Why Can’t America Win a War?

Looking back on 2021, the collapse of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan now makes me feel like the target of a 20-year practical joke. 

I never served in the military. I was merely a supporter of the war and an occasional commenter on it. The betrayal I now feel as someone who was completely uninvolved in the war effort—someone who sacrificed nothing—must be miniscule compared to what the rank-and-file men and women who prosecuted the war are experiencing.

I was 23 when 9/11 happened, and I am the son of a Vietnam veteran who served on the Battleship New Jersey. Twenty years later, it’s strange to me that I never even thought about enlisting in the immediate aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attack on America. It’s worth remembering that it was men and women of my generation—Generation X—and some of the older Millennials who were asked to carry the burden of sacrifice for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I respect everyone who accepted that call and enlisted. 

At the beginning, I supported the war because the cause seemed just and I believed that our government and military valued the lives of young Americans enough that they would be sure to craft a plan for victory that would not risk the deaths of American soldiers for outcomes that were either inconsequential or unattainable. Thus, watching this 20-year affair come to an end—in such botched and catastrophic fashion—also brought with it some personal humiliation because I was so wrong for so long.

I was a precocious adolescent. I remember one brutal Great Lakes winter day when I was about 15. My father was driving us home from his office, and during the six-mile drive, we got into a debate about American involvement in Vietnam. I could tell my dad was getting heated, and I enjoyed that I was getting under his skin. I was in the middle of a monologue about how we lost in Vietnam and how it was good that we did because America never should have been there, anyway. 

Suddenly, my father slammed on the brakes—we were traveling about 55 mph on snowy roads along the banks of the Genesee River. When the car came to a halt and I realized we hadn’t been killed, dad was staring at me. “Get out of the car,” he said. I got out. In 1994, there were no smartphones and no Uber, and as a dumb kid I was perpetually underdressed in winter. This meant I had a long, cold walk home . . . and some time to think about exactly what I had said that had so touched a nerve with my father.

I learned a few things that day. First, I recognized that I didn’t actually know anything about the Vietnam War. Second, I learned that you don’t pointlessly irritate someone you are depending on for a ride. Third, while Vietnam was a total abstraction for me, it wasn’t for my dad. It was over before I was born. But he knew people who had died there. The sacrifices that he and the other men who served made had meant something to them. And in the context of the early 1970s, when my dad’s period of enlistment ended, many vets returned home only to be lectured and mocked by protestors who probably knew even less about what was at stake in Vietnam than I did. My father wasn’t going to listen to any more of that nonsense from a 15-year-old punk.

I was a jerk that day. But I wasn’t entirely wrong. America did lose in Vietnam. The circumstances of our departure from Saigon tells you all you need to know. This doesn’t mean that the veterans of that war fought for nothing. They didn’t. The soldiers’ individual sacrifices meant something. While Vietnam remains a socialist nation today, that country’s economy is increasingly capitalist and there is certainly less poverty than there had been prior to the war. The improvement in the quality of life for the Vietnamese people is to some degree a result of America’s involvement there. Further, even if Vietnam was a military loss for America, it may have been a strategic victory in that it changed the dynamics of the Cold War. 

Nevertheless, the Vietnam War seemed to be the first in a decades-long stretch of American military failure. The pattern is long enough that it can’t be dismissed with a shrug and a consolation of “You win some, you lose some.” Understanding how American military prowess declined is important because it may clarify the dynamics of the broader dysfunction of America’s government and social institutions. 

Our failure can only be understood as the result of a larger moral crisis—one that extends from a lack of confidence among our leaders about the goodness of the nation and our influence across the globe. 

A Brief History of American Military Failures Since 1980

The similarities between what happened in Kabul and what happened in Saigon (even the images of the events look the same!) dramatize the consistent pattern of American defeat, and they invite reflections on the nation’s other military endeavors over the course of my lifetime. 

It isn’t a pretty picture. The humiliation in Lebanon. Legally questionable invasions in Grenada and Panama. The Mogadishu catastrophe. The month-long first Gulf War was a U.S. victory on paper, but the strategic blunder of stopping short of Baghdad and refusing to depose Saddam Hussein ultimately required the later second invasion of Iraq, thus calling the earlier “victory” into question. 

The second war in Iraq was a slow-motion disaster which began with much of the world vociferously opposed to our efforts, moved into a period where we faced defeat at the hands of an ill-equipped but determined insurgency, and resulted in a partial withdrawal that fostered the rise of ISIS and brought on a horrific bloodletting for the Iraqi people. And although some “weapons of mass destruction” were discovered in Iraq, it was not enough to vindicate the exaggerated claims that our government used to justify the war. 

Then there were the missed opportunities for U.S. interests during the “Arab Spring.” And the bombings of Syria which failed to depose Bashar al-Assad. There were Barack Obama’s “red lines” that turned out to be imaginary. And this past summer, humiliation in Kabul, complete with a uniquely craven betrayal not only of the Afghans who provided assistance in our efforts, but also many of our own citizens. To our further embarrassment, all of these military endeavors unfolded in venues of our choosing: an official act of warfare (one publicly approved by the government of an internationally recognized nation) hasn’t occurred on American soil since Pearl Harbor. 

Warfare, Victory, and America’s Crisis of Confidence

So why can’t America win a war? Why can’t the most powerful nation on the planet—one with a larger military budget than any society in world history—achieve a decisive, unequivocal martial victory? Military historians, strategists, and policymakers can catalog the errors and mismanagement that led to these failures better than I ever could. But there is a larger question related to the philosophical cause of our persistent floundering: is it possible that there is a certain worldview that our leaders share which sets them up for failure?

A common complaint about the American style of military engagement is that we fight with one hand behind our backs. The nation seems chronically unwilling to make full use of our martial superiority. There is something to this: as Joe Biden himself has noted in the past, the Taliban had very limited military power. Considering how much of weaponry and hardware we abandoned to them when we left, this is no longer true. But the question lingers: with the immense aerial, tactical, and technological power that we could bring to bear on Afghanistan, how did our conflict there go on for 20 years—only for us to ultimately depart and allow the Taliban to recapture the nation in a little over a week

You sometimes hear people argue that America should have turned these places into “glass parking lots”—that we should make no distinction between belligerents and civilians, and that we ought to have less regard for human life. I disagree. But there is also such a thing as too much concern with propriety and “optics” in warfare. When a war unfolds between two nations with a massive power differential, the more powerful nation has an ethical obligation to end the conflict in short order. War is inherently a moral atrocity—and drawing it out unnecessarily multiplies the cruelty inflicted upon the everyday people who suffer the many indignities and brutalities of the conflict. 

Of course, bringing any conflict to an expeditious and decisive conclusion demands a willingness to make use of awesome, lethal force. This seems to be where America fails.

For the last 40 years, all of America’s foreign military operations could be viewed as conflicts of choice—situations where we had an option to avoid conflict. In all of these wars of choice, wars that we initiated because we thought we could win and believed that we would benefit in some way from fighting, we were the stronger nation by a significant margin—whether in terms of economy, military capabilities, population, or technological sophistication. This means it was our obligation to consolidate our victory quickly and unambiguously. We didn’t. 

Elite Relativism and the Decay of Moral Conviction

I propose that the reason for this is that our leadership, and Americans in general, no longer consistently believe in objective categories of good and evil. It’s no coincidence that our military bungling seemed to begin in the 1960s, which was also the period during which relativism and doctrines of tolerance and diversity were ascendant in the universities. 

Relativism and subjectivism assert that moral and value judgments depend on the perspective and context of the people making those assessments. Put differently, these doctrines teach that your beliefs about what is good and evil are not objectively true—instead, your beliefs seem objectively true to you merely because your environment, society, experience, and family life condition you to see them as such. 

This mindset undermines one’s ability to make moral claims at all, which, in turn, compromises the will to act. Relativism demands that its devotees maintain a rigid skepticism regarding moral claims, even where their truth seems to be self-evident. Instead, one must learn to see one’s own moral judgments as mere preferences

The corollary of this lesson is obvious: just as no one can be faulted or condemned for their preferences when it comes to their choice of entrée at dinner, we are in no position to condemn any people or societies. They aren’t evil or wrong, and we aren’t right or good—we just have different preferences in terms of politics, ethics, religion, family, money, or morality.

But (as is true so often), even our leaders’ commitment to relativism is half-hearted. Whereas a true relativist must dispense with all universal moral claims or value judgments, our ruling class still insists upon the natural, self-evident superiority of various things and ideas. For example, a big part of the strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan was “winning hearts and minds,” which in practice meant convincing foreigners about the supposedly obvious superiority of liberal democracy. 

So, democracy isn’t simply one preference among others—it is cordoned off from creeping relativism, and thus, remains an inherent good to be pursued at all costs. This leaves our leaders insisting upon a paradox—all cultures are equally valuable and all claims might be true from a particular vantage point. But also, American governance and culture (which these same people routinely denigrate as “systematically-racist” and a hotbed of bigotry) provide the one model of sociopolitical life to which all nations naturally gravitate. Contradictions like this, papered over again and again in the conflicts between the worldview of the ruling class and the stated aims of their foreign policy, are a recipe for failure. No wonder we lose.

The result is that our leaders don’t really believe in our causes—at least not enough to secure victory. But it’s not just them. Almost any use of American military power becomes a matter of bitter internal divisions in our nation. When it comes to winning wars, the people must be unified in their commitment to the cause. As recent history shows, the public is just as conflicted and non-committal about our military adventurism as the ruling class. 

This crisis of confidence—this nagging suspicion that maybe our causes are not worthy—is obvious. Most importantly, it is obvious to our enemies in war. And knowing that our hearts aren’t really in it is an enormous boost to our enemies’ morale, conviction, endurance, and determination. This is how an outfit like the Taliban can defeat a nation that owns the most expansive, sophisticated, and deadly military arsenal on the planet. This is how a tiny nation like Iraq can push the United States to a draw. 

The lesson here, if there is one, is this: military prowess is not enough. Arguably, the sense of moral righteousness—which is the only way that sane men can justify the large-scale exercise of brutal violence inherent to war—is more important. The recent history of American military intervention is a testament to the absence of this conviction in the righteousness of our cause. The hearts of our leaders are hollow. Who can fault Americans if they will not follow those leaders to war? Until we can rediscover a belief in our goodness—until we can rediscover, as a society, a belief in the goodness of goodness itself—we should never fight again. Until then, we don’t deserve to win.

About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.