'Anatomy Of Failure': An Analysis Of Why America Keeps Losing Wars

The Long March
A machine gun crew with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, sets up an overwatch position during a foot patrol May 8, 2012, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan.
Lauren Katzenberg

In Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts, Harlan Ullman provides a fascinating blend of tactical analysis, personal memoir, and strategic assessment covering the past six decades of the American experience at war. Drawing on his own experiences as a decorated Vietnam War swift boat commander as well as his lifetime of strategic study, he tries to answer a question that has plagued policy-makers across the political spectrum since the end of World War II: Why does the United States keep losing wars?


Ullman was one of the architects of the doctrine of “shock and awe” that was used effectively in the first Persian Gulf War, and in this new volume he advocates what he describes as the “brains based approach.” At the heart of his criticism of U.S. national policy is simple inexperience in the oval office, and the resultant inability of a series of presidents, Kennedy to Trump, to think in coherent strategic terms. Instead they have fallen victim to conflicting domestic political constraints, insufficiently informed advice, their own personal inclinations, and inadequate determination to act decisively.

While he certainly takes the “glass half empty” approach in examining all of the conflicts — and tends to skim over more successful outcomes in the Cold War or in places like Colombia and the Balkans — Ullman’s basic thesis is correct. We have become less successful over the past decades, beginning with the failures in Vietnam and continuing to the frustrations today in Iraq and Afghanistan. While it is too soon to predict the outcome of the latter two scenarios, it is obvious that our nation has paid too high a price in blood and treasure given the strategic value of either country, especially Afghanistan.

But nations are like people. That is, they can choose to learn from their mistakes and emerge stronger. The “brains-based approach” has three elements: First, it is relentlessly knowledge-based, which means bringing in the real experts and learning all that can be absorbed about a potential conflict zone. Second, it requires understanding that the 21st century is different, the Westphalian state system is weakening, transnational forces are at play, and we are on a much more complex chessboard than ever before. Third and finally, the “brains-based” approach focuses on the mind of the adversary, seeking to overcome the will of the adversary. Shot through the entire book is a commendable appreciation for learning the lessons of history.

None of this is fundamentally new or surprising. But what is surprising is that our national leadership, on both sides of the aisle, has failed to adopt a truly strategic approach post-World War II. The cover of the book features an evocative photograph of the helmet, rifle, and boots of a fallen U.S. trooper, probably in Afghanistan. It is a powerful symbol of the enormous cost of failure in the context of war. Hopefully, by writing such a challenging and “truth to power” book as Anatomy of Failure, Harlan Ullman will influence the way our national leaders approach the possibility of further armed conflict overseas.

Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.) was 16th Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and is now dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Pearl Harbor survivor Lauren Bruner attends the dual interment of fellow USS Arizona survivors John D. Anderson, boatswain's mate 2nd class, and Clarendon R. Hetrick, seaman 1st class, at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, as part of the 75th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Somers Steelman)

Just before 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning 78 years ago, Lauren Bruner was preparing for church services and a date that would follow with a girl he'd met outside his Navy base.

The 21-year-old sailor was stationed as a fire controlman aboard the U.S. battleship USS Arizona, overseeing the vessel's .50-caliber guns.

Then alarms rang out. A Japanese plane had bombed the ship in a surprise attack.

It took only nine minutes for the Arizona to sink after the first bomb hit. Bruner was struck by gunfire while trying to flee the inferno that consumed the ship, the second-to-last man to escape the explosion that killed 1,177, including his best friend; 335 survived.

More than 70% of Bruner's body was burned. He was hospitalized for weeks.

Now, nearly eight decades after that fateful day, Bruner's ashes will be delivered to the sea that cradled his fallen comrades, stored in an urn inside the battleship's wreckage.

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Joshua Kaleb Watson (Facebook via Business Insider)

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

Joshua Kaleb Watson has been identified as one of the victims of a shooting at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, CBS News reported.

The 23-year-old Alabama native and Naval Academy graduate was named to the Academy's prestigious Commandant's and Dean's lists, and also competed on the rifle team, Alabama's WTVY reported.

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Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani (Courtesy photo)

PENSACOLA, Fla. (Reuters) - The Saudi airman accused of killing three people at a U.S. Navy base in Florida appeared to have posted criticism of U.S. wars and quoted slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on social media hours before the shooting spree, according to a group that monitors online extremism.

Federal investigators have not disclosed any motive behind the attack, which unfolded at dawn on Friday when the Saudi national is said to have began firing a handgun inside a classroom at the Naval Air Station Pensacola.

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Saudi air force Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed al-Shamrani (NBC News)

The Saudi military officer who shot and killed 3 people at Naval Air Station Pensacola on Friday reportedly hosted a "dinner party" the week before the attack "to watch videos of mass shootings," the Associated Press reports, citing an unnamed U.S. official.

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Soldiers from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) hold folded flags before military funeral honors. (U.S. Army/Elizabeth Fraser)

The Minnesota National Guard has released the names of the three soldiers killed in Thursday's helicopter crash.

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