Stephens: Do we no longer understand how wars are won?

The Biden administration wants Ukraine and Israel to fight their wars the way we’ve lost ours for 50 years.

By Bret Stephens / The New York Times

In the past 50 years, the United States has gotten good at losing wars.

We withdrew in humiliation from Saigon, Vietnam, in 1975; Beirut in 1984; Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993; and Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2021. We withdrew, after the tenuous victory of the surge, from Baghdad in 2011, only to return three years later after the Islamic State group swept through northern Iraq and we had to stop it (which, with the help of Iraqis and Kurds, we did). We won limited victories against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, only to fumble the endgames.

What’s left? Grenada, Panama, Kosovo: micro-wars that incurred minimal U.S. casualties and are barely remembered today.

If you’re on the left, you’d probably say that most, if not all, of these wars were unnecessary, unwinnable or unworthy. If you’re on the right, you might say they were badly fought; with inadequate force, too many restrictions on the way force could be used or an overeagerness to withdraw before we had finished the job. Either way, none of these wars were about our very existence. Life in America would not have materially changed if, say, Kosovo were still a part of Serbia.

But what about wars that are existential?

We know how America fought such wars. During the siege of Vicksburg in 1863, hunger “yielded to starvation as dogs, cats, and even rats vanished from the city,” Ron Chernow noted in his biography of Ulysses S. Grant. The Union did not send food convoys to relieve the suffering of innocent Southerners.

In World War II, Allied bombers killed an estimated 10,000 civilians in the Netherlands, 60,000 in France, 60,000 in Italy and hundreds of thousands of Germans. All this was part of a declared Anglo-American policy to undermine “the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.” We pursued an identical policy against Japan, where bombardment killed, according to some estimates, nearly 1 million civilians.

Grant is on the $50 bill. Franklin Roosevelt’s portrait hangs in the Oval Office. The bravery of the American bomber crews is celebrated in shows like Apple TV+’s “Masters of the Air.” Nations, especially democracies, often have second thoughts about the means they use to win existential wars. But they also tend to canonize leaders who, faced with the awful choice of evils that every war presents, nonetheless chose morally compromised victories over morally pure defeats.

Today, Israel and Ukraine are engaged in the same kind of wars. We know that not because they say so but because their enemies do. Vladimir Putin believes that the Ukrainian state is a fiction. Hamas, Hezbollah and their patrons in Iran openly call for Israel to be wiped off the map. In response, both countries want to fight aggressively, with the view that they can achieve security only by destroying their enemies’ capability and will to wage war.

This often ends in tragedy, as it did Sunday when an Israeli airstrike targeting Hamas leaders reportedly led to the deaths of at least 45 civilians in Rafah. This has always been the story of warfare. Terms like “precision weapons” can foster the notion that it’s possible for modern militaries to hit only intended targets. But that’s a fantasy, especially against enemies like Hamas, whose method is to fight and hide among the innocent so that it may be rescued from destruction by the world’s concern for the innocent.

It’s equally a fantasy to imagine that you can supply an ally like Ukraine with just enough weaponry of just the right kind to repel Russia’s attack but not so much as to provoke Russia into escalation. Wars are not porridge; there’s almost never a Goldilocks approach to getting it just right. Either you’re on the way to victory or on the way to defeat.

Right now, the Biden administration is trying to restrain Israel and aid Ukraine while operating under both illusions. It is asking them to fight their wars in roughly the same way that the United States has fought its own wars in recent decades — with limited means, a limited stomach for what it takes to win and an eye on the possibility of a negotiated settlement. How is it possible, for instance, that even now Ukraine does not have F-16s to defend its own skies?

In the short run, the Biden approach may help relieve humanitarian distress, allay angry constituencies or eliminate the possibility of sharp escalations. In the long run, it’s a recipe for compelling our allies to lose.

A “peace deal” with Moscow that leaves it in possession of vast areas of Ukrainian territory is an invitation for a third invasion once Russia recapitalizes its forces. A cease-fire with Hamas that leaves the group in control of the Gaza Strip means it will inevitably start another war, just as it has five times before. It also vindicates the strategy of using civilian populations as human shields; something Hezbollah will be sure to copy in its next full-scale war with Israel.

President Biden gave a moving Memorial Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, honoring generations of soldiers who fought and fell “in battle between autocracy and democracy.” But the tragedy of America’s recent battle history is that thousands of those soldiers died in wars we lacked the will to win. They died for nothing, because Biden and other presidents belatedly decided we had better priorities.

That’s a luxury that safe and powerful countries like the United States can afford. Not so for Ukrainians and Israelis. The least we can do for them is understand that they have no choice to fight except in the way we once did; back when we knew what it takes to win.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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