In a sense, the president’s vision of swift martial triumph is as American as apple pie. The traditional American way of war is based on using firepower and high technology to destroy enemy countries on the battlefield. General Douglas MacArthur—who Trump once praised as an ideal general to fight ISIS—famously declared, “there is no substitute for victory.” At the same time, the president’s fixation on collecting “wins” is pure Trumpism.
Will extra military capabilities allow the United States to march into what Winston Churchill once called the “broad sunlit uplands” of victory? It’s the $54 billion question.
To start, what does it even mean to “win” a war? Success is not about blowing things up, or conquering battlefields and seeing the enemy flee. Success is about achieving political goals. This means deciding who governs and how. It means attaining a consolidated victory, or a stronger peace where national interests will be protected in the long term. During the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States and its allies won the early battles. But in every case, the countries became destabilized and dueling militias and insurgents arose. As a result, Iraq was a grave debacle, Afghanistan is teetering on the brink of failure, and Barack Obama described the collapse of Libya as his worst mistake.
Will the new budget give the U.S. military the tools to win? The story of the last 70 years is that American military power doesn’t translate into victory. Up until World War II, the United States had a tiny peacetime army (in 1939, the U.S. Army was ranked 19th in the world in terms of size, just after Portugal’s), but it won almost every major war. After 1945, Washington became a military colossus and it endured a string of failures and stalemates in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. During the height of the Vietnam War, for example, Washington estimated that it spent $9.60 to cause just one dollar of damage to the enemy.
U.S. military strength was ineffective after World War II because global warfare shifted from interstate wars, or wars between countries, to civil wars. Today, about 90 percent of conflicts are internal, including in Ukraine, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked: “Think of where our forces have been sent and have been engaged over the last 40-plus years: Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and more. In fact, the first Gulf War stands alone in over two generations of constant military engagement as a more or less traditional conventional conflict from beginning to end.” In the last decade, little changed, as Washington sent forces to battle ISIS in civil wars in Syria and Iraq.
In the new era of internal conflict, victory wasn’t about who had the biggest guns, or even who killed the most troops. What mattered in the fight between regimes and rebels was legitimacy and commitment. Successful counterinsurgency required a multifaceted approach, and a range of military, economic, and diplomatic tools. At the same time, the very nature of a “win” became much murkier. Forget about surrender ceremonies in Tokyo Bay. Instead, defeated insurgencies would fade away over years and decades.