The Key Reason Why the USA Keeps Losing Wars


W.J. Astore

In a word, dishonesty.  That’s the key reason why America keeps losing its wars of choice, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or elsewhere.

Dishonesty is nothing new, of course.  Recall the lessons from the Pentagon Papers in the Vietnam War.  U.S. leaders knew the war was lost, yet they lied to the American people about seeing lights at the end of tunnels.  Recall the Iraq war and the “fixing” of intelligence to justify the invasion.  Today the newspeak for Afghanistan is “corners,” as in we’ve turned yet another corner toward victory in that 16-year conflict, according to military testimony before Congress this week.

About those “corners,” here’s a concise summary from FP: Foreign Policy:

Afghanistan turning a corner. Again. Or still? After 16 years of war, the United States and its Afghan partners “have turned the corner,” and Kabul’s battered forces are “on a path to a win.” the top U.S. general there told reporters on Tuesday.

But FP’s Paul McLeary notes that we’ve heard this before. American generals have been seeing victory on the horizon since at least 2007, and “Gen. John Nicholson is at least the eighth top commander in the last decade to forecast a pathway to victory in a war that has dragged on nearly all century, and his optimistic forecasts contrast starkly with deteriorating Afghan government control and a resurgent Taliban.”

The military and our leaders can’t even level with us on the number of troops deployed in Syria.  Consider this report today, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy:

The Pentagon is good at a great many things, but they can do absolutely magical things with troop numbers. The U.S. Central Command announced this week that it was pulling 400 Marines out of Syria, where they had been providing artillery support for the Syrian Democratic Forces battling ISIS.

The number is remarkable given that the military continues to insist there are only 503 U.S. troops in Syria overall. And somehow, that 503 number has managed to remain exactly the same even after the Marines left. Recently, a general running U.S. special operations in Iraq and Syria said there were 4,000 U.S. troops in Syria. He quickly backtracked, saying the number was around 500 and holding steady, despite all actual physical evidence to the contrary.

Do we have 500 troops in Syria, or 2000, or 4000?  Who are our generals trying to fool?  Our rivals and enemies know how many troops we have in their regions and countries.  Why can’t the American people have a full and honest accounting of what “our” troops are up to in places like Syria?

Whether from the Executive branch or from the military, the dishonesty keeps coming.  This is exactly why we fail.

Why are we so persistent in our folly?  For several reasons.  Some people come to believe their own lies, their own happy talk.  Careerism plays a role; so does politics.  Money is a big concern, since there’s so much of it to be made in war.  Some people even think it’s OK to lie if it’s for the “right” reason, i.e. better to project an image of dumb strength than one of pacific wisdom.  America must never appear “weak”!  For some, that means never quitting a war, no matter how foolish.  Better to lie about “progress” than to admit problems that should lead to dramatic change.

Deception is at the heart of war, but we’re supposed to be deceiving the enemy, not ourselves.  We’ve allowed public relations — driven by dishonesty — to rule our thinking and reporting on war.  But, to paraphrase a saying of Richard Feynman with respect to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster,

To wage a successful war, reality must take precedence over public relations, for the war gods cannot be fooled.

And to borrow from the penultimate sentence of his report (using the Pentagon in place of NASA): The Pentagon “owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.”

Imagine if our leaders were frank, honest, and informative about our wars and their costs?  But they prefer dishonesty instead — and that is why they (and we) fail.

16 thoughts on “The Key Reason Why the USA Keeps Losing Wars

  1. I cringe every time I hear someone from the U. S. military start babbling in — usually mixed — metaphors. Eleven years ago I thought that I might have a bit of fun collecting some of the more egregious ones and stringing them all together in verse for easy recall and reference. Stupidity once institutionalized — like at the Pentagram, White House, Congress, and Corporate Media — feeds on itself and goes on forever like some maniacal Rube Goldberg machine. So, back again from Southeast Asia for another few decades of insane repetition we have:

    The Tipping Point Turns the Corner

    Around the next corner the tipping point turns
    As the good ship capsizes and sinks
    While the mad metaphors and flawed figures of speech
    Guarantee that no one really thinks

    So the dots get connected with crayon lines drawn
    By the journalists flogging clichés
    Like astrologers linking the stars into shapes
    Telling fortunes as long as it pays

    At the end of the tunnel the dominoes fall
    As the oil spots to flypaper stick
    With his boots on, George Custer fights to the last man
    Making even the strong stomach sick

    As they stood up, we stood down — just not right away
    With our shoulders to shoulders we marched
    When the morning came corpses piled up in the morgues
    Like some laundry loads unwashed and starched

    Like the city that shines on the top of a hill
    With a thousand or more points of light
    Now the current flows only an hour a day
    So in sweltering blackness they fight

    They’ve a government, now, freely chosen at last
    By the parties that somehow had won
    Our ambassador, though, had to choose their PM
    When we didn’t like what they had done

    Sure, they can’t leave the Green Zone without getting killed
    Our officials, too, travel by plane
    Sneaking into and out of the country unseen
    By the people who think us insane

    But he won’t cut and run says the man who ain’t there
    From his purpose he swears he won’t swerve
    “Bring ’em on!” taunts the juvenile joker in jeans
    Clearing brush on his Texas preserve

    As the world watched in horror, he drove off a cliff
    Then he stumbled around in a daze
    Now he says – after three years of chaos and death –
    That he might have misused a trite phrase

    “It’s as easy as shootin’ a bird in a cage,”
    Says the Texas stud hamster of quail
    When the rodents ride roughshod the feathered will flee
    From the drunken dudes gone off the trail

    And we’ve got us some mantras from Vietnam days
    Like “we’re there ’cause we’re there ’cause we’re there”
    So when once we go somewhere, that means we can’t leave
    Like that German boot-planting affair

    And the logic swirls faster in circles that swim
    Like our friends won’t respect a retreat
    See, they’d rather we kept acting stupid and blind
    Till we wind up a pile of dead meat

    And our foes will not fear us if we should act smart
    Which assumes that they fear us when dumb
    An American innocence, surely, that comes
    From a depth that you simply can’t plumb

    The octopus fascist sings swan songs sedate
    Reinventing the same words and tune
    So the president babbles of going to Mars
    When we can’t even get to the Moon

    Like the light of an oncoming train in the dark
    We see hopefulness ever draw near
    We’re on track, can’t you see, to a glorious dawn
    So we’ll stay the curse, never you fear

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2006

    Will the last person leaving this Theater of the Absurd please turn out the lights?


    1. And then, of course, only nine years ago with Mr “Hope and Change” promising something really new and different, we got what we usually get thanks to:

      The Silence of the Lamb Chops

      Let us bow our heads in silence
      Let us close our shuttered eyes
      Let us ask no pointed questions
      Let us rather swallow lies

      Let our government mislead us
      Let them wallow in the waste
      Let us eat the crap they feed us
      Let us grow to like its taste

      Let them praise their stalwart courage
      Let us meekly toe the line
      Let the rich cut all their taxes
      Let the poor ones pay the fine

      Let us do no thing unbidden
      Let us ask permission first
      Let them keep the water hidden
      Let us rather die of thirst

      Let them keep our business secret
      Let us not know what they do
      Let them keep us safe from knowing
      Let us smile while us they screw

      Let the dead come home to quiet
      Let them spare us from the sight
      Let us never start a riot
      Let them send some more to fight

      Let us never raise our voices
      Let them whisper in our ear
      Let them order us to slaughter
      Let us live in abject fear

      Let authority compel us
      Let them prod the panicked herd
      Let them with cheap jargon quell us
      Let us scatter at their word

      Let them mumble mealy mouthfuls
      Let them bumble, lean, and tilt
      Let them tumble, trip, and falter
      Let them crumple all we’ve built

      Let them loan us Chinese money
      Let them keep us all in pawn
      Let them dine on milk and honey
      Let us let them lead us on

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2008

      Something tells me that the Republicans will have little trouble handing out even more tons of money to the few persons who have most of it already. The national attention seems dutifully directed elsewhere.


    2. Yes, Mike. The same general who spoke of stalemate now claims we’ve turned the corner. So maybe you need a new poem: “The Stalemate Turns A Corner.”

      The dishonesty is so risible — yet it’s not a laughing matter since it ends in people dying.


      1. From Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, by Frances FitzGerald (1972):

        Chapter 12 – The Downward Spiral

        “There was a timeless quality to the American effort — which is not to say that it was static but that it was constantly moving over the same ground. Each year the new young men, so full of vague notions of “development,” so certain of their own capacity to “solve problems,” so anxious to “communicate” with the Vietnamese, eagerly took their places in this old, old war. … Only the faces of the young men and the numbers of the hamlets changed year after year. For those who stayed in Vietnam long enough, it was like standing on the ground and watching a carousel revolve.”

        Not only does turning the corner, then turning it again, then turning it again result in going around in circles, but with the U.S. military, the circles also descend at increasing velocity as the repetitive corner-turning eventually results in yet another American “war” flushed down the toilet bowl of history. But as long as no one summarily fires the Joined Chefs of Stuff for incompetence and failure, the gurgling noise of the flushing toilet will echo in the nation’s capitol for what little remains of its future.


      2. Mike: By coincidence, I just started reading “Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War,” by Mark Danner. So far, it’s a good summary of our madness since 9/11. He sees the war on terror spiraling outwards from the center, but you can also see it as spiraling downwards, like Maverick’s F-14 in “Top Gun,” caught in a flat spin and heading for a crash.

        Eject, eject, eject!


  2. *Shrugs* If you want to know what the Pentagon is up to, read Pravda. Every government lies to its own people, but they don’t care if those same people know the truth about other countries. When Shrillary claims that “the lesson of 1984 is to trust the government,” immediately before promising to shut down alternative media, I think that sums up the entire problem in a nutcase. Why else has every government in history tried to take over or outright silence the press? The public knows more about its enemies than its own deep state, and that seems to have always been the case.


    1. Sure. All governments lie. My point is that our “leaders” seem to believe their lies, and apply them to war, the harshest of testing grounds, which will, in the end, prove how disastrous those lies are and can be.

      Hitler was telling his people they were winning almost to the end. He talked of miracle weapons that didn’t exist. He spoke of divisions and armies that also didn’t exist. He even seemed to believe it. But it all came crashing down around him as the Red Army annihilated Berlin.

      Now there was a fact that couldn’t be denied.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Michael Murry, I had the same thought if you turn the corner enough times you end up in a circle and you arrive at your starting point.

    I sometimes engage in alternate history mind benders. My latest is what if the Trumpet and today’s McMega Media could be transported back in time to the day after Custer’s defeat at the Little BIg Horn. I can just imagine the spin:

    Custer and his men were on a peace keeping mission. This treacherous attack must be avenged. The Indians attacked us because they were jealous of our freedoms. We cannot admit total defeat so you could say Custer and his men are still on the battle field and the Indians have retreated. Any reports otherwise are unpatriotic, and now is the time to support our troops. We must stop the Indian hordes in Montana or we will be fighting them next in Chicago. We will need more boots in the saddles. Do not let the Indians win shop until you drop.


    1. A good list of rationales for abject military failure, ML. General George Armstrong Custer’s (in)famous debacle at the Little Big Horn most definitely should have proved a cautionary tale for the Joined Chefs of Stuff and their Commander-in-Brief; but it didn’t (then), can’t (now), and won’t (in the future). Failure has simply become the new “Success,” by definition. Defeat is Victory. In “Reality TV” land, just say so and Fantasy becomes so. No memory of yesterday any longer exists to contradict the ugly truth today.

      In 2003, when Deputy Dubya Bush sent the U.S. military charging into Baghdad against an Iraqi army that simply melted away into the population, a young Taiwanese school teacher — a relative though marriage — said to me: “It’s easy to rush into a trap. It’s not so easy to get out.” Aparently, most carbon-based life forms on planet earth know this, just not the U.S. military brass, and certainly not the corporate stooge who “commands” them to “command” themselves to “command” something-or-other somewhere: whatever, wherever, whenever they wish. As I like to say of our stuffed-shirt, ticket-punching, fuck-up-and-move-up generals, the very personification of Parkinson’s Law and the Peter Principle:

      If they knew what to do they’d have done it already.
      If they could have, they would have;
      But they didn’t, so they can’t.
      Time’s up.

      I keep remembering Admiral Nelson’s famous (and sobering) lament as he looked over the names of the aristocratic officers commanding his fleet before a battle: “I can only hope that when the enemy reads the list of their names, that he trembles as I do.”

      Anyway, a decade ago I had some additional thoughts about what General Custer’s defeat and death might mean to the U.S. corporate-military establishment. Something like “Let’s do it again and this time for sure we’ll get it “right.” In other words, get ready for:

      Custer’s Next Stand

      Fort Apache, Baghdad
      Custer “going in”
      Whack-a-Mole on steroids
      Virtue cured by sin

      Doin’ dumb to dawdle
      Stupid acting smart
      In the trap for good now
      Military art

      Mini-skirted booty
      Cheerleaders in thrall
      “Block that kick!” the girls yell
      When we’ve got the ball

      Burger King on bases
      Pizza Hut in tow
      Mercenary merchants’
      Dog-and-pony show

      One-trick gag a let-down
      Victory not near
      Running out the clock now
      Marching to the rear

      Let’s “fan out” and “get ’em”
      Let’s “go long” on fourth
      Strategy by jargon
      Going South through North

      Making sense to no one
      Maybe that’s the point
      Mystifying madmen
      Let us now anoint

      Custer’s got a plan, though
      Always letter “A”
      Alphabet so simple
      Any one can play

      Next time we’ll do better
      What we’ve botched before
      Southeast Asia, redux
      Vietnam once more

      Colonize the Muslims!
      Crusade in Levant!
      Rounding up “dead-enders”
      Taking what we want

      Israel and us now
      Just the two in chains
      One the other’s patron
      One the patron’s pains

      As in any marriage
      Two have plighted troth
      Master, slave, and inmates
      Adding up to both

      Others see a shack-up
      Lust outside the law
      Married man and mistress
      Husband, wife, and squaw

      Custer says he “can do”
      What he’s never done:
      Occupy the Muslims
      Armed with but a gun

      Inconclusive carnage
      Wages paid to greed
      Custer’s followed order
      Troops from life has freed

      Custer doesn’t like it
      Now that “it” means death
      Still, he says he’ll “win” soon
      With his dying breath

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2007


      1. Dead enders — I remember that phrase, Mike. Looks like it’s a very, very, long drive to the end of that dead end street. I wonder if there’s a light at the end? Or, more likely, a cliff we can throw ourselves off of?


  4. Another new alarming War. A War on the World: US military agency invests $100m in genetic extinction technologies. Technology could be used to wipe out malaria carrying mosquitos or other pests but UN experts say fears over possible military uses and unintended consequences strengthen case for a ban.
    “Darpa is not and should not be the only funder of gene-editing research but it is critical for the Department of Defense to defend its personnel and preserve military readiness,” he said.
    Gee what could possibly go Wrong??? A short list: introducing cane toads and rabbits into Australia, gene manipulation to produce a “better bee” opps Killer Bees, Agent Orange, Boas and Anacondas in Florida. We have Agri-Business on a mission to destroy any plant not patented, if bees and butterflies are exterminated – Well that is what?? Yes collateral damage. Patented fruits and vegetables with all the taste of a still life painting, looks pretty tastes like cardboard – Yummy.

    When I read this article, I was reminded of the Movie Predator, when Arnold says – “If it Bleeds, then we can Kill it”. Like Ahab, the Wall Street, Defense establishment is on a mission to destroy nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and biological weapons all of these, just patiently waiting for some one to press a button.


  5. Here’s a list of some of my favorite quotes on progress from military leaders in Afghanistan, from 2004-2010:

    “What we’re doing is moving to a more classic counterinsurgency strategy here in Afghanistan… That’s a fairly significant change in terms of our tactical approach out there on the ground.” The approach, he said, will give soldiers “great depth of knowledge, understanding, and much better intelligence access to the local people in those areas by owning, as it were, those chunks of territory.”
    Lieutenant General David Barno, New York Times, February 18, 2004

    “But Lt. Gen. David Barno said the future was against them and predicted the near-total collapse of the Taliban within a year. “As these terrorist capabilities grow more and more limited, the hard-core fanatics will grow more and more desperate to try and do something to change the course of events in Afghanistan,” Barno told a news conference… Barno noted that a number of senior insurgents have already abandoned the fight and said more would follow.”
    Lieutenant General David Barno, USA Today, April 17, 2005

    “The British-led NATO force taking over from the American troops in the south “has well-equipped, well-led and fully prepared forces to operate in this challenging environment and deal with any threats,” he added… General Eikenberry is hoping to turn things around this year with new and better local leaders. “Now we see a lot of those conditions changing,” he said, in an interview in the cockpit of the C130 military plane on the way to Uruzgan. Replacing the governor, and police and intelligence chiefs, should allow for reform and better governance, he said.”
    Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, The New York Times, May 3, 2006

    We should and can win in Afghanistan but we need to put more military effort into the country — the Afghan Army is developing pretty well but needs another year to grow and train to the point that it can confidently take over primacy — including that all important Reserve force that we Nato commanders first asked for 18 months ago. And our civilian partners must improve the speed and scale of their reconstruction and development effort, sufficient to keep pace with the peoples’ expectations; and President Karzai must accelerate the speed with which he roots out corrupt and inefficient administrators. Finally, we must all do our best to bring Pakistan and Afghanistan together. Currently they are passing in the night and the climate is not good. I am very much a glass half full merchant but we must apply ourselves more energetically for one more year in order to win.
    General David Richards (UK), The Guardian, January 22, 2007

    My successor will find an insurgency here in Afghanistan, but it is not spreading, contrary to what some people say. Our enemies are not as strong as the NATO alliance in combination with its Afghan brothers. He will find some progress in security, some good work in the army, but unfortunately not so much progress in the police force. Governance remains a big problem in Afghanistan. Here we have to see more work by the Afghans…
    General Dan McNeil, Der Spiegel, March 21, 2008

    “Of the new reinforcements, General McKiernan said, “What this allows us to do is change the dynamics of the security situation, predominantly in southern Afghanistan, where we are, at best, stalemated, and we need additional, persistent security presence in areas that we’re not at today.” He added, “I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be a tough year.”
    General David McKiernan, The New York Times, February 18, 2009

    “I think we made significant progress in setting conditions in 2009… and that we’ll make real progress in 2010.” Asked why he thought the situation had improved, McChrystal said he could not point to specific measurements, but rather a general sense that security was better in some areas and that the mood among Afghan leaders was more optimistic.”
    General Stanley McChrystal, The Washington Post, February 5, 2010


      1. First off, Bill and Matt, you need to get beyond the “year” business (as a measure of “progress”) and instead adopt the far more precise “Friedman Unit,” or F. U., named after the hyper-optimistic war agitator and New York Times pundit, Thomas Friedman, who once told the entire Muslim world: “Suck. On. This.” In technical terms, the F. U. means “the next six months after which the tide will turn and U. S. military victory becomes inevitable.” Something like that. Thirty-two F. U.s and counting in Afghanistan, now. Still waiting for the tide.

        More to the point, I think, we have to look to the “quality” (if one can use such a word) of America’s military “leadership” as the “Key Reason” for whatever current U. S. military failure one wishes to analyse. As an example, former Reagan administrartion budget director David Stockman has pointed to The FBI’s Perjury Trap of the Century in an article for (December 05, 2017). This article discusses the classic perjury-trap legal difficulties surrounding retired Army General Michael Flynn, the short-lived National Security Advisor for President-elect Donald Trump. A key excerpt:

        “Moreover, as the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency [General Flynn] surely knew that the FBI would have been monitoring [Russian Ambassador] Kislyak and that the FBI had recordings of the conversations the agents wanted to ask him about.”

        “That he agreed to submit to the interview anyway, and then to lie, is surely one of the stupidest acts coming out of official Washington that we can recall from 47 years of observation. But perhaps it does explain why America’s legions of puffed-up generals have been such abysmal failures for onwards of a half-century now.”

        Really. After watching former U. S. President Bill Clinton go through that same “special prosecutor” perjury-trap farce — not to mention an impeachment — over “lying about” a few consensual blow jobs, one would think that not a single American citizen would ever agree to tell the FBI or any “special prosecutor” anything. After all, the Fifth Amendment exists precisely to protect American citizens from this kind of prosecutorial abuse. No one has to prove their innocence. We presume them innocent. Those who accuse others of wrongdoing bear the sole and complete responsibility for proving otherwise. We even have a Supreme Court Miranda ruling that specifically warns us: “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” Open your mouth and — guaranteed — “your government” will find some way — any way — to screw you. So if former General Flynn stupidly and recklessly agreed to an FBI interview outside the protections of a courtroom then he got what he asked for when the FBI (or “Furtive Bungling Idiots”) predictably screwed him.

        Bottom line: with U. S. military brass like General Michael Flynn “managing” and “directing” the military affairs of the United States for “onward of half a century now,” abject failure does not simply constitute “an option,” but the only one contemplated. As my widowed, working-class, WWII-generation mom used to say:

        Military Intelligence is to intelligence as military music is to music.”

        Of course, one can say the same thing about “justice” in America, too. Not much of that on display at the moment.


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