Good defense, bad offense: A look at why America loses wars it starts

America has shown its military might time and time again throughout its history, with varying degrees of success. While the American military is one of the best in the world in many ways, it also has a poor record when it comes to winning the wars it starts.

This is the topic of a new book by Harlan Ullman, a former naval officer who led over 150 missions in Vietnam and commanded a Persian Gulf destroyer. Writing in Defense One, the U.S. Naval War College Distinguished Senior Fellow outlines why a careful look at history shows that although the U.S. might have won the Cold War, any time that Americans have been sent to wars they started or have gone into combat without a just cause, it has been a failure.

He feels that Korea can be considered a draw as it was ended by a truce. Vietnam speaks for itself; it was a spectacular failure that saw more than 58,000 Americans meet their deaths. The first Iraq War and the collapse of the Soviet Union were handled well, he feels, but Afghanistan has been a disaster that doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. He feels critics are right to call the Second Iraq War a “fiasco,” and he even points out that smaller interventions like those in Libya in 2011 and Beirut in 1983 had miserable outcomes.

In his new book, he looks at why we’ve had so many failures and why they will only continue to occur if changes aren’t made. What does he feel is behind this unfortunate record? The reasons are complicated, spanning several generations of leaders across the political spectrum.

Of course, it starts at the top, and many American presidents simply lack the experience and preparation needed to take on one of the world’s most challenging jobs. He says that an insufficient understanding of the Vietnam conflict and lousy strategic judgment caused JFK to get things wrong in Vietnam, while Reagan’s incorrect belief that an arms race would bankrupt the Soviet Union led to the Beirut mess that saw 241 of our servicemen blown up.

The killings in Kosovo, he feels, could have been solved in just hours rather than the 78 days it took under Clinton had there been a serious threat of ground forces. He labeled George W. Bush’s plan to bring democracy to Iraq “the greatest American catastrophe since the Civil War.” He also called out Obama for setting off a civil war in Syria after bombing Benghazi.

In all cases, he believes that America started the wars for the wrong reasons or that our decision to intervene was based on misunderstanding or a lack of knowledge. He feels that Trump could well be prone to making the same poor choices.

How can America get it right?

How can we break free from these deadly mistakes with so much at stake? He thinks it’s time to cast aside what he termed “20th-century thinking” and take on a more “brains-based approach.” Dealing with the Islamic State is a far different beast than the Soviet Union, so the old ways of thinking largely no longer apply.

Ullman would like to see policymakers gain a better understanding of when force should be used and our policies and strategies focusing on influencing the will and perception of not only our enemies but also our friends.

He warns that if we do not recognize why we are failing so often when using force and don’t start some course correction right away, there’s a pretty good chance that history will repeat itself in all the wrong ways.

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