Americans are No Good at War?

The conservative icon, Robert Nisbet wrote in his book The Present Age that Americans “are no good at war.” As an American soldier I took immediate umbrage at that, but after thinking about it a while and reviewing our recent military history I did see his point.

To be sure the American soldier, properly trained and equipped, has no peer. From my own experience and  a buff of military  history I am sure of that, but then why our rather dismal record in this and the last century, even in the ones we “won?” I see a number of possible reasons. Almost always we are unprepared initially, living in a dreamworld of “everything is going to be ok,” we feel mule – like secure and untouchable behind our oceans. Our hubris, sometimes confused with  optimism, is a cultural attribute of long standing. Most would admit we know very little and care less about the outside world, but few would admit we really don’t know much about ourselves, especially, and most critically, our serious limitations. We tend to see war as as a  temporary, irrational act of human folly and not the habitual state of human endeavor punctuated by short periods of peace. We also tend to think we value human life more than others— but that  our military history does not bear that out. Since the time of the  war between the States, our military leaders have been profligate with the lives of our soldiers.

Troops in Vietnam  after the rot had set in in the latter stages

But most of all our most serious problem has always been the lack of true  understanding of human  nature and the the season that men fight well or poorly. It is always leadership and for my money we have a history of  mediocre military leadership, particularly at higher levels,  which has degenerated further in the past decades.  As General Franz  Halder, the German  General opined, it is character, not intellect that produces the best leaders.  Today  at the helm we endure politicized military leadership  who  care most about satisfying the whims of inept and corrupted  civilian political  animals.  The most disgraceful part of this is the way we have misused our most precious asset, the American soldier.

The  historical American military system is somewhat akin to  the industrial productive systems know as Taylorism, which basically seeks to turn the worker into a machine. From WWII  until now, despite all the right words and glittering phraseology incorporated into Field Manuals  and speeches, the American soldier is seen as a digit, a cog, a number, a particle of a omnivorous machine, important but infinitely replaceable.  Nothing can be more indicative of this than the replacement system of soldiers in WWII in which the impersonal system fed soldiers into an abattoir. Replacement soldiers were sent to a unit and killed before the platoon sergeants even knew their names. This system continued through the Korean War and Vietnam. General Vinegar Joe Stillwell tried to introduce a platoon or squad replacement system but it died an early death.

Seemingly more recently, the short term deployments of units to Iraq and Afghanistan have ameliorated this problem, but it exists in different forms. I am told that many units on their second deployment went with almost all new officers and  NCO’s. Schools and special training courses accounted for much of the changes but the officers and NCO’s seldom return to the unit they left. Since then, the post modernist military, sometimes referred to to as the “Woke” military, has injected all sorts of disfunctionality into the military system limiting the cohesiveness  and feeling of brotherhood in combat units.  but it is not a recent problem. In the late seventies, my battalion deploying to Germany had to incorporate  over 50 replacements in just a few weeks. Those replaced  had  suddenly become non deployable. This  was during the  President   Carter years and his total oblivious nature to the world around him, allowed the army to harbor many who were simply criminals or undesirables. Today pregnancy, transgenderism, gender confusion, and other fashionable social issues, especially in combat service support units,  laboring under the exigencies of wokism,  has exacerbated the  problem.  Granted that the few truly elite unit units we have today,  mostly- not completely- avoid these problems, but Wars are not won  by elite units. They are won by ordinary soldiers, who given proper leadership, do most of the killing and unfortunately are those whom suffer the most casualties.

Anyway here is the “rest of the story.”

On 9/11 we honor the heroism of those who gave their lives trying to save lives. As usual Americans lament the tragedy and the victims but ignore the reasons it came about. I have always been interested in the perennial unpreparedness of the nation for war and why we always seem to be surprised by the initial debacles. In World War I President Wilson, in his ultimately idealistic and pacifist attitude toward war,  and despite the increasing inevitability of American involvement, actively resisted any significant preparation of the nation for war, i.e. continually maintaining his popularity by being the man “who kept us out of war.” No administration ever seems to remember the best prevention of war is to be perpetually prepared for one. In World War I it was almost a year from the date of the declaration of war by  President Wilson that American forces were significantly involved in combat against the Germans. It should be remembered that it was a close thing. The German offensive  in the last phase of the war came close to a breakthrough. No, we did not win the war, as some suggested, but the psychological boost it gave the British and French, gave them the spirit to do so. We were basically unarmed when we entered the war. Our soldiers enthusiasm made up for the lack of training…against a  war weary German army. We had to borrow all out all heavy equipment from the French.

Like President Wilson, President Delano Roosevelt was elected partially on a “he kept us  out of war’’ platform.  In the interim period, as he allegedly tried to keep us out of war, his policies made it inevitable that we would be at war. Denying oil and vital strategic supplies  to the Japanese, and massive escalating war equipment assistance to the British- in retrospect- seems an obvious path to war. But we were not ready, embarrassingly so.

Sergt. Alvin C. York, 328th Infantry, who with aid of 17 men, captured 132 German prisoners; shows hill on which raid took place (October 8, 1918). Argonne Forest, near Cornay, France. February 7, 1919. Pfc. F.C. Phillips. (Army)
I wonder why in renaming some army posts they did n touse Sgt York.? Bragg was not a good confederate general but renaming Ft Bragg to Ft Liberty? Named  after an Insurance company?

Reading The Joint Committee on the Investigation the Pearl Harbor attack, and a much more trenchant analysis of the reason for Am But the leadership erican failure , Henry Clausen’s Pearl Harbor: Final Judgement details the compendium of stupid human errors of Judgement and commonsense that led to that disaster.  Its was unbelievable that the Japanese , whom most Americans saw as In World War Two as “being a people, who according to the general American view at the time, as bucktoothed,  bespectacled little yellow men, forever photographing things with their omnipresent cameras so they could copy them.” The same attitude was held at the top levels of military intelligence in more erudite language. See Knowing One’s Enemies, by Earnest R. May. No one could believe that the Japanese would dare attack the United States. The debacle at Pearl Harbor  was repeated in the Philippines as  vividly described by Louis Morton in the surprisingly candid, The Fall of the Philippines. “The Battling Bastards of Bataan”were indeed heroic American troops, attempting to shake off the deleterious effects of peacetime Pacific colonial life, while trying to stave off superior trained, equipped, and better led Japanese. But their leadership was  not ready for war. It some cases pathetic.

LTG Masaharu Homma. Executed after the war for war crimes, particularly the Bataan death march, but some observers say simply an act of vengeance by General Douglas MacArthur

General MacArthur’s inadequate preparation for for the Japanese attack and General Wainwrights loss of will were heavily criticized after the war.  Fourteen American generals surrendered in the Philippines. None were killed. Most honest assessments agree General Masaharu Homma, the Japanese commander, outgeneraled the American commanders.

At least Admiral Kimmel and General Short paid for their lack of caution and foresight with their careers, but an equally humiliating defeat and exit from Afghanistan was an act of God?


On the other side of the world, against the war machine of the Germans, the poor state of training for our troops was humiliatingly exposed at Kasserine Pass in North Africa. The veteran, arrogant, and triumphant German troops  put poorly trained American troops to wild panicky flight. The American generals in command were far behind the action and knew nothing of the burgeoning panic. Two infantry battalions, two armored battalions, two artillery battalions plus many other smaller units were obliterated.  See  Rick Atkinson, An Army  at Dawn. We did not underestimate  the the war potential of the Germans, but we did mock their individual  culture. They were first rate warriors, the story went, but they were robotic, follow the leader sorts,  unable to initiate much individually. …. Sort of like Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes. After the war  analysts  such as Colonel Trevor Dupuy,  (USA retired) and Martin Van Crevald (Fighting Power) concluded the opposite. German small unit commanders had more initiative and used it better than the Americans and  British.  Their aufragtaktik  (mission command) system gave small unit commanders more latitude to use their initiative.

Krieg in Nordafrika März 1943 (WK II; Südfront); Ganze Figur gehend (Zivilist m.Kamel; am Straßenrand zerstörter US-amerikanischer Panzer)Our tanks a were inferior to those of the Germans. Some of our troops saw them as simply death traps.



Much has been written about the “butcher generals” of the British and French in WWI but we had them as well in WWII. The awful carnage of the Huertgen Forest in 1944 in which the American Commanders sent  American troops, many poorly trained replacements, into a forested difficult terrain against  veteran German troops who were superior to the Americans in small unit tactics.  The American leaders chose to fight on terrain which gave the Germans all the advantages.The American General “Lightening” Joe Collins, apparently  believing in his own press releases,  pushed for continued American  offensive action when many other of the commanders asked for a supply pause. The results were 33000 casualties in a battle that has had few write about. In fact the historian Charles B. MacDonald ( The Battle of Huertgen Forest) questioned why the battle had to be fought at all.  There were many questionable strategic decisions made by the political-military American leadership that cost immense casualties, the insistence on Operation Overlord in deference to a”soft underbelly” Mediterranean  invasion, the useless southern France invasion, Operation Dragoon, ( Churchill called it a”pure waste.”),   chasing unicorn nazis in the fictitious “national redoubt,”allowing the Russians to push further into Germany and Austria, and Eisenhower’s broad front offensive strategy in lieu of a single powerful axis attack. Russell Weigley in his excellent book, Eisenhower’s Lieutenants, summed it up,.” the victory in Europe in World War II-was more expensive and more postponed that it might have been, because American military skills were not as formidable,  as they should have been.”

General Walter Model. He outgeneraled our commanders in the Huertgen Forest . A fanatic Nazi but a solid professional soldier.

The Korean War saw the same sort of  military unpreparedness that has constantly bedeviled us, along with our buoyant hubris. Our troops boarding the trains at Pusan Korea, going forth confidently to rout the North Koreans “…generally agreed that the North Koreans, when they found out who they were fighting, would turn around and go back.” The term “Task Force Smith,” has become a term for unpreparedness  and humiliating defeat, despite the heroism of many of the  poorly equipped and trained soldiers sacrificed in the name of peace and political expediency. On the Korean War, read one of the best books, This Kind of War by T.R. Fehrenbach. Another is Korea the First War we Lost by  Bevin Alexander. Compared to the massive amount of books available on Vietnam, there are not that many on Korea.  With a bit of cynicism  my thought is that Korea did not offer the  journalists the amenities of Saigon, the nightclubs, and restaurants etc.   Korean women could not  compete with the beauty of the Vietnamese girls of  Saigon either.

Summarizing the war, Fehrenbach wrote, “A nation that does  not prepare for all forms of war should then renounce of the  use of war in national policy. A people that does not prepare to fight should then be morally prepared to surrender. To fail to prepare soldiers and citizens for limited, bloody ground action, and then engage in it, is folly, bordering on criminal.”


Again in Korean a we ran up against a ruthless, brutal enemy who gave no quarter. Web were not prepared for this kind of war

Then came our greatest humiliation –until Afghanistan –Vietnam. I went to war in Vietnam early 1965 with an  Infantry Division. I, like the troops,  troops knew nothing of the country or the people.We did have an operations officer who had spent a year previously advising Vietnamese troops but his stories were primarily about the  beauty of the Vietnamese  women of Saigon, and his conquests of the daughters of the Frenchified Vietnamese elite.  We did kn0w- vaguely – something of the French being beaten by the Viet Minh but we also assumed that being French they couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag and we Americans would do what the French could not.

General Westmoreland, frequently pointed out as one of the tensions for our defeat in Vietnam. But there plenty of blame to go around, starting with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. A good book on the near criminal execution of the war is H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty

So we went on these massive search and destroy missions, fell into ambushes, punji pits–(traps with sharpened stakes),  got hit by road side bombs, snipers, stepped  on mines, wandered around flooded rice fields, expended massive amounts of artillery on “harassing and interdiction fire,” Etc.  As Colonel Harry Summers, an old Korean War veteran and consummate writer on Vietnam, told my class at Ft Bragg , Americans are culturally incapable of fighting a  successful counter-insurgency war.    Despite howls of protest from the COIN aficionados the record certainly bears this out. Reading the enemy analyses of our war fighting capabilities, especially in COIN, are always a bit disheartening, and often infuriating,  and no doubt exaggerated,  but always important  to read. One North Vietnamese analysis commented  on the American soldiers walking “like ducks” through a rice field totally unprepared for  a possible  ambush. Our  Fire discipline was not good,  with too many troops firing on full automatic. I certainly remember going on a couple of defensive  patrols, in which, while we lay in ambush,  soldiers fell asleep, loudly snored, and made all sorts of noise.  We were artilleryman but General DePuy, our division commander directed these these patrols be set up to  catch Viet Cong creeping up close to the  artillery fire base wire. Luckily we never encountered the enemy on those ambush  missions.

As in WWII, and to a certain extent in the Korean War, we fed  half -trained draftees into combat they were not trained nor psychologically prepared for brutal warfare with people that apparently cared little for their lives or anyone else’s. That was particularly true as the Vietnam war ground  on. It was hard on the professionals as well, with some NCO’s and officers  returning for three and four tours. Professional NCO’s were particularly scarce requiring what became known as “shake and bake” NCO’s who were often not up to the job.  Green horn junior officers were even worse. A really good book to get the flavor of the war in Vietnam is one by Max Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975.   My shelves are loaded with books on Vietnam. Other  than the Hastings book very good ones are the series by the US Army Center of History, especially the one on our advisory effort.

Towed 155 Howitzers bringing the sound of music to my ears and panic to the Cong.

But for the most part, even in the latter stages of the war, the American soldier,  often with  mediocre leadership, did his best.   Hastings in his book writes that there came a time when in many units, the leadership was not just disrespected,  but  actually hated. Much had to do with fact that too many commanders led from the rear or from hovering helicopters.   Nevertheless, despite all the stories  (some  true) about fragging, dope, and evasion of combat, the vast majority of soldiers  did their duties quite  professionally, if not enthusiastically. I was proud of the soldiers I served with. They were professional soldiers.  This was before the  draft,  and the ensuing  rot within the army that set in- perpetrated by college kids, afraid of the draft, and cheered on by liberal politicians assuaging the fears of the ruling elite.  This was despite the fact that the corrupted selective  service system allowed many of elitist families or  students in prestigious universities to dodge the draft, including President Clinton. The Woodstock culture of unfettered license  and our  stupid  celebrities, like Jane Fonda, and traitors like John Kerry, polluted and degraded the heroism of the individual troops fighting an unwinnable  war.

Advising the Vietnamese. The south Vietnamese deserved better then. they got from our higher political and military leadership

Since that time tons of books have been written on how we should have instituted the glories of Counterinsurgency ( COIN) war suggesting that had we done so the war  would have turned out differently.  It would have prolonged the war  with some successes–but winning..?I do not think so.  Unless we had instituted total war methods there was not a chance in hell of winning.That would entail  mass resettlement, draconian round up of suspects, and a scorched  earth policy, plus  continuous massive destructive attacks on  north Vietnam, and their more powerful allies, I.E., the Russians and Chinese, who were supporting the North Vietnamese featuring continuous bombing on the ports and shipping.

I have found that the books written by the South Vietnamese  commanders are particularly interesting in that they cast a different light on our advisory missions and the fight, often courageous, by South Vietnamese troops, who ultimately felt abandoned…something experienced later by our Afghan allies. The books I think well of include, Lam Qiang Chi, The Twenty Five year War Century, Tran Van Soon, Our Endless War Inside Vietnam,General Cat Van Vien, The Final Collapse, and a particularly poignant one, The Tragedy of the Vietnam War by Van Nguyen Dung. Vietnam vets who have returned to Vietnam for visits relate the sad sight of the run down, deliberately trashed cemeteries where the soldiers of the South Vietnamese are buried. Perhaps some of our diplomats while glad handing with our former enemy should go visit these sites. I suppose- like here in America – the erasure of history with the removal of memorials to Confederate soldiers should serve as an example.

South Vietnamese Military cemetery. For many years families were not permitted to visit the graves. Now they are permitted to do so and repair the graves at their own expense


Moving to the first Gulf war, operation Desert Storm,   we received a welcome shot in the arm, redressing somewhat our ignominious retreat from Vietnam as we routed the half-hearted and the poorly trained Iraqi army. But given the ineptness of Iraqi military leadership,  the fractured state of Iraqi society, and  an army in a pathetic state of readiness  for war, the overall consequence of the war was to give us a somewhat unwarranted sense of military prowess. Overall  however, it was a very beneficial massive logistic exercise and as we usually do, we  performed magnificently. It appeared our army had basically recovered from the Vietnam malaise and poisoning.   It proved that our army- with favorable  social and political factors- can recover.  For example, , one can go back to the  German assessment of the French army based on the war of 1870, in which the French were disgracefully routed, leading to a German   fatal dependance on ludicrous depictions of an effete French military.  They were surprised at the Marne. The French had recovered their elan. (Too bad it once again disappeared in WWII).

The follow on war, Operation Iraqi Freedom, seemed initially as a repeat of the rout of Desert Storm. But within a few months that I was there, June to August, and October 2003 to January 2004, the second phase of the war began and our luster as a conquering monolith began to erode. Again the Counterinsurgency myth became the paramount  military intellectual  exercise  with “military intellectuals” and journalists writing  books ruminating on how we had forgotten the lessons of  Vietnam-which we had.  To remedy this we  employed   bright young colonels and an Australian journalist, with general officer supervision, to write a PHD thesis type manual FM 3-24. It was well written with much good information, but few of the people who needed to read and digest it did so. By this time the liberal social engineers has seized control of the military educational system and spurious, non essential, basically useless classes and themes dominated  troop training time.

But again in  retrospect  there was no way- even with the scholarly excellence of FM 3-24 and perfectly trained troops immersed  in cultural awareness- that the war would have had a different outcome…i.e.. a friendly and democratic Iraq.  The Iraqis are decades away from understanding the onerous requirements of a democracy and suffer from a society in which Islam and the totalitarian cultural impulse are often interchangeable.  Moreover we ( and they) see today the difficulty within Western democracies of maintaining democracy under assault from a global ruling elites owning almost all the sources of sources of information, castrating the possibility of an informed citizen.  Freedom is a fragile commodity and can erode just a quickly under an “democratic” out of control bureaucracy and law enforcement departments.. Judicial and bureaucratic control measures can be just as terrifying  as the physical extermination methods of the KGB or the Amin al Amn of the Saddam regime.

But back to the theme. Then came 9/11.  From the exhaustive documentation contained in the 9/11  Commission Report we know that almost every  misjudgment, inefficiency, human error, criminal lassitude among our law enforcement and security apparatus  that could be made -was made.  However the Report was very light on  blame  however, not naming names, nor castigating lazy lethargic officials and politicians, but producing some excellent recommendations that for the most part have never been fully implemented. The creation of the Homeland security department was a typical bureaucratic solution to the problem of bureaucrats not doing their job- create another useless government appendage. Their ignominious part in the unimpeded  invasion of illegal immigrants on our borders  is graphic proof of their  abject uselessness.


Finally came the penultimate disgrace, the flight from Afghanistan.  Again the conduct of the war brought the topic of counterinsurgency back with a vengeance, and it was on the lips of every  intellectual  guru or journalist– and of course- politicians and academics.. Social scientists became an instrument war, like the ill-considered  Human  Terrain innovation with anthropologists tagging along with American  patrols.    A war that began shortly after the 9/11 attack has only ended a year ago and despite the egregious failure on the part of military leadership, intelligence officials,  and political leaders, no one has been fired or even officially  admonished. Failure has become the  the norm. Apparently this has become part and parcel of the American way of war. We pass out bushels of medals- some deserved-many not -and  celebrate our efficiency in airlifting  thousands of friendly  (hopefully) Afghans out of the country. It was an impressive achievement, but as Churchill remarked on the Dunkirk “miracle” evacuations do not win wars.

Taking down the flag. We have had to do this more often in the last few decades

So what is the bottom line for an old cranky soldier like me?  Well first that we suffer from from a severe case of hubris, self-centeredness,, and forgetfulness.  Understanding cultures, including our own, we are adrift. Not only do  we not understand  the people we war against, and  we really don’t understand ourselves, especially our limitations.  There are many things we are very good at and quite a few we are not.We play at the idea of war as if it were another Sylvester Stallone action movie Heroically dying for our country is not the answer. As Patton put it making the other bastard die for his country is the answer. Good intentions are a path to hell: platitudes,  stern warnings to our adversaries, the audacity of hope, verbose operations orders, etc. are not the answer. Cogent, cautious assessments,  accompanied by bold well considered operations are the answer. Good book on the Afghan  debacle? Andrew Quilty, August in Kabul.

The answer to our lack  superior generalship? I don’t have one. Some might say we need to follow the Pre-WWII German training and military education system, as described in Jorg Muth, Command Culture, but  people have  to fight within their cultural parameters and we are not Germans.






About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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1 Response to Americans are No Good at War?

  1. David DeAtkine says:

    Great reading. Nice summary of how America has become great at losing wars. Good writing, bro!

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