Why Can't the World's Best Military Win Its Wars?
“This time, they think they have it right.”
So declared an Associated Press story reporting an upbeat assessment by this country’s top military officer at the end of a five-day visit to Afghanistan earlier this spring. Marine General Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was heading home from the war zone, the AP reporter wrote, “with a palpable sense of optimism” about the U.S.-supported war against Taliban and Islamic State fighters there.
Light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps?
The story didn’t say whether any of the reporters listening to General Dunford asked why it had taken more than 16 years for the world’s leading military power to come up with the “fundamentally different approach” that the general believes has put U.S. and Afghan forces on the path to success. (None of the changes he mentioned really sounded fundamental, either.) Still, it’s a question worth asking: If Americans are right in ceaselessly telling themselves that theirs is the most powerful country the world has ever seen and that their military is the “greatest fighting force ever,” as President Trump calls it, should it have been this hard and taken this long to find a way — if they really have — to defeat enemies whose war-making resources are a tiny fraction of ours?
As has happened often during our current conflicts, that piece of news from Afghanistan got me thinking about an earlier war that I witnessed first-hand as a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun during its final three years.
In Vietnam, as in subsequent American wars, the United States and its local allies had staggering advantages in all the conventional measures of military strength, yet failed to win. It makes me wonder: If U.S. political and military leaders and the American public remembered Vietnam more honestly, if painful truths hadn’t been cloaked in comforting mythologies, might this country have responded more intelligently and effectively to the violent challenges we’ve faced in the current century?
Consider, for example, the persistent story that America lost in Vietnam because U.S. troops fought with one hand tied behind their backs — because, that is, the politicians were “afraid to let them win,” as Ronald Reagan once put it. The implication is clear: we could and should have won that war by doing more of what we were already doing or keeping at it longer (and should do the same in other conflicts, if military force does not seem to be succeeding).
But did the United States really lose in Vietnam for lack of force?
Not Exactly a Limited War
Plenty of facts suggest otherwise. Take the amount of destructive power the U.S. employed. “Devastating conventional firepower unparalleled in military history,” a study by the Army’s logistics command called it, adding that, along with extraordinary tonnages of air and ground ordnance, American commanders fought with virtually no restrictions on mobility, equipment, or supplies: “The logistics scene was characterized by almost unlimited supply, remarkable high operational readiness rates as applied to equipment, a seemingly endless flow of ammunition and petroleum, and immunity for the most part from external fiscal restraints.”
Even to one who heard a bit of the gunfire from time to time, the statistics on U.S. firepower are mind-boggling. Pentagon records show that, for long periods, the American military and Saigon government forces fired ammunition at rates up to an astonishing 600 times higher than the enemy’s — 100,000 tons of ground munitions a month for all of 1969, for example, compared to just 150 tons from the Communist side. In 1974, with U.S. forces no longer directly engaged in combat and allied South Vietnamese commanders moaning nonstop about shortages caused by reductions in American military aid, Saigon’s forces still used 65 tons of ammunition for every ton fired by the enemy.
Those figures don’t include air ordnance, which would make the ratios even more grotesquely one-sided. Over the course of the war, U.S. aircraft dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs on North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as combined Allied forces dropped on Germany and Japan in World War II.
In light of those numbers, the claim that America’s war in Vietnam was fought under undue restrictions is less than convincing. If U.S. troops couldn’t win — or leave our ally in a position to win — after fighting for seven years with an almost unimaginable edge in firepower, technology, and mobility, the much more logical conclusion is that U.S. military doctrine and Washington’s concept of military strength simply did not apply to that conflict.
And what about the doctrine that a later generation of U.S. soldiers took with them into Afghanistan and Iraq?
“Full spectrum dominance” was the watchword in a 2000 document, “Joint Vision 2020” (updated from a 1996 version), which the authors described as a “conceptual template” for the U.S. military’s evolution over the two decades to come. Its language was even more hubristic than that slogan suggests: “a force that is dominant across the full spectrum of military operations — persuasive in peace, decisive in war, preeminent in any form of conflict… prepared to win across the full range of military operations in any part of the world… [with the ability] to defeat any adversary and control any situation across the full range of military operations.”
Defeat any adversary? Control any situation?
Nine-tenths of the way to the year 2020, U.S. soldiers, with all of their firepower and technology, have not achieved anything close to total dominance on the battlefields where they have been engaged. They have not dominated poorly armed fighters. Or insurgents planting low-tech, low-cost explosive devices. Or local cops and officials whom we would like to stop shaking down citizens and undermining the public support we say is crucial for counterinsurgency warfare.
To put it bluntly, the experience of the last nearly 17 years makes “full spectrum dominance” sound like a delusional fantasy.
When the large-scale U.S. intervention in Vietnam began, the great triumph of World War II was just 20 years in the past. That war was the formative experience for the generation of senior officers who led the American military into Vietnam, so perhaps their arrogance was understandable. The inventors of full spectrum dominance and the commanders they influenced came along almost exactly the same number of years after Vietnam, which makes their illusion of omnipotence harder to understand.
At the other end of their respective wars, members of both groups insisted (and continue to insist) that the fault was not in their strategy or how they conducted it. Instead, they claim, they were denied success because the politicians limited them too much or made them stop too soon. There’s no way to prove or disprove counterfactual statements of that sort, but given the length of time they had to win those wars — twice as long (in Vietnam) or three times (in Iraq) or close to four times as many years (in Afghanistan) as it took to reach victory in World War II — that claim, like the one-hand-behind-the-back argument, has a very hollow ring to it.
Time to Revise Sun Tzu: Know Your Friend
If my computer’s search function is working properly, the words “ally,” “allied,” “host government,” and “local forces” appear nowhere in the “Joint Vision 2020” paper. That’s a telling omission. In Vietnam and our more recent wars, the weaknesses of Washington’s local partners — which U.S. officials have been stunningly reluctant to recognize — should be seen as the fundamental reason those wars have been so unsuccessful despite the overwhelming advantage in material resources that U.S. forces and their allies possessed.
There’s an implication here for the American approach to intelligence (in both the narrow and broad senses of the word). While rethinking what military power means, perhaps we should reconsider what intelligence means, too. In particular, it would be useful to revisit the classic premise — stated more than 2,500 years ago by the Chinese sage Sun Tzu — that the first goal of intelligence is to “know your enemy.” It certainly would have been helpful in the last half-century’s wars if American commanders had known their opponents better. In Vietnam and since, though, by far the most damaging intelligence failure wasn’t not knowing our enemies well enough, but not knowing our friends. Consistently in these wars, Americans have overestimated their local ally’s capabilities while remaining blind, whether purposely or not, to the grave weaknesses of those forces.
In Vietnam, American weapons, dollars, and advice created a South Vietnamese army that, on paper, should have easily defended its country, as Americans told themselves it could. But U.S. money and material did not make that ally’s commanders effective or competent, or compensate for the inadequate leadership that was, in the end, the critical reason for South Vietnam’s defeat by a much poorer but more skillful, disciplined, and resourceful opponent.
A strong case can be made that the American-allied Saigon regime’s single most toxic weakness was pervasive corruption. It wasn’t just that corruption angered and alienated the South Vietnamese populace, including the regime’s own soldiers. That was damaging enough, but the greater damage was that corruption fatally undermined the ability of both the government and the army to do their jobs. A 1966 memorandum by a study group in the U.S. mission in Saigon made that point in sharp terms:
“There is a deadly correlation between corruption at high levels in an administrative system and the spread throughout the system of incompetence, as higher-ups encourage and promote corrupt subordinates, and protect them from the consequences of poor performance of duty or direct disobedience of orders. Such a system demoralizes and ‘selects out’ the able and the dedicated who do not play the game.”
An author of that paper and the principal drafter of the section on corruption was Frank Scotton, one of the longest-serving and most knowledgeable U.S. officials in Vietnam. Writing on that theme in his memoir, Uphill Battle, Scotton quoted a Vietnamese general who told him that “he could name many corrupt officers, but not a single one who was both corrupt and an effective commander.” That general was eventually fired for his criticisms of the regime and sent into exile.
The study group put a “marked reduction of corruption” first on its list of recommendations for necessary reforms in South Vietnam. But in my time there, beginning nearly six years after that memorandum was written, the South Vietnamese system I observed still perfectly matched Scotton’s description. Exactly as he had noted years earlier, the most honest and capable officers I met were also the most frustrated and demoralized. By the time I left in the final evacuation from a defeated South Vietnam nearly three years later, I was convinced that corruption was the single biggest reason the Saigon government had lost the war. Nothing I’ve learned since has changed my mind on that.
Return of the Ghost Soldiers
I don’t have the same firsthand knowledge of Iraq or Afghanistan. But even from afar, it’s hard not to hear history rhyming, if not repeating itself.
Occasionally, news from those wars comes with a shock of absolute recognition, as when it was revealed — after the Islamic State offensive in Iraq exploded in the fall of 2014 and city after city fell to relatively small groups of militants — that the American-trained Iraqi army’s real strength was far lower than its strength on paper. That was because as many as 50,000 of the troops on that army’s rosters — the equivalent of four full divisions — were “ghost soldiers,” men who did not actually exist or had deserted but were still being paid, with their commanders pocketing their salaries. The city of Mosul, for example, was ostensibly defended by 25,000 government troops when the Islamic State militants attacked. The actual number was less than half that many — in some units, an even smaller fraction. This, it should be noted, in a force that had received something like $25 billion in U.S. support in the decade after the 2003 invasion.
The same practice — along with the broader pattern of corruption that it exemplifies — has been evident in Afghanistan. In one contested province, officials acknowledged in 2016 that almost half the soldiers and police on government payrolls did not exist or were not present for duty — even though improving the effectiveness of Afghan security forces was supposed to be a top priority for the Americans offering training, advice, and funds.
The story in Vietnam, for all intents and purposes, was identical. In an army where every dollar of soldiers’ pay, as well as every weapon, vehicle, bullet, and pair of boots, was funded by U.S. aid, the Vietnamese had names for two variations of payroll padding: “ghost soldiers,” men who had been killed but whose deaths were not reported so that their commanders could keep collecting and pocketing their salaries; and “flower soldiers” (that is, ornamental ones) who stayed home with their families while kicking back their pay to their superiors. That meant South Vietnam’s real fighting strength was considerably less than official reports indicated. Routinely, battalions that nominally had 300 men had only half or a third of that number on hand — exactly as in the case of those Iraqi units filled with “ghost soldiers” that were defeated in Mosul.
The broader parallels between the army and government we supported in Vietnam and those we have backed in our twenty-first-century wars are also clear. In all of them, corruption and poor governance in general were rife and would prove crippling obstacles to achieving U.S. objectives. And in all of them, Americans were almost completely ineffective in doing anything about either problem.
As journalist Douglas Wissing wrote in his book Funding the Enemy, a massively researched report on far-reaching corruption in Afghanistan, instead of taking any meaningful action against corruption, the U.S. government for the most part “either ignored it or enabled it.” That conclusion is borne out, though phrased more diplomatically, in numerous reports by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. After describing one of many ways the Taliban were able to tap into American funds, Wissing noted that all the money they got their hands on was spent for weapons, motorcycles, and mobile phones; their religious scruples stopped them from keeping any of it for themselves. Mordantly but aptly, Wissing added, “at least the Taliban made honest use of the U.S. taxpayers’ cash.”
New Plays, Same Script
The world of 2018 is vastly different from the world of a half-century ago. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq are very different countries, and the wars in each reflect different origins and circumstances. The U.S. military today bears almost no resemblance to the American force that fought in Vietnam. So comparisons are hardly simple. Still, the boiled-down narratives of those wars look strikingly similar: large-scale U.S. military forces with limitless firepower are sent to defeat a far more poorly armed enemy and spend years trying to do so; meanwhile, American aid officials dole out hefty amounts of money and advice intended to create a good government and a prosperous country, or at least good enough and prosperous enough so that most citizens will choose the side of the war we want them to support.
In the end, however, the goal the Americans fought to reach — a stable local regime that is able to effectively defend itself, legitimate in the eyes of its citizens, and friendly to U.S. interests — is not achieved. Eventually, after we stop trying to accomplish the mission ourselves, we assume we can help a client force reach the same objectives by teaching them how to fight essentially the same way we did, except with even slimmer resources (a lot fewer helicopters to lift out their wounded, for example, which their soldiers got accustomed to while the rich Americans were still there). Not surprisingly, that policy doesn’t work so well either.
It’s hard to fathom why those scenarios weren’t more quickly and widely seen as illusory, especially the second or third time around. In part, no doubt, it was a case of being lowered into water reaching the boiling point too slowly to realize what was happening. And Washington’s and the Pentagon’s thinking surely also reflected the sugar coating Americans tend to spray over painful memories — the Pentagon website commemorating the Vietnam War is a prime example — to avoid remembering them accurately. Even so, after Vietnam you’d think military professionals and the rest of us wouldn’t have gone on as long as we did in subsequent conflicts without realizing that America’s very idea of war in these last decades needs reexamination and so do the stories U.S. commanders keep telling themselves, their superiors, and the rest of us about our accomplishments and our allies’ capabilities.
As is almost always the case, describing the problem is easier — much easier — than solving it. This one will take a big and wrenching change in deeply rooted structures and beliefs, and in personal and institutional perceptions of self-interest. (Can we really stop telling ourselves that the United States has the best military in the world?) We have already paid a monumental price for our faulty understanding of war and of the real world. Failing to learn those lessons, even at this late date, will only drive that price tragically higher.