Americans expect to be number one. First lady Michelle Obama recently called the United States the “greatest country on Earth.” (Take that, world public opinion, and your choice of Germany!) Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton went even further, touting America as “the greatest country that has ever been created.” Her rival, Donald Trump, who for political gain badmouths the country that made him rich and famous, does so in the hope of returning America to supposedly halcyon days of unparalleled greatness. He’s predicted that his presidency might lead to an actual winning overload. “We’re going to win so much,” he told supporters. “You’re going to get tired of winning. You’re going to say, ‘Please, Mr. President… don’t win so much’… . And I’m going to say, ‘No, we have to make America great again.… We’re gonna keep winning.’”
As Trump well knows, Americans take winning very seriously. Look no further than the US gold-medal count at the recent Rio Olympics: 46. The next-highest total? Great Britain’s 27, almost 20 fewer than those of the country whose upstart rebels bested them in the 18th century, the nation’s ur-victory. The young United States then beat back the Brits in the early 1800s, and twice bailed them out in victorious world wars during the 20th century.
In the intervening years, the United States built up a gaudy military record—slaughtering native tribes, punishing Mexico, pummeling Spain—but the best was yet to come. “Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” boasted President Barack Obama in this year’s State of the Union address. In this he echoed his predecessor, George W. Bush, who, in May 2001, declared that “America today has the finest [military] the world has ever seen.”
In the years between those two moments of high-flown rhetoric, the United States military fought in nine conflicts, according to a 2015 briefing produced by US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the umbrella organization for America’s most elite forces, including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets. The record of the greatest fighting force in the history of the world, according to SOCOM: zero wins, two losses, and seven ties.
This dismal record is cataloged in a briefing slide produced by SOCOM’s Intelligence Directorate last September and obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act. “A Century of War and Gray Zone Challenges”—a timeline of conflicts ranked as wins, losses, and ties—examines the last 100 years of America’s wars and interventions.
“Gray zone” is an increasingly popular term of the trade for operations conducted somewhere on the continuum between war and peace. “Traditional war is the paradigm,” the briefing slide asserts. “Gray zone conflict is the norm.”
While he finds a great deal to fault in SOCOM’s analysis, retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, believes its assessment of post-9/11 conflicts “is quite accurate.” Although American politicians like Hillary Clinton regularly insist that the United States possesses “the greatest military” on the planet, they avoid addressing the question of what the country’s armed interventions have actually accomplished when it comes to policy goals—the true measure of success in war. “We have not shown an ability to achieve our stated political aims in a conclusive way at an acceptable cost,” Bacevich says. “That’s simply a fact.”
The Greatest Journeyman Military in History?
Twelve wins and nine losses. In baseball, it’s the annual record of a journeyman pitcher like Bill Caudill of the Seattle Mariners in 1982, Dave LaPoint of the Saint Louis Cardinals in 1983, or Norm Charlton of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990, to mention just three examples. It’s certainly not the record of an ace.
Likewise, 12 victories and nine losses is a far-from-dazzling stat when it comes to warfare, especially for a nation that prides itself on its martial prowess. But that was the SOCOM Intelligence Directorate’s assessment of the last century of American war: 12 and 9 with a mind-boggling 43 “ties.”
Among those 64 conflicts, the command counts just five full-fledged wars in which the United States has come up with three wins (World War I, World War II, and Desert Storm), one loss (Vietnam), and one tie (Korea). In the gray zone—what SOCOM calls “the norm” when it comes to conflict—the record is far bleaker, the barest of winning percentages at 9 victories, 8 losses, and 42 draws.
“If you accept the terms of analysis, that things can be reduced to win, loss, and tie, then this record is not very good,” Bacevich says. “While there aren’t many losses—according to how they code—there’s a hell of a lot of ties, which would beg the question of why, based on these criteria, US policy has seemingly been so ineffective.”
The assessments of, and in some instances the very inclusion of, numerous operations, missions, and interventions by SOCOM are dubious. Bacevich, for example, questions its decision to include pre–World War II US military missions in China (a draw according to the command). “I don’t know on what basis one would say ‘China, 1912 to 1941’ qualifies as a tie,” he adds, noting on the other hand that a good case could be made for classifying two of SOCOM’S gray-zone “ties”—in Haiti and Nicaragua—during the same era as wins instead of draws based on the achievement of policy aims alone.
It’s even harder to imagine why, for example, limited assistance to Chad in its conflict with Libya and indigenous rebels in 1983 or military assistance in evacuating US personnel from Albania in 1997 should make the list. Meanwhile, America’s so-called longest war, in Afghanistan, inexplicably ends in 2014 on SOCOM’S timeline. (That was, of course, the year that the Obama administration formally ended the “combat mission” in that country, but it would assuredly be news to the 8,400 troops, including special operators, still conducting missions there today.) Beyond that, for reasons unexplained, SOCOM doesn’t even classify Afghanistan as a “war.” Instead, it’s considered one of 59 gray-zone challenges, on a par with the 1948–49 Berlin Airlift or small-scale deployments to the restive Congo in the 1960s. No less bizarre, the command categorizes America’s 2003–11 occupation of Iraq in a similar fashion. “It deserves to be in the same category as Korea and Vietnam,” says Bacevich, the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.
Killing People and Breaking Things
Can the post-9/11 US military simultaneously be the finest fighting force in history and unable to win wars or quasi-wars? It may depend on our understanding of what exactly the Department of Defense and its military services are meant to do.
While the 1789 act that established its precursor, the Department of War, is sparse on details about its raison d’être, the very name suggests its purpose—presumably preparing for, fighting, and winning wars. The 1947 legislation creating its successor, the “National Military Establishment” was similarly light on specifics concerning the ultimate aims of the organization, as were the amendments of 1949 that recast it as the Department of Defense (DoD).
During a Republican primary debate earlier this year, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee offered his own definition. He asserted that the “purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.” Some in the armed forces took umbrage at that, though the military has, in fact, done both to great effect in a great many places for a very long time. For its part, the DoD sees its purpose quite differently: “The mission of the Department of Defense is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country.”
If, in SOCOM’s accounting, the United States has engaged in relatively few actual wars, don’t credit “deterrence.” Instead, the command has done its best to simply redefine war out of existence, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, in favor of those “gray zone challenges.” If one accepts that quasi-wars are actually war, then the Defense Department has done little to deter conflict. The United States has, in fact, been involved in some kind of military action—by SOCOM’s definition—in every year since 1980.
Beyond its single-sentence mission statement, a DoD directive delineating the “functions of the Department of Defense and its major components” provides slightly more details. The DoD, it states,
shall maintain and use armed forces to:
a. Support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
b. Ensure, by timely and effective military action, the security of the United States, its possessions, and areas vital to its interest.
c. Uphold and advance the national policies and interests of the United States.
Since the Department of Defense came into existence, the United States has—as the SOCOM briefing slide notes—carried out deployments, interventions, and other undertakings in Lebanon (1958), Congo (1964 and 1967), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1975), Iran (1980), El Salvador (1980–92), Grenada (1983), Chad (1983), Libya (1986), the Persian Gulf (1987–88), Honduras (1988), Panama (1989), Somalia (1992–95), Haiti (1994-1995), and Albania (1997), among other countries.
You may have no memory of some (perhaps many) of these interventions, no less a sense of why they occurred or their results—and that might be the most salient takeaway from SOCOM’s list. So many of these conflicts have, by now, disappeared into the gray zone of American memory.
Were these operations targeting enemies which actually posed a threat to the US Constitution? Did ceaseless operations across the globe actually ensure the safety and security of the United States? Did they truly advance US policy interests and if so, how?
From the above list, according to SOCOM, only El Salvador, Grenada, Libya, and Panama were “wins,” but what, exactly, did America win? Did any of these quasi-wars fully meet the Defense Department’s own criteria? What about the Korean War (tie), the Bay of Pigs (loss), the Vietnam War (loss), or the not-so-secret “secret war” in Laos (loss)? And have any of SOCOM’s eight losses or ties in the post-9/11 era accomplished the Defense Department’s stated mission?
“I have killed people and broken things in war, but, as a military officer, that was never the end. There was a purpose, a reason, a goal,” wrote Major Matt Cavanaugh, a US Army strategist, in response to Huckabee’s comment. He then drew attention to the fact that “Joint Publication 1: Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States” asserts that “military power is integrated with other instruments of national power to advance and defend U.S. values, interests, and objectives.”
Did the wars in Vietnam or Laos defend those same values? What about the war waged in Iraq by the “finest fighting force” in world history?
In March 2003, then–Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld laid out US aims for that conflict. “Our goal is to defend the American people, and to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and to liberate the Iraqi people,” he said, before offering even more specific objectives, such as having US troops “search for, capture, [and] drive out terrorists who have found safe harbor in Iraq.” Of course, the invasion and occupation of Iraq would turn that country into a terrorist magnet, leading to the ultimate safe harbor; a terror caliphate extending over swaths of that country and neighboring Syria. The elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction would prove impossible for obvious reasons. The “liberation” of its people would lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands; the forced displacement of millions; and a country divided along sectarian lines, where up to 50 percent of its 33 million inhabitants may suffer from the effects of trauma brought on by the last few decades of war. And what about the defense of the American people? They certainly don’t feel defended. According to recent polling, more Americans fear terrorism today than just after 9/11. And the particular threat Americans fear most? The terror group born and bred in America’s Iraqi prison camps: ISIS.
This record seems to matter little to the presidential candidate who, as a senator, voted for the invasion of Iraq. Regarding that war and other military missions, Hillary Clinton, as Bacevich notes, continues to avoid asking the most obvious question: “Is the use of the American military conclusively, and at reasonable costs, achieving our political objectives?”
Trump’s perspective seems to better fit SOCOM’s assessment when it comes to America’s warfighting prowess in these years. “We don’t win. We can’t beat ISIS. Can you imagine General Douglas MacArthur or General Patton? Can [you] imagine they are spinning in their grave right now when they see the way we fight?” he recently said to FOX News’s Bill O’Reilly, invoking the names of those military luminaries who both served in a “draw” in Mexico in the 1910s and US victories in World Wars I and II, and, in the case of MacArthur, a stalemate in Korea as well.
Neither the Clinton nor Trump campaigns responded to TomDispatch’s requests for comment. SOCOM similarly failed to respond before publication to questions about the conclusions to be drawn from its timeline, but its figures alone—especially regarding post-9/11 conflicts—speak volumes.
“In order to evaluate our recent military history and the gap between the rhetoric and the results,” says Andrew Bacevich, “the angle of analysis must be one that acknowledges our capacity to break things and kill people, indeed that acknowledges that US forces have performed brilliantly at breaking things and killing people, whether it be breaking a building—by putting a precision missile through the window—or breaking countries by invading them and producing chaos as a consequence.”
SOCOM’s briefing slide seems to recognize this fact. The United States has carried out a century of conflict, killing people from Nicaragua and Haiti to Germany and Japan; battering countries from the Koreas and Vietnams to Iraq and Afghanistan; fighting on a constant basis since 1980. All that death and devastation, however, led to few victories. Worse yet for the armed forces, the win-loss record of this highly professionalized, technologically sophisticated, and exceptionally well-funded military has, since assuming the mantle of the finest fighting force in the history of the world, plummeted precipitously, as SOCOM’s Intelligence Directorate points out.
An American century of carnage and combat has yielded many lessons learned, but not, it seems, the most important one when it comes to military conflict. “We can kill people, we can break things,” Bacevich observes, “but we don’t accomplish our political goals.”