The Barbary Pirates of Washington

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Maybe Thomas Jefferson was right. Maybe the best place for the U.S. Navy, if not the standing army, is under canvas in Annapolis.

In case you’ve forgotten, Jefferson, when he was president, proposed mothballing the American fleet. He feared a war with England (which broke out in 1812, when James Madison was president), and he loathed the effect that militarism had on the body politic.

Jefferson only came to these views after sending a few warships to the Mediterranean to quell the Barbary pirates, but he never got his wish to put the navy into dry dock.

Speculating about mothballs during a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine might not make the most sense, especially as that war is more about control of the Black Sea and perhaps the Dardanelles than it is to decide which former Soviet socialist republic gets to hoist its tattered flag over Donetsk.

Nevertheless, before we dismiss Jefferson’s aversion to standing armies and runaway navies, it’s worth reviewing the ledger of American militarism, at least since the Second World War.

Keep in mind what a French recruit during the American Revolutionary War said about the generalship of George Washington: “He is the most amiable, obliging, and civil man but as a General he is too slow, even indolent, much too weak and is not without his portion of vanity and presumption.” And in the romance of America-at-arms, Washington was the best of the best.

The Caissons Keep Rolling Along

In many ways, D-Day—which took place this week 79 years ago—was the last American battle victory in Europe. Yes, after that, American and British armored divisions rolled into Germany and met the Russians on the banks of River Elbe, but along the way there was the defeat (at least in the early days) in the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944) and then General Dwight Eisenhower’s failure to take Berlin, which doomed Eastern Europe to more than a generation of Russian occupation.

Nor do I think that some of the later battles in the Pacific War against Japan can count as unequivocal victories.

Okinawa eventually fell to the Army and the Marines in June 1945, but in the course of the battle some 100,000 citizens were killed, a death toll that was matched at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And Japan only capitulated, in my view, after the Russians invaded Manchuria and threatened to partition the home islands (or annex them as they did the Kuril Islands).

Born in the USA

To be fair, the American military intervention in South Korea kept that part of the peninsula from becoming the concentration camp that is North Korea, but that war can hardly be considered one of the great feats of the American military.

It began with U.S. forces retreating to the Pusan perimeter, and then General Douglas MacArthur’s ill-fated push to the Yalu River helped to cement a cold war with China that continues to the present day.

The American military did win a few battles against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong armies (the 1972 Battle of Kontum was one of them), but they are too few to mention.

The 1965 battle of the Ia Drang is celebrated, in Hollywood anyway, as a victory, but it ended with the engaged American battalions being airlifted back to Pleiku, and as Winston Churchill said, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

In Vietnam, the Americans lost the air campaign over the North, the guerrilla war in the South, and the land campaigns around the Demilitarized Zone, in places like Khe Sanh. (As a Marine Corps general said of that contested fire base: “When you’re at Khe Sanh, you’re not really anywhere.”)

Americans fought there with bravery and tenacity, and in exchange for their efforts, General William Westmorland gave up those Ho Chi Minh Trail crossroads to the North.

More than we realized at the time, the Tet Offensive was probably a U.S. victory (in a tactical sense), but since Washington treated it as a successful Vietcong offensive, who am I to argue about the outcome, which was that the American president resigned from his re-election campaign and the U.S. embarked on a five-year withdrawal dressed up by the word “Vietnamization”.

Splendid Little Wars

After Vietnam, the United States sent its troops all over the world, fighting what Rudyard Kipling would have called “savage wars of peace.”

In some of these little wars, it knocked off Cuban construction workers in Grenada, crashed helicopters in Iran, fatally landed marines in Lebanon, and strafed the Libyan ruling class in its tents, but essentially the U.S. army in the 1980s was a sound-and-light show, sent into harm’s way to tape re-election spots, not to alter any geopolitical balance.

I am sure some reading this would like to believe that the 1991 Gulf War ended the losing streak (as Daddy Bush proclaimed: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all…”), but since that fighting ended with Saddam still drinking whisky in his palaces, I am not sure “victorious” is the best adjective to describe this otherwise excellent adventure.

A year later the coda to the landings in Somalia was the call phrase “Black Hawk Down,” which proved a long way from the halls of Montezuma.

The Bush family’s 2003 return engagement to Iraq was nothing more than a Donald Rumsfeld-Dick Cheney snuff film. To be fair, we pulled down that Baghdad statue and rooted Saddam out of his foxhole for his picnic at hanging rock, but I doubt anyone can proclaim Iraq the Sequel an American victory. In the end, it was a video game with live ammo.

Nor, despite all of President Barack Obama’s teleprompting about Afghanistan “as a war of necessity,” was it anything more than a variation on the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-42) that ended with a few British stragglers stumbling out of the Hindu Kush.

Yankee Putin Dandy

In spring 1999, when NATO was bombing Belgrade in support of Kosovo’s independence, some saw that splendid little war as a revival of the great Broadway production Spirit of ’76, in that we thwarted a tyrant bent on ethnic cleansing and Greater Serbia. But the collateral damage of that intervention was broken relations with Putin’s Russia and another fissure with China (our bombs hit their embassy in Belgrade).

Nor did we get much for our money in the takedown of Muammar Gaddafi or the Long March against ISIS, especially as all we did in Syria was to make the world safe for Putinism.

Now comes the war in Ukraine, in which the Pentagon is as acting as the quartermaster and intelligence arm of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Think of it as an endless NATO war game, in which our arms manufacturers can road test all of the latest weaponry in real time, without (unlike Iraq) sacrificing American lives.

Plus there’s the feel-good aspect of the Ukraine fighting, which is allowing every retired general and colonel in the American army to go on CNN and analyze why Russia is the sick man of Europe and would never be able to compete with the United States “Over hill, over dale/As we hit the dusty trail…”

Night after night I listen to all of these broadcasts—my favorite talking head is the unfrocked general David Petraeus, who from the credits under his name and from his jaunty analyses you might have thought actually won the war in Iraq—and from them you might conclude that the U.S. military has actually achieved something since 1945.

Just to be clear: I have no truck with Putin’s war criminality, that which advances geopolitics with civilian atrocities. At the same time, I do find it a little rich that in such a struggle, the United States likes to position its own armed forces as onward Christian soldiers, when, sadly, their own war record, in terms of brutality and success, isn’t much better than Putin’s or Prigozhin’s.

As an American soldier said in Vietnam: “We didn’t know who we were till we got here. We thought we were something else.”

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.