Why America Is Losing Its Wars

William Slim

William Slim

Daniel N. White.  Introduction by William Astore.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, the U.S. military has embraced special forces (SEALs, Green Berets, and the like) and has been deploying them globally to at least eighty different countries.  There’s an allure to special forces and the special ops community captured in the country’s admiration of SEAL Team 6 and Hollywood productions like Act of Valor.  Yet some of history’s finest military leaders haven’t been as enamored of special forces as Hollywood and the American public.  Count William Slim among their ranks.  Slim was a British field marshal who rescued Britain from certain defeat in Burma during World War II, a man deeply respected within military circles for his leadership and wisdom.  Slim, as Dan White shows, has a lot to teach the US military about the danger of placing too much faith in special ops, especially when larger political and strategic purposes are misguided or lacking.  W.J. Astore    

Why America Is Losing Its Wars

Daniel N. White

There are two big reasons why the US military continues to lose its wars.  The first is an uncritical embrace of special forces; the second is a complete lack of clear and achievable political and military objectives.  Both reasons are best exposed through the writings of one of the great military leaders of the 20th (or any other) century: Field Marshal Viscount William Slim.

Let’s take the first point first.  Currently, the US military is undergoing an unprecedented boom in special forces manpower.  Special forces now number a stupendous 63,000 (with expansion plans to 72,000) when the US Army numbers only 546,000.  This push to create a huge special forces establishment and to make it the apex of the US military’s operational forces has gone largely unnoticed and uncommented on.  And that’s a shame, since it’s perilous both for our military and our country.

In this conclusion I’m supported by Field Marshal Slim.  Slim led the Imperial British forces in Burma, a composite army of more than a dozen nationalities, from defeat in 1942 to an overwhelming victory in 1945.  Americans celebrate our defeats of the Japanese in World War II, but our battles—tough as they were—were against Japanese forces outnumbered and cut off from supply and reinforcement on Pacific island battles.  Slim inflicted the largest defeat ever in the history of the Japanese military, and did it on an open battlefield with no great superiority in men and materiel with a defeated army he personally rebuilt and retrained.

Slim’s thoughtful critique of special ops, based on hard-won military experience, is worth quoting at length: 

Special forces, according to Slim, “formations, trained, equipped, and mentally adjusted for one kind of operation only, were wasteful.  They did not give, militarily, a worthwhile return for the resources in men, material, and time that they absorbed.”

“To begin with, they were usually formed by attracting the best men from normal units by better conditions, promise of excitement, and not a little propaganda.  Even on the rare occasions when normal units were converted into special ones without the option of volunteering, the same process went on in reverse.  Men thought to be below the standards set or over an arbitrary age limit were weeded out to less favored corps.  The result of these methods was undoubtedly to lower the quality of the rest of the Army, especially of the infantry, not only by skimming the cream off it, but by encouraging the idea that certain of the normal operations of war were so difficult that only specially equipped corps d’elite could be expected to undertake them.”

“Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of super-soldiers but by the average quality of their standard units.  Anything, whatever short cuts to victory it may promise, which thus weakens the Army spirit is dangerous.  Commanders who have used these special forces have found, as we did in Burma, that they have another grave disadvantage—they can be employed actively for only restricted periods.  Then they demand to be taken out of the battle to recuperate, while normal formations are expected to have no such limits to their employment.  In Burma, the time spent in action with the enemy by special forces was only a fraction of that endured by the normal divisions.”

“The rush to form special forces arose from confused thinking on what were, or were not, normal operations of war…The level of initiative, individual training, and weapon skill required in, say, a commando, is admirable; what is not admirable is that it should be confined to a few small units.  Any well trained infantry battalion should be able to do what a commando can do; in the Fourteenth Army they could and did.  The cult of special forces is as sensible as to form a Royal Corps of Tree Climbers and say that no soldier who does not wear its green hat with a bunch of oak leaves stuck in it should be expected to climb a tree.”

Let’s recap.  We have the US military, the Army in particular, embarked on an unprecedented explosion of special forces within its ranks.  One of the great military leaders of the 20th century says that special forces are expensive in resources and generally don’t deliver on what they promise.  This doesn’t look good.  It looks worse when you consider that this explosion of special forces has coincided with two military defeats against what charitably must be called third rate opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Slim provides additional reasons why our military’s excessive reliance on special forces contributed to these defeats:

“The question of control of these clandestine bodies is not without its pitfalls.  In the last war among the allies, cloak-and-dagger organizations multiplied until to commanders in the field—at least in my theater—they became an embarrassment.  The trouble was that each was controlled from some distant headquarters of its own, and such was the secrecy and mutual suspicion in which they operated that they sometimes acted in close proximity to our troops without the knowledge of any commander in the field, with a complete lack of coordination among themselves, and in dangerous ignorance of local tactical developments.  It was not until the activities of all clandestine bodies operating in or near our troops were coordinated and where necessary controlled, through a senior officer on the staff of the commander on the area, that confusion, ineffectiveness, and lost opportunities were avoided.”

Special forces, with their unique and often secretive lines of command, generate severe operational problems in the field, a problem which the US military has experienced in its own, most recent, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Slim’s critique supports the notion that the US military’s recent rush to special forces has contributed to its defeats of late.  The question is why this rush to special forces occurred.   The major reason is our confused thinking about war.  Any war as incoherent and objectiveless as a global war on “terror” must inevitably spawn confused thinking about what normal military operations are in such a war.

The US military simply has no coherent military or political objective for these wars.  I’ve written elsewhere about this, see HERE and HERE.  For the US military, confused thinking at the higher echelons provided special forces enthusiasts with their chance to expand beyond all necessity because they claimed (falsely) to have all the answers for the current uncharted seas we were sailing. They had a plan when others didn’t, and that’s a large part of the rush to special forces—no firm hand was on the tiller.

Here again we should turn to Slim, because he brings to the fore the dire consequence of fighting without coherent objectives:

“For the poor showing we made during the first phase of  the war in Burma, the Retreat, there may have been few excuses, but there were many causes, some of them beyond the control of local commanders.  Of these causes, one affected all our efforts and contributed much to turning our defeat into disaster—the failure, after the fall of Rangoon, to give the forces in the field a clear strategic object for the campaign….Yet a realistic assessment of possibilities there and a firm, clear directive would have made a great deal of difference to us and to the way we fought.  Burma was not the first, nor was it to be the last, campaign that had been launched on no very clear realization of its political or military objects.  A study of such campaigns points emphatically to the almost inevitable disaster that must follow.  (Italics mine)   Commanders in the field, in fairness to them and their troops, must be clear and definitely told what is the object they are locally to attain.”

Future discussions of why the US has been defeated in its two most recent wars should use these words of Slim as the starting point for any explanation of US failure.  The US military’s rush to special forces is a contributing factor to our current military defeats, but the lead cause is as painfully obvious as it is almost completely ignored: the total lack of clear and coherent political and military objectives for our wars. 

The US military’s mania for special forces bothers no one in Washington’s political circles, let alone within the Pentagon.  But from what Slim has taught us, it’s all going to end badly.  Just how badly depends on our future military adventures.  We will certainly have a less effective military because of our special forces mania.  In peacetime that’s regrettable but not fatal.  But come wartime we will ask too much of our special forces and they will fail.  Meanwhile, the regular military, weakened by years of special forces mania, may fail as well.  It’s a sure-fire recipe for defeat.

Unlike Slim, the US military—weakened by structural faults driven by special forces mania and befuddled by a lack of clear and achievable objectives—won’t be able to turn defeat into victory.

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.

26 thoughts on “Why America Is Losing Its Wars

  1. Another excellent essay, Mr. White! And what is the Glorious Achievement of SEAL Team 6, Obama’s best buddies? Well, they (allegedly–the corpse of someone was supposedly quickly disposed of at sea!) assassinated an ailing terrorist ringleader before he could grab a weapon, in a compound in Pakistan. We’re supposed to cheer for this; I call it cold-blooded murder. The firm proof that “the bad guys” are winning is the ongoing LOSS of our own liberty here at home. Obama is supposedly announcing some curbs on the NSA on Friday. My advice: don’t believe a word of it. Now, let’s look back 50 years: The Green Berets were going to be Supermen, the elite of the Army’s elite. (I was a very reluctant member of that Army, as detailed in my memoir-in-progress.) They could blast “Vietcong” into dust, then turn on a dime and do civic work to win the hearts and minds of the people. That was the theory, at least. Of course, wingnuts will cry loudly that the troops “weren’t allowed to really try to win that war.” This nonsense is also addressed in my memoir.

    US Army 1967-71

    • At Counter Insurgency School in 1969 we learned the slogan “win their hearts and minds” but in actual practice in Vietnam we learned that it really meant “grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.” We did a lot of grabbing at Southeast Asia balls (Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian) but missed most of them, in the end losing our own hearts and minds in the process.

      Michael Murry
      US Navy 1966-72

      • I’m a Viet vet, too, Mike and my take is that America is losing its military edge because we’ve had politicians micromanaging our wars ever since Korea. Truman was content to fight to a stalemate. MacArthur had the North Koreans and the Chinese on the ropes and in the middle of it, Truman fired his best general and accepted what we have now, a perpetual stand off. Had he conducted the war like WWII, i.e., unconditional surrender, we’d not have Kim Jun Un now. Viet Nam was fought the same way; i.e., as a defensive war. We stayed in place and took all the flies and grounders the north could send down south and nobody lent a thought to invading the north. We had first rate troops and second rate leadership. We lost our will to win despite having the ability from the beginning. We fought Saddam the first time the same way. We pushed him back onto his own porch and left him in power. Thus, because we were too timid to actually win a decisive victory, we had to go back. How would WWII have ended up if we just pushed the Germans back into their own borders and told them to behave now. When the Taliban and bin Laden crossed into Pakistan, we stopped like a dog on a leash. Without crushing the enemy, we leave them to fight another day, or as in the case of Islamists, for another hundred years. Now we have a commander-in-chief who is clearly an anti-American Muslim who has no intention to win a war against Muslims. He is also shrinking the military during armed conflict. How many commanders-in-chief do that? This country is being systematically weakened and it isn’t an accident; it’s a deliberate act; subtle, but deliberate. Remember what Caesar said: divide and conquer. Read the Naked Communist and see the tactics and strategy therein, compare it to what’s happening right now and you can see the check list that was laid out in the book, written in the early 60s. Look it up and you’ll see some very familiar things you could take from today’s events.

      • “Joe” (would that be “GI Joe”??)–All you’ve done here is regurgitate the pathetic argument that “our troops weren’t allowed to really fight” in Southeast Asia. You are in denial of reality and, sadly, you doubtless have plenty of company. As to your theory of Obama as Muslim conspirator against the US, it is too sorry for me to dignify with a response.

        GREG LAXER
        US Army, 1967-71

      • Well, Greg, sound like you were a Saigon warrior, or sat out your time in some supply depot with your head up your ass. You are not capable of critical thinking to the extent you understood the war in Viet Nam, nor the politics behind it, nor the history of it, nor the history since then, nor much of anything else. You are clearly one of those low information voters who think Obama is the messiah. Vote Democrat, do you? Wake up and smell the Quran in the White House.

      • “Joe”–You don’t know the half of how I spent my Army time during that war! But you’ll hopefully have a chance to read all about it if I succeed in selling my memoir for publication!! In the meantime, I won’t engage in any further attempt to “dialogue” with the likes of you. This “conversation” is Terminated With Extreme Prejudice!

      • Hi Joe (and Greg): Your comments, Joe, about unconditional surrender and “there’s no substitute for victory” make perfect sense — for World War II. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had to be defeated utterly. The problem in Korea was that MacArthur applied WWII logic to a limited conflict; Omar Bradley as well as Truman recognized that getting bogged down in a land war in Asia made no sense for the USA. So we reached an armistice that still stands, and the North Korean people are suffering greatly for it — a situation that is the responsibility of North Korean leaders and their Chinese abettors more so than a failure of U.S. foreign policy.

        Vietnam was another ill-judged land war in Asia. Was the U.S. capable of “winning”? Well, if we wanted to nuke the place in the spirit of Curtis LeMay (“Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out”), we could have “won.” But Vietnam was never winnable for the U.S. on any other terms since the South Vietnamese governments we tried to prop up had no staying power. You can’t win a political revolution strictly with outside military forces, no matter how powerful (unless, again, you go for total annihilation).

        Look at the irony today. The U.S. has good relations with a unified Vietnam, which has merged communism with a trading model that is capitalistic. We’ve “won” Vietnam as an ally in the last 10-15 years through diplomacy and trade and commerce, a win we couldn’t achieve in the 1960s with military force and millions of Vietnamese casualties. Again, I repeat: Don’t fight a land war in Asia. Just like the advice: Don’t invade Russia (ask Charles XII, Napoleon, and Hitler about that). So we wore Russia down in the Cold War, without an invasion, a victory of a sort, achieved at the threat of total nuclear annihilation to the planet.

        Beware the pursuit of total military victory — you just might get what you aimed for. Even after WWII, we helped to rebuild Germany and Japan; we didn’t exterminate them. Rather, we helped them to turn their backs on militarism. Now, if only the USA today could turn its back today on dreams of military dominance in the Middle East. Oil wells in Iraq aren’t worth the bones of a single Pennsylvania grenadier.

  2. My brother, who was a doctor and dept. head at the U. of Texas, Dallas ,was rather poetic and I always felt he didn’t have the political smarts that I had. Twenty- five years ago I belittled him when we were talking politics and he likened the U. S. to the Roman Empire and predicted that the same thing would happen to us as happened to the Roman Empire. I scoffed mercilessly at this absurd comment coming from my younger brother. I wish he were still around so I could apologize.

    I now realize how much smarter he was than me. I recount this because I now feel the was right and hat our imperialism is the reason we are always being defeated in our wars of choice. Our imperialistic ambitions are without limit and that as an imperialistic nation we are slowly being eaten from within by our unbounded national hubris.

    My generation delivered the world to our political leaders on a platter in 1945. Rather than honor that hard won gift they decided to eat the whole world, platter and all.

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  5. I completely agree with Daniel in his comparisons. However,there are two points he failed to mention that are also root causes for the US military’s decline. First and foremost is the US military’s love affair with technology, which is completely supported by all its boosters in government. To many in the military at the higher levels technology can do no wrong, except of course completely destroy the incentive to teach the arts of good soldiering.

    The second point is that Daniel is attempting to compare today’s US military leaders a competent field commander. This simply cannot be done because no longer have any top quality leaders in the command ranks at the top of our armed forces. This deterioration began way back in the 1970s when the “up or out” career motivation began to be instilled in our officer corps. This made way for the “political hack” to advance much the same way professional management in the US business world has infested the US business world and destroyed the infrastructure of its corporations. As result, there is no one “home” at the top to take advantage of the lessons that the great military commanders of the past have to offer.

    Just a review of the recently exposed debacles surrounding the F-35 is corroboration enough…

  6. At the time of writting, Iraq has totally deteriorated into civil war and these fancy special forces groups have not delivered any clear victory. However, what they have delivered is endless propaganda reels about how they are “the problem solvers of the world”, or addressing themselves as “super soldiers” and apparently act like their birthday is a holy day celebrated worldwide. Of course, that means nothing to the new state of the islamic caliphate that now has population, resources, and infrastructure in its grip that the USA led alliance does not. I can clearly see the problem of too much self centered focus and not enough working for the good of the whole. Our children might unfortunately come to terms with the iron fists of dictatorship all over the world because of our negligence in this generation.

    • I didn’t purport to know, I just speculated by your comments, which are pretty telling. If you’re trying to sell your memoirs, good luck, but you’d be surprised at how many Viet vets (real ones) agree with me. I don’t care if you agree or not, but not only are you ill informed about Viet Nam, you are sorely lacking in insight about everything else I mentioned. Glad to know you are retreating from the exchange, because that’s the only thing you can do when you’ve got nothing left.

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  8. As the catechism of entry into Special Forces goes: Special Forces is the formal title of a US Army organization (USASF) and its organic units formed to conduct covert and clandestine unconventional warfare operations;  training and coaching, advising and assisting. A green beret is the distinctive headgear worn by those assigned to US Army Special Forces units. Let’s stop using the terms special operations forces and special forces and Special Forces as if they are interchangeable; it only adds to the morass of confusion about the various constituent elements of the special operations community now organized into the inter-service SOCOM structure.

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