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    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-26 – Dr. John Nagl – “Why America’s Army Can’t Win America’s Wars”

    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-26 – Dr. John Nagl – “Why America’s Army Can’t Win America’s Wars”

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    Audio by Kristen Taylor 

    U.S. Army War College Public Affairs

    Since achieving victory in World War II, the United States military has a less than enviable combat record in irregular warfare. Through a detailed historical analysis, this article provides perspective on where past decisions and doctrines have led to defeat and where they may have succeeded if given more time or executed differently. In doing so, it provides lessons for future Army engagements and argues that until America becomes proficient in irregular warfare, our enemies will continue to fight us at the lower levels of the spectrum of conflict, where they have a good chance of exhausting our will to fight.

    Read the article:

    Episode Transcript: “Why America’s Army Can’t Win America’s Wars”

    Stephanie Crider (Host)

    Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

    The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are those of the podcast guest and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

    Decisive Point welcomes Dr. John Nagl, author of “Why America’s Army Can’t Win America’s Wars,” which was featured in the autumn 2022 issue of Parameters. Nagl is an associate professor of warfighting studies at the US Army War College. He is author of Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice.

    Welcome to Decisive Point, John. Thank you for being here.

    (John Nagl)

    It’s terrific to be here, Stephanie. Thanks for having me.


    Let’s talk about “Why America’s Army Can’t Win America’s Wars.” You note in your article that since achieving victory in World War II, the United States military has a less-than-enviable combat record. Ouch. Give us a brief overview of where past decisions and doctrines have led to defeat.


    Yeah, I think “ouch” is the right word. And, of course, I love the Army dearly and care about the well-being of the nation. I’ve seen what happens when wars go badly. It’s very painful to write that, but it’s intended to be tough love for an organization that really matters. And for the most important country in the world, I might add.

    What I argue in the article is that the United States government is one, three, and one in our nation’s wars, and I’ll go through them quickly. Korea (the Korean War), the first war after World War II, where the United States was decisive and won decisively: Korea ended in an armistice. The important lesson for that, I think, is the United States was unprepared for conventional combat in Korea. It was unprepared to be the global hegemon that the international order yearns for and so desperately needs.

    And we learned from that. We created a state of readiness. The 2nd Infantry Division in Korea’s motto is “Fight tonight,” and they’re ready. And that readiness for combat—for conventional combat—is something that the American Army, I think, can be enormously proud of.

    But, since Korea, with Vietnam (the Vietnam War); the first Iraq war (the Persian Gulf War); Afghanistan (the Afghanistan War); and the second Iraq war (the Iraq War), Operation Iraqi Freedom, our record is decidedly not as good. We are, I would argue, one and three in those wars, with (Operation) Desert Storm being a clear win, but Vietnam and Afghanistan being decisive losses, and the second Iraq war, the current Iraq war—it’s still too soon to tell, but it’s hard to put it in the win column. So I looked for—as I thought about the combat record of the United States military since World War II, I tried hard to isolate what it was that led to that less-than-enviable combat record. That’s really the point of the article. Is there something in common with the wars that we don’t do well in that provides lessons for the Army as it thinks to the future?


    Let’s unpack that a little bit. What, in your opinion, was the biggest misstep?


    After the Korean War misstep of being unprepared for combat full stop, the United States decided to focus on a particular kind of war. And this argument draws very heavily from the late Russell Weigley. He wrote a book called The American Way of War (The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy), which argues that since the United States became capable of conventional combat—conventional great-power war, according to the standards of the day—that is the kind of war for which it has chosen to prepare. And that worked well for the United States—and the United States Army, in particular—in the First World War, in World War II, after initial readiness problems in the Korean War and in (Operation) Desert Storm.

    But there is another kind of war: irregular war—an ironic name because the world has seen much more irregular war than it has seen so-called regular war over the course of human history. Irregular war is called the war of the weak, war of the flea. It’s a war in which the opponents of a great power choose to fight in ways that minimize the advantages of the great power and maximize the advantages of the lesser power in particular—generally, greater staying power for the lesser power. And the United States has chosen not to prepare for that kind of war. I give the Army in particular something of a break on that prior to Vietnam (the Vietnam War). And I argue in my doctoral dissertation—became the book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife—that the Army learned and got better over the course of the Vietnam War at counterinsurgency, a particular type of irregular war. So I give the Army sort of half marks for that.

    But in the wake of the Vietnam War, the United States turned away from irregular war, decided those were bad wars, wars that we weren’t gonna fight anymore. And, unfortunately, the enemy gets a vote. And the real crux of my argument is that no sane opponent of the United States, having seen the extraordinary conventional capability of the United States military, would choose to fight that tooth to tooth, nail to nail. Our enemies are going to choose ways to try to achieve their political objectives without confronting the full might of the American military. That’s what the Viet Cong and, largely, the North Vietnamese did during the Vietnam War to our dismay.

    It’s also the path that . . . after the initial reasonably successful invasions, efforts to topple the government of Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after those conflicts, our opponents chose to fight us in an irregular manner. And that presents a whole series of challenges for the United States military for which we are not optimized. And that may be okay because the cost of losing one of those wars is far, far less than losing a conventional, great-power-versus-great-power war. But it’s still not good.

    And so I argue, certainly with passion, and I hope with some degree of resonance that the United States military—an enormous organization, the most powerful organization on the face of the Earth—ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, ought to be able to deter conventional war and, at the same time, increase its ability for irregular wars’ capability, its capacity, its understanding of irregular war so that we present our enemies with no chinks in our armors, no Achilles’ heel, and no place to take us on where their chances of success are any kind of good at all.


    Where could we have succeeded if given more time, or maybe if things were executed differently?


    Counterfactuals are always difficult, of course. I’m a big fan of a man named Lewis Sorley who goes by Bob, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, student of the Vietnam War, and biographer of Creighton Abrams, who believes that a choice as simple as one that the President Lyndon Johnson confronted when he was choosing the commander in Vietnam as that war heated up, as we moved toward full engagement in the Vietnam War, when he chose General (William) Westmoreland rather than General Abrams as the commander—Bob argues that a choice as simple as that might have made a difference in the Vietnam War, in an extraordinarily costly war.

    Bob has studied Vietnam (the Vietnam War) more extensively than I have. He served in it. I’m not willing to argue with him. I do think there are a number of points during the Vietnam War which we could have made choices that would have rendered that campaign more successful. The bitter irony is that by the end of the war, under Creighton Abrams, we had achieved what looked like success in these irregular wars—that is, a host-nation security force that is able to confront the forces that oppose it with some degree of American support—in particular, American airpower—and that combining and Joint force of host-nation security forces, American airpower, American advisers on the ground can guarantee the survival of the government against any conceivable enemy. We had actually reached that point by the end of the Vietnam War. But it didn’t matter. The American people had lost faith in the war. For some reason, it’s connected to the war; for other reasons, connected to the Nixon administration.

    And so we ended that advisory effort, and unbelievable suffering resulted in Vietnam, but also in Cambodia next door, as a result of our failures to learn and adapt rapidly enough to the demands of counterinsurgency in Vietnam. Therefore, recent counterinsurgency campaigns—there’s a whole lot we could have done. We could have prepared better for that part of the spectrum of conflict, we could have created host-nation security advisory forces earlier than we did, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. But that begs even earlier questions, right?

    We could have not invaded Iraq in March of 2003, which was not just the critical error in Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but it was also the critical failure for the Operation Enduring Freedom, the war in Afghanistan. The United States didn’t have the capacity to fully resource extensive counterinsurgency campaigns both in Iraq and in Afghanistan at the same time, or at least chose not to mobilize the nation to fight both of those wars at once. And so, the critical mistake, I think, for both the Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom was choosing to invade Iraq in March of 2003—an Iraq that had nothing to do with the attacks of September 11th; an Iraq that did not have any significant (weapon of mass destruction or) WMD capability; an Iraq that was an important counterweight to Iran—our greatest threat, our greatest rival in the region.

    And so, as I noted in the article, Tom Ricks, student of the war in Iraq, argues in the first line of his book Fiasco (Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005), the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 may well be the most profligate act in American history. It was an unforced error. It was a war of art. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations compares (Operation) Desert Storm—my first war—and Operation Iraqi Freedom—my second war—with the book titled, War of Necessity, War of Choice (War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars). It’s even more damning to make mistakes in a war of choice because we chose when it was going to happen. We chose the hour it was going to happen. We had the opportunity to walk away from that war. We chose not to, and, again, huge suffering in Iraq, but, also, unbelievable and continuing suffering both in Iraq and in Afghanistan as a result of that misguided decision to invade. And then, a whole lot of subsequent mistakes were made as well.


    How can we avoid things like this going forward? Do you have any suggestions?


    The obvious answer is to be more careful about the wars in which we choose to engage. This is a super-important lesson. And, to be fair, the Army and significant parts of the Department of Defense leaned in hard against the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003. Lieutenant General Greg Newbold, the J3 on the Joint Staff, pushed back hard on Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld’s war plans for the invasion. General Eric Shinseki, the chief of staff of the Army, argued convincingly in congressional testimony that it would take far more troops to pacify Iraq after invasion than it would have, and did, to topple the government there. The military expertise was present, but it was not listened to. And so part of the story here is that civilian leaders elected by the American people may make choices that are not to the benefit of the American nation. So voting matters. Those choices really, really matter.

    But also, there are civil-military questions here. That is, we have to ensure that our elected leaders value the military judgment of those who are chosen to advise them. But also, the military doesn’t get to decide what wars it fights. And so, in particular, in Parameters, in an article directed at the strategic leadership of the US military and, particularly, the strategic leadership of the US Army, this article is a plea not to do what we did after Vietnam (the Vietnam War), not to step away from really hard learned lessons in counterinsurgency and irregular warfare, but hold onto those lessons, hold onto the force structure. The advisory force structure, the combat adviser units that we built way too late in these wars, 15 years into these wars, but that we have finally built and that will help us to remember will help us to build a doctrine for, will help us to understand that success in these wars ultimately depends upon building host-nation security forces that can pick up the ball and carry it with fairly minimal American and allied assistance. So there are responsibilities for the military, regardless of the decisions our civilian leadership makes, that can make these wars less likely, less costly, and make it more likely that America is going to achieve its long-term strategic objectives in this kind of war.


    Before we go, do you have any final thoughts?


    aI’ve had the privilege of serving in uniform in two of our nation’s wars and Operation Desert Storm as a tank platoon leader and in Operation Iraqi Freedom as an armor major in a tank battalion task force. So, I’ve seen both conventional combat and irregular war, and I understand deep in my soul why the American military wants to prepare for the first of those wars, wants to prepare for (Operation) Desert Storm, and doesn’t want to prepare for irregular warfare.

    As we saw in Vietnam, the later stages of Iraq (the Iraq War) after Saddam was toppled, and the later stages of Afghanistan (the Afghanistan War), I understand why it makes those choices and wants to make those choices. But, for the well-being of the Army and of the nation, it is absolutely essential that we dig deep and look very honestly at our failings as a military; also, at the American government and mistakes that led to these hugely costly and, in many ways, counterproductive wars. And we gather those lessons and learn from those lessons. We look hard at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves “What have we shown the world about how to attack the United States?” And we need to repair our armor and prepare ourselves for anything the world throws at us because the cost of not doing that is paid for in the blood of our sons and daughters. This is as important as it gets.


    Thank you so much for sharing your insight. Like you noted, an important topic indeed.


    Thanks. Thanks, Stephanie. It’s a privilege to work with your team, and I hope we do it a whole lot more in years to come.


    If you’d like to take a deeper look at “Why America’s Army Can’t Win America’s Wars,” check out the latest issue of Parameters at Look for volume 52, issue three.

    If you enjoyed this episode of Decisive Point and would like to hear more, look for us on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and any other major podcast platform.

    Author information:
    Dr. John A. Nagl is an associate professor of warfighting studies in the
    Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations at the US Army
    War College. He is the author of Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory
    and Practice (Penguin Books, 2014).



    Date Taken: 08.10.2022
    Date Posted: 06.20.2023 15:09
    Category: Newscasts
    Audio ID: 74940
    Filename: 2306/DOD_109717777.mp3
    Length: 00:14:18
    Artist US Army War College Press
    Album Decisive Point – Season 3
    Track # 26
    Year 2022
    Genre Podcast
    Location: US

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