Review of Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts by Harlan Ullman



If Harlan Ullman's book was just about how the US might improve its use of its military as an instrument of power, many of his ideas would be helpful.  Instead the author incorrectly states that the only outright US military victory in the past six decades was Operation DESERT STORM. This is unequivocally untrue. 

Ullman states, "The purposes of this book are to alert future leaders and publics: to inform them about disastrous wars of the recent past started by us and to propose solutions and actions to prevent such failures from recurring-or to minimize the consequences-through sounder strategic thinking.  Where the use of force went badly awry, it was through the failure of decision makers, who allowed unsound and flawed strategic thinking to drive bad decisions."  This is important for sure.  But while attempting to improve our national security process and our defense efforts, Ullman fails to recognize the incredible success of our military operations over the past decades. His title makes it appear that the US is the perpetrator of most wars it fights, and loses almost every time.  Many of the conflicts Ullman categorizes as failures were actually successes.  Keep in mind that war is normally not an all or nothing event.  Many times, the supreme goals are not realized or even attainable by military action alone.  But as demonstrated by the US military over the past 70 years, major success is often attained without fully accomplishing political nirvana.  Recent military actions have resulted in many very important and substantive goals being achieved.  Can our military efforts be improved?  Absolutely.  But that does not mean past operations have been as unsuccessful as Ullman indicates.

Ullman defines war as, "The use of military force in a major conflict."  In war-contrary to Ullman's assertion-America has been successful.  The Korean War was a success.  United Nations forces led by the US defended South Korea, which became one of the most prosperous nations in the world.  Vietnam demonstrated the US would confront communist expansion and was a military success, but overall victory was eluded as political decisions were made to abandon the South Vietnamese.  Between 1947 and 1991, the Cold War was won through defense, deterrence, and regional military engagements as the US military defended democracy and contained communist aggression led by despots until the Warsaw pact broke apart.  Ullman admits, "The US won the Cold War but claims the war never went hot."  This "not hot" assertion is untrue.  In reality, the Cold War was "hot" on numerous occasions to include Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, El Salvador and Afghanistan.

In 1983, the US defeated a Cuban supported dictator during Operation URGENT FURY in Grenada. This 72-hour combat effort overthrew a dictator and freed the population, a country that enjoys relative freedom and prosperity today.  Victory in Operation DESERT STORM in Iraq was realized after a successful 6-week air war and 100-hour ground attack.  Kuwait was completely liberated and the Iraqi military was decimated; all strategic and military objectives were met, and the US and Coalition demonstrated to the world that unlawful aggression by a nation state would not be tolerated.  This was the one conflict that Ullman acknowledges as a success but he misses many others.  For example, Operation PROVIDE COMFORT from 1991-1996 was the air occupation of Northern Iraq by thousands of American aircraft and ensured successful food delivery to the northern populations.  It also prevented the Iraqis from massacring minority populations in the north.  Operation NORTHERN WATCH continued the air occupation of Northern Iraqi airspace from 1997 to 2003, thus preventing Iraqi aggression against the Kurds and other minorities.

From 1992 to 2003, Operation SOUTHERN WATCH successfully occupied southern Iraqi airspace, preventing Iraqi aggression against the Shia minorities.  And Operation DELIBERATE FORCE air attacks over Serbia/Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, were core to a successful 21-day campaign that undermined Serbian military capability in Bosnia-Herzegovina to the point the Serbians agreed to withdraw heavy weapons from an exclusion zone around Sarajevo and acquiesced to support other UN safe areas. This Ullman acknowledges admitting that, "...a combination of NATO no-fly zones and air strikes throughout the early to mid-1990s produced the Dayton Accords of November 1995."

In 1999, Operation ALLIED FORCE over Serbia/Kosovo was a successful 78-day air campaign that resulted in Serbian submission to all NATO demands and much greater freedom for the people in Kosovo.  The military operation prevented ethnic cleansing.  Operation ENDURING FREEDOM main combat operations in 2001 was a successful 49-day campaign in which the Taliban military of Afghanistan was completed defeated and the totalitarian theocracy overthrown.  Seventeen years later, Afghanistan remains a limited democracy fighting for its people and is not a center of terror operations against the United States. 

In 1993, the Operation IRAQI FREEDOM's main combat operations spanning 21-days overwhelmed the Iraqi military forces and toppled the Hussein dictatorship.  Over time, Saddam Hussein was captured and an emerging democracy installed.  The Iraqi government continues to develop and govern its nation.  In 2017, Operation INHERENT RESOLVE over Syria and Iraq was a successful operation where US military forces supported regional ground forces. US air attacks decimated ISIS military forces as Iraqi ground forces retook ISIS controlled areas in Iraq. 

Even though Ullman touts these actions as failures, they were not.  Each one was a success as the most important military objectives were achieved.  In Northern Iraq, the Kurds were so successful they have flourished economically and politically.

The lack of completeness after some of these military successes was primarily a political problem, not a military one.  Whatever the military has been asked to accomplish, they have done so in sterling fashion.  This is despite the constant harping and criticism of many in the United States who would like to hide political failures behind a façade of pretending that it's always the fault of the military.  The "mis-title" of Ullman's book is proof of this.

Ullman correctly notes that many factors outside sound strategy influence go to war decisions and strategies.  These include domestic political pressures, civilian appointments with poor national security abilities, ideological beliefs, bad assumptions, parochialism, poor budget management, money as a palliative, human weakness, and intellectual shortfalls.  Anemic and shortsighted thinking are also reasons for bad "go-to-war" decisions.  Therefore, decision makers must be disciplined enough to consider and rise above issues that can lead to bad decisions.  But again, it is not the fault of the military that such "poor" political decisions are made.  The politicians' poor decisions or insufficient resourcing should not be blamed on the armed services.

Ullman does offer ideas for improving go to war decisions.  However, again, Ullman falls short.  Ullman advocates for a "brains-based" approach to strategy, which sounds no different than the "smart power" approach of the past administration-a strategy that left us with one mess after another around the globe.  It sounds useful and would be wonderful to practice "superior thinking, be more inventive, and innovative," but there are no guarantees. However, studying past successes-as they really are-needs to be an integral part of such a process.  Since Ullman believes most of our wars have been failures, such a proper study would be problematic for him. 

It is understandable why this kind of narrative sells books: Why America Loses Every War It Starts.  It is provocative and garners attention.  However, it is wrong.  The United States does not "start wars" and our military hasn't lost a single one.  A much better title for the book would have been, Anatomy of Accomplishment: How America Can Build On Its Military Successes.  For the most part, it is not the military that needs major improvement-it is the political leadership, their support, or lack of support.  But to draw attention, focus, and pursue that effort would have required a different book.

Peter R. Huessy is Director for Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies as well as President of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981. He is also a guest lecturer on nuclear deterrent policy at the U.S. Naval Academy and formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council and JINSA.


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