The United States Army is known as one of the most powerful military forces in the world that remains unmatched by the capabilities of the other states (Defense Science Board 5). At the same time, history knows a number of conflicts in which the U.S. military force failed to accomplish most of its tasks and performed badly compared to the anticipated results; some of the most recent conflicts of this kind include Desert Storm, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Kosovo, and Panama (Hoffman par. 3).
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This tendency indicated that what is referred to as “the American way of war” has been facing challenges. In other words, there are several areas of limitations that prevent the United States from translating its military efforts into the political outcomes that are expected or desired. This paper will evaluate three of such areas of limitations – weak strategic planning, intelligence or failure to adequately evaluate the capabilities of the adversaries, and fighting away from the homeland on unfamiliar territory.
In this paper, the three aforementioned challenges will be explored in reference to two of the most well-known military conflicts: one from the recent years – the Second Gulf War (or Iraq War), and one from the previous generation – the Vietnam War. The analysis of the challenges will be based on the use of clear examples and historical facts from both conflicts to demonstrate the manifestations of all the explored weaknesses of the U.S. military force.
Hard Power of the United States: Overview
Today, political scientists, diplomats, and philosophers recognize three different types of power – soft, hard, and smart. These terms were first introduced by Joseph Nye; they represent the approaches of various political agents toward the use of power and its nature (Quirk 1). The general definition of power used by several different authors describes it as the ability to influence the people, states, or circumstances in order to achieve what is desired (Pallaver 12; Quirk 1).
The soft and hard forms of power are seen as the opposite approaches; the former relies on military force and economic capabilities, whereas the latter works through such impacts are values, beliefs, culture, and policies as means to produce an effect on another state. Smart power is a relatively new concept that occurred only a few decades ago to represent a mixture of both powers, an approach that contains the significant features of soft and hard strategies. Smart power is rather relevant in the contemporary world where the state-agents attempt—remembering the harsh lessons of the past—to avoid military conflicts that bring destruction and decay.
Quirk notes that what worked for the U.S. Administration, under President George Bush, could be characterized as that which focused on the use of hard power primarily in order to reach the perceived goals (1). The consequences of that approach were quite negative because the international image of the United States was heavily affected by its military operations. The reputation of the country was hurt, and the other states began to view it through the perspective of its hard power application.
Therefore, the policies and actions of the U.S. government in the global arena were treated with suspicion and distrust. Quirk specifies that the acceptance of a state’s actions at the international and global level is critical because the idea the other states exercise about the United States serves to enable or disable it from gaining allies, and then collaborate with the foreign leaders for various strategic purposes (1). The current focus of the U.S. government is on making its power smarter by adding some new elements to the hard approach that was mainly in favor in the past. Quirk recommends that hard power should only be employed when all the other alternatives do not work (1).
As effective as the hard power used to be in the past, helping to build up, maintain, and expand empires, take over valuable resources, and ensure state security, in the modern world, it is not as beneficial (Pallaver 13). On the contrary, the hard power used in the contemporary world with its highly dangerous and versatile weapons creates a massive risk of total destruction or irreparable damage, at least.
This phenomenon was extremely obvious during the Cold War when frightened by the potential possibility of the eruption of a new world war, the most influential states of the planet lost themselves desperately accumulating weapons of mass destruction. Regardless of the potential danger, military power presents a strong benefit in creating the image of authority because even though times have changed, Machiavelli’s idea is still relevant that it is more convenient and effective for a person of power not to be loved but to be feared (Pallaver 13).
Kinneer discusses four generations of warfare: with the first one that had two rival armies clashing with each other in the field; the second one with the attacks from afar using guns; the third one that targeted the unprotected areas such as cities with the civilian population; and the fourth one that works through the internal destabilization of the enemy using propaganda, framing, cultural impacts, and some other ways of influence that are not as obvious as an aggressive military attack (12-13).
The latter is the most relevant in the contemporary world and, in fact, represents a mixture of hard and soft power. This type of warfare is the most suitable for asymmetric conflicts where one of the clashing sides cannot match the other one in terms of military force or desires to participate in a conflict in a hidden way without ruining its reputation.
As it was mentioned before, the United States possesses the most powerful military force in the world, and that is why all of the cases of its participation in warfare are asymmetric. It may seem to be an advantage because the USA is so powerful and basically unstoppable in an open armed conflict. However, as pointed out by Tucker, in the modern world, asymmetric warfare works as a growing threat to the security of the United States (par. 1). Knowing the advantage of the USA in weapon and technology, the likely adversaries would seek alternative approaches and attempt to produce damage using immoral tactics such as terrorism and biological or chemical weapons (Tucker par. 2).
The Three Challenges
In the past, U.S. history knows precedents of this huge and influential situation of losing wars to smaller and weaker rivals or failing to achieve the desired outcomes; the examples of such scenarios were the Vietnam War and the Second Gulf War, also known as Iraq War. Some of the challenges the U.S. military had to face in these conflicts were the flawed evaluation of the adversaries, insufficient strategic planning, and fighting away from the homeland. The further sections explore each of the challenges in detail.
Evaluation of the Adversaries
Many politicians and theorists today admit that entering the war in Vietnam was a massive error for the United States of America – it produced a lot of damage to the Asian country, it made a significant negative impact on the U.S. global image and economy, and it led to the deaths of many people (Capps 150). The whole plan of the USA becoming a part of the conflict is now characterized as a huge misevaluation by the American leaders who misinterpreted and misjudged the situation in Vietnam, the strength of the rival, and the potential costs of that war (Capps 150).
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In fact, the author emphasizes that the United States should have withdrawn its military forces as soon as it became clear that the enemy had multiple advantages: namely, even though the USA was technologically better equipped, the Vietnamese troops turned out to be not as weak as evaluated by the American side. Moreover, the analysis should have predicted such factors as the locations, climatic conditions, and geography of the battlefields that principally were situated in the jungle – a type of setting where the U.S. forces were not trained to fight (Capps 150). Finally, one of the primary contributors to the outcome of the war was the will to win, which turned out to be stronger among the Vietnamese fighters.
When it comes to the Iraq War, the issue of misevaluation of the adversary has been discussed ever since the beginning of the war. Patton mentions that the attacks of 9/11 were exploited by the administration of George Bush to invade Iraq and capture Saddam Hussein (105).
Due to the need to justify the invasion, the analytical data about the adversary was misused, misevaluated, and abused—as a result, the casualties turned out larger than anticipated, and the enemy—harder to locate and combat (Patton 105). Moreover, the whole conflict stretched out for years, destabilizing the political situation in the Middle East, strengthening the rivalry between some of the Gulf states and the USA, and exposing the latter to new threats of the fourth and the third generation warfare.
As cited by Betts, Clausewitz’s definition of the strategy was “the use of an engagement for the purpose of the war.” (23). Discussing the Vietnam War, Capps points out that throughout the course of the conflict and at any stage of it, there were supporters of the conflict among the American leaders; they proposed that the state engages all of its resources for a massive strike and end the war (150). Many strategic plans were created and then rejected mainly because the USA fought in the region where it had no territorial allies and instead had to go itself, surrounded by the communist forces ready to join the conflict at any moment (Capps (151).
One of such error strategies was to defeat Vietnam expecting that the other communist states of the region were to “topple like dominos” (Capps 151). In reality, the level of motivation, nationalism, and will to fight until the end among the Asian countries was strong enough to exhaust the USA.
The military experts today agree that going to Iraq was a strategic failure (Ferner par. 3). The emotional response to 9/11 was one of the major factors causing errors and misinterpretations. Gen. Flynn, who is now retired, expressed his opinion stating that the errors the USA made starting the war in Iraq contributed to the creation of the Islamic State that is currently a serious threat not only to the United States but to many other countries (Ferner par. 2).
Fighting Away from the Homeland
Discussing the events of World War I, the military theorist of Italian background Giulio Douhet noted that airpower could potentially play a critical role in ending future armed conflicts; however, under the technological development that occurred in the second half of the 20th century, an air force has become a common source of distance conflicts enabling a state to attack enemies from afar (90). That way, Jomini’s recommendation that this technology has a specific use in warfare is more accurate (176).
The air force is one of the major military branches that allow the United States to conduct massive attacks on its adversaries fighting away from its homeland. However, aircraft is the means available to many other armies and militarized organizations. The events of 9/11 demonstrated that fighting wars away from the homeland demonstrated that the USA exposes its citizens to counterattacks from the side of the rival states.
In terms of the Vietnam War, the American air force also has a series of underperformances when the superior aircraft to that of the rival was utilized badly—overloaded with bombs due to fighting far away from the friendly areas and failing to use escort fighters, the planes became easy targets and got shot down, and this resulted in the loss of valuable equipment as well as pilots.
Another disadvantage of participating in a war in a foreign country and using foot troops is the need to study the landscape in order to prepare the soldiers for all the potential challenges. In countries such as Iraq (an extremely hot desert), and Vietnam (rather humid tropical jungle), the troops are exposed to dangers their equipment may not be able to handle—poisonous insects and wildlife, extreme temperatures, diseases.
To sum up, as shown in this paper, the U.S. Army is faced with a variety of challenges when participating in military operations. Moreover, these challenges have been in place for several decades, has undergone a few changes inflicted by the technological and intellectual development that has occurred during the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. Misjudgment is still a massive problem when it comes to military decision making, especially when it is accompanied by strong emotions that are the source of bias.
In addition, both of the conflicts used in this paper as examples represent asymmetric warfare where one of the rivals is much stronger and more influential than the other. At the same time, the wars, when a smaller and weaker side ends up being victorious, are not rare. Due to errors and challenges, the U.S. Army failed to resolve both of the wars to its advantage. That is why the history of such conflicts is carefully analyzed and documented for years after. Lessons need to be learned and memorized in order to avoid similar mistakes in the future because when it comes to war, even the smallest error may lead to the loss of human lives.
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