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Book Review: Why America Loses Wars

In Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and US Strategy From the Korean War to the Present, Donald Stoker seeks to diagnose a concerning trend in American foreign policy: the United States no longer seems capable of winning wars. Stoker argues that American politicians and commanders have failed to understand that the most critical element of warfighting is understanding the objectives for which you are fighting. Instead, policymakers have engaged in endless discussions regarding what means can be used, what tactical gains can be made, and how actions “signal” intent to our enemies.  As a result, the military and policy community has been left with a void in strategic thought.

Dr. Stoker at the Navy War College. U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Patrick Dionne © 2017

This analysis comes at a time when America is critically engaging with multiple military failures. The 2003 invasion of Iraq now represents disastrous foreign policy, while American soldiers continue to fight in Afghanistan with no end in sight. Pundits and government analysts have spent many years and countless pages interrogating what went wrong and comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam. Stoker’s latest contribution to this discussion is an eye-opening guide on how policymakers can better think about war. Stoker believes these recent failures in Afghanistan and Iraq are not failures to understand supposed changes to modern warfare, such as “hybrid warfare,” but are, instead, a failure to apply classic lessons of warfare to modern day.  Though the tools and theaters of war have changed over time to include cyber and asymmetric threats, the strategic fundamentals have not changed.

Stoker has written extensively on the life and work of German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, so it comes as no surprise that Clausewitz informs the basis for his argument. To Clausewitz, the political objective of the war – that is, what those waging the war seek to accomplish through force – is its most critical element. Stoker leans on this trope and highlights that there has been minimal effort to define or achieve political objectives in modern warfare. Presidents state what actions they are willing to take against our enemies, while refusing to define what they hope to gain by using force. Without this definition, Stoker argues, there cannot be coherent strategy. A military cannot be expected to achieve an objective if that objective has yet to be clearly defined.

Indeed, throughout Why America Loses Wars, Stoker is particularly harsh on policymakers and pundits writing on war for their failure to either adequately define their terms or adhere to their definitions. This is most apparent when Stoker opens the discussion of total war and limited war.  He chides others for use of vague definitions dependent on the means used to conduct the war, not the objectives that those making the war seek to achieve. For his part, Stoker lives up to his own standards as he clearly articulates each term key to his analysis. Even those that disagree with Stoker’s conclusions should find no fault with his lack of ambiguity.

But Stoker’s analysis does more than simply define terms. He outlines the constraints that strategists will encounter on means of waging war as well as points in time when a strategist should re-evaluate their thinking. Stoker wisely lays this out in an almost guidebook format, with key points nearly appearing as checkpoints that strategists should review as they consider their work.

But for all its strengths, Why America Loses Wars is missing some critical insights. For one, Stoker fixates on the major military confrontations of the last 60 years – Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. Given that Stoker is examining why America loses, it may have been helpful to explore engagements where the United States was able to achieve goals and disengage – examples like the NATO bombing campaigns in Kosovo and Bosnia or even the 1983 invasion of Grenada. This addition could have provided insights into how campaigns could be successful and may have served as a test case for the ideas that Stoker is promoting.

Likewise, Why America Loses Wars lacks a thorough interrogation of why American policymakers have resisted defining objectives. While Stoker cites the lack of formal declarations of war as a possible cause of the failure to articulate these objectives, he does not examine the pressures or systems that may cause politicians to avoid setting objectives. Without this kind of understanding of the causes of the problems he has identified, it becomes much harder to evaluate if Stoker’s recommendations to solve these problems will have any kind of staying power – or even a chance to see the light of day.

Despite these gaps, Stoker’s Why America Loses Wars presents a strong, logical argument highlighting deficiencies in how policymakers have thought about wars for the last half century. Stoker’s book breathes much-needed life into the debate around US military strategy and, most importantly, asks our policymakers to finally start asking the right questions as they plan for future wars.


Stephen Delaney

Stephen Delaney is the YPFP Geostrategy & Diplomacy Fellow as well as an open-source risk and vulnerability analyst working to support the US Department of Defense. Prior to becoming an analyst, he served as a consultant to the intelligence community and in the political office at the US Mission to NATO. He holds a master’s degree from Harvard University, where he also worked as a negotiations teaching fellow and case writer
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