over susceptible to irrational fear? American history is littered with its share of over reaction and heavy handed law enacted upon those fears. Today it seems those fears are capitalized upon financially rather than legally. Selling arms and security for a profit rather than imprisoning dissent. It is all the easier to ignore.

    Thank you for the discussion. Lucas


    1. Re : “Selling arms and security for a profit”

      Indeed and every time you think it cannot sink any lower, it does.
      As can be seen in this documentary: “How private companies recruit former child soldiers for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.”
      For 250 usd/month it seems, so imagine the profit the ‘contractors’ make …


  3. Is it possible that winning/losing is not a factor? Could it be that the primary objective is to have American forces in place all over the world, whether combat is going on or not? If there is combat it is a minor irritation in the larger effort to have control everywhere, it being better to be forward deployed than having to airlift to distant places. Air Force bases in particular are well placed in Afghanistan and Iraq, capable of exerting a tighter squeeze than Diego Garcia. To Russia in particular it says “we are here and you aren’t”. I don’t like it, I’d like to stop it but I think this might be the rationale. If true, this would put the lie to the strategic value of Israel, but the interests of that country are so entrenched in Congress that the loss of one traditional talking point hardly matters.


    1. Yes. The U.S. already has roughly 800 bases around the world, plus our floating bases (the aircraft carriers). These exist to exercise control, that “full spectrum dominance” our military boasts about. But it comes at enormous cost. And the enormity of that cost isn’t just measured in dollars.


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