Does America really lose all its wars?
No. It usually wins. But wars are rarely worth fighting, even when you win.
One thing leftists and conservatives often seem to agree on is the idea that since World War 2, America has lost all) of the wars it has fought. For leftists, who want to see American empire humbled and beaten, this is a way of reassuring themselves — the big baddie is actually a paper tiger, etc. America occupies a position in their cosmology similar to that of Satan in Christian lore — always looming, full of terrible power, yet always defeated by righteousness in the end. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to think that if we would just be less liberal, we’d start triumphing instead of getting whipped every time:
The recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s imminent return to power, seems to drive home this point. Another empire, sent to the graveyard of empires.
But is this true? Does America actually lose all, or even most, of its modern wars? Let’s take a hard-headed look at that question. First, let’s go to the ultimate arbiter of truth: Wikipedia. Wikipedia has a page called “List of Wars Involving the United States”, with a column listing the “Results for the United States and its Allies”. Victories are in green, defeats in red, inconclusive results are in blue, and ongoing conflicts are in a sort of tan yellowish color. Here are the lists since WW2:
Vietnam War (1955-75)
Multinational Intervention in Lebanon (1982-84)
Korean War (1950-53)
First U.S. Intervention in the Somali Civil War (1992-94)
Second U.S. Intervention in the Somali Civil War (2007-21)
Operation Beleaguer (1945-49)
Lebanon Crisis (1958)
Korean DMZ conflict (1966-69)
Dominican Civil War (1965-66)
Invasion of Grenada (1983)
Invasion of Panama (1989-90)
Gulf War (1990-91)
Iraqi No-Fly Zone Enforcement Operations (1991-2003)
Bosnian War (1992-95)
Intervention in Haiti (1994-95)
Kosovo War (1998-99)
Iraq War (2003-2011)
Operation Ocean Shield (2009-16)
International Intervention in Libya (2011)
Operation Observant Compass (2011-2017)
All other wars are listed as ongoing, including Afghanistan.
So if the U.S. were a boxer, its record since WW2 would be 15-2-3. Now, you can argue with Wikipedia, but if you think it’s wrong, my suggestion is that you try to edit it and see what happens.
Besides the obvious reason of needing to push the above-mentioned narratives of national weakness, why do all these people on the left and the right feel the need to repeat the falsehood that America loses all its wars? From what I can tell, there are several reasons.
One reason seems to be that many people compare modern wars to World War 2. In that war, the U.S. committed its full national resources, defeated great-power rivals decisively on the field of battle, occupied its fallen enemies, and helped them transform into some of the world’s richest, most peaceful, and most stable nations (and our enduring allies to boot). In the process, the U.S. improved its technology and its institutions, strengthened its economy enormously, and created a sense of national unity. And the postwar settlement left the U.S., if not the undisputed master of the world, at least the first among equals — the first true superpower in history. That was an absolutely startling success — perhaps the most dramatically positive result ever achieved by a country in any modern war.
Most wars throughout history have been nothing like that. In particular, I challenge you to find any war since World War 2 whose result has looked even remotely like the result of World War 2. You will not find even one. If “didn’t do as well as America in WW2” is the criterion for a loss, then every country loses every war now.
Because essentially no war ever goes as well as WW2, people who are inclined to believe that America loses all its wars can simply pick out one thing that went worse than WW2 for each war, and claim that this makes the war a “loss”. For example:
In the Gulf War, the U.S. crushed the enemy on the battlefield, obtained favorable peace terms, and enhanced its international standing, all for a fairly low financial cost. But it didn’t effect regime change or conquer Iraq, as it did in Germany and Japan in WW2.
In the Iraq War, the U.S. defeated all battlefield enemies, conquered the country, effected regime change, and installed a regime of its choice. But unlike in WW2, the U.S. lost prestige and international influence as a result, with little economic gain and a lot of cost.
In the U.S. intervention in Libya, the U.S. carried out regime change, but the country disintegrated into chaos, unlike the success stories of postwar Germany and Japan.
…And so on. In each of these cases, the result for the U.S. is something that would be called a “victory” if you were reading about 17th century France in a history textbook — battlefield triumph combined with the accomplishment of wartime objectives.
The Korean War is an interesting case. The U.S. and China fought to a stalemate on the battlefield, and established the status quo ante bellum, so this gets counted as a tie on Wikipedia and a loss in the minds of the Twitter narrative-pushers. But the long-term outcome for South Korea was as good as that of Germany or Japan — it was saved from conquest by one of the world’s most nightmarish regimes, and went on to become a rich, stable, democratic nation.
Afghanistan might not get logged as a “win” by Wikipedia, but the story will generally be similar — lots of objectives accomplished and battlefield dominance established, but not the kind of unambiguously positive result that we saw in WW2. The U.S. carried out a successful punitive expedition after 9/11, killing or capturing all of al Qaeda’s senior leadership, as well as the individual Taliban leaders who aided and abetted those terrorists. It had its way with the Taliban on the battlefield, and signed a peace deal that basically said that the Taliban won’t go up against America again. America then consolidated its power by dumping the problematic country into the hands of its chief geopolitical rivals. But since the Taliban will overrun the unsupported puppet government that America set up during the occupation, the same people who count every U.S. war as a loss will count this one as a loss as well.
So the U.S. actually wins most of its wars. But now let’s ask a more interesting question: Who cares?
Kings and emperors in the old days might have thought about war as a boxing contest, with the need to build up a favorable win-loss record in order to secure their personal glory or the glory of their nation. But that was an utterly destructive, zero-sum way to approach international relations — untold millions have suffered precisely because some guy in a fancy robe thought it was important to get those W’s. The point of this post is not to advance a jingoistic rah-rah triumphalist narrative — that would be worse than useless, and a little disgusting besides.
Instead, I want to make a more useful point here: Victory is not enough of a reason to fight a war in the first place.
The human cost of conflict is obvious, and by itself is plenty reason to never go to war unless you absolutely have to. What’s less obvious is the fact that there are now so few economic gains from beating up another country. Yes, mobilization can be a potent Keynesian stimulus for a country in a recession. But in general, war simply costs a huge amount of money with little possibility of gain. Seizing agricultural land isn’t very valuable, and even seizing extremely dense, high-priced commodities like oil is generally too difficult to justify the cost of the seizure (as the U.S. found out in Iraq). Enslaving a country’s population — as the Nazis tried to do to conquered East Europeans — isn’t really feasible either.
In other words, Norman Angell was actually right when he said that conquest no longer makes economic sense. Obviously he was wrong when he predicted that this fact would put an end to war — countries still fight, even though there’s no longer an economic case for fighting.
So how did the U.S. do so well economically in WW2? First of all, we avoided getting invaded; France and Germany and Japan and Russia and China didn’t have such good economic outcomes from that war. Second, the national and global institutions that were built as a result of that conflict were more conducive to peaceful trade and growth; but this kind of transformation is rare. And third, the U.S. war effort involved a huge ramp-up of scientific research and government-funded innovation — again, a highly uncommon outcome (though you could argue that the Cold War had a similar effect).
In other words, we should basically expect never to get economic gains from war the way we did in WW2. This should be a powerful incentive for peace — we should listen to Norman Angell, even if we don’t.
There’s another reason war is generally a losing proposition these days even when you win: Low fertility rates. The industrialized regions of the world all have very few children compared to olden times:
Only in some parts of Africa is fertility still fairly high, and even there it’s coming down.
This has at least two implications for war. First, it means that the human costs of war are magnified; when soldiers die, it often means parents are losing their only child, and countries are losing precious young workers. Second, it means that displacing or killing an entire enemy population and replacing them with your own settler colonialists is not really an option anymore.
So the financial benefits of war have mostly vanished, even as people’s assessment of the human cost has risen. That doesn’t mean it’s never worth it to go to war, of course; if someone tries to conquer you, it still makes sense to resist them. But wars of conquest and occupation are now overwhelmingly likely to be Pyrrhic victories. And indeed, most of the U.S. victories listed above have been very Pyrrhic ones; we won the Iraq War, but it was an unmitigated disaster for our country. In terms of what it actually achieved for our country or the world, our victory in Iraq looks none too dissimilar from our loss in Vietnam.
Which brings me to my reason for pointing out that America wins most of its wars. The point here is that even victories tend to feel like losses, because war is almost never a good idea in this day and age.
For some, the false narrative that America loses all its wars might seem like it would be a deterrent to future military misadventures. No one wants to play a game they always lose, right? But in fact, I don’t think it works like that. When you have an unfavorable win-loss record, the urge is often to fight more and improve your record. When people feel their honor has been slighted, they often feel the need to get it back. Thus, a sense of recent descent from military glory probably inspires belligerence among those who feel like, in Trump’s words, “we never win anymore”. In particular, the people on the Right who think we lose wars because of wokeness will want to prove that their own cultural prerogatives lead to enhanced military effectiveness.
So the false claim that America loses all (or most) of its wars isn’t helping anything. It just encourages more wars. The right message is that war isn’t worth it, even when you rack up a W. Sometimes you have to fight, but 9 times out of 10, the only winning move is not to play.
The key problem here is that our political and senior military apparatus never articulates what it means to “win”, or does so in such expansive ways that winning is impossible.
Even in my own time in Afghanistan, it was never clear what our objectives were beyond platitudes about freedom for the Afghan people.
If we had instead articulated something tangible like: “dislodge the Taliban from national government in Afghanistan” we would have won in 2001.
1. Good post; nice job of delineating between military victory and more comprehensive victory.
2. Noam Chomsky thinks we actually won Vietnam. Not sure if his criteria or framing matches your own, Noah, but he’s a leftie and his judgement is contra to many others on the left. Looking for citation, but having a hard time...