Anatomy of Failure
Why America Loses Every War it Starts
Harlan K. Ullman
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2017, 272 pages
Book Review published on: October 26, 2018
Perhaps the most impressive portion of Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War it Starts is the back cover of the dust jacket, which contains several ringing endorsements from many distinguished statesmen, scholars, and soldiers heralding Harlan K. Ullman’s work. Those testaments, and the book’s provocative title, caused me to pick up the book and read further.
Once inside though, Ullman launches into a stream of consciousness that positions him in the center of every major policy decision since the Johnson administration. Practically every chapter contains some transcript between the author and a key official that serves as a reminder that “he was there.” Subsequently, the reader is left with little choice but to trust the author, because the entire book is devoid of footnotes and citations, less a small selected biography. But if you can get past all of that you are bound to find a good, thought provoking and entertaining at times, rehash of almost all of America’s combat engagements, large and small, since Vietnam. More importantly, after working one’s way through several historical examples and Ullman’s analysis of use of force decisions that resulted in unintended and undesired consequences for the United States, the reader can make a fair judgment on Ullman’s call for a “brains-based approach.” Ullman takes us behind the curtain into the highest levels of decision-making, sharing several of his dialogues with key leaders. For example, he recounts the failed strategy of the crossover point in Vietnam, points out the shortcomings in the Reagan doctrine particularly in Beirut and Grenada, and goes into detail about Bill Clinton’s surprise in Somalia chronicling how the operation turned from foreign aid to combat. Ullman also asserts that George H. W. Bush and his administration provide the best historical model for sound strategic thinking. He explains how Bush balanced the transformation of Europe during the dissolution of the Soviet Union and built the “coalition of the willing” in retaliation of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait with limited objectives and a clear exit strategy. He posits with good claim that we have morphed from a “new world order” to a “no world order” since 2001.
All of this builds up to his primary argument that administrations since Kennedy have blundered through wars they have initiated because of rigid ideologies and political expediency. More importantly, he contends the failure to apply sound critical thinking is “posing and answering difficult questions and challenging basic policy assumptions become the surrogate to sound strategic thinking.” Ullman also provides an alternative, the brains-based approach, which was built on three parts: complete knowledge and full understanding of all aspects of the problem set and solutions; a mindset based on the realities of the twenty-first century and not married to a not so distant past; and a focus on affecting, influencing, and controlling the wills and perceptions of real and potential enemies.
Ullman’s long service within national defense circles, and I might add, the formulation of national strategy gives him credentials that deserve respect well beyond the beltway. To his credit, he served on a hand-picked team that developed the original “Shock and Awe” concept during the Clinton administration. His six decades of progressively increased levels of responsibility and experience within the national strategy circles has undoubtedly given him perspective and the basis for well-founded opinions and positions, but with his brain-based approach, he sets a high bar. It is a dangerous absolute to hold decision-making to a standard of complete knowledge and full understanding, which may work in a low-risk environment where time does not matter. Even historians argue over what constitutes complete knowledge and full understanding of wars past. In this end, Ullman’s call for the maxim for 20/20 vision while in the midst of executing war and diplomacy draws significant challenges. Yet, Anatomy of Failure is imbued with the wisdom that comes with hindsight of an engaged scholar-statesman-warrior and provides a thought-provoking alternative to the seemingly patchwork approach when placing the U.S. Armed Forces in harm’s way.
Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas