Wars Are Not Won, And Are Not Ended By Enlarging Them

Wars Are Not Won, And Are Not Ended By Enlarging Them: Chapter 9 Of “War Is A Lie” By David Swanson


“I will not be the first president to lose a war,” swore Lyndon Johnson.

“I’ll see that the United States does not lose. I’m putting it quite bluntly. I’ll be quite precise. South Vietnam may lose. But the United States cannot lose. Which means, basically, I have made the decision. Whatever happens to South Vietnam, we are going to cream North Vietnam . . . . For once we’ve got to use the maximum power of this country . . . against this shit-ass little country: to win the war. We can’t use the word ‘win.’ But others can,” said Richard Nixon.

Of course, Johnson and Nixon “lost” that war, but they weren’t the first presidents to lose wars. The War on Korea had not ended with a victory, just a truce. “Die for a tie,” said the troops. The United States lost various wars with Native Americans and the War of 1812, and in the Vietnam era the United States proved repeatedly incapable of evicting Fidel Castro from Cuba. Not all wars are winnable, and the War on Vietnam may have had in common with the later wars on Afghanistan and Iraq a certain quality of unwinnability. The same quality might be detected in smaller failed missions like the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979, or in the efforts to prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies and the United States prior to 2001, or the maintenance of bases in places that would not tolerate them, like the Philippines or Saudi Arabia.

I mean to indicate something more specific than simply that unwon wars were unwinnable. In many earlier wars, and perhaps through World War II and the War on Korea, the idea of winning consisted of defeating enemy forces on a battlefield and seizing their territory or dictating to them the terms of their future existence. In various older wars and most of our more recent wars, wars fought thousands of miles from home against peoples rather than against armies, the concept of winning has been very hard to define. As we find ourselves occupying someone else’s country, does that mean that we have already won, as Bush claimed about Iraq on May 1, 2003? Or can we still lose by withdrawing? Or does victory come when and if violent resistance is reduced to a particular level? Or does a stable government that obeys the wishes of Washington have to be established before there is victory?

That kind of victory, control over the government of another country with minimal violent resistance, is hard to come by. Wars of occupation or counter-insurgency are frequently discussed without mention of this central and seemingly crucial point: they are usually lost. William Polk made a study of insurgencies and guerrilla warfare in which he looked at the American Revolution, the Spanish resistance against the occupying French, the Philippine insurrection, the Irish struggle for independence, the Afghan resistance to the British and the Russians, and guerrilla fighting in Yugoslavia, Greece, Kenya, and Algeria, among others. Polk looked at what happens when we are the redcoats and the other people are the colonists. In 1963 he gave a presentation to the National War College that left the officers there furious. He told them that guerrilla warfare was composed of politics, administration, and combat:

“I told the audience that we had already lost the political issue — Ho Chi Minh had become the embodiment of Vietnamese nationalism. That, I suggested, was about 80 percent of the total struggle. Moreover, the Viet Minh or Viet Cong, as we had come to call them, had also so disrupted the administration of South Vietnam, killing large numbers of its officials, that it had ceased to be able to perform even basic functions. That, I guessed, amounted to an additional 15 percent of the struggle. So, with only 5 percent at stake, we were holding the short end of the lever. And because of the appalling corruption of South Vietnamese government, as I had a chance to observe firsthand, even that lever was in danger of breaking. I warned the officers that the war was already lost.”

In December 1963, President Johnson set up a working group called the Sullivan Task Force. Its findings differed from Polk’s more in tone and intention than in substance. This task force viewed escalating the war with the “Rolling Thunder” bombing campaign in the North as “a commitment to go all the way.” In fact, “the implicit judgment of the Sullivan Committee was that the bombing campaign would result in indefinite war, continuously escalating, with both sides embroiled in a perpetual stalemate.”

This should not have been news. The U.S. State Department had known the War on Vietnam could not be won as early as 1946, as Polk recounts:

“John Carter Vincent, whose career was subsequently ruined by hostile reaction to his insights on Vietnam and China, was then director of the Office of Far East Affairs in the State Department. On December 23, 1946, he presciently wrote the secretary of state that ‘with inadequate forces, with public opinion sharply at odds, with a government rendered largely ineffective through internal division, the French have tried to accomplish in Indochina what a strong and united Britain has found it unwise to attempt in Burma. Given the present elements in the situation, guerrilla warfare may continue indefinitely.’”

Polk’s research of guerrilla warfare around the world found that insurgencies against foreign occupations usually do not end until they succeed. This agrees with the findings of both the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the RAND Corporation, both cited in chapter three. Insurgencies arising within countries with weak governments are successful. Governments that take orders from a foreign imperial capital tend to be weak. The wars George W. Bush started in Afghanistan and Iraq are therefore almost certainly wars that will be lost. The main question is how long we will spend doing it, and whether Afghanistan will continue to live up to its reputation as “the graveyard of empires.”

One need not think about these wars solely in terms of winning or losing, however. If the United States were to elect officials and compel them to heed the public’s wishes and retire from foreign military adventures, we would all be better off. Why in the world must that desired outcome be called “losing”? We saw in chapter two that even the president’s representative to Afghanistan can’t explain what winning would look like. Is there, then, any sense in behaving as if “winning” is an option? If wars are going to cease to be the legitimate and glorious campaigns of heroic leaders and become what they are under the law, namely crimes, then a whole different vocabulary is needed. You cannot win or lose a crime; you can only continue or cease committing it.


The weakness of counter-insurgencies, or rather foreign occupations, is that they don’t provide the people in occupied countries with anything they need or desire; on the contrary, they offend and injure people. That leaves a great opening for the forces of the insurgency, or rather the resistance, to win the people’s support to their side. At the same time that the U.S. military makes feeble gestures in the general direction of comprehending this problem and mumbling some condescending crap about winning “hearts and minds,” it invests enormous resources in an exactly contrary approach aimed not at winning people over, but at beating them down so hard that they lose all willingness to resist. This approach has a long and well-established history of failure and may be less a real motivation behind war plans than are such factors as economics and sadism. But it does lead to massive death and displacement, which can assist an occupation even if it produces enemies rather than friends.

The recent history of the myth of breaking the enemy’s morale parallels the history of aerial bombing. Since before airplanes were invented and for as long as humanity has existed, people have believed, and they may continue to believe, that wars can be shortened by bombing populations from the air so brutally that they cry “uncle.” That this doesn’t work is no barrier to renaming and reinventing it as a strategy for each new war.

President Franklin Roosevelt told the Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau in 1941: “The way to lick Hitler is the way I have been telling the English, but they won’t listen to me.” Roosevelt wanted to bomb small towns. “There must be some kind of factory in every town. That is the only way to break German morale.”

There were two key false assumptions in that view, and they have remained prominent in war planning ever sense. (I do not mean the assumption that our bombers could hit a factory; that they would miss was presumably Roosevelt’s point.)

One key false assumption is that bombing people’s homes has a psychological impact on them that is similar to that of a soldier’s experience in war. Officials planning urban bombings in World War II expected herds of “gibbering lunatics” to wander out of the rubble. But civilians who survive bombings have not faced either the need to kill their fellow human beings, or the “wind of hate” discussed in chapter one — that intense horror of other human beings attempting to personally kill you. In fact, bombing cities doesn’t traumatize everyone to the point of lunacy. Instead it tends to harden the hearts of those who survive and firm up their resolve to continue supporting the war.

Death squads on the ground can traumatize a population, but they involve a different level of risk and commitment than bombing does.

The second false assumption is that when people do turn against a war, their government is likely to give a damn. Governments lie their way into the wars in the first place, and unless the people threaten to remove them from power, they may very well choose to continue wars despite public opposition, something the United States itself has done in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other wars. The War on Vietnam finally ended eight months after a president was forced out of office. Nor will most governments seek of their own accord to protect their own civilians, as the Americans expected the Japanese to do and the Germans expected the British to do. We bombed Koreans and Vietnamese even more intensely, and still they did not quit. Nobody was shocked and awed.

The warmonger theorists who coined the phrase “shock and awe” in 1996, Harlan Ullman and James P. Wade, believed that the same approach that had failed for decades would work, but that we might need more of it. The 2003 bombing of Baghdad fell short of what Ullman thought was needed to properly awe people. It’s hard, however, to see where such theories draw the line between awing people as they have never been awed before, and killing most of the people, which has a similar result and has been done before.

The fact is that wars, once begun, are very difficult to control or predict, much less win. A handful of men with box cutters can take down your largest buildings, no matter how many nukes you have. And a small force of untrained rebels with homemade bombs detonated by disposable cell phones can defeat a trillion dollar military that has dared to set up shop in the wrong country. The key factor is where the passion lies in the people, and that grows ever harder to direct the more an occupying force tries to direct it.


But there is no need to admit defeat. It’s easy enough to claim to have wanted to leave all along, to escalate the war temporarily, and then to claim to be leaving because of the undefined “success” of the recent escalation. That story, elaborated to sound a little more complicated, can easily appear less like a defeat than does an escape by helicopter from the roof on an embassy.

Because past wars were winnable and losable, and because war propaganda is heavily invested in that theme, war planners think those are the only two choices. They obviously find one of those choices to be intolerable. They also believe that the world wars were won because of a surge of American forces into the fray. So, winning is necessary, possible, and can be achieved through a greater effort. That is the message to be put out, whether or not the facts cooperate, and anyone who says something different is hurting the war effort.

This thinking naturally leads to a great deal of pretense about winning, false claims that victory is just around the corner, redefinitions of victory as they are needed, and refusals to define victory so as to be able to claim it no matter what. Good war propaganda can make anything sound like progress toward victory while persuading the other side that they are headed for defeat. But with both sides constantly claiming progress, somebody has to be wrong, and the advantage in persuading people probably goes to the side that speaks their language.

Harold Lasswell explained the importance of victory propaganda in 1927:

“The illusion of victory must be nourished because of the close connection between the strong and the good. Primitive habits of thought persist in modern life, and battles become a trial to ascertain the true and the good. If we win, God is on our side. If we lose, God may have been on the other side. . . . [D]efeat wants a great deal of explaining, while victory speaks for itself.”

So, starting a war on the basis of absurd lies that won’t be believed for a month works, so long as within a month you can announce that you are “winning.”

In addition to losing, something else that needs a great deal of explaining is endless stalemate. Our new wars go on longer than the world wars did. The United States was in World War I for a year and a half, in World War II for three and a half years, and in the War on Korea for three years. Those were long and horrible wars. But the War on Vietnam took at least eight and a half years — or much longer, depending on how you measure it. The wars on Afghanistan and Iraq had been going for nine years and seven-and-a-half years respectively at the time of this writing.

The War on Iraq was for a long time the larger and bloodier of the two wars, and U.S. peace activists persistently demanded a withdrawal. Often we were told by war proponents that the sheer logistics of bringing tens of thousands of troops out of Iraq, with their equipment, would require years. This claim was proved false in 2010, when some 100,000 troops were rapidly withdrawn. Why couldn’t that have been done years before? Why did the war have to drag on and on and on, and escalate?

What will come of the two wars the United States is waging as I write this (three if we count Pakistan), in terms of the agenda of the war makers, remains to be seen. Those profiting from wars and “reconstruction” have been profiting these several years. But will bases with large numbers of troops remain behind in Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely? Or will some thousands of mercenaries employed by the U.S. State Department to guard record-sized embassies and consulates have to suffice? Will the United States exercise control over the governments or the nations’ resources? Will the defeat be total or partial? That remains to be determined, but what is certain is that the U.S. history books will contain no descriptions of defeat. They will report that these wars were successes. And every mention of success will include reference to something called “the surge.”


“We are winning in Iraq!” — Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.)

As a hopeless war drags on for year after year, with victory undefined and unimaginable, there is always an answer to the lack of progress, and that answer is always “send more troops.” When violence goes down, more troops are needed to build on the success. When violence goes up, more troops are needed to clamp down.

The constraint on the number of troops already sent has more to do with the military’s lack of any more troops to abuse with second and third tours than with political opposition. But when a new approach, or at least the appearance of one, is needed, the Pentagon can find 30,000 extra troops to send, call it a “surge,” and declare the war reborn as a completely different and nobler animal. The change in strategy suffices, in Washington, D.C., as an answer to demands for complete withdrawal: We can’t leave now; we’re trying something different! We’re going to do slightly more of what we’ve been doing the past several years! And the result will be peace and democracy: we’ll end the war by escalating it!

The idea was not completely new with Iraq. The saturation bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong mentioned in chapter six is another example of ending a war with a pointless display of extra toughness. Just as the Vietnamese would have agreed to the same terms before the bombing that they agreed to afterward, the Iraqi government would have welcomed any treaty committing the United States to withdrawal years before the surge, just before it, or during it. When the Iraqi Parliament did consent to the so-called Status of Forces Agreement in 2008, it did so only on the condition that a public referendum be held on whether to reject the treaty and opt for immediate withdrawal instead of a three-year delay. That referendum was never held.

President Bush’s agreement to leave Iraq — albeit with a three-year delay and uncertainty as to whether the United States would actually comply with the agreement — was not called a defeat purely because there had been a recent escalation that had been called a success. In 2007, the United States had sent an extra 30,000 troops into Iraq with tremendous fanfare and a new commander, General David Petraeus. So the escalation was real enough, but what about its supposed success?

The Congress and the President, the study groups and think tanks had all been setting “benchmarks” by which to measure success in Iraq since 2005. The President was expected by Congress to meet its benchmarks by January 2007. He did not meet them by that deadline, by the end of the “surge,” or by the time he left office in January 2009. There was no oil law to benefit the big oil corporations, no de-baathification law, no constitutional review, and no provincial elections. In fact, there was no improvement in electricity, water, or other basic measures of recovery in Iraq. The “surge” was to advance these “benchmarks” and to create the “space” to allow political reconciliation and stability. Whether or not that is understood as code for U.S. control of Iraqi governance, even cheerleaders for the surge admit it did not achieve any political progress.

The measure of success for the “surge” was quickly downsized to include only one thing: a reduction in violence. This was convenient, first because it erased from Americans’ memories anything else the surge was supposed to have accomplished, and second because the surge had happily coincided with a longer-term downward trend in violence. The surge was extremely small, and its immediate impact may have actually been an increase in violence. Brian Katulis and Lawrence Korb point out that, “The ‘surge’ of U.S. troops to Iraq was only a modest increase of about 15 percent — and smaller if one takes into account the reduced number of other foreign troops, which fell from 15,000 in 2006 to 5,000 by 2008.”  So, we added a net gain of 20,000 troops, not 30,000.

The extra troops were in Iraq by May 2007, and June and July were the most violent summer months of the entire war to that point. When the violence went down, there were reasons for the reduction that had nothing to do with the “surge.” The decline was gradual, and the progress was relative to the horrendous levels of violence in early 2007. By the fall of 2007 in Baghdad there were 20 attacks per day and 600 civilians killed in political violence each month, not counting soldiers or police. Iraqis continued to believe the conflicts were mainly caused by the U.S. occupation, and they continued to want it to end quickly.

Attacks on British troops in Basra dropped dramatically when the British stopped patrolling population centers and moved out to the airport. No surge was involved. On the contrary, because so much violence had in fact been driven by the occupation, scaling back the occupation predictably resulted in a reduction in violence.

Guerrilla attacks in al-Anbar province dropped from 400 per week in July 2006 to 100 per week in July 2007, but the “surge” in al-Anbar consisted of a mere 2,000 new troops . In fact, something else explains the drop in violence in al-Anbar. In January 2008, Michael Schwartz took it upon himself to debunk the myth that “the surge has led to the pacification of large parts of Anbar province and Baghdad.” Here’s what he wrote:

“Quiescence and pacification are simply not the same thing, and this is definitely a case of quiescence. In fact, the reduction in violence we are witnessing is really a result of the U.S. discontinuing its vicious raids into insurgent territory, which have been – from the beginning of the war – the largest source of violence and civilian casualties in Iraq. These raids, which consist of home invasions in search of suspected insurgents, trigger brutal arrests and assaults by American soldiers who are worried about resistance, gun fights when families resist the intrusions into their homes, and road side bombs set to deter and distract the invasions. Whenever Iraqis fight back against these raids, there is the risk of sustained gun battles that, in turn, produce U.S. artillery and air assaults that, in turn, annihilate buildings and even whole blocks.

“The ‘surge’ has reduced this violence, but not because the Iraqis have stopped resisting raids or supporting the insurgency. Violence has decreased in many Anbar towns and Baghdad neighborhoods because the U.S. has agreed to discontinue these raids; that is, the U.S. would no longer seek to capture or kill the Sunni insurgents they have been fighting for four years. In exchange the insurgents agree to police their own neighborhoods (which they had been doing all along, in defiance of the U.S.), and also suppress jihadist car bombs.

“The result is that the U.S. troops now stay outside of previously insurgent communities, or march through without invading any houses or attacking any buildings.

“So, ironically, this new success has not pacified these communities, but rather acknowledged the insurgents’ sovereignty over the communities, and even provided them with pay and equipment to sustain and extend their control over the communities.”

The United States was finally doing more right than just reducing its raids on people’s homes. It was communicating its intention to, sooner or later, get out of the country. The peace movement in the United States had built growing support in Congress for withdrawal between 2005 and 2008. The 2006 elections sent the clear message to Iraq that Americans wanted out. Iraqis may have listened more carefully to that message than did U.S. Congress members themselves. Even the pro-war Iraq Study Group in 2006 supported a phased withdrawal. Brian Katulis and Lawrence Korb argue that,

“. . . the message that America’s [military] commitment to Iraq was not open-ended motivated forces such as the Sunni Awakenings in Anbar province to partner with the U.S. to combat Al Qaeda in 2006, a movement that began long before the 2007 surge of U.S. forces. The message that Americans were leaving also motivated Iraqis to sign up for the country’s security forces in record numbers.”

As early as November 2005, leaders of the major Sunni armed groups had sought to negotiate peace with the United States, which wasn’t interested.

The biggest drop in violence came with the late 2008 commitment by Bush to fully withdraw by the end of 2011, and violence fell further after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from cities in the summer of 2009. Nothing de-escalates a war like de-escalating a war. That this could be disguised as an escalation of the war says something about the United States’ public communications system, to which we will turn in chapter ten.

Another major cause of the reductions in violence, which had nothing to do with the “surge,” was the decision by Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the largest resistance militia, to order a unilateral cease-fire. As Gareth Porter reported,

“By late 2007, contrary to the official Iraq legend, the al-Maliki government and the Bush administration were both publicly crediting Iran with pressuring Sadr to agree to the unilateral ceasefire — to the chagrin of Petraeus. . . . So it was Iran’s restraint — not Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy — that effectively ended the Shi’a insurgent threat.”

Another significant force limiting Iraqi violence was the provision of financial payments and weapons to the Sunni “Awakening Councils” — a temporary tactic of arming and bribing some 80,000 Sunnis, many of them the very same people who had recently been attacking U.S. troops. According to journalist Nir Rosen, a leader of one of the militias that were on the payroll of the United States “freely admit[ted] that some of his men belonged to Al Qaeda. They joined the American-sponsored militias, he sa[id], so they could have an identity card as protection should they get arrested.”

The United States was paying Sunnis to fight Shiite militias while allowing the Shiite-dominated national police to focus on Sunni areas. This divide-and-conquer strategy was not a reliable path to stability. And in 2010, at the time of this writing, stability was still elusive, a government had not been formed, the benchmarks had not been met and had largely been forgotten, security was horrible, and ethnic and anti-U.S. violence were still prevalent. Meanwhile water and electricity were lacking, and millions of refugees were unable to return to their homes.

During the “surge” in 2007, U.S. forces rounded up and imprisoned tens of thousands of military-age males. If you can’t beat ‘em, and you can’t bribe ‘em, you can put ‘em behind bars. This almost certainly contributed to reducing violence.

But the biggest cause of reduced violence may be the ugliest and the least talked about. Between January 2007 and July 2007 the city of Baghdad changed from 65 percent Shiite to 75 percent Shiite. U.N. polling in 2007 of Iraqi refugees in Syria found that 78 percent were from Baghdad, and nearly a million refugees had relocated just to Syria from Iraq in 2007 alone. As Juan Cole wrote in December 2007,

“. . . this data suggests that over 700,000 residents of Baghdad have fled this city of 6 million during the U.S. ‘surge,’ or more than 10 percent of the capital’s population. Among the primary effects of the ‘surge’ has been to turn Baghdad into an overwhelmingly Shiite city and to displace hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from the capital.”

Cole’s conclusion is supported by studies of light emissions from Baghdad neighborhoods. The Sunni areas darkened as their residents were killed or ejected, a process that peaked before the “surge” (December 2006 – January 2007). By March 2007,

“. . . with much of the Sunni population left fleeing toward Anbar province, Syria, and Jordan, and the remainder holed up in the last Sunni stronghold neighborhoods in western Baghdad and parts of Adhamiyya in eastern Baghdad, the impetus for the bloodletting waned. The Shia had won, hands down, and the fight was over.”

Early in 2008, Nir Rosen wrote about conditions in Iraq at the end of 2007:

“It’s a cold, gray day in December, and I’m walking down Sixtieth Street in the Dora district of Baghdad, one of the most violent and fearsome of the city’s no-go zones. Devastated by five years of clashes between American forces, Shiite militias, Sunni resistance groups and Al Qaeda, much of Dora is now a ghost town. This is what ‘victory’ looks like in a once upscale neighborhood of Iraq: Lakes of mud and sewage fill the streets. Mountains of trash stagnate in the pungent liquid. Most of the windows in the sand-colored homes are broken, and the wind blows through them, whistling eerily.

“House after house is deserted, bullet holes pockmarking their walls, their doors open and unguarded, many emptied of furniture. What few furnishings remain are covered by a thick layer of the fine dust that invades every space in Iraq. Looming over the homes are twelve-foot-high security walls built by the Americans to separate warring factions and confine people to their own neighborhood. Emptied and destroyed by civil war, walled off by President Bush’s much-heralded “surge,” Dora feels more like a desolate, post-apocalyptic maze of concrete tunnels than a living, inhabited neighborhood. Apart from our footsteps, there is complete silence.”

This does not describe a place where people were being peaceful. In this place people were dead or displaced. U.S. “surge” troops served to seal off newly segregated neighborhoods from each other. Sunni militias “awakened” and aligned with the occupiers, because the Shiites were close to completely destroying them.

By March 2009 Awakening fighters were back to fighting Americans, but by then the surge myth had been established. By then, Barack Obama was president, having claimed as a candidate that the surge had “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.” The myth of the surge was immediately put to the use for which it had no doubt been designed — justifying the escalation of other wars. Having spun a defeat in Iraq as victory, it was time to transfer that propaganda coup to the War on Afghanistan. Obama put the surge hero, Petraeus, in charge in Afghanistan and gave him a surge of troops.

But none of the real causes of reduced violence in Iraq existed in Afghanistan, and an escalation by itself was likely to only make things worse. Certainly that was the experience following Obama’s 2009 escalations in Afghanistan and likely to be in 2010 as well. It’s nice to imagine otherwise. It’s pleasant to think that dedication and endurance will make a just cause succeed. But war is not a just cause, success in it should not be pursued even if plausibly obtainable, and in the kind of wars we now wage the very concept of “success” makes no sense at all.

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