At 9:44 p.m. on July 27, 1953, Harold Smith had just 16 more minutes of the Korean War to survive before a ceasefire came into effect at 10:00 p.m. You can imagine this 21-year old Marine from Illinois out on combat patrol that evening, looking at his watch, mentally ticking down the seconds. Suddenly, Smith tripped a land mine and was fatally wounded. As one soldier recalled, “I was preparing to fire a white star cluster to signal the armistice when his body was brought in.”
Twenty-two years later, on April 29, 1975, Darwin Judge and Charles McMahon were serving as Marine guards near Saigon in South Vietnam. Judge was an Iowa boy and a gifted woodworker. His buddy, McMahon, from Woburn, Massachusetts, was a natural leader. “He loved the Marines as much as anybody I ever saw in the Marines,” said one friend. They had only been in South Vietnam for a few days. At 4:00 a.m. on April 29, a communist rocket struck their position and the two men died instantly.
On the early evening of November 14, 2011, David Hickman was traveling in an armored truck through Baghdad. Hickman, an army specialist from North Carolina, had been in ninth grade when the Iraq War started in 2003. A massive explosion ripped into Hickman’s truck. It was a roadside bomb—the signature weapon of Iraqi insurgents. Hickman was grievously wounded. The next day, just before midnight, the Army visited Hickman’s parents in North Carolina to tell them their son was dead.
Smith, Judge, McMahon, and Hickman were the final American combat fatalities in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, respectively. An unknown soldier will have the same fate in Afghanistan.
These men are the nation’s last full measure of devotion. The final casualty in war is uniquely poignant. It highlights the individual human price of conflict. It signifies the aggravated cruelty of near-survival. It has all the random arbitrariness of a lottery. The Soviet-made 122 mm rocket that killed Judge and McMahon in 1975 was famously inaccurate. It could have landed anywhere in their vicinity. But it fell just a few feet from the Marines. The sergeant who found their bodies wondered, “Why them and not me?”
Most of all, the final casualty underscores the value of ending a conflict. If the United States could have resolved the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq earlier—even just a few minutes earlier—Smith, Judge, McMahon, and Hickman’s lives would have been the first to be spared.
Concluding the fighting has particular urgency in a war without victory. As former navy lieutenant John Kerry remarked during congressional testimony on Vietnam in 1971, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Now, with ISIS seizing Palmyra in Syria and routing Iraqi security forces in Ramadi, an American victory in war once again seems an illusion. When the final U.S. soldier dies in Iraq—in one year’s time, in five years’ time, in 50 years’ time—Kerry’s question may still linger in the air.
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Why does the United States struggle in war? How can it resolve a failing conflict? Can America return to victory?
Today, these are critical questions because we live in an age of unwinnable conflicts, where decisive triumph has proved to be a pipe dream.
On June 5, 1944, the day before D-Day, U.S. General George S. Patton strode onto a makeshift stage in southern England to address thousands of American soldiers. “Americans play to win all of the time,” said Patton. “That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war, for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.”
It was the golden age of American combat. Patton could look back on a century of U.S. victories in major wars against Mexico, the Confederacy, Spain, and Germany. And the glorious era was about to reach its pinnacle. “By God,” he said, looking ahead to D-Day, “I actually pity those poor sons of bitches we are going up against.” World War II was a testament to the valor-studded splendor of American warfare.
The price of military triumph was often immense. In the Civil War alone, there were around 750,000 American fatalities—more than the deaths in every other U.S. war combined. But if the costs of conflict were staggering, so were the benefits. The Civil War saved the Union and emancipated the slaves. World War II ensured the survival of liberal democracy in Western Europe. For Americans, golden-age conflicts became the model of what war ought to look like.
And then, all of a sudden, the United States stopped winning major wars. The golden age faded into the past, and a new dark age of U.S. warfare emerged. Since 1945, Americans have experienced little except military frustration, stalemate, and loss.
The martial dusk began with the Korean War, which deteriorated into a grim stalemate at a cost of nearly 37,000 American lives. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the United States faced outright military defeat for the first time in its history—and, most shockingly, against North Vietnam, a “raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country,” as Lyndon Johnson put it.
The British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once described the golden rule of politics: “Never invade Afghanistan.” In October 2001, the United States swaggered into this harsh and beautiful land. Within two months, the Taliban were routed from Kabul and retreated south toward the Pakistani border. But the war was not over. The Taliban recovered and escalated their attacks, setting the stage for today’s stalemated conflict.
An even bleaker tale played out in Iraq, where the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime triggered the collapse of civil government and widespread unrest. Each morning, dawn’s early light revealed car-bomb smoke drifting across Baghdad and a harvest of hooded bodies—a grim installment toward the overall tally of 100,000 civilian deaths.
Since 1945, in terms of victory in a major war, the United States is one for five. The Gulf War in 1991 is the only success story. The dark age is a time of protracted fighting, featuring the three longest wars in American history (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam). It’s a time when the ultimate price of conflict is usually far higher than Americans would have accepted at the start. It’s a time when military heroes are thin on the ground. It’s a time when movies and novels about war describe political conspiracy and futile campaigns. It’s a time when the signature illness for veterans is post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a time when the most resonant images of conflict are children napalmed, helicopters rescuing Americans and Vietnamese from rooftops, and naked bodies intertwined at Abu Ghraib.
Why is the United States unable to win on the battlefield? It’s certainly not for lack of power. From 1846 to 1945, the United States had a minuscule peacetime army but won almost every major campaign. After World War II, Washington constructed the most expensive military machine that ever existed and endured seven decades of martial frustration.
Indeed, power is part of the reason the United States loses. After 1945, America’s newfound strength created a constant temptation to use force, and projected U.S. forces into distant conflicts. But Washington chose an unfortunate moment to discover its inner interventionist. The nature of global warfare changed in ways that made military campaigns ugly at best and unwinnable at worst.
The good news is that, since 1945, countries have almost stopped fighting each other. Conventional interstate wars are now very rare. World War II was the thunderous crescendo that presaged what historian John Lewis Gaddis called “the long peace.” Great powers haven’t engaged in direct hostilities for over 60 years.
Nuclear deterrence stabilized relations between major states. The spread of democracy cultivated a zone of peace among elected regimes. Globalization and international trade deepened the linkages between countries and made interstate conflict seem costly or irrational.
But now the bad news: Conflict still exists in the form of civil wars or organized violence within the boundaries of a state. Nuclear weapons, democracy, and trade may stop countries from invading each other, but they don’t prevent guerrillas from seizing an AK-47. Today, about 90 percent of conflicts are civil wars. Global warfare is mainly relegated to a few dozen failed or failing states that are breeding grounds for warlords, insurgents, and criminals.
The shift from conflicts between countries to conflicts within countries triggered an era of American military failure. The United States waded into far-flung quarrels featuring culturally alien enemies, including North Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese communists, Afghan insurgents, and Iraqi guerrillas—handing the opponent home-field advantage. Americans often don’t comprehend local geography, religions, traditions, ethnic politics, or languages. In 2006, there were 1,000 American officials in the Baghdad embassy, but just 33 spoke Arabic and only six were fluent.
America’s material strength has another curse. For a global hegemon like the United States, each war is just one of many competing security commitments around the world. For the enemy, however, the conflict is a life-and-death contest that occupies its entire attention. It’s limited war for Americans, and total war for those fighting Americans. The United States has more power; its foes have more willpower.
During the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle boxing match, Muhammad Ali famously used a “rope-a-dope” strategy against the hard-hitting George Foreman. Ali absorbed blow after blow until Foreman punched himself out. In the same manner, Vietnamese insurgents endured U.S. punishment until Americans were unwilling to fight any longer.
The U.S. military also failed to adapt to a new era of civil wars and guerrilla conflict. In the golden age, the United States routinely crushed enemy countries with a combination of high explosives, technology, and big-unit warfare. Washington tried the same tactics against insurgents with free-fire zones and enemy kill counts. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, said the solution to the insurgency lay with one word: “firepower.” But these tactics proved disastrous in civil wars, where indiscriminate violence can cause collateral damage, lose hearts and minds, and recruit more insurgents.
It’s a paradox of war: The United States loses because the world is peaceful. The decline of interstate conflict and the relative harmony among great powers is a cause for celebration. But the interstate wars that have disappeared are the kind of wars that the United States wins. And the civil wars that remain are the kind of wars that the U.S. loses. As the tide of conflict recedes, it leaves behind the toughest and most unyielding internal struggles.
It’s also hard to win great victories in an era of peace. During the golden age, the United States faced trials of national survival like the Civil War and World War II. The potential benefits were so momentous that Washington could overthrow the enemy at almost any cost in American blood and treasure and still claim the win. But in wars since 1945, the threats are diminished. Since the prize on offer is less valuable, the acceptable price to pay in lives and money is also dramatically reduced. To achieve victory, the campaign must be quick and decisive—with little margin for error. Without grave peril, it’s tough to enter the pantheon of martial valor.
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Once the United States was drawn into the quagmire, it couldn’t get out. Time and again, U.S. leaders struggled to cut the nation’s losses and find an honorable peace. “I think Americans have learned,” said Barack Obama, “that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them.”
In Korea, the United States spent two years negotiating a truce, even as brutal attritional fighting continued. In Vietnam, peace talks lasted for five years, with little to show for them. It took 21 days to capture Baghdad in 2003 and 3,174 days to leave. U.S. forces seized Kabul in November 2001—and they’re still there.
In the wake of battlefield loss, the stakes are incredibly high. Losing the right way—or the wrong way—may mean life or death for thousands of American soldiers. The future of the target country is also on the line, whether it’s South Korea, South Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. U.S. decisions may condemn thousands to death and millions to tyranny.
Furthermore, combat debacles can cast a long shadow over the American home front. The exit strategy could spark domestic uproar, congressional rebellion, and even blood on the streets—like the killing of four protesters at Kent State University in 1970. Such failure can have a dramatic impact on a president’s career. Just consider the fate of LBJ, who won a landslide triumph in 1964 and then decided not to run for reelection after Vietnam. Indeed, military defeat may be the ultimate political test. For 200 years, no American president has managed to end his own major war once it’s taken a turn for the worse. Truman in Korea, Johnson in Vietnam, and Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq all handed the problem to the next guy. And the moral calculations are momentous. Does the United States have an obligation to fix what it broke and save its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or, at some point, must it betray its friends?
Battlefield loss can leave leaders facing what chess players call zugzwang, or “move anguish,” an unfortunate situation where every possible move worsens your position. You might prefer not to move at all but you have to do something—and that something hastens your downfall. Leave too quickly and everything might collapse, forcing your return. Leave too late and you may expend blood and treasure only to alienate the local population and step further into the mire.
It’s not easy for many Americans to think deeply about battlefield disaster. American culture is a victory culture. Coded into the American DNA are the fear of failure and the celebration of winning. Americans tend to be comfortable with loss only when it proves a temporary setback on the road to ultimate triumph, whether it’s a Christian prevailing over sin, a pioneer mastering the natural world, or a sportsman reaching the pinnacle of his profession. This distaste for contemplating failure is especially true with regard to war. Armed conflict is an expression of American identity and a trial of national vitality. General Douglas MacArthur said, “There is no substitute for victory.”
But when America’s recent record at war is one for five, that victory culture starts to look like wishful thinking, unhealthy braggadocio, and illusory triumphalism—good for the nation’s self-esteem, perhaps, but not good for handling reality. It’s time to reckon with the hard truths of conflict. As the black banner of ISIS rises above Ramadi and Palmyra, is the next chapter being written in America’s age of unwinnable conflicts?
This article has been adapted from Dominic Tierney’s new book, The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts.