Author John Caldwell and panel discuss his new book Anatomy of Victory

November 9, 2018

“The United States is very good at blowing things up. What we are not good at is thinking about other people and places.”

That was the assessment of former ICWA fellow Jeffrey Race (Southeast Asia, 1973-76) at an institute panel discussion in Washington Thursday launching the new book Anatomy of Victory by John Caldwell—in which he methodically tackles the very pressing question of why America’s military campaigns have failed time and again for the last seven decades.

Caldwell deeply dives into how and why America won World War II as part of a global coalition, fought to a stalemate in Korea, lost in Vietnam and failed in Iraq. The panelists also addressed topics ranging from the current conflict in Afghanistan—the longest-running American war—to presidential politics, describing their own theories about victory and failure.

Caldwell—a political scientist with a 50-year career in defense think-tanks and aerospace companies—relied on his nuanced understanding of military history to argue that the United States requires a theory of victory to succeed in war.

He called for aligning three key elements—policy, strategy and operations—the military has failed to balance, drawing on Clausewitz: “If you get into a conflict, you have to look at the end state. What are we going to do when we win?”

Race—a US Army veteran and author of the classic War Comes to Long An, an analysis of why the US effort in Vietnam turned out so badly—was the inspiration for Caldwell’s book. Caldwell described the two first meeting in Vietnam in 1968. “John, we’re going to lose the Vietnam War,” Race told an incredulous Caldwell at the time. “Why? Because our enemies have a theory of victory and we don’t.”

US military strategists failed in Vietnam and later conflicts, Race argued, because they didn’t bother to understand the local society and culture. Without strong public diplomacy and relationships and coordination with locals on the ground whose hearts and minds are the real battleground, we will never succeed in foreign conflicts, he said. Simply put, Vietnam was a basic failure of understanding.

ICWA Program Director Hashim Wahdatyar, an Afghan analyst and commentator, described the many mistakes the US military and strategists have been making in his country for the last 17 years. Among them, he said, the international community must support the Afghan political leadership to tackle its own bad governance and corruption. Americans have also failed to answer two central questions for themselves: What exactly is terrorism and what does winning in Afghanistan look like?

Although the military industrial complex and other bureaucracies have a vested interest in preventing the government from learning lessons about war, the panelists said, the problem is ultimately political. It is presidents, not the military, who choose to engage in war, Caldwell writes.

Moderator Lara Brown—presidential historian and director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University—partly blamed the public’s failure to realize that when it comes to electing leaders, “experience matters.”

Since the former peanut farmer Jimmy Carter ran a presidential campaign promising a new kind of leadership, she argued, Americans have tended to elect men who advertise themselves as distanced from the political elite. Case in point: President Donald Trump.

Photo: (left to right) Hashim Wahdatyar, John Caldwell, Jeffrey Race and Lara Brown.
Claire Seaton |