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Thread: Why America keeps Losing Small Wars

  1. #1
    Council Member RTK's Avatar
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    Default Why America Keeps Losing Small Wars

  2. #2
    Small Wars Journal SWJED's Avatar
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    Default Excerpt...

    Why America Keeps Losing 'Small Wars' by Jeffrey Record.

    America's defeat in Vietnam, humiliations in Lebanon and Somalia, and continuing difficulties in Iraq underscore the limits of U.S. conventional military superiority.

    Great powers have often performed poorly in wars against weaker enemies waging irregular warfare - so-called small wars. Such enemies have a greater will to win because they have a greater stake in the war's outcome. In Vietnam, the Americans waged a limited war while the Vietnamese communists waged a total one. The communists sacrificed the lives of 1.1 million soldiers to win, whereas the United States quit after losing a comparatively paltry 58,000.

    Irregular foes can also employ superior strategies. In Vietnam, the communists fought a guerrilla war against a politically impatient America and a tactically inflexible U.S. Army. They denied decisive targets to U.S. firepower and wore down America's will to fight. Indeed, America's very form of government worked to the communists' strategic advantage, as democracies have limited tolerance for prolonged wars that their citizens do not regard as essential.

    Another problem for great powers in small wars is insurgents' access to external assistance, which can reduce or even eliminate any material inferiority. External assistance may, in fact, be the most common enabler of insurgent success; few insurgencies win without it. For example, French support clinched the American victory in the War of Independence.

    Americans are at a distinct disadvantage in wars against materially weaker enemies because they tend to separate war and politics - viewing military victory as an end in itself - and because the U.S. military is profoundly averse to counterinsurgency...

  3. #3
    Moderator Steve Blair's Avatar
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    Default Rehashing the Obvious

    Much of this has been said before, in different forums and at different times. Also, part of what Record's saying relates more to a mismatch in goals. Vietnam was limited for was not for North Vietnam. This points more to an ability (or inability) on our part to sense and adapt to the goals of our opponents, which is not a small wars issue per se.

    As for Somalia...there were really two different "wars" there as far as the US was concerned. I would say the first one (the initial relief efforts) was fairly successful. The second was not. that's just a silly comparison. I'm not in any way belittling the loss of the Marines there, but the Reagan Administration went in there with goals that were not at all suited to the means employed. And again...Lebanon would have been a Small War only to us. To the other parties involved it was a major conflict with major stakes.

  4. #4
    Council Member aktarian's Avatar
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    Why the Strong Lose


    © 2005 Jeffrey Record

    From Parameters, Winter 2005-06, pp. 16-31.

    The continuing insurgency in Iraq underscores the capacity of the weak to impose considerable military and political pain on the strong. Whether that pain will compel the United States to abandon its agenda in Iraq remains to be seen.

    What is not in dispute is that all major failed US uses of force since 1945—in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia—have been against materially weaker enemies. In wars both hot and cold, the United States has fared consistently well against such powerful enemies as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union, but the record against lesser foes is decidedly mixed. Though it easily polished off Milosevic’s Serbia and Saddam’s Iraq, the United States failed to defeat Vietnamese infantry in Indochina, terrorists in Lebanon, and warlords in Somalia. In each case the American Goliath was militarily stalemated or politically defeated by the local David. Most recently, the United States was surprised by the tenacious insurgency that exploded in post-Baathist Iraq, an insurgency now in its third year with no end in sight.

    The phenomenon of the weak defeating the strong, though exceptional, is as old as war itself. Sparta finally beat Athens; Frederick the Great always punched well above his weight; American rebels overturned British rule in the Thirteen Colonies; the Spanish guerrilla bled Napoleon white; Jewish terrorists forced the British out of Palestine; Vietnamese communists drove France and then the United States out of Indochina; and mujahideen handed the Soviet Union its own “Vietnam” in Afghanistan. Relative military power is hardly a reliable predictor of war outcomes.

    Why do the strong lose? One must distinguish between general factors common to many cases of great-power losses to weaker adversaries and those that, I argue, may be peculiar to the United States. With respect to common causes of the stronger side’s loss to the weaker, Andrew Mack, in his pioneering 1975 assessment, argued that the place to look was differentials in the political will to fight and prevail, which were rooted in different perceptions of the stakes at hand. Post-1945 successful rebellions against European colonial rule as well as the Vietnamese struggle against the United States all had one thing in common: the materially weaker insurgent was more politically determined to win because it had much more riding on the outcome of war than did the stronger external power, for whom the stakes were lower. In such cases:

    The relationship between the belligerents is asymmetric. The insurgents can pose no direct threat to the survival of the external power because . . . they lack an invasion capability. On the other hand, the metropolitan power poses not simply the threat of invasion, but the reality of occupation. This fact is so obvious that its implications have been ignored. It means, crudely speaking, that for the insurgents the war is “total,” while for the external power it is necessarily “limited.” Full mobilization of the total military resources of the external power is simply not politically possible. . . . Not only is full mobilization impossible politically, it is not thought to be in the least necessary. The asymmetry in conventional military capability is so great and the confidence that military might will prevail is so pervasive that expectation of victory is one of the hallmarks of the initial endeavor.1
    From Parameters

    Very interesting article. Also note the distinction of levels of commitment. For one side the conflict is LIC, for other HIC. While the article doesn't say it this is important for conflict termination. Because one side ("occupier") has much lower investment and commitment (and hence has much less at stake) it can terminate conflict much easier than other side, for which conflict is life or death struggle (not necessary literally but for way of life).

    Why the strong Lose at Parameters (by same author)
    Last edited by Jedburgh; 10-16-2006 at 03:13 AM. Reason: Brought forward Aktarian's original post of the same article from Nov 05

  5. #5
    Council Member Ray Levesque's Avatar
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    Default We must be careful in our comparisons

    We need to be careful when comparing one small war with another. While there's a temptation to compare the US experience in Vietnam to Iraq, or any other small war, there are significant differences that must be considered before drawing any conclusions.

    While I would agree that one difference between North Vietnam and the US was a difference of will (we fought a much more limited war), we also need to ask ourselves whether or not our strategy was in line with our strategic goals and whether or not our strategy suited the threat. Keep in mind that our experience in Vietnam was reactive, not proactive. We fought a counterguerrilla war because the enemy chose to fight a guerrilla war, for good reasons. We made little to no effort to change the nature of the war to suit us, and accepted, by default, war on the enemy’s terms.

    To state that Vietnam, Somalia, and Iraq, “underscore the limits of U.S. conventional military superiority,” is incorrect. American military superiority is understood and accepted by many of our enemies. While Vietnam was fighting the US it chose to fight a guerrilla war, but remember that in the end they won via a conventional invasion of the south. Even in Iraq (2003) the main part of Iraqi resistance was not based on their conventional forces, as in Desert Storm, but on the use of unconventional Fedayeen (sp?) supported by miscellaneous Iraqi army units using guerrilla tactics. Both Vietnam and Iraq recognized “U.S. conventional military superiority” and chose guerrilla tactics, and prolonged warfare, as their strategy.

    I would say that our failure is not with our military capabilities, but with our military and political strategies, and that one size does not fit all. Iraq and Vietnam were two different wars. Just one factor to consider is that of outside support. North Vietnam enjoyed the support of China and the Soviet Union and enjoyed the safety of protected bases (N. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) from which to launch their operations. Insurgents in Iraq do not enjoy that type of open support; their's is more subtle and based far more on the ethnic and religious divides of Iraqi society, which are related to outside Arab and Persian factions, than existed in Vietnam.

    Two different wars and two different strategies are required. While “will” is always an important factor, what’s more important is developing a strategy that is in alignment with your goals given existing constraints (the reality on the ground). I believe the problem in Iraq is not, at root, one of “will” but one of a failure of U.S. strategy. Our strategy focused on Phase III operations without consideration of how we would transition into Phase IV; our means were not aligned with our goals.

    Having said that -- as our strategic failure becomes more obvious, and therefore we perceive a lack of progress, “will” becomes more of a factor. We want to see success; we want to see forward motion – without it we begin to doubt why we’re there, which leads to a lack of will. My bigger concern is that whereas our previous strategic goal was to create a secure democratic state in Iraq, a goat for which we did not provide adequate resources, it appears our new political goal is merely to “not lose.” Hmmmm…..

  6. #6
    Council Member Tom Odom's Avatar
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    Default Same record

    Never been much of a Jeff record fan; he trots out repackaged stuff from time to time such as
    The relationship between the belligerents is asymmetric.
    He has been doing it since the early 80s when I first started in the Int affairs arena.


  7. #7
    Council Member ipopescu's Avatar
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    Default If only we could fight only the wars we like...

    It is interesting that the Record quotes Collin Gray apparently to stregthen his argument, as Gray's latest book "Another Bloody Century" in a sense predicts a lot of these messy small wars in the future. The concept of "Hybrid warfare" as future warfate describe a mix of regular/irregular/catastrophic/disruptive modes of war.
    The author's basic argument that "Small Wars are hard, let's not do them anymore" is not a position that the world's only superpower can afford to take. Moreover, we can pretend to start a "conventional war", like in OIF, but the enemy's "vote" can quickly transform it into a very different kind of operation than what we planned. So believing that we can just decide to fight only conventional wars is problematic, unless we choose to drastically reduce the scope of our interests worldwide. How exactly are we to fight the Long War if we are not willing to intervene in places like Somalia or Afghanistan or whatever third world messed up place where the Salafi jihadists are finding sanctuaries. We may want to avoid an Iraq-like full-scale invasion in the future, but the idea that small wars happen only when the US gets involved in a "strategically unnecessary" war is ridiculous. Afghanistan is a small war, would Record suggest we shouldn't be in there? In fact, maybe thinking like his prevented us from being there before 9/11, just like now Somalia is being taken over by Islamists without USG doing much about it.
    The new interest in COIN demonstratedy by USA and USMC through the new field manual shows the way to adapt to the new strategic era, by (re-)learning how to defeat irregular enemies. Whether it will be succesfull given the difficulty of taking a whole-of-government approach is a debateable question, but at least it's a step in the right direction.
    Some Air Force people may be uncomfortable with the centrality of ground troops to Small Wars, but this author's argument is just not persuasive enough.

  8. #8
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    First of all one must understand why these Small Wars come into being.

    Then, one must understand why the US gets involved in these Small Wars.

    While indeed one small war is not the same as the next small war, yet the reasons why the US gets involved and then has a tough time is the same.

    I can say so being a well wisher of the US and yet not an American!

    May I request you to read the book 'Ugly American'

    Here is the review

    The Ugly American

    The multi-million-copy bestseller that coined the phrase for tragic American blunders abroad.

    First published in 1958, The Ugly American became a runaway national bestseller for its slashing exposé of American arrogance, incompetence, and corruption in Southeast Asia. Based on fact, the book's eye-opening stories and sketches drew a devastating picture of how the United States was losing the struggle with Communism in Asia. Combining gripping storytelling with an urgent call to action, the book prompted President Eisenhower to launch a study of our military aid program that led the way to much-needed reform.
    I believe it is available with for a price that is unbelievably ridiculous.

    A serious strategist should read this book and understand the underlining problem.

    I have lost this book since someone must have forgotten to return it, but it always reminds me of the ineptness of American policy and its translators on ground!
    Last edited by Ray; 10-16-2006 at 08:33 PM.


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