How can you achieve victory in war if you don’t have a clear idea of your political objectives and a vision of what victory means? In this provocative challenge to US policy and strategy, Donald Stoker argues that America endures endless wars because its leaders no longer know how to think about war, particularly limited wars. He reveals how ideas on limited war and war in general evolved against the backdrop of American conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. These ideas, he shows, were flawed and have undermined America’s ability to understand, wage, and win its wars, and to secure peace afterwards. America’s leaders have too often taken the nation to war without understanding what they want or valuing victory, leading to the ‘forever wars’ of today. Why America Loses Wars dismantles seventy years of misguided thinking and lays the foundations for a new approach to the wars of tomorrow.
Congrats on your new book Why America Loses Wars. Tell me a little bit about it?
American political and military leaders have too often demonstrated over the last 70 years that they do not know how to think clearly about war and peace. How we think about war is critical because how we think dictates so much about how and why we fight the wars that we do. We don’t admit we are at war, or call wars by euphemisms such as “police action,” and do not value victory or even realize that achieving victory is necessary for ending wars. The biggest culprit corrupting our views has been Cold War theory on so-called “limited war.” We bought into some illogical and ahistorical theoretical concepts that have underpinned how we have trained our political and military leaders for two generations. We have taught ourselves nonsense and this helped produce defeat in Vietnam and our “forever wars” of today.
What experience caused you to see a need for this book?
From 1999-2017, I taught strategy for the U.S. Naval War College’s program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. We taught a number of case studies on so-called “Limited Wars,” including the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars. I began experimenting with different ways of teaching the case studies while at the same time digging deeper into the literature on limited war. I found the limited war material to be
particularly weak and contradictory, while often also being very bad history. There was no agreement on how to define “limited war,” and the definitions tended to boil-down to defining the war by the means used. This is very subjective and doesn’t provide a clear, acceptable foundation for analysis. The solution is to begin our analysis of wars by the political aim being sought. You are fighting the war for regime change (an unlimited aim) or something less than this (a limited aim). Everything else flows from this. This provides a clear foundation. But some find it hard to do their analysis this way because they assumed limited or unlimited has to do with scale or size. It does not.
I’m not in the Military, I don’t have any life-threatening challenges, and I don’t even know anyone in the military. I’m just an average dad who lives and works in the suburbs, how would this book benefit me and what could I learn from it?
This book will help you better understand what is going on when the U.S. goes to war. It will give you the intellectual tools to better analyze and evaluate the highest level of political and military decisions at. The reader will learn to see the good and bad of American political and strategic decisions.
What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will take from Why America Loses Wars?
To learn to think clearly about what we want to achieve (and whether or not this is realistic), what this might cost and how long it might take, and whether or not it is worth the cost. And we need to do this more honestly and clearly than we have been doing since 1950.
What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?
To learn to think clearly about what is going on at the highest levels and to see how what they are doing fits into the overall picture – or doesn’t.
What are you reading now?
That is not a simple question to answer. I’m writing a history of American Grand Strategy for Basic Books, so I’ve got piles of books on my desk. One of the best books I’ve read of late is Alan Taylor’s The Civil War of 1812. An absolutely wonderful book. Kansas has also published over the last few decades a brilliant presidential history series. I’ve read many of these and that are all excellent.
What does Victory mean to you?
Victory, in war, means achieving the political aim for which the war is being fought, hopefully at an acceptable cost, and ideally accompanied with a better peace.
Who are the leaders that you look up to?
I am a great fan of Abraham Lincoln. I read his wartime correspondence when I was writing a book on the Civil War and have read so much about him over years. His intelligence, sense of humor, clarity of thought, and continuous ability to learn and adjust are among just a few of his traits that make him someone worth studying.
What books are you reading, and any that you recommend, have any influenced your thinking on leadership?
Clausewitz’s On War is important here, particularly because he distinguishes between physical courage in leaders and what we now call moral courage, meaning the ability to make a decision and take responsibility for it. His essay on genius is a wonderful study of leadership types and personality traits. The fact that he wrote it before the development of psychology makes it even more impressive.
What books had the most impact on you and your development?
I have spent a lot of time studying military theory and thought, especially Clausewitz’s (I published a biography of him in 2014). Studying Clausewitz will force you to think more clearly and to question your assumptions.
What is next for you?
I’m writing American Grand Strategy, 1775-2020 for Basic Books. That is keeping me pretty busy.
Purchase Why America Loses Wars Here
Dr. Donald Stoker was Professor of Strategy and Policy for the US Naval War College’s Monterey Program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, from 1999 until 2017. The author or editor of 11 books, his Carl von Clausewitz: His Life and Work (Oxford University Press, 2014), is on the British Army professional reading list. His The Grand Design: Strategy and the US Civil War, 1861-1865 (Oxford University Press, 2010), won the prestigious Fletcher Pratt award, was a Main Selection of the History Book Club, is on the US Army Chief of Staff’s reading list, and is widely used as a text in strategic studies and history courses both in the US and abroad. In 2016, he was a Fellow of the Changing Character of War Programme at the University of Oxford’s Pembroke College. During the 2017-2018 academic year he was the Fulbright Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna, Austria. He is currently a Senior Fellow with Atlas Organization in Washington, DC, and writing American Grand Strategy, 1775-2020 for Basic Books. His most recent book is Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and US Strategy From the Korean War to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2019). He lives in Monterey, California.