Why America Loses Wars

January 27, 2020
Why America Loses Wars
Emile Betsellère
Why America Loses Wars
Emile Betsellère
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Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and U.S. Strategy from the Korean War to the Present. Donald Stoker. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Donald Stoker—an instructor for many years at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author of several books including, importantly, a biography on Clausewitz—has now written another book to take the Western national security community to school. In Why America Loses Wars, Stoker gives that community a failing grade for, among other things, an inability to understand limited wars. This problem is epitomized by the general belief that the U.S. has only fought limited wars since World War II, determined more often than not by definitions stressing the constraints imposed on the means used in conflict.[1] Other problematic factors in discussions about limited wars include geography, the length of conflict, and the amount of violence.[2] Likewise, total wars are often defined by the lack of limits placed upon means, even if it is theoretically impossible for all means to be used.[3] For that reason, Donald Stoker prefers not even to talk about total war in his latest work.[4]

Instead, inspired by Clausewitz, Stoker focuses on whether or not the political objectives or ends are limited.[5] In this light, the U.S. has fought unlimited wars. The operation against Islamic State—Operation Inherent Resolve—for example, can be considered an unlimited war because the U.S. sought to destroy its caliphate. Likewise, the first part of Operation Iraqi Freedom should be viewed as unlimited because the U.S. sought to remove Saddam Hussein from power.[6] In essence, an unlimited war seeks regime change.

A limited war, by contrast, has less sweeping political objectives, such as the occupation of territory.[7] The Korean War, then, was both unlimited and limited, depending on not only the stage of the war but also on one’s perspective. At the war’s beginning, North Korea invaded with the political objective of gaining control of South Korea, thus making it unlimited for the aggressor nation. By contrast, the initial United Nations response was limited because it intended only to protect South Korea.[8] When the United States changed those objectives and entered North Korea, it became involved in an unlimited war because the goal of regime change, implied by seeking to achieve a unified Korea, constitutes an unlimited political objective.[9] To complicate this even further, the Chinese participated in an unlimited war against South Korea in seeking to unify the peninsula but a limited one against the United States because China could not seek to overthrow the American. government.[10] With such ranging political objectives, then, the very nature of the war was in constant flux.[11] In other words, political objectives determine each war’s nature and if they change then the war’s nature changes. Victory, then, must be defined simply as the “achievement of the political purpose for which the war is being fought.”[12] These ideas provide a helpful framework for thinking more precisely and critically about limited war.

Yet at times describing regime change as unlimited and almost everything else as limited becomes frustrating. In this framing, Operation Iraqi Freedom began as unlimited but then became limited when the U.S. “decided to build a new Iraq.”[13] The bifurcation between regime change and everything else is possibly too stark. Using Stoker’s own emphasis on the ends, if the end is to make a new nation, it is hard to follow how regime building is somehow more limited. It also suggests the model may be too presentist in seeking to understand the last decades of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. By contrast, scholars like Robert Osgood take a longer view of limited war, arguing, “Limited wars are as old as the history of mankind, as ubiquitous as armed conflict. In the history of international conflict, the wars that have been truly momentous and rare are those fought to annihilate, to completely defeat or completely dominate the adversary.”[14]

Similarly, Stoker wants to eliminate the notion of a spectrum of conflict, and he finds various terms such as low-intensity conflict and measures short of war to be unhelpful.[15] This is in part because they enable decision makers to pretend they are not engaged in war. Stoker believes it is essential to be clear and straightforward about when a nation is at war.

Stoker’s decades of teaching professional military education show in the time he spends engaging with a range of war theory and parsing terminology. Indeed, the very purpose of the book is to help policymakers understand the mistakes they continue making due to ignorance.[16] And, in this regard, this is a book that every policy maker and military officer should read. But one of the book’s weaknesses is precisely that it is too theoretical. Ideal strategy can be and is discussed in the classroom, but real-world strategy is made in places like Washington D.C., London, and elsewhere where the books get thrown out in bureaucratic infighting and messy compromise, as explored wonderfully in works like Peter Haynes’ Toward a New Maritime Strategy: American Naval Thinking in the Post-Cold War Era.

A better organized book could have set forth Stoker’s framework for limited war then explored it using several case studies. Instead, the book offers a kind of historical whiplash. Readers can expect to travel from the Korean War in one paragraph to the Mexican-American War then fast-forward to the Gulf War. By scattering bits and pieces of historical snapshots throughout the book, Stoker produced a choppy read difficult for those who do not have a strong background military history. The book also does not engage systematically with the long historical trajectory of the limited wars the U.S. has fought almost since its inception.

Stoker’s frustration jumps off the book’s pages, but the reader might be just as frustrated by the conclusion because the author does not offer solutions other than to wage war in a more theoretically correct manner. This tendency lurches to the forefront when Stoker concludes the work by dismissing the continuing American involvement in Afghanistan as a complex issue that simply “cannot be presented in a few thousand words.”[17] Afghanistan should have been a case study, not something written off with a few pages of discussion. And thus, the reader is left with unsatisfying suggestions like the idea that “U.S. leaders should change what they want to achieve in Afghanistan or change American strategy in a manner that will allow it to achieve its political objective, and then commit sufficient means for doing this for as long as needed.”[18] Suggestions such as this offer little in the way of new ideas.

Ultimately, Stoker’s limited ideas for Afghanistan highlight the reality of war: there are no easy answers. But Stoker takes a different approach; a sub-theme of the book is that wars can be won more decisively. Stoker insists America’s’ “ability to fight any war” has been “poisoned.”[19] He claims the U.S.—and Western countries in general—have given up on the idea of winning decisively. Exemplifying that school of thought, although not mentioned in the work, is Cathal J. Nolan’s The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost. Nolan argues the lingering resistance to the notion that wars can be won decisively has often resulted in millions of casualties. Protracted stalemate far better characterizes the history of war than decisiveness.[20] As Nolan argues regarding Germany during both the First and Second World Wars, the notion of a “huge decisive battle at the very outset was their [Germany’s] one way out” of a “strategic cul-de-sac, an operational solution to a political and strategic problem.” [21]

But Stoker does not see the quest for decisiveness as problematic. He argues wars drag on due to failures in imagination, with the U.S. missing opportunities to “land the decisive blow.”[22] Stoker provides a supporting example from the Korean War, claiming America had an opportunity to take advantage of a weakened Chinese army but did not. Such an action, though, would have required General Ridgway to cross a line the Pentagon had ordered him not to cross.[23] Stoker does not fully reconcile these tensions in his Monday-morning strategizing. Rather, he faults the U.S. for dragging out a conflict out of fear of sparking a “hypothetical, potential future conflict.”[24] He also offers few decisive, game-changing moments for the other conflicts he mentions.

Stoker’s work is essential reading because it forces us to engage with what it really means for a war to be limited. He also pointedly warns the reader that potential opponents understand limited war better than the U.S. does, although he does not definitively prove this claim.[25] But the work is also frustrating. The question of why the U.S. does not win wars is complex. Simply waging wars more decisively is not enough. Stoker quotes Clausewitz to make the point that “there is only one result that counts: final victory.”[26] Of course, Clausewitz also wrote that nothing in war is ever final.[27] And thinking carefully about the limits of one’s political objective and the other essential areas Stoker covers in this work is not enough to change that enduring reality.

Heather Venable is an editor at The Strategy Bridge and an assistant professor of military and security studies at the U.S. Air Command and Staff College. She has recently published a book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Donald Stoker, Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and U.S. Strategy from the Korean War to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2019), 4.

[2] Ibid., 32.

[3] Ibid., 25-26

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Ibid., 7 and 32.

[6] Ibid., 63.

[7] Ibid., 45.

[8] Ibid., 36.

[9] Ibid., 37.Slack | editing-requests | Mil Writers Guild | 2 new items

[10] Ibid., 37.

[11] Ibid., 37.

[12] Ibid., 18.

[13] Ibid., 64.

[14] Robert E. Osgood, “The Post-War Strategy of Limited War: Before, During, and After Vietnam” in Military Strategy, compiled by Anthony W. Gray, Jr. and Eston T. White (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, 1983) , 179.

[15] Stoker, Why America Loses Wars, 35.

[16] Ibid., 231.

[17] Ibid., 226.

[18] Ibid., 225.

[19] Ibid., 3.

[20] Cathal J. Nolan, The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost (New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2019), 6-7.       

[21] Ibid., 10.

[22] Ibid., 10.

[23] Ibid., 10.

[24] Ibid., 12.

[25] Ibid., 129.

[26] Ibid., 18.

[27] Carl von Clausewitz, The Essential Clausewitz: Selections from On War, ed. Joseph I. Greene (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 117.

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