View from abroad: America’s lost wars

Updated 18 Sep 2018


“Victory”, the saying goes. “Has a hundred fathers; defeat is an orphan.”

Going by this adage, the United States has left many orphans around the world, excepting that more often than not, it has preferred to blame others for its defeats. To put things in perspective, the website estimates that America has been at war somewhere or the other for 93pc of the time it has been an independent state, or for 222 years out of 240 years or so.

Many of these conflicts have been in its backyard of Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean islands. Here, a combination of force and gunboat diplomacy were the traditional method of ensuring that tame, pro-US politicians were placed in power to protect American interests, and to make sure that progressive politicians were kept out. To this end, the CIA and the State Department has helped to rig elections, bribe politicians and cooperate with brutal military dictators to suppress democratic dissent. And when needed, the US marines have been sent in to topple regimes viewed as hostile.

However, in military terms, these have been minor affairs, with the threat of US firepower usually being enough to bring awkward customers to heel. As an example, take Panama’s ex-president Manuel Noriega: long a CIA asset, he fell foul of American drug enforcement authorities, and a decision was taken to remove him from the scene. As dozens of American jets screamed over the capital in 1989, tanks tore up the concrete outside the presidential palace. Soon, Noriega was forced to surrender, and after a brief trial in the US, was jailed for decades. While hardly a glorious victory for American arms, it got the job done. It also sent out a signal to other regional dictators of what would happen if they fell out of line.

However, while these local shows of force and muscle-flexing did little to test its military might, wars far from American shores brought defeat far more often than victory. Of course, few Americans would agree that their country had actually lost a war, but by any objective definition, a stalemate for the most powerful superpower the world has ever seen must be viewed as a defeat.

Currently, the United States spends over $600 billion on defence. Its navy projects power across the globe with its 11 aircraft carrier strike groups. Scores of American bases around the world are home to bombers, fighters, ships, soldiers and CIA operatives. American sailors, pilots and soldiers are superbly trained in the use of cutting edge weaponry. Indeed, no other country comes even close to the technology available to the Pentagon. And American nuclear weapons could wipe out any adversary many times over. True, China and Russia would retaliate, but a first strike would suppress most of the incoming missiles.

So why, the question arises, have the Americans lost every major war they have fought in since the Second World War? The Korean War, fought in the early Fifties, shows us that when a foe is willing to sacrifice any number of lives, American generals tend to retreat rather than send their soldiers into a meat-grinder. In this brutal conflict, North Korea and China lost hundreds of thousands of troops. While the line dividing the two Koreas was stabilised at the end of the war, no resolution was achieved, and officially, no peace treaty was ever signed. Both sides face each other over the 38th Parallel, with thousands of American troops bolstering the South Koreans.

Vietnam was another fiasco that haunts the American military establishment. By siding with the South in yet another divided country, the American leadership sold their involvement as a necessary step to halt the spread of communism in the region.

However, the Vietcong, a ragtag group of nationalists, had other ideas. Launching a series of guerrilla attacks against the South Vietnamese military government, they drew in American forces, initially playing a training role, and then as a massive wartime presence. The fact that the Vietcong could retreat into North Vietnam obviously frustrated Washington that then used a fake naval encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin to declare war on the North. In the subsequent air campaign, the Americans dropped more bombs than were used against Germany in the Second World War.

Nearly 60,000 Americans were killed, together with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians. But after years of bloodletting, our abiding image of the conflict is the one of an American helicopter taking off from the US embassy in Saigon with desperate civilians hanging on to the landing gear.

Another ongoing disaster for American arms came in Iraq under George W Bush. While his father had the good sense not to order his troops into Baghdad during the first Gulf war in the early Nineties, his brash son decided to finish Bush Sr’s unfinished business. Using 9/11 as a handy pretext, Bush Jr toppled Saddam and unleashed a civil war that engulfed Iraq. When American troops finally withdrew, it was not as a victorious army.

And nor will it be able to declare victory when its forces finally leave Afghanistan. At 17 years, the Afghan conflict is already the longest war the Americans have ever been involved in, and had it not been for media fatigue, pressure to leave would have built up. As it is, nobody has a clue how to end the American presence without having to concede that the mighty US has lost to a group of poorly armed rebels.

Small wonder, then, that Pakistan is getting blamed for the American failure.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2018