America’s leaders are really good at turning victories into defeats — here's why
One of the finest military memoirs of any generation is Defeat Into Victory, British Field Marshal Sir William Slim’s perceptive account of World War II’s torturous Burma campaign, which ended in a resounding victory over Japan. When America’s generals write their memoirs about their never-ending war on terror, they’d do well to choose a different title: Victory Into Defeat. That would certainly be more appropriate than those on already published accounts like Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez’s Wiser in Battle: A Soldier’s Story (2008), or General Stanley McChrystal’s My Share of the Task (2013).
Think about it. America’s Afghan War began in 2001 with what was essentially a punitive raid against the Taliban, part of which was mythologized last year in 12 Strong, a Hollywood film with a cavalry charge that echoed the best of John Wayne. That victory, however, quickly turned first into quagmire and then, despite various “surges” and a seemingly endless series of U.S. commanders (17 so far), into a growing sense of inevitable defeat. Today, a resurgent Taliban exercises increasing influence over the hearts, minds, and territory of the Afghan people. The Trump administration’s response so far has been a mini-surge of several thousand troops, an increase in air and drone strikes, and an attempt to suppress accurate reports from the Pentagon’s special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction about America’s losing effort there.
Turn now to the invasion of Iraq: in May 2003, President George W. Bush cockily announced “Mission Accomplished” from the deck of an aircraft carrier, only to see victory in Baghdad degenerate into insurgency and a quagmire conflict that established conditions for the rise of the Islamic State. Gains in stability during a surge of U.S. forces orchestrated by General David Petraeus in 2007 and hailed in Washington as a fabulous success story proved fragile and reversible. An ignominious U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011 was followed in 2014 by the collapse of that country’s American-trained and armed military in the face of modest numbers of Islamic State militants. A recommitment of U.S. troops and air power brought Stalingrad-style devastation to cities like Mosul and Ramadi, largely reduced to rubble, while up to 1.3 million children were displaced from their homes. All in all, not exactly the face of victory.
Nor, as it happened, was the Obama administration’s Libyan intervention of 2011. “We came, we saw, he died,” boasted a jubilant Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the time. The “he” was Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s autocratic ruler whose reign of terror looked less horrible after that country collapsed into a failed state, while spreading both terror groups and weaponry throughout the region. That, in turn, led to wider and more costly U.S. interventions in Africa, including the infamous loss of four Green Berets to an ISIS franchise in Niger in 2017.
“We don’t win [wars] anymore,” said candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and he wasn’t wrong about that. In fact, that remarkable record of repeatedly turning initially advertised victory into something approximating defeat would be one reason candidate Trump could boast that he knew more about military matters than America’s generals. Yet for all his talk of winning, victories (large or small) have proved no less elusive for him as commander-in-chief. Recall the botched raid in Yemen early in 2017 that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL and many Yemeni innocents, which Trump blamed on his generals. Recall the president’s “beautiful” cruise missile attack against Syria in April of that same year, which resolved nothing. Or recall the way he recently “fired” retired general Jim Mattis (just after he resigned as secretary of defense) supposedly because he couldn’t bring the Afghan War to a victorious close.
The question is: What’s made America’s leaders, civilian and military, quite so proficient when it comes to turning victories into defeats? And what does that tell us about them and their wars?
A Sustained Record of Losing
During World War II, British civilians called the “Yanks” who would form the backbone of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 (the one that contributed to Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender less than a year later) “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” What can be said of today’s Yanks? Perhaps that they’re overfunded, overhyped, and always over there -- “there” being unpromising places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Let’s start with always over there. As Nick Turse recently reported for TomDispatch, U.S. forces remain deployed on approximately 800 foreign bases across the globe. (No one knows the exact number, Turse notes, possibly not even the Pentagon.) The cost: somewhere to the north of $100 billion a year simply to sustain that global “footprint.” At the same time, U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended war on terror in 80 countries, a sprawling commitment that has cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks (as documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University). This prodigious and prodigal global presence has not been lost on America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, who opined that the country’s military “cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” Showing his usual sensitivity to others, he noted as well that “we are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
Yet Trump’s inconsistent calls to downsize Washington’s foreign commitments, including vows to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, have encountered serious pushback from Washington’s bevy of war hawks like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and his own national security advisor, John Bolton. Contrary to the president’s tweets, U.S. troops in Syria are now destined to remain there for at least months, if not years, according to Bolton. Meanwhile, Trump-promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan may be delayed considerablyin the (lost) cause of keeping the Taliban -- clearly winning and having nothing but time -- off-balance. What matters most, as retired General David Petraeus argued in 2017, is showing resolve, no matter how disappointing the results. For him, as for so many in the Pentagon high command, it’s perfectly acceptable for Americans to face a “generational struggle” in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that could, he hinted, persist for as long as America’s ongoing commitment to South Korea -- that is, almost 70 years.
Turning to overfunded, the unofficial motto of the Pentagon budgetary process might be “aim high” and in this they have succeeded admirably. For example, President Trump denounced a proposed Pentagon budget of $733 billion for fiscal year 2020 as “crazy” high. Then he demonstrated his art-of-the-deal skills by suggesting a modest cut to $700 billion, only to compromise with his national security chiefs on a new figure: $750 billion. That eternal flood of money into the Pentagon’s coffers -- no matter the political party in power -- ensures one thing: that no one in that five-sided building needs to think hard about the disastrous direction of U.S. strategy or the grim results of its wars. The only hard thinking is devoted to how to spend the gigabucks pouring in (and keep more coming).
Instead of getting the most bang for the buck, the Pentagon now gets the most bucks for the least bang. To justify them, America’s defense experts are placing their bets not only on their failing generational war on terror, but also on a revived cold war (now uncapitalized) with China and Russia. Such rivals are no longer simply to be “deterred,” to use a commonplace word from the old (capitalized) Cold War; they must now be “overmatched,” a new Pentagon buzzword that translates into unquestionable military superiority (including newly “usable” nuclear weapons) that may well bring the world closer to annihilation.
Finally, there’s overhyped. Washington leaders of all stripes love to boast of a military that’s “second to none,” of a fighting force that’s the “finest” in history. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence reminded the troops that they are “the best of us.” Indeed you could argue that “support our troops” has become a new American mantra, a national motto as ubiquitous as (and synonymous with) “In God we trust.” But if America’s military truly is the finest fighting force since forever, someone should explain just why it’s failed to produce clear and enduring victories of any significance since World War II.
Despite endless deployments, bottomless funding, and breathless hype, the U.S. military loses -- it’s politely called a “stalemate” -- with remarkable consistency. America’s privates and lieutenants, the grunts at the bottom, are hardly to blame. The fish, as they say, rots from the head, which in this case means America’s most senior officers. Yet, according to them, often in testimony before Congress, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, that military is always making progress. Victory, so they claim, is invariably around the next corner, which they’re constantly turning or getting ready to turn.
America’s post-9/11 crop of generals like Mattis, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, and especially Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus have been much celebrated here in the mainstream media. And in their dress uniforms shimmering with colorful ribbons, badges, and medals, they certainly looked the part of victors.
Indeed, when three of them were still in Donald Trump’s administration, the pro-war mainstream media unabashedly saluted them as the “adults in the room,” allegedly curbing the worst of the president’s mad impulses. Yet consider the withering critique of veteran reporter William Arkin who recently resigned from NBC News to protest the media’s reflexive support of America’s wars and the warriors who have overseen them. “I find it disheartening,” he wrote, “that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.” NBC News, he concluded in his letter of resignation, has been “emulating the national security state itself -- busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.”
Arkin couldn’t be more on target. Moreover, self-styled triumphalist warriors and a cheeringly complicit media are hardly the ideal tools with which to fix a tottering republic, one allegedly founded on the principle of rule by informed citizens, not the national security state.
Can America Turn Defeat Into Victory?
Like Field Marshal Slim and his coalition army in Burma, America must find a way to turn defeat into victory. Here’s the rub: Slim and his forgotten army knew that they were fighting a war of survival against a ruthless Japanese enemy. Under his results-oriented leadership, his forces proved willing to make the sacrifices necessary for victory. In the U.S. case, however, no such sacrifices would matter as there’s no way to win thoroughly misbegotten wars by finding the right general or defining a new strategy or throwing more money at the Pentagon. The only way to win such wars is by ending them and, at some gut level, candidate Trump seemed to recognize this. On occasion as president, he has indeed questioned both the high cost and disastrous results of those wars, but so far he has been more interventionistthan isolationist, greatly expanding air and drone strikes across the Greater Middle East as well as committing, at the urging of “his” generals, more troops to Afghanistan and Syria.
Endless war for any purpose other than the literal preservation of the republic isn’t a measure of fortitude or toughness or foresight; however, it is the path to national suicide. And the “war on terror” has proven to be the very definition of endless war.
A quick recap: what started in 2001 as a punitive raid and blossomed into endless war against the Taliban and later other terrorist organizations in Afghanistan shows no sign of abating; a war to rid Saddam Hussein of (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction cratered in 2003 when none were found, the Iraqis did not greet their “liberators” with flowers, and no preparations had been made to stabilize an increasingly ethnically riven country after a massively destructive invasion; a shortsighted operation to overthrow a bothersome dictator in Libya in 2011 led to the spread of death, destruction, and weaponry throughout the region; efforts in Syria to train“moderate” Islamic forces to counter extremists and overthrow the country’s autocratic ruler Bashar al-Assad only aggravated a preexisting civil war. These and similar interventions are already lost causes. There is no way for better leaders, cleverer tactics, or booming defense budgets to win them today.
In the future, the surest way to turn defeat into victory would be to avoid such needless wars. On the other hand, a surefire way to defeat is to persist in them out of fear, greed, opportunism, careerism, or similar motives. These are lessons America’s gung-ho defense experts have little incentive to absorb, let alone act upon -- and because they won’t, we must.