Humphrey Hawksley on an attempt to explain why overwhelming US military power rarely ends up triumphant

Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts, by Harlan Ullman, Naval Institute Press, Nov 15th 2017
Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts, by Harlan Ullman, Naval Institute Press, Nov 15th 2017

The American military has been engaged in war somewhere around the world for 37 of the 72 years since the end of the Second World War. There have been small military victories in the invasions of Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989 and the 1991 expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait.

But, despite having the most technologically-advanced and best-funded military, the United States has lost almost all the conflicts it has been involved in.

In the big wars which it started – Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam – the US has fared badly, and it only reached stalemate in the 1950-53 Korean war, when North Korea and China were the aggressors. The Korean peninsula remains subject to the same tensions.

The US military strategist Harlan K Ullman does not pull his punches when attempting to explain American failure. He suggests that the US needs to stop thinking in terms of big guns and high enemy body counts, and begin adopting a ‘brains-based approach to sound strategic thinking’, stating bluntly: ‘Killing one’s way to victory does not work, period.’

As a young naval officer, Ullman commanded a Swift Boat, a small, fast 50ft aluminum vessel used on Vietnam’s coastline and rivers to intercept Vietcong and deliver special forces teams to carry out enemy kill operations.  Even then, Ullman observes, he ‘could not ignore the recurring displays of arrogance, naiveté, ignorance, ineptitude, and incompetence by the senior American political and military leadership in waging that conflict’.

From Vietnam, Ullman went onto teach at the National War College and other military institutions, where he formulated his conclusions on what went wrong and came up with prescriptions on how to get it right: Know your enemy and his strategy; do not let ideology obscure judgment, or allow intelligence to be distorted.  Ruthless objectivity and questioning of basic assumptions are essential, and cultural intelligence is a prerequisite for success, he argues.

Later, in 1996, with colleagues at the National Defense University, Ullman designed the ‘shock and awe’ concept that became familiar in the 2003 Iraq invasion. The aim is to face down the enemy with the presence of such overwhelming force that there is no need to use it. But, as Ullman explains, while ‘shock and awe’ might work in Cold War-style conflict between states, it has had little success in dealing with Islamist terror and other insurgencies.

The author points out that many of the flaws identified in Vietnam pervaded again in Iraq, particularly on the issues of hard ideology and contrived intelligence. It remains questionable as to what extent they could appear again should China or North Korea cross a red line to which the US President or Congress feel compelled to respond.

Given President Trump’s recent tour of Asia, Anatomy of Failure is a reminder that the delicate balancing act there between western democratic liberalism and Chinese authoritarianism is fraught with flashpoints and triggers for conflict with which America might be all too familiar, but also all too unprepared for.

The current situation in the Indo-Pacific, as the region is now described by Trump, contrasts the US ‘guns and muscle’ policy with China’s more subtle approach, encapsulated by the 6th century BC strategist Sun Tsu, who says the ‘supreme art’ of war ‘is to subdue the enemy without fighting’.

In Asia, China appears to be following Sun Tsu’s advice to the letter. It has built military bases in the South China Sea, taken a stand against India in the Doklam area of the Himalayas and put down other expansionist markers without a shot being fired in anger. The US has yet to come up with a strategy (at least one that we know about) to counter this. Beijing has also been given a more robust global platform since Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has taken the US out of regional mechanisms, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, that was designed to promote trade and good governance under international law.

US military strategist & author Harlan K Ullman
US military strategist & author Harlan K Ullman

Reluctantly, Asian countries are now beginning to decide whether their long-term futures are better served by allying themselves to China or clinging to the American security umbrella on which they have relied for so many decades. They may succeed in doing both for the time being, but at any stage there could be a miscalculation that abruptly brings the prospect of conflict to the fore.

Ullman’s examination of a ‘brains-based approach’, therefore, is timely and highly relevant. Although couched in the language of US military academia, it mirrors in some ways Sun Tzu’s Art of War, whereby strategy is based on hard evidence, and ‘you don’t fight if you don’t have to’. The ongoing Iraq war, launched with false intelligence on a popular thirst for revenge after the 9/11 attacks, is a case where both those tenets were ignored. America has been weakened because of it,with China the beneficiary.

Ullman argues that this is not only a sensible way forward, but necessary for financial reasons. The US defence budget is based on what is known as the ‘four plus one’ matrix, a threat scenario comprising Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and international violent extremism, such as that of Islamic State.

‘To sustain an active-duty military force of about 1.2 million at high levels of readiness, modernisation, and capability, the current budget for fiscal year 2017 of over $600 billion is not adequate,’ argues Ullman, who points out that the Obama-era‘Pivot to Asia’ planned for 60 per cent of the US navy to be deployed in there, but because of budgeting, there would be fewer ships in the Asia-Pacific than there were 10 years ago.

Ullman has also identified America’s insoluble conundrum. He may be right in his prescriptions, but he comes from one culture and Sun Tzu from another. There is a reason that the US has replicated its mistakes from Vietnam to Iraq and beyond, and it is not necessarily to do with generational amnesia. When dealing with proclaimed enemies, too many in the US demand not a ‘win-win’ solution but a ‘win-lose’ one, with America the victor.

Ullman’s ‘brains-based approach’ to warfare might not be adopted, but it poses questions that political and military leaders advocating future operations will need to answer. With Anatomy of Failure on their bookshelves, they will have been warned that if they neglect to scrutinise intelligence, analyse the enemy and identify aims, they may start yet another war that America is destined to lose.

Humphrey Hawksley is a former BBC Asia Correspondent.  His next book, Asian Waters, The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy for Chinese Expansion is published in May 2018


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