The Purpose of War is to Win

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Mon, Jul 21 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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“If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.”
~ Saint Thomas Aquinas

Lines of DepartureA military is about more than self-preservation. Security is a principle of war; safety is not. Risk is in the soldier’s job description.


Amidst all the artificial turmoil, the subordination of military necessity to current day political pieties, the elevation of inclusiveness over effectiveness and social engineering over victory, as politicians – to include those who masquerade as generals and admirals – prostitute themselves and sell out the country’s future for short term personal and political gain, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that militaries are about making and winning war. It’s so easy to lose sight that even within the purer ranks of the military there are some indicators that the purpose – winning wars – is being or has been forgotten. If the former is true, we’re in trouble. If it’s the latter, we’re toast.

Which is it, though? It’s hard to say. Some folks read it one way, some quite another. Some of the more depressing ways to read it came up in relation to the “reduce the loads” column.

The following comments, among many others, were posted in my conference of my publisher’s online forum.1

From my former law partner, ex-enlisted military intelligence:

I don’t think they’re stupid. I think their emotions are controlling them. I’m pretty sure Tom suggested this as well. It’s not that they can’t grasp his idea that maybe not everybody needs to be carrying an IFAK all the time; it’s that they’re spouting the same sort of emotional bullshit (that their lives are worth more than the mission) that is partly responsible for loading them down with too much stuff to accomplish the mission.

I see the fact that they consistently misstate Tom’s opinion as “get rid of the IFAK”2 not as evidence that they are stupid, but as them trying to avoid doing the thinking that Tom suggests, “Hmm, maybe we are being too careful to win…”

It’s not an accident that they are freaking out over the equipment that exists to save their lives. What they’re really objecting to, on a gut level, is Tom’s assumption that it is just and proper for the military to be taking chances with their lives, and that taking extra chances with the troops’ lives might be the right thing to do. It contradicts the message they’ve been getting all their lives and all their careers, that they are special and that every effort would be made to save their lives.

I never thought that a peace time rear echelon mother effer such as myself would have any insights that a combat vet doesn’t have on this issue. But it is apparent to me that the army no longer has the attitude that it had when I was in – the assumption that we were going to die in droves (yes, even us REMFs), and that was perfectly acceptable, provided that the mission succeeded. Those guys arguing with Tom do not believe, at a gut level, that they are expendable, that risking their precious hides is acceptable, and that the mission comes first.

That’s a big change since I was in and the troops took a perverse pride in how short their MOS’ alleged life expectancy was when WW3 broke out (In MI, the GSR operators routinely lorded it over everybody else in an MI unit claiming their life expectancy was 17 seconds from when they turned on their radar).


I’m sure you know this, but the rot is societal. Everybody needs to have an IFAK at all times stems from the same impulse that has soccer moms berating the soccer coach for not giving their kid enough playing time, and ensuring everybody gets a trophy.

Was just doing some reading related to Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, and I saw this gem that sums up the problem quite nicely. In 1950, 12% of high school students answered “yes” when a pollster asked, “Are you an important person?” A few years ago, that number had risen to 80%.

There it is, right there.

And, from a retired Army infantry first sergeant and former Marine ANGLICO3:

That was my takeaway also. If those posters are genuine, the US Army Infantry is in very bad shape. At first the back and forth on the IFAK was somewhat entertaining, but it quickly turned into a farce. I doubt you could do anything to get your point across to them, they refuse to listen.

I knew there was a rot in the Military but had always hoped it was just at the senior levels. Judging from those commenters, the rot is widespread now and may be past the point of any cure.

Those are just a small sampling from people asking, in effect, “What the Hell has happened to my_____ (insert service here)? What the Hell has happened to our country?”

Contemplate those questions. Contemplate the answers, too.


“No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.”
~ Patton4

There are different versions of that. Patton may never have said it. If he did actually say it, I doubt he fully meant it; it has the ring of the kind of bullshit some commanders spout to convince the troops that they’re not really the ruthless, insensitive bastards the job requires them to be.5 Bill Mauldin probably pegged Patton pretty well when he wrote, “Soldiers were peasants to him.” Moreover, even if Patton did say it, or something like it, and did mean it, or some of it, it’s at best a half truth, hence wholly misleading.

As with many persuasive sounding half-truths, the half that is false is the half that’s unstated. No one bastard ever won a war, period; it’s a team sport. No team, no army, ever won a war – well, a real war that meant something – without the bulk, the overwhelming bulk, of its soldiery being willing to accept as normal and justified a substantial risk of death or grievous wounds, which risks will be realized in many, many cases. Without understanding that unstated part, people tend to forget, to minimize, or to deny what war is, what it is like, and what the price for winning must inevitably be. To deny what war is and what the cost is? I think so, even among the troops. As one piece of evidence, go back to that column and look in the comments. I wrote, “[E]very man you lose in a losing war is a waste. May as well not even show up. So, all to the horror of mommies throughout the land, what is better, at least as a theoretical and moral matter, to lose X men in a war you lose, or to lose X + 1 in a war you win? Especially when every man lost in the first case is a waste?”

No one answered it. No one answered it in a column that was one of the most commented on ever on EveryJoe. Why?

I think I know why, but I couldn’t prove it. Per the comment above from my former law partner, I think readers, including apparently a lot of military and veteran leaders, went into emotional mental shutdown over the concept of “more losses to win is probably better than fewer losses to lose” and couldn’t take up the gauntlet I threw down there because of that. They simply cannot, at an emotional level, face the question.6 And that gives me the willies. We lost in Vietnam largely through the collapse of a weak home front, and even that only among a minority. The troops were willing enough until it became obvious the home front wasn’t going to support them to the end. Most of the troops, about two thirds, were volunteers for the war (oh, yes, they were, to include as many as 30,000 – some say 50,000 – Canadian volunteers). But if the troops can’t face the equation, and if the leadership won’t explain it – whether for fear of answering questions they have no palatable-sounding answer for, for fear of poor recruiting, of for fear of mommie getting the vapors – then the problem has gone from being a mere fraction of the home front to every aspect and corner of our society.

If that’s true – I hope it isn’t, but if – then we’re done as a power.


1 The KratsKeller in Registration is required. I’ve edited slightly.

2 I am not remotely interested in discussing the IFAK again.

3 Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company. The short version is that these are Marine organizations provided to non-USMC forces, to coordinate and direct fire support. I think pretty much everybody but the enemy loves ANGLICOs.

4 Lines from the movie, but…

5 Or, since the troops used to be harder to fool, to convince mommie that her widdle baby boy or girl is in good, kind, sensitive, caring hands.

6 One notes, cynically, that one of the side effects of overloading the troops is that they will never catch up to Haji that way. If they can’t catch up to him, they can’t fight him. If they can’t fight him, then fewer would be lost, even though the war was certain to be lost.

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through

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  • Duffy

    Of course “The Purpose of War is to Win, No Matter
    the Price” is true, a universal law. That is why Politicians invented
    terms like “Peacekeeping Action” “Low Intensity Conflict”
    and “Operations other than war”. You know when you need to be seen as tough
    on something without having any real skin in the game. (The Politicians that

    • Tom Kratman

      Note the title change, Duffy. The price does matter and has to be accounted for. But trying to get something for nothing? No, that doesn’t happen.

    • Duffy

      like I said skin in the game, even “Low intensity Conflict” is pretty
      intense, and dangerous, when your the one receiving incoming. I whole heartedly agree with the article. I think you make the one of the best arguments I have read on the issue. Kick them in the ass, do not piss on them. I would say that the cost for an effective short engagement that goes all out for victory is far less than a long term stint at “Operations other than War” in both American lives and treasure, as well as civilian casualties. My point being, if the Politicians do not call it war, then they can set the bar on “winning” wherever they want to. I think it is a moral question with National Leadership, and a fundamental misunderstanding by Transnational Social Progressives on the concept war in general, and all the legal terms they like to play with like “Proportionate response” and Just War. The proportionate response is the one that cost the least in lives, both American and Civilian,
      with the shortest amount of misery inflicted on everyone involved. Whether a War is just is an issue that should have been decided before the operation began. The use of Military Force is an act of war, and all of the terminology used to hide that fact is for naught when the casualties are counted.

    • akulkis

      For clarity, it should be put into the Federal Code that if there’s the use of any weapon heavier than .30 cal machine guns, BY EITHER SIDE, then the operation is, in fact, a war.

    • Seamus Curran

      So Deerhunting is a war?

  • Grumpy Guy

    The Zero-defect culture that the politicians have enforced upon the military over the past generation is, above all else, risk-averse.

    That thinking starts at the top, with the political leadership, and is transmitted downwards by flag rank officers who are little more than politicians themselves, in too many cases.

    The US military still packs a ferocious punch. But it has no appetite for the rope a dope and meat grinder of attritional combat. We win in the early rounds, or we don’t win at all.

    Which tells our adversaries they need only endure those opening punches, and bide their time.

    • Tom Kratman

      As they have been doing, though I don’t think they planned it that way.

  • Steve Griffin

    True enough. There are exceptions nowadays to this “no
    casualties “mindset, but they are just that; exceptions. A decade-plus of COIN
    hasn’t helped either. A couple years ago at the CGSC I am fighting the latest,
    digital version of the GAAT Scenario (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey),
    and while each turn of the game saw another company or even battalions I
    commanded disappear under a MLRS strike one instructor, a retired lieutenant colonel
    in logistics (excuse me, “sustainment”), was berating us for not dropping
    everything to conduct a DUSTWUN (Duty Status, Whereabouts Unknown) for a
    hypothetical Long Range Surveillance team that had been compromised. His
    reflexes were those of the “let’s drop everything, Bob’s missing!” war, not a “We
    just lost a regiment full of Bobs” war. And while I am valiantly trying to have
    my digital armored brigade guard the flanks of the main effort against two,
    attacking “renegade” divisions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard I find out
    that the “Division Commander” (another retired LTC) has just pulled my attached
    squadron from the Second Cavalry, leaving my mountainous flank open to
    infiltration. Why? Because there’s a riot blocking one of the armored columns
    to the north and the squadron is tasked to handle it. My comment as to why they
    don’t just run the bastards over (as that is what is really going to happen if I become
    fixed to be a target for DPICM, definitely no later than when the first crew on
    my flank becomes superheated plasma) earned me yet another lecture on civil-military relations. The institutional rot has run so deep I don’t believe there’s
    a cure short of amputation.

    • Tom Kratman

      I have read that a nation gets the army it deserves. I fear that this may be so.

  • Ori Pomerantz

    The entire justification for War, IMAO(1), is that you lose less by winning than by losing. If the equation is “lose X troops and the war, or lose X+Y troops and win the war”, then you might as well stay home, rather than wasting X, or X+Y, lives.

    The actual equation is “lose X+Y troops and win the war, or lose X troops now, lose the war, and then lose Z more people dealing with the results of losing the war, and our best estimate is that Y is much lower than Z”. That is what justifies the Y military funerals.

    (1) Any opinion I express would arguably be arrogant, because I don’t really have the experiences to justify holding an opinion.

    • Tom Kratman

      The problem in your calc, Ori, is one of apples and oranges. Lose X what? How do you measure X where X = liberty? How do you measure Y where Y = Auschwtiz? How do you match Z in troop loss against either of those?

    • Ori Pomerantz

      Liberty is precious because of what it lets us do and what it prevents others from doing to us. That can be counted in lives destroyed (Auschwitz) or stunted (slavery, etc.).

      Another issue is military vs. civilian lives. I’m not sure how to compare the two, but I’m not sure which should be rated higher. I can’t see a reason, for example, why the life of one Sgt. Kratman at twenty(1) would be more precious than the life to Tom Kratman the civilian author today.

      (1) Wild guess as to the age.

    • Tom Kratman

      Good guess.

    • Rick Randall

      Fuck, I thought I was the last post-Vietnam buck sergeant who wasn’t old enough to legally drink! :)

    • Tom Kratman

      Ah, but I was in Panama and drank like a fish…at least during the couple of days a month I wasn’t in the jungle.

    • Jason75

      I wouldn’t say more precious, but more capable. The soldier has chosen, and has been equipped, to fight, to kill, and to win. The civilian is not so equipped. That may well be a failing in our society and our education, but it is a difference nonetheless.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      I meant “less precious”. But the point is to explain to people who aren’t military why military lives are expendable. The reason is, quite simply, that if you expend them you end up losing less people than if you keep safe.

    • Jason75

      You’re right.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      The issue I’m trying to figure out is how to explain to civilians with zero military knowledge or experience why winning MATTERS. If you think of losing wars as “England in 1785″, “The South in 1870″, “West Germany in 1955″, or “US in 1977″, it really doesn’t look like a big deal. The relevant meme is “Poland in 1940″, or “Russia in 1941″, or “East Germany in 1945″. That is the point we need in our culture if we are to fight wars.

    • Tom Kratman

      Kipling helps.

    • J Alfred Goodwin

      Need to get the Beasty Boys to do Tommy

    • ah64mech13

      I’d buy that track.

    • Longwalker

      If you don’t Kipple, you don’t understand.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      Yes, but I think people need a rational case as well as an emotional one. Or maybe it is just that I do and I’m strange.

    • rustypaladin

      Kipling has been to demonized for the general public to listen to. Where we would quote “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, multi-culties would quickly point to “The White Man’s Burden” and claim it discredits everything he ever wrote (wrongly on both the discredit and the alleged racism in the poem).

    • Ori Pomerantz

      Yes, because the man who wrote “Though he drilled a black man white” was obviously concerned about race rather than culture :-(

  • James/G

    Everyone(or damn near) who fought in Vietnam can tell that the war was won in 1968, when the VC forces and a good number of NVA regular formations were chopped up in the Tet Offensive. Historically, we won handily on the military side. As Tom says however, we lost on the political side.

    In a previous column, Tom went to great lengths to describe the rot that is our current military bureacracy. Infighting by officers and Senior Staff NCOs for personal gain costs more lives on the battlefield than anyone really cares to admit, except here.

    Tom is right, we are in trouble, but these columns are what’s needed.

    Now to get them to a wider audience…

    • Tom Kratman

      Rotsa ruck. ;)

  • Justin Watson

    “Nothing we do here is worth getting a soldier injured or killed- or losing a sensitive item.”
    - Commanding General, Fort Iriwn, the National Training Center.
    The National Training Center (NTC) is supposed to be the capstone get-ready-to-deploy exercise the way the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) is for light and the Hoenfeldz and Grafeonwhoer are for units based in Germany. It’s basically the only time a unit trains at the brigade level, conducting extended force on force and live fire training with all the bells and whistles you could expect in actual war. I heard the quote above as the commander of an artillery battery getting ready to begin our NTC rotation. I was furious. I even asked my battalion commander, in a fit of poor self control, if NTC wasn’t worth a soldier getting hurt, even dying, or, for FUCK’S SAKE LOSING A SET OF NVGs, then why the FUCK did they have me and my men in the middle of the worst fucking place in the United States for weeks on end, and I do mean the worst, Fort Irwin is collocated with Death Valley. I’m not engaging in hyperbole when I say I prefer Iraq.
    For anyone who joined out of a sense of duty and, really, for anyone who actually does give a shit about soldiers and expects that we will only expened their lives towards some positive end, it’s horrifying. I think there are a fair number of us in the field and company grade ranks who understand this, but we are disenfranchised the moment we’re found taking a risk that MIGHT make a superior look bad.

    • Tom Kratman

      Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a shittier place than NTC, to include Camp 147 degrees in the shade Doha, or the Kuwaiti training area to the northwest.

      And for about two years no night attacks were done there because it was just too career-threateningly unsafe. TWO YEARS!.

    • KenWats

      Yakima was surprisingly like NTC- a little cooler and the mountains were a little closer together. Hated that moon-dust that got in everything.
      Can’t remember if we did a night attack or not, I was a support PL by then. I know we did plenty of convoys at night. Also opened my eyes to how vulnerable our lines of communication were as a brigade. One fueler fuels how many M1s, which need gas daily?

    • akulkis

      I am in total agreement on NTC being the absolute worse place on earth that I have ever been to. Compared to NTC, I would rather be back in Backghdad in 2006-2007 when my base was taking indirect fire at a high enough rate that no organization on base made it through a 1-year deployment without taking casualties due to OPFOR rocket or mortar fire. And that was just 2 weeks in the NTC itself.

  • Justin Watson

    The fact that Vietnam is now a part of our institutional memory is relevant too. Every thinking soldier is aware that they may be hung out to dry. While those soldiers are just as brave in fighting for each other or, sometimes, if they can get a real crack at the insurgent motherfuckers who killed their buddies, but nobody wants to die “for the cause” when they know their strategic leaders won’t make it count in the end.

    • Jack Withrow

      I agree Vietnam did major damage to our military, but I don’t think anyone realizes just how much damage it actually did. It alienated a generation of Veterans and by default their children and grandchildren. It destroyed the working relationship between the press and the military. But worse than that it destroyed the idea of fighting a war to win. COIN, OOTW, Peacekeeping, and all the other buzzwords are the direct result of Nam.
      Now as direct result of Nam, instead of commanders telling the politicians that they cannot accomplish the mission under the conditions imposed on them, they show their bellies like whipped dogs and then go through the motions of performing a mission, knowing full well they can not accomplish it.

    • Justin Watson

      I concur.

    • Tom Kratman

      It’s so Goddamned immoral I could cry. You don’t expend the men for no gain. You don’t put your career first. And, if you’re a man, there come times when you _must_ fall on your sword…in as public a manner as possible.

    • Jack Withrow

      Are morals even being taught in the military anymore? I mean is anything beyond pure lip service about morals even mentioned in NCOES or OES?

    • James

      But the military doesn’t teach morals. Parents and society does. The same shit that makes terrible civilians leads to this shit you see in the military.

      I have found the same things which make a good leader in the military generally make a good leader in civilian life to.

    • Jack Withrow

      The Military did teach morals. What do you think the Code of Conduct was? It was used to reinforce morals learned at the Soldier’s mother’s breast and also to instill morals in some of the more morally challenged recruits the military had to deal with post Vietnam. NCOES and OES both back in the day reinforced and taught morals, hence all the emphasis on illegal orders, honesty in dealing with juniors, honesty in dealing with superiors, etc. That teaching of morals has been replaced by careerism.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      Is there any way to publicly shame the career worshippers and possibly get value out of them? The military seems to have people who accept dying in the line of duty a lot more easily than being fired in the line of duty.

      Peer shaming is a powerful tool. This would be bad for discipline, but would it be worse than careerism?

    • Jack Withrow

      Maybe a few of the more junior ones. Worst problem though is those career worshippers were generally at one time a fairly good junior troop or junior officer. Public shame will not do much good as long as their seniors set the examples they follow. There will always be careerism, you can’t get away from that. It used to be that the military ethos infused in others kept that careerism in check. Now it doesn’t.
      I know Eric Shinseki is not loved in the Army and Veteran’s community. But he is the last GO that I can think off who actually spoke truth to power and he got fired for it by Rumsfeld. With that as an example, very few other officers are going to take the route Shinseki took and tell the truth to power.
      The problem is in the military, but the problem is not all the military’s fault. Politicians on both sides bear as much fault as the military does for this happening. Civilian control of the military is, as originally envisioned, a good thing, but civilian control as practiced today with Congress and/or the President interfering in military matters that involve junior troops takes civilian control to absurd levels. Witness the Bergdahl thing currently winding its way through the Pentagon and the White House. This can not be fixed by the Military alone and Congress and the President refuse to give the Military the support it needs to try to fix it.
      In a lot of ways, that sad, very neglected little Army of the period between the two world wars was probably the best Army we ever had. They were starved for funds, but somehow kept careerism in check and in turn produced the leadership that won WW II. I sincerely doubt the Army could equal that performance again.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      Modern technology facilitates micromanagement. Arguably, this means that things which used to be unspecified (such as the amount of control the civilian government should exercise on the military’s internal structure) need to be formalized.

    • Neil


      I don’t think there a lack of willingness to die for the cause, at least no more than in any other army at any other time, and there’s probably a greater willingness than in some. The problem is that the senior civilian and military leadership demonstrate in every way possible that there is no real commitment to any “cause”.

      That makes seemingly-excessive concern over casualties a rational behavior. First of all, how do you replace the casualties when most of the population is not committed enough to send its sons? Second, words matter. How can you fully commit yourself to something that isn’t even officially a war (if you want to say otherwise, show me an official Congressional declaration of war–AUMF doesn’t count), and is being waged against “terrorism”?

      I don’t mean to lay the blame entirely at the leaderships’ feet, either. There is a significant portion of the population that “will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country”. It’s this demographic that the leadership is pandering to.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      “There is a significant portion of the population that “will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country”. It’s this demographic that the leadership is pandering to.”

      Which is really sad, considering that this demographic isn’t going in the military anyway. Would the attitude of “if they’re stupid enough to join up, who cares if they die” in this demographic be less harmful than the attitude of “no casualties are ever justified”?

  • Joey Calvey

    Exactly! I did take a perverse pride in my short life expectancy as a Duck Hunter from the first time we fired till the next aircraft in line tracked our wonderful line of tracers and smashed us or burned us to death. Where did this idiocy of Life Before Mission come from? Soccer mommyhood? You are never a loser? More asinine liberal bullshit, invading a place where it REALLY doesn’t need to be.
    16R20 Vulcan Air Defense Crewmember, Senior Gunner, Duckhunter Extraordanaire!

    • Duffy

      As A former 16E10 (Hawk) who left the ADA when I found out Ivan had artillery shells that could whack a radar without any time to engage in self defense, I feel you. Hey ARMS and even HARMS I can handle, but Arty was to much. Iwas on the Fulda gap 85-88 and I was told I might have to fight my way to the Motor Pool to get deployed to a field site. Why were we more honest about in the Cold War then we are now?

    • KenWats

      When was the last time we were honest? I remember the estimates of “thousands of casualties” in the warm-up to Desert Storm. I think the wholesale lack of casualties kind of changed the standard of what “successful” war looks like.

    • KenWats

      Rewording the last sentence after I read it: “…wholesale lack of casualties changed the standard of what the public expects a successful war to look like”. I should have been more clear. Apologies.

    • Duffy

      That does go back to what I was saying about the Cold War.
      In the buildup to Desert Storm, we were expecting massive numbers of casualties. The body bags were issued out. They did not Sugar Coat the possibility. But, what we thought we knew about the Iraqi Army was wrong, and
      very possibly, what we knew about Russian Equipment was wrong. But the Iraqi Army was not the Russian Army, nor was their equipment exactly what the Russian Army used. And that is part of the problem, not Since Viet Nam have we faced a
      first rate enemy, and even that statement is debatable when you consider the casualty ratios in both Korea and Vietnam. But that does not mean we will not face a First Rate opponent in the future. Which in all honesty is what Rumsfeld tried to tell Congress, you go to war with the Army you have, not the one you want. And the second Iraq war was an Army designed to face a first class opponent in a Conventional War. And it won pretty convincingly. Complaints about how the Military was ill equipped to deal with the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan
      are beyond the point. The Army was not optimum for Insurgent warfare, but it was not going to lose because of it. God Forbid if we had a military force optimized for insurgency in Desert Storm or the Second Iraq war. MRAPS are great against insurgents, they are just targets in a battle against an Armored
      foe. So we learned the wrong lesson. And that reflects the point being made. You go to war with the Army you have, and you need that optimized to face the greatest threat and adjust from that position. We are restructuring the force for “Low Intensity Conflict” , Counter Insurgency, which may be the most likely
      threat in the future, but is not the gravest threat, nor is it even a threat to the United States itself.

    • guest

      Indeed. From time to time I hear the NVA referred to as a “first-rate” army, with “crack” formations full of hundreds of thousands of mystical “hardcore jungle warriors.”

      This contradicts everything I heard from people who were there, about NVA conscript tankers who had to be chained to their seats and the hatches padlocked from the outside to prevent them from bailing out and surrendering the moment contact occurred (maybe if Saddam had heard of that one the IA would have put up a tiny bit more of a fight in 1991 or 2003), of teenage boys and old men conscripted from the slums of Hanoi and Haiphong who didn’t know any more about jungles than city boys from anywhere else.

    • Tom Kratman

      I talked to an old guy once – well he seemed old to me then but he was younger than I am now – who had a CIB with two stars. He’d been drafted before WW II, let go, then recalled after Pearl Harbor. He fought Italians and Germans as a grunt, then was sent to fight Japanese in the Pacific (one of not very many), though I don’t think he fought much in the Pacific. Then he got out.

      He came back in in 1950 for Korea and did three or so years there, still a grunt, then got out. In Korea he fought Norks and PLA.

      In 1964 or 65 – I misremember – he came back in for Vietnam, doing a preposterous number of tours there – and a little back here – before the war ended. In Vietnam he fought VC and NVA.

      At that point he decided, what the hell, I’m getting a little old; I may as well stay in another couple of years and retire.

      I asked him, of all of them – Italians, Germans, Japanese, Norks, Chinese, VC, and NVA – who were the toughest. No hesitation whatsoever on his part: “The NVA were
      the toughest and the scrapiest.”

      As for the people you talked to, did you think to ask how they knew about conscript NVA tankers locked inside their tanks and where the action was in which they found that out? It will be a toughie, because there were only a few occasions
      while we were still involved that tanks were used by them, all PT-76s, I think. I think they won most of those, which would make it quite problematic for us to have noticed the locks and suchlike.

      I’d be interested in a cite, of course.

  • James/G

    One example of how to lose a war happened in WW II, at Anzio. Robert Mitchum movie, ‘Anzio’ shows precisely how to FUBTN(Foul Up By The Numbers(.

  • Iron Spartan

    I had a few conversations over the last few years that started out with myself taking the position “You fight to win, with what ever it takes to win, or you do not fight at all.”

    It always surprised me that the first people to attack such a position were senior noncoms or officers. I was often told that I “didn’t get the big picture” or “That is to inflexible of a position for a commander to take” or, and as an 11B my favorite, “that’s easy to say if you’re not on the front line.”

    The fact that the idea of fighting to win, or not fighting at all could be attacked from the inside like that has always bothered me. More so because the loudest voices always were senior leaders.

    The grunts are still willing to fight, and to kill, and to die. At least
    many of the lower enlisted, not so sure about leadership at almost any
    echelon. The only thing they ask is that their lives not be spent cheaply or in vain. If I’m going to die, make it worth it. Grunts don’t get to make that decision for themselves, but its shouldn’t be too much to ask for the officers in charge. Not getting Dustoff and watching your buddy die because they were needed elsewhere and the war was won is a far easier pill to swallow than losing a buddy and nothing was gained.

    All that being said, the mission hasn’t been about winning for quite a while. When we go to clear out a potential strong hold with overwhelming force, and drop leaflets 3 days in advance telling them we are coming, we are not trying to win. When the ROE says that the enemies feelings are more important than our soldiers lives, we are not trying to win. When your train up includes briefings from JAG who gleefully tell you that they can’t wait to throw you in jail if someone even accuses you of violating ROE, we are not trying to win. When victory conditions include the enemy singing kumbya around a campfire with you, victory isn’t possible. So whats the point of fighting?

    • Tom Kratman

      Just to put things in perspective – though not necessarily a pleasant perspective – on an afternoon in August, IIRC, 216 BC, the Roman Republic and its subjects and allies lost as many as 80 _thousand_ men near the banks of the Aufidus River. It was the fourth major butt whipping administered to them by Hannibal…and the worst. The equivalent to us would be losing about 8 _million_ men in an afternoon.

      They went on to win the war – and command of the western world – anyway.

      About 225 years later, the loss of as few as fifteen thousand legionaries in the marshes of northwest Germany was enough to stop them in their tracks,to end expansion in that theater, even though they had a _much_ larger population they could, in theory, draw from and infinitely greater wealth.

      And then came New Years Eve, 406…

    • Neil

      In all fairness to the Romans, there were 400 years between the Teutoburg Wald and the final Sack of Rome. The Legions could, and did, hold the line for centuries.

    • Tom Kratman

      It really isn’t about the legions so much as about Roman society and values. Sure, the troops did well and, who knows, maybe we’ll hold the line on the Rio Grande for 400 years too. But we’ve still changed and not for the better.

    • Neil

      Perhaps. I will say while that growing up I never could understand much of the wars of classical Greece; There was always some faction in a city willing to throw open the gates to whatever marauding army happened to be passing by, with the inevitable result that the city was sacked yet again.

      Couldn’t understand it, that is, until recently. The last 12 years have given me an all-too-detailed insight into this mindset.

      That said, I’m not sure that Rome was wrong to retreat from Germania. It was one thing to suffer entire armies destroyed in the defense of Italy against Hannibal–the threat was literally on their doorstep. It was another thing to interrupt peace and prosperity to bring the black forests under Rome’s control.

      Certainly the rot had set in by the crisis of the 200′s, though.

    • Tom Kratman

      The factions tended to be class oriented, while any given class in a city, when in charge, tended to oppress the other class or classes. So, from their POV, why not open the gates; while the other class is in charge it isn’t _my_ city anyway.

    • Neil

      Like I said, I never could understand that attitude until about 12 years ago…

    • Tom Kratman

      The city, by the way, wasn’t usually sacked. The class that had been in power and was now out of power was generally robbed and large numbers of them would be killed, with hostages taken from still others, but the city syrrendering usually was not subject to general plunder and rapine.

    • Brian Lee Gnad

      Which is why cities tended to surrender.

    • Seamus Curran

      Tom, There is also a big difference b/w the 1st situation which was an existential threat at their doorstep and a lost in a foreign expedition

    • Tom Kratman

      Right…you think we’d not knuckle under if, in the course of a single day’s fighting, we’d lost 8 million or so military age males? Killed? Color me _deeply_ skeptical.

    • The Captain

      It’s easy to die for something if you feel your life is pointless. After a while trying do die for glory you realize that death isnt so glorious at all.

  • Ronald Homer

    In a lot of ways,it goes back to how congress and the president authorize military actions these days. Since we don’t really publish war aims, authorize drafts, or provide tax increases which are specifically earmarked for war aims, it becomes very hard to define or extrapolate how many lives our national leadership considers a fair trade for accomplishing the military objective. And when we fight wars that don’t HAVE a clear victory condition or end point, it becomes much worse.

    Personally, after studying WW1, I think that both sides should have agreed to a cease-fire and return to 1914 borders after the first four months of the war… pre-war, most analysts expected the war to be over in under a year, with total deaths on all sides in the 1-2 million range. The various war goals MIGHT have been worth that many deaths, especially for a defensive war. but after the first four months, they should have known that the war wasn’t going to end soon, and the total military casualty counts on all sides was going to hit ~16 million over six years. No-ones victory conditions for the war were worth that many deaths, compared to settling for a stalemate.

    on the other hand, the WWII casualties of ~25 million military deaths on all sides was about right for the final victory we achieved: If neccessary, I would have accepted death rates twice that high, with the western allies taking losses comparable to russia’s.

    At some point, we stopped thinking about military casualties that way. Now, instead of defining what sort of losses we’re willing to take to achieve a goal, we discuss the minimum level of victory we’ll accept so that we no longer need to spend money or lives. And we choose our wars based on how fast and easy we hope we can make them.

    • Tom Kratman

      To some extent, you’re describing propaganda in action. Propaganda almost always comes back to bite you in the ass.

      And, yes, the Great War was the war that ruined us.

      If, in some parallel universe (so that the people I care about are still around), the Germans of 1914 were to ask me for advice, it would be, for starters:

      1. You are better soldiers with a better army than your oponents. So don’t be so frigging paranoid.
      2. Your plan is silly. It depends on horse mounted recon and horse drawn resupply from distant railheads but, because you cannot know when the war will commence, you can’t know if there will be anything for the horses to _eat_.
      3. Leave Belgium alone…at least for now. Guard the border because the French will eventually try to go through there. You can occupy Luxembourg.
      4. Stand pat in the west, strike east, knock out the Russians while the French batter themselves senseless against your defenses.
      5. Stop thinking that just because something sounds logical, reasonable, fair, and just to _you_, that it will to anyone else.
      6. Plan for a long war. Turn west after the Russians are knocked out, probably 1916.

  • Rick Randall

    I’m reminded of the shock, horror, and dismay I faced when I tried to run night recon missions without web gear or helmets, and only a handful of spare magazines (one per pocket so they didn’t clank, so a max of four unless you had some 20s). I still remain unconvinced that, say, wearing 45lbs armor vests necessarily is a smart idea for *all* forces. Troops who are smoked from walking up and down the hills in armor not only won’t catch the enemy in pursuit, they are far more likely to get sucked into an ambush through exhaustion and inattention.

    Sometimes, your protective gear can make you not only less mission capable (the primary worry… or it should be…), but it actually makes the individual soldier *less* safe. But it is hard to quantify how many troops *won’t* die because “going light” kept them alert and allowed them to move faster, and all it takes is a handful of casualties who were hit where armor *would* have protected them to end careers. And *that* metric is easily measured – “Colonel, you had 10 casualties who took torso wounds because they weren’t wearing their IBA.” “But, Sir, my *overall* casualty rate and success in my sector was so much better than any comparable unit. Going light *saved* lives by ending the battles faster, on *our* terms!” “Purely speculative, Colonel – and there’s 10 dead kids we *know* armor would have saved.’

    The Zero Risk mentality not only loses wars (making ALL the casualties useless and utterly wasted), but it can actually *increase* overall casualties.

    • Tom Kratman

      I believe that is true. There’s a time and place for nearly everything, but there is nothing – barring maybe O2 and H2O – that is suitable for every time and place.

  • Denys Lalande

    “To be a good soldier you must love the army. To be a good commander you must be able to order the death of the thing you love.” [Robert E. Lee, _Gettysburg_]

  • Brian Lee Gnad

    I think at base, that this is a societal issue and has pervaded
    most or all aspects of American public life.

    Quite some while back, my wife made a very telling
    observation along the lines of “Many Americans seem to have the idea that if
    they can find just the right diet or exercise or pill, that they can live
    forever and this has warped their thinking”

    I think that this is the issue and it has seeped into the
    military at all levels because it is coming in from the populous at all levels.

    Just the thoughts from an old pog.

  • Mike Harris

    Given the speed with which our elites respond to any deployment with shrill, hysterical predictions of doom and the refusal of our leaders to commit to a decisive course of action (when was the last time a president used the word “victory?”) we may never win another war.

  • Philip Docfather Wohlrab

    My friends and I have had many discussions round the MRAP that what the Army needs is another large scale war with a parity to near parity enemy to fix much of the problem. Mind you we are all junior NCOs so what do we really know, but EO and other considerations are going to go out the air lock the moment we are ducking fire from MLRS and arty in the regimental size. I don’t think we lack the raw material to win that war, we just lack the leadership to win that war.
    As to the other commentor that was talking about morbid sense of humor, it still exists and we still measure life expectancy but only against an enemy that we probably will not fight.

  • Jamie Robertson

    If we do not have the will to win, then as Tom said, every man lost is a complete waste.

    However, what is that old warrior aphorism? If I must die, then let it not be in vain? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be willing to pour out our own’s blood like water if that is what we must do, but that we expend the lives we must in order to accomplish a mission WORTHY of expending their lives.

    It seems that most Presidents except the current one have always said that the hardest part of being President is sending our soldiers out to die. That is a good thing to say if true. It was Weber or Ringo (not sure which since it was a co-written book series) in the Empire of Man series, described leadership as loving every single one of your men as if they were all your sons and brothers, but still being able to send them out knowing that they would not come back, and enduring such a hardship because you were convinced that no one else would be able to spend their lives as wisely. Or something close to that.

    Either we are not convinced the mission is important enough to spend our soldiers’ lives on, or we have become so narcissistic that we don’t believe ANY mission is that worthy despite facts to the contrary.

  • Jason75

    “[E]very man you lose in a losing war is a waste. May as well not even
    show up. So, all to the horror of mommies throughout the land, what is
    better, at least as a theoretical and moral matter, to lose X men in a
    war you lose, or to lose X + 1 in a war you win? Especially when every
    man lost in the first case is a waste?”

    If the war must be fought, then it must be fought to win. That applies even if the cost is X+100, or X+1000, or X+100,000. Those who decide to go to war though should take your first line as guidance. If it is a war that cannot be won, or a war that need not be fought, then they should not start that war. They might start the war, but it will inevitably be fought by better men than themselves.

  • Medhat Ghabrial

    Tom Kratman: I had the opportunity to read this article and I cannot agree with you more. Thank you for the good logic and meaningful analysis. Peace :) we had a rough beginning the other day but I guess we have more in common than I have thought.

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