Why Does the West Seem Incapable of Winning Wars Anymore? – Part 1

I got to thinking about the question at the title of this post a few months ago.  Being me I started doing some research and then put my thoughts down in what ended up being a fairly long paper for some casual writing.  Rather than dump it all at once I am going to serialize it into parts and probably publish one part every 2 weeks to a month until it is done.  I am going to put it here and also on my survival site because I think the issues it brings up are relevant in that arena as well.  What I hope to do is provoke some discussion among my readers as to how correct or incorrect my thoughts are.  Below is installment #1-


The last war the Unites States brought to a decisive conclusion was World War II in 1945.  Why is it that neither the US nor any other Western or Great Power has been able to decisively defeat an enemy in the 70 years since 1945?  I would submit that there are many reasons for the unsatisfactory ends to modern wars and one of them is that we no longer really wage wars.  We play around on the edges never fully committing ourselves to obtaining victory.

A part of this reluctance to harshly prosecute wars is the existence of nuclear weapons.  It is a truism of the post-war world that nuclear armed nations do not fight each other and this has held true for 70 years and is not likely to change any time soon because of the potential horrors should one side or the other resort to their use.  Because of this fear, Western and other great powers (which in the post-World War II world can be defined as nuclear powers), have avoided direct conflict, often avoiding such conflict with great effort.

Let us look at the post-World War II wars, not just those of the US but also those of the other nuclear powers.  This examination demonstrates the truth that nuclear powers avoid fighting each other.  Of the total of 95 conflicts the various nuclear powers have been in since the end of World War II not a single one has been a conflict in which the forces of the great powers came into direct large-scale conflict while both nations were in possession of nuclear weapons.  I have not included the suspected Israeli nuclear weapons because while it is widely believed that Israel possesses nuclear weapons they have never acknowledged their possession of nuclear weapons nor threatened their use.  I have not included South Africa because they voluntarily disarmed in the early 90’s.

Post World War II Great Powers
Name of PowerSince
United States1945
Soviet Union/Russia1949
United Kingdom1952
North Korea2006
Israel1979 (Suspected)
South AfricaFormer Nuclear State
South Africa voluntarily disassembled their nuclear devices prior to the end of Apartheid in 1991

While acknowledging that nuclear armed states do not go to war and if they do fight they are very restrained and avoid existential conflict let us examine what has changed about warfare in the post-World War II world that makes wars so indecisive and difficult to bring to a definitive conclusion.

Speaking as someone who has both studied and practiced war for several decades I have a several reasons why I think modern war has become indecisive.  They are:

  1. Modern interpretations of the law of war are flawed from a war winning perspective
  2. Wars are no longer fought to achieve victory but to achieve often nebulous goals short of the actual defeat of the enemy
  3. A reluctance to prosecute war to the extent necessary to achieve victory
  4. A Western (read European or a nation settled by Europeans) reluctance to accept casualties in the prosecution of a war (note: this does not apply to non-Western countries which often suffer very high casualties)
  5. A reluctance to follow traditional, pre-world wars law of war.
  6. Modern notions of what constitutes a war crime
  7. The divorce of war waging from national interests

I am going to cover each of these points in a series of posts that detail what I think has happened and why I think it has.  The anemic and ineffectual American way of war since the end of WWII is a result of a combination of all of these factors but the US is not the only nation affected.  All of the nations that make up what is known as the Western world are affected to some degree or another, usually more than the US although it is swiftly catching up.

One thing I am not going to do is have a lengthy discussion about the absurdity of trying to regulate war in the first place.  War is war, the ultimate expression of violence, and rules can do nothing but make it worse when only one side adheres to the rules.  Rules/Laws of War limiting destruction and displacement make sense only if both sides are willing to adhere to them but if only one belligerent adheres to such rules then they are actually tying their hands behind their backs and making a satisfactory end to hostilities even less likely.

Before I start going down the list let us discuss what war is and is not.  Clausewitz has it right when he says that “war is the continuation of policy by other means.”[1]  That quote does not really mean what most people think it means however.  Elsewhere in his classic Clausewitz stresses that he is not trying to describe how to wage war but is only describing what war is, a point that many modern war theorists either miss or ignore.  Even more revealing is Clausewitz’s discussion of the goals of war and how to achieve victory, which is the topic of the chapter the misunderstood quote comes from.

He defines war simply as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”[2]  A more simple definition that captures the essence of what war is I cannot think of.  Breaking the enemy’s will to resist is the ultimate objective of war because it is only through breaking their will that one side can force the other to terminate the war on terms favorable to the winner.  As Clausewitz so correctly points out, if taken to its extreme then war results in total death and destruction.  Luckily such extremes are very, very rarely ever reached as one side usually surrenders before total destruction is achieved.  The only well-known example of total destruction I can think of is Carthage in 146 B.C. in which the victorious Romans destroyed the city, apocryphally sowed the ground with salt, and either killed or sold the entire population into slavery after Carthage was defeated.

This is not to say there are not moral considerations in war, there are to both our own side and that of the enemy.  However, do those moral considerations outweigh achieving victory?  Would it not even be immoral to let moral considerations cause more death and destruction to us and ours because of a misplaced sense of obligation to the enemy?  I am going to leave this here with these questions or we risk diving into the moral and philosophical morass of Just War theory that has bedeviled Western society since at least Augustine and perhaps even earlier.

[1] Clausewitz, Carl Von, and Michael Howard. On War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. p.87

[2] Ibid. p. 74