The United States And The Art Of Losing Wars

The United States has a history of unsuccessful military engagements, including withdrawals from Saigon, Beirut, Mogadishu, and Kabul. Despite some victories, such as against Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi, the U.S. faced challenges in achieving long-term success.

The United States And The Art Of Losing Wars 1

The United States has experienced several unsuccessful wars in the past 50 years. The U.S. withdrew in humiliation from Saigon in 1975, Beirut in 1984, Mogadishu in 1993, and Kabul in 2021. After a tenuous victory of the surge, the U.S. left Baghdad in 2011, only to return three years later after ISIS swept through northern Iraq and had to be stopped (which, with the help of Iraqis and Kurds, was achieved). Limited victories were won against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, only to fumble the endgames.

What’s left? Grenada, Panama, Kosovo: micro-wars that incurred minimal U.S. casualties and are barely remembered today.

From the left’s perspective, most, if not all, of these wars were unnecessary, unwinnable, or unworthy. From the right’s viewpoint, they might have been badly fought—with inadequate force, too many restrictions on how force could be used, or an eagerness to withdraw before finishing the job. Either way, none of these wars threatened America’s very existence. Life in the U.S. would not have materially changed if, for example, Kosovo were still part of Serbia.

But what about existential wars?

In such wars, America has fought differently. During the siege of Vicksburg in 1863, hunger “yielded to starvation as dogs, cats, and even rats vanished from the city,” as Ron Chernow noted in his biography of Ulysses Grant. The Union did not send food convoys to relieve the suffering of innocent Southerners.

In World War II, Allied bombers killed an estimated 10,000 civilians in the Netherlands, 60,000 in France, 60,000 in Italy, and hundreds of thousands of Germans. This was part of a declared Anglo-American policy to undermine “the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.” A similar policy was pursued against Japan, where bombardment killed, according to some estimates, nearly one million civilians.

Ulysses S. Grant is commemorated on the $50 bill, and Franklin Roosevelt’s portrait adorns the Oval Office. The valor of American bomber crews is celebrated in shows like Apple TV+’s “Masters of the Air.” Democracies often reconsider the harsh measures they use to win existential wars but tend to honor leaders who chose compromised victories over pure defeats.

Israel and Ukraine are now engaged in similar existential wars. This is confirmed not by their declarations but by their adversaries’ statements. Vladimir Putin views the Ukrainian state as illegitimate, while Hamas, Hezbollah, and their Iranian backers openly call for Israel’s destruction. Consequently, both nations aim to neutralize their enemies’ ability and resolve to fight, leading to tragic outcomes such as the Israeli airstrike in Rafah, which reportedly killed at least 45 civilians while targeting Hamas leaders.

Modern warfare, despite terms like “precision weapons,” often results in unintended civilian casualties, especially when enemies like Hamas use civilian areas for cover. Similarly, the idea of supplying Ukraine with just enough arms to fend off Russia without provoking further escalation is unrealistic. Wars rarely offer a balanced, “Goldilocks” approach; they trend towards either victory or defeat.

Currently, the Biden administration seeks to moderate Israel’s actions and support Ukraine, mirroring America’s recent approach to warfare—limited means, limited resolve, and a focus on potential negotiations. This cautious strategy is evident in the fact that Ukraine still lacks F-16s to defend its skies.

In the short term, Biden’s approach may alleviate immediate humanitarian crises, appease domestic constituencies, or prevent rapid escalations. However, in the long run, it risks forcing our allies into defeat.

A “peace agreement” with Moscow that leaves Ukraine’s territory under Russian control sets the stage for future invasions once Russia rebuilds its military. A ceasefire with Hamas that leaves the group governing Gaza virtually guarantees another conflict, reinforcing the tactic of using civilian populations as shields, a strategy Hezbollah is likely to replicate in its next confrontation with Israel.

President Biden delivered a poignant Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery, honoring soldiers who fought in battles “between autocracy and democracy.” Yet, America’s recent history shows thousands of these soldiers perished in wars deemed unworthy of full commitment. Their sacrifices became futile when leaders, including Biden, prioritized other interests.

While such hesitancy might be a luxury for safe, powerful nations like the US, it’s a dire reality for Ukrainians and Israelis. We must recognize that they have no option but to fight as we once did—when victory was clear and the resolve unwavering.

Last year, GreatGameIndia reported that on the French TV channel LCI, US Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that the Iraq War was based on a lie but refrained from calling it aggression, as President Bush was never directly accused.

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