The dramatic title of a 2015 magazine article in The Atlantic by Dominic Tierney, “Why has America Stopped Winning Wars?,” underscored a portrayal of the final military deaths in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq as both remarkable and poignant. This representation highlighted a perception of tragic failure in outcome as the prevailing narrative and trademark of the employment of American military outcomes after the Second World War.
In truth, the author’s question and his answer were misdirected. The depiction of the heartbreaking stories of the last military fatalities engaged our emotions and highlighted one area of vital concern to the military—the cost in lives—the question of whether or not the policy and its attendant military aim and operations were worth it. It was not the tragedy of the final losses on the battlefield, or even the unhappy resolution of these conflicts that signified the failures of the wars he cites, but rather the miscarriage of the policy that determined military operations and a military aim as the principal component for success. Tierney’s misguided focus on the military aim failed to address the policy that set these military strategies into motion.
A focus on military failure divorces the military outcome from the policy aim.
The Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, postulated that war, as the use of military force to achieve a political aim, existed only in the context of the policy that initiated the use of such force—that war resides in reality within a metaphorical womb of politics. A focus on military failure divorces the military outcome from the policy aim. Clausewitz noted “that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means...to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different...If that is so, then war cannot be divorced from political life; and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements are destroyed and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense.” The full sense of the futility of the last deaths in each war cited above resulted from separating military outcomes from the policies that generated both the political result and the cost in lives.
Thus, a better question and the focus here is, “Why do U.S. military outcomes after 1945 so often fail to achieve the policy objectives for which they are begun?” The chronicle of discontent is both powerful and pervasive in the American psyche today. The story of failure and lives lost with little meaning demonstrates the capacity, especially in the ongoing, and seemingly never-ending, Iraq-Afghanistan wars, to paralyze policy in regards to the threat of quasi-state organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and indeed other existing nation states, in response attempts to overturn seventy years of the post-1945 peace settlement—the so-called Pax Americana. There are two fundamentally antagonistic matters at work here, the risk perceptions of the policy maker, and those of the military leaders given the task to achieve a limited aim with limited means.
The first lies with the policy maker. If policy emerges from the political risk calculations for both domestic and international costs to the policy maker, then these characteristics dominate the lens through which to view the success or failure of a military option to achieve the policy aim. If the overall aim of the post-Second World War settlement was embodied in a policy for the maintenance of a status quo advantage for the Western Allies, and particularly the United States, then all American-led military operations after 1945 appear as limited wars in support of that policy. These wars have the flavor of both limited aim and the use of limited means to prevent a breakdown of the settlement, especially in the form of sacrosanct borders, and to avoid escalation to the use of nuclear weapons. An inherent dichotomy appears in the development of a war narrative to build support for military action, when this narrative states or implies the use of military force with the political objective of final victory against enemies seeking to destroy the existence of the free United States of America. With no policy intent to escalate a limited war, an existential war narrative leads to an eventual loss of domestic and international credibility and legitimacy. The limited military effort to achieve a limited policy aim with primary reliance on military operations cannot be sustained in the face of lives lost for a limited war, especially when begun and justified as existential.
The second antagonistic viewpoint is that of the military. The process of developing a military aim in support of policy evolved with the level of unhappiness with outcomes, in particular the military revulsion over the results of the Vietnam War. The perceived loss of military prestige and the chronicle of failure caused the following tenets to appear as the current default position for military policy in the context of the post-war settlement as the so-called Weinberger-Powell policy/doctrine from 1984:
The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the United States or its allies are involved;
U.S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed;
U.S. combat troops should be committed only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives;
The relationship between the objectives and the size and composition of the forces committed should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary;
U.S. troops should not be committed to battle without a "reasonable assurance" of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress;
The commitment of U.S. troops should be considered only as a last resort.
This viewpoint recognizes that U.S. battlefield capability has never been more powerful nor more dominant on the planet than the period following the Second World War. No other nation on earth then or now can conduct decisive combined arms maneuver, and its attendant lethal fire support, in the manner of the U.S. military. How and why this viewpoint should mislead both the policy maker and the military, resonates in the history of prior great power agreements that ended periods of absolute or existential war between and among states.
Post-war Settlements and their History
The post-World War II settlement may be considered an historical continuity in theory. It was an example of attempts by great powers in the Western tradition to control war, to set boundaries around the conduct of war, to make the conduct of war less impactful financially and less destructive physically and socially. “The postwar settlements of 1648, 1713, 1815, 1919, and 1945 all grappled with the problem of how to restrain and limit power.” Great powers, for whom these controls were written, benefited most from these brackets. Napoleon shattered the social, political, and military conventions established in 1648 and 1713 and unleashed an absolute form of war demonstrated in the destruction of the state powers of Austria in 1805 and Prussia in 1806 and the imposition of peace by the victor in their capitols. Following his final defeat, in 1815 the Congress of Vienna returned limits to war for the benefit of the great powers. The First World War shattered these concords in their turn. Bracketed limits to war returned with the Versailles settlement in 1919, until overturned in their part by Adolf Hitler two decades later, unleashing the most destructive war in human history.
The United States in the post-World War II Settlement
The peace settlement following the Second World War, as in all those prior, was established by and for the benefit of the great powers and the advantageous maintenance of the status quo of their economic advantage. The victors embodied the post-World War II settlement, in a profound faith in the ability of institutions to limit war, in the United Nations Charter of 1945, and confirmed the status of the victors in the veto power established for the great powers. Once again limits returned to warfare between nation states, with added incentive for such limitations powerfully evident in the possession of nuclear weapons. For no nation was this more important than the United States, emerging as the single greatest economic and global military power, a true hegemon, with the greatest incentive to engage and maintain the brackets which limited warfare, and the sanctity of state boundaries inherent in the UN Charter.
These conditions gave us the post-world war planet. A world dominated economically and militarily by the United States with a settlement whose basis was the status quo economic advantage of the United States. Economically, Bretton Woods and the dominance of the dollar, and militarily with the dominant global military power, capable of projecting air, sea, and ground forces anywhere across the globe, as well as a temporary monopoly on atomic weapons, the United States built a settlement using these enormous twin advantages.
In support of this extraordinary economic advantage, the only worldwide naval force that existed in overwhelming strength belonged to the United States, as did the largest air force with the greatest reach and sole possession of atomic weapons. These forces ensured the free transit of global commerce on the high sea. It enabled protection of Western ideals under the U.S. nuclear umbrella once the Cold War became the dominant international condition between the great powers. The European great powers with veto authority in the United Nations, not only acquiesced in this arrangement, but actively sought to enmesh American power in agreements and alliances to sustain the post-war settlement. The Marshall Plan was an example of U.S. economic hegemony at work, intended to grow European markets to buy U.S. goods, while politically ensuring post-war solidarity made explicit with the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Employed principally against a perceived absolute opponent in the communist ideology employed aggressively by the Soviet Union and the leaders of mainland China, U.S. global military power became a sunk cost of U.S. economic prosperity and advantage.
There have always been wars of limited aim fought with limited military means in American history. The long constabulary wars in the American West of the 19th Century, the colonial wars in the Philippines, and the many small wars in the Caribbean and Central America of the early 20th Century provide ample evidence of military success in support of limited political aims. The institutional memory of the American military appeared most powerful in the meta-narrative of the American people in the most consequential of wars, those with a perceived existential meaning. Following the Allied victory in 1945, however, there was a nearly immediate alteration in the aims sought for military operations, unrecognized in its entirety by either civilian policy makers or the victorious military institutions: change from a tradition of wars seeking final victory to wars of limited political and policy aims. War objectives were refocused with the aim of maintaining the way of life of the citizens of the United States, and her allies, rather than ensuring the existence of the United States. In each instance of discontent, such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria today, as well as other minor interventions in places such as Lebanon and Somalia, it was a failure of policy, the loss of legitimacy of the war narrative, that created the perception of discontent, and hence frustration with the military strategy that emerged to achieve the stated policy aims of each conflict.
The strengths of the U.S. military are not only a legacy of the Second World War, but of long standing preference for the clarity of nested policy and military aims inherent in absolute wars, wars for the existence of the state. These are best exemplified in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the decision to enter the First and Second World Wars. Raised on a traditional operational focus on fighting wars of national existence (ignoring the many limited and constabulary wars buried within that convention), the U.S. military identifies the wars following the Second World War as uniquely unhappy. In fact, in his recent book, retired General Officer Dan Bolger assigned the failure of the war in Iraq to the military, ignoring the basis of the military aim and its limits in employment by policy.
The statement addressed by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1984, subsequently known as the Weinberger-Powell doctrine, noted above, was an attempt to ensure that military operations were in some sense worth it. This entailed a restriction that fundamentally altered the primacy of policy by limiting the acceptable uses of the military to what the military determined met its criteria for employment. For the U.S. military, especially its ground forces, all wars entail an existential saga defined by the responsibility for the life and death of military service members. The response of the military is to push back against what they view as flawed policies that might diminish the deaths of these young men and women, when things begin to go wrong and the perception of military failure becomes the dominant discourse. This pushback often takes the form of extending military operations. The more lives lost, the greater the need to ensure that the focus on lives cannot become diminished. Hence, a doctrine that places the military aim before the policy as in Weinberger-Powell. Politicians are loath to be seen not supporting the military. While the calculations of the policy maker in these limited wars admit casualties as only one of many domestic and international considerations, for the military, casualties may be the only or overriding consideration, and this is both appropriate and necessary in those responsible for the lives of the sons and daughters of the American people.
The post-Second World War settlement fundamentally altered, separated, and limited the policy aim from a military goal that assumes an existential object. This American military “tendency to separate the civil and military spheres by advocating minimal civilian control to maximize military effectiveness,” has been a characteristic of U.S. civil-military dialogue since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. It runs directly counter to Clausewitz’ linkage between the military aim and its political purpose. It manifests itself in the primacy of final victory. Thus a U.S. military view of operations appears to demand that the following considerations dominate the political discourse, especially in its domestic connotation:
Employ U.S. art of operations to its most destructive degree—to win in absolute terms;
Employ high tech, war of movement, agility, massive firepower for the purpose of destruction to victory;
The cost in lives must bear out the operational chronicle of victory—the policy must be worth it even with a limited war objective.
Policy-makers, whether consciously or not, limit the military aim to maintain the settlement. This occurs even when that policy includes the destruction of enemies and states—final victory as the political object—as evident in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Conducted in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks on America, these military operations had the aim to defeat enemies seeking the end of the free American way of life. Colin Gray noted this phenomenon, “But isn’t this highly idealized view of the strategic context a notable distortion of reality?” Following the successful employment of decisive combined arms maneuver in Iraq and Afghanistan, the destruction of these states and the occupation of their territory by the U.S. and her allies, operations then fell into the same unhappy category as nearly all other U.S. military operations since 1945: U.S. military involvement in other people’s civil wars. Without a local stakeholder to partner with, one with substantial local power and legitimacy, these wars continue until either someone is found to whom to turn over the military mission for security, or the military forces are simply withdrawn in the acceptance of failed policy.
So what is to be done?
Both policy makers and military leaders require an evolution in the civil-military dialogue and a re-introduction to the meaning and relationships of policy to operations and the emergent military strategy that is the outcome of the discourse between them. The Huntington model adopted during the Cold War maintained that the military does not engage policy prior to its employment, standing aside and separate from the society it guards. This model discourages the dialogue necessary for better military employment decisions in the wars of the twenty-first century. Hew Strachan, in his work The Direction of War, offers a way out of this misunderstanding. Policy and strategy are fundamentally different concepts with different demands on the practitioner. “Strategy lies at the interface between operational capabilities and political objectives: it is the glue which binds each to the other and gives both sense.” He continues:
Waging war requires institutions which can address the problems that lie along the civil-military interface...Politicians need to listen to soldiers, to what can be done in practice as opposed to what the politicians might like to be done in theory, and to do that states need institutions within which soldiers feel ready to be realistic about the military issues and the nature of war.
Strategy in a specific policy context is not a pre-determined set of anticipated military actions. Military strategy is the emergent property of a continuous interface between policy, developed for a particular circumstance, and the operational employment of military means to achieve that aim. This understanding requires military recognition of the politics of the decision to use military force, and demands that policy implementation be flexible enough to carry the will of the American people through the inevitable highs and lows of military operations. “The war narrative shapes the domestic political context for in-war strategy and policy decisions, as well as how wars end.” Clausewitz noted:
In no sense can the art of war ever be regarded as the preceptor of policy, and here we can only treat policy as representative of all interests of the community...that the probable character and general shape of any war should mainly be assessed in the light of political factors and conditions...the supreme standpoint for the conduct of war, the point of view that determines its main lines of action can only be that of policy...It might be thought that policy could make demands on war which war could not fulfill: but that hypothesis would challenge the natural and unavoidable assumption that policy knows the instrument it means to use...Nor indeed is it sensible to summon soldiers, as many governments do when they are planning a war, and ask for purely military advice.
It is not a failure of warfighting that creates the unhappiness and discontent. If the organization known as ISIS chooses to look and act like a state, the U.S. military is profoundly well-equipped to destroy the military instruments of that state-like entity with its traditional capability of decisive combined arms maneuver. Less certain is the policy goal that would use such a military capability. As became apparent in Iraq and Afghanistan, after successful military operations seeking the overthrow of a regime, what follows its military defeat? That is fundamentally a policy question. Whether the U.S. military should ever again be the lead element in the rebuilding of nations, or injected again into someone else’s civil war, are profound decisions for policy makers and the military upon whom these policies will fall. Future policy will ultimately depend upon creating and sustaining a war narrative that can withstand the changing fortunes of the battlefield. Again, Clausewitz offered a way to understand the connection and requirement for politically aware military advice that recognizes the politics that drives the policy.
First, therefore, it is clear that war should never be thought of as something autonomous but always as an instrument of policy...Second, this way of looking at it will show us how wars must vary with the nature of their motives and of the situations which give rise to them.
The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander [emphasis added] have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.
The Future Post-war Settlement
Theoretically the post-Second World War settlement, as with all prior such settlements, works as long as the great powers who created it, defend it. Two nation-states possessing veto powers in the United Nations today were not present at the creation of the settlement and did not participate in, nor accept its basis in American power. Russia in its current state configuration inherited its veto power. Evidence of its ambivalence towards the defense of the settlement are its annexation of Crimea, its push for Novorossiya from Ukrainian territory. While each of these actions violates a principal understanding of the settlement in the sanctity of borders, President Vladimir Putin, in a recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, scored the emergence of the United States as the dominant power, able to ignore the international norms associated to the post-war settlement and the United Nations charter. Putin used as evidence the consequences of regime change in Libya and Iraq. General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces, noted also how the actions of the United States in Iraq and Libya provided examples of how the rules of war have changed. The role of the United States in forced regime change and the changing of state boundaries appears as a primary support for such changes in the Russian sphere of influence. The Clinton Administration supported the creation of Kosovo from a Serbian state, itself created from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The creation of South Sudan is another such U.S.-sanctioned change in the borders of recognized states.
The leaders of mainland China waited decades after 1945 to achieve veto power in the United Nations in 1971. It, too, was not party to the creation of the settlement and its actions in places such as Tibet, and its aggressiveness in the East and South China Seas speak to its ambivalence, noted in their objections to the process that resulted in the independent entity of Kosovo. China and Russia appear to be pushing against the provisions of a settlement for which they had no part in making and fundamentally supports a world order built to advantage the United States and the West. In the same manner, ISIS declares itself a state and ignores the state boundaries of Iraq and Syria established with the Sykes-Picot agreement and the borders of the modern Middle East following the 1919 peace settlement.
A new model of civil-military discourse is likely necessary in the twenty-first century to bridge the gap between understanding and execution.
The nature of the discontent over military outcomes since 1945 is a two-fold construct: first, the failure of policy to understand the nature of the war it had decided to embark upon to accomplish its aim, and second, the failure of the military to understand the nature of the policy its military force was intended to achieve or facilitate. A new model of civil-military discourse is likely necessary in the twenty-first century to bridge the gap between understanding and execution. The key question is not: Why has America Stopped Winning Wars? It is: Why do U.S. military outcomes after 1945 so often fail to achieve the policy objectives for which they are begun? In a world evidencing an increasingly complex and chaotic breakdown of the post-war settlement, it may well be asked whether or not the U.S. and her allies have the will to find a policy, and a useful combination of military aims and operations, to combat the decline in global order? Is the planet moving towards increasing turmoil and the conditions for general war? Will the reluctance of the defenders of the post-Second World War settlement lead to a new international order following a new round of general war that historically preceded the peace settlements of the past—taking us into an unknown and unknowable future?
G. Stephen Lauer is an Associate Professor at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies. He is a retired U.S. Marine Corps Infantry Officer and commanded 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. He served as the first Chief of Florida Domestic (Homeland) Security from 2001 to 2004. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: UN delegate Lieut. Gen. William K. Harrison, Jr. (seated left), and Korean People’s Army and Chinese People’s Volunteers delegate Gen. Nam Il (seated right) signing the Korean War armistice agreement at P’anmunjŏm, Korea, July 27, 1953. (Wikimedia)
 Dominic Tierney, “Why has America Stopped Winning Wars?” The Atlantic (June 2, 2015).
 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and eds. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 149.
 Ibid., 605.
 Pax Americana (Latin for “American peace”) describes the absence of world-scale war as the United States emerged as the major economic, military, and political power in the world following World War II (1939–1945). The term is a play on Pax Romana , or Roman peace, used to describe a period of relative peace in the Mediterranean area in the early years of the Common Era. Kurian, George Thomas, ed., The Encyclopedia of Political Science (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2011), 1202-03.
 Alan C. Lamborn, “Theory and Politics in World Polities.” International Studies Quarterly 41, no.2 (June 1997): 191-198; and, Robert D. Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games.” International Organization 42, no. 3 (Summer 1988): 433-435.
 Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 238-44.
 Jeffrey J. Kubiak, War Narratives and the American National Will in War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 17. “The war narrative constructs the political milieu in which the crisis occurs, places the present in context with the past, and creates expectations for the future...The legitimating role of the war narrative makes it central to the sustainability of war policy once initiated.”
 Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, “The Uses of Military Power,” Defense (January 1985):2-11; Kenneth J. Campbell, “Once Burned, Twice Cautious: Explaining the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine,” Armed Forces and Society 24, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 24, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 64-65; Walter LaFeber, “The Rise and Fall of Colin Powell and the Powell Doctrine,” Political Science Quarterly 124, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 73-74; and, Robert M. Cassiday, “Prophets or Praetorians? The Uptonian Paradox and the Powell Corollary,” Parameters 33 no. 3 (Autumn 2003): 139.
 John G. Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 3, 37-38; and, Carl Schmitt, Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political, trans. G. L. Ulmen (1975; repr., New York: Telos Press, 2007), 9, 32.
 Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States AD 990-1992, (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992), 209.
 Ikenberry, After Victory, 73, 80, 113, 161, 191.
 The United States, the Soviet Union, Nationalist China, the United Kingdom, and France. The Formation of the United Nations. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1937-1945/un. Accessed 29 September 2016.
 Francis J. Gavin, Gold, Dollars, and Power: The Politics of International Monetary Relations, 1958-1971 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 85, 198. “The foundation of this imperial power, according to these interpretations, was the Bretton Woods international monetary system.”
 Ibid.; and, After Victory, 189-194. For discussion of the Bretton Woods Agreements and the economic policies linked to NATO and the Marshall Plan.
 Daniel Bolger, Why We Lost, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 430-431.
 Strachan, Hew, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 40; and, Cassiday, “Prophets or Praetorians? The Uptonian Paradox and the Powell Corollary,” 130-31.
 Colin S. Gray, “Stability Operations in Strategic Perspective: A Skeptical View,” Parameters (Summer 2006), 10.
 Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 71-72, 456. “The greatest service they can render is to remain true to themselves, to serve with silence and courage in the military way.”
 Strachan, The Direction of War, 12.
 Ibid., 78-79.
 Kubiak, War Narratives and the American National Will in War, 163. “Failure to critically examine the war narrative in terms of its role in balancing reason, chance, and passion can easily result in reducing or eliminating policy makers’ freedom to maneuver once war starts.”
 Clausewitz, On War, 607.
 Ibid., 88.
 “Comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the UN General Assembly,” Military Review 96, vol. 1 (Jan-Feb 2016): 16-21.
 Gerasimov, Valery, “The Value of Science is in the Foresight: New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying Out Combat Operations, Military Review 96, vol. 1 (Jan-Feb 2016): 23-29.” Translated by Robert Coalson from article originally published Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer Online, 26 February 2013, <http://vpk-news.ru/articles/14632>, 27 February 2013.
 Charles K. Bartles, “Getting Gerasimov Right,” Military Review 96, vol. 1 (Jan-Feb 2016): 30-38.
 Nina Shea and Leonard Leo, “Obama’s Sudan Policy Imperative,” Hudson Institute, April 2, 2009. Accessed 27 September 2016.
 Christopher Marsh and Nikolas K. Gvosdev, “China’s Balkan Nightmare,” National Interest (Summer 2006): 102-108. See also: Howard W. French, “China’s Dangerous Game,” The Atlantic (November 2014). http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/11/chinas-dangerous-game/380789/. Accessed 29 September 2016. The author compares the region of the South China Sea to the Balkans. “A mere 25 miles off the shore of Palawan sits the frontier of an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable struggle. Its origin lies in China’s intensifying efforts to remake the maritime borders of this region, just as surely as Russia is remaking Europe’s political map in places like Crimea and Ukraine—only here the scale is vastly larger, the players more numerous, and the complexity greater.”
 Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic (March 2015). http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/. Accessed 29 September 2016