What Has the U.S. Learned from Its Military History

U.S. troops take their positions during a combined assault exercise at a beach facing one of the contested islands off the So
U.S. troops take their positions during a combined assault exercise at a beach facing one of the contested islands off the South China Sea known as Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at the Naval Education and Training Command at San Antonio township, Zambales province, northwest of Manila, Philippines. More than ten thousand troops from both the US and Philippine militaries are taking part in the annual military drill that focuses on regional security, terrorism, disaster preparedness and inter-operability of both countries. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Ever since the American Revolutionary War, a startling statistic has emerged: the U.S. has not lost a single conventional war, but not won even a single guerrilla war. What can be learned from this experience?

Before arriving at the obvious answer, consider that the trillions of dollars that the U.S. spends on conventional weapons is largely neutralized in guerrilla wars by such cheap and homemade weapons as improvised explosive devices. Guerrilla opponents can employ, and have employed the most inhumane, barbarous tactics, which though very effective, especially in long and drawn out wars, cannot and should not be morally countered with similar tactics by any civilized country on earth.

Generals can be blamed for so often fighting the last war, as when in World War I they mindlessly ordered massive infantry and cavalry charges in the face of machine guns which mowed them down by the millions, or as the French generals did in the early phases of World War II when they relied on fixed defensive positions such as the Maginot Line, which German blitzkrieging tanks simply went around.

But politicians can and should be blamed for choosing the wrong kind of war for their generals to fight. In Gulf War I, the U.S. faced one of the largest conventional military forces in the world, but easily dispatched Saddam's forces in a manner of days with technologically advanced conventional weapons. Then having achieved its limited objective of expelling the invaders of Kuwait, American forces withdrew, victorious, intact and with only a relative handful of battlefield casualties. In Gulf War II, however, the U.S. insisted on staying and engaging in a protracted guerrilla war of the kind it has never won before, and probably never will. As in the closing days of the Vietnam War, Americans are treated to the horrifying spectacle of U.S. weapons being confiscated by victorious and ruthless guerrillas overrunning the hapless conventional indigenous forces that the U.S. purported to "train" in hopes of replacing withdrawing U.S. troops -- a delusive strategy which is working no better in Iraq today than President Richard Nixon's futile "Vietnamization" strategy.

No doubt, the politicians will yet again learn the wrong lessons from the previous war. After World War I, the "lesson" learned by British and American politicians was that those countries should never again be involved in a European war. This wrong lesson ultimately led to unpreparedness, Munich, and an ultimately unavoidable war against Fascism. After the Korean War, which preserved a democratic and prosperous South Korea, the politicians yet again learned the wrong lesson by failing to see the difference between conventional war in Korea and a guerrilla civil war in Vietnam -- another wrong lesson which yet again ultimately led to the disastrous defeat of the United States.

In the early 1960s when U.S. politicians, determined to contain communism, were faced with the choice of a five day conventional war against the imminent nuclear threat in Cuba, or a futile ten-year guerrilla war in Vietnam, they inevitably chose the latter based on the wrong lessons learned -- yet again, letting the enemy choose the battlefield.

Let us hope that history really doesn't repeat itself as we watch the spectacle now occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it probably already has.