Why America Loses Wars Cover

Why America Loses Wars

Limited War and U.S. Strategy from the Korean War to the Present

Donald Stoker

Cambridge University Press, 2019, 336 pages

Book Review published on: May 7, 2021

Donald Stoker writes a compelling argument that modern U.S. policy makers fail to understand war, strategy, and the use of military force to achieve successful and lasting outcomes. His expertise as a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, resonates strongly. He provides a clear understanding of how U.S. interests influence national policy that leads to the use of force. However, he challenges, since American policy makers do not fully understand war, they are unable to define clear political objectives and do not value winning the conflicts they are engaged in.

The author underscores that since World War II, the United States has used force in the pursuit of limited wars. He explains how the concept of limited wars is not defined and this ambiguity is undermining U.S. efforts to achieve national benefits. He asserts that policy makers see limited war as a way to use limited military force, but he believes this is wrong. He argues that the political objective is sought in a conflict and the value of the object to the U.S. policy makers is what matters. It is the political objective (ends) that informs the strategy (ways) that demands the military force (means) to achieve the political outcome to the conflict. Stoker highlights that the military effort can be substantial in terms of lives, time, and treasure in a war for limited political objectives.

The author provides ample discussion on why the United States is employing military action in a less effective way. He summarizes that the advent of nuclear weapons and the fear of escalation drove intellectual theories to minimize the use of force. This thinking influenced U.S. leaders who muddled into conflicts without a clear understanding of what they wanted to achieve. The lack of a clear outcome diminished a metric for victory and war’s termination. Thus the United States finds itself embroiled in wars without end and conflicts that end that do not establish a better peace.

The book is well written and controversial, challenging U.S. thinking regarding limited wars and war in general. Stoker provides a logical framework for how the United States should think about war to create the outcomes it desires. This framework includes a clear political objective, an understood value of that objective, a vision of what victory looks like, and what war’s termination will be to create a better peace. This is written in U.S. military joint doctrine and is taught in U.S. military professional schools. The issue is that civilian leaders do very little thinking about the strategic ends of war. Stoker contends that civilian leaders fail to provide the “why” and “what” they want to accomplish in a conflict and because of a fear of escalation, minimize the “means” to military leaders to execute. No thought is given to what victory is or how the war should end.

The book was very enjoyable and thoughtful. I would highly recommend it to anyone who works in or has interest in national security, modern military history, and military strategy. Stoker uses the classic works of Julian Corbett, Sun Tzu, and Carl von Clausewitz, who is quoted frequently and throughout. I enjoyed the work and found that it reinforces joint doctrine and military strategy, regardless whether the conflict is traditional or irregular warfare. Why America Loses Wars is an examination of America’s involvement in modern wars, and I highly recommend it.

Book Review written by: Col. Robert Sherrill, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas