The United States’ wars have always been very expensive and capital-intensive, fought with the most modern weapons available and assuming a modern, concentrated enemy such as the Soviet Union. The ever-growing Pentagon budget is virtually the only issue both Republicans and Democrats agree upon. But there are major economic and social liabilities in increasingly expensive, protracted wars, and these—as in the case of Vietnam—eventually proved decisive.
The U.S. wars since 1950 have been against decentralized enemies in situations without clearly defined fronts, as exist in conventional wars. Faced with high firepower, in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, even Iraq, America’s adversaries disperse — they fight from caves, behind jungle foliage, etc.,– using cheap, relatively primitive military technology against the most advanced U.S. artillery, tanks, helicopters, and air power. In the end, its adversaries’ patience and ingenuity, and willingness to make sacrifices, succeed in winning wars, not battles. Its enemies never stand and fight on U.S. terms, offering targets. The war in Vietnam was very protracted and expensive, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are also prolonged—and increasingly a political liability to the party in power in Washington. This has repeatedly illustrated the limits of American power, and the Korean war established the first precedent.
When the Korean war ended, the U.S. leaders swore they would never fight another land war in Asia. The Korean war was fought to a draw, basically a defeat for U.S. objectives to reunite the country. Vietnam proved yet again that the U.S. could not win a land war—and it failed entirely there, at least in the military sense. Their ultimate success was due to the confusion of the Vietnamese Communists themselves, not the success of the Saigon regime or American arms. The U.S. has always been vulnerable militarily precisely because its enemies have been primarily poor and compelled the adapt to the limits of their power.
After its defeat in Vietnam in 1975 the U.S. leaders once again resolved yet again never to fight a land war without massive military power from the inception of a conflict and the support of the American people — which gradually eroded during the Vietnam war. The Weinberger doctrine in 1984 enshrined this principle. The U.S. has won wars against small, relatively weak enemies, as in Nicaragua, but in both Iraq and Afghanistan it has made the mistakes of the Korea and Vietnam wars all over again. It still wishes to be the “indispensable power,” to quote former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, but it cannot win the victories it covets. Like a drunken person, it no longer controls itself, its environments, or makes its actions conform to its perceptions. It is therefore a danger both to itself and the world.
GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914, Another Century of War? and The Age of War: the US Confronts the World and After Socialism. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. His latest book is World in Crisis.