Afghanistan: Has America ever lost a war?

If it was possible to assemble all American presidents who have ever presided over a war, it’s conceivable that none of them would acknowledge that, on his watch, America has ever lost a war.

We do know that Washington won the Revolutionary War, although technically that was prior to him becoming president.  Madison would declare that America won the War of 1812, and with the help of future president Andrew Jackson he did.  President James K. Polk would be correct in stating that the U.S. won the Mexican-American War, because the U.S. annexed considerable territory, but many Mexicans, Texans, and even New Mexicans say, to this day, that 170 years later the war is not over, and the Mexicans shall yet prevail.

What is rarely clear is whether America has lost a war – too many conflicts have ended in ambiguity.  What is always clear is that no president wants to be regarded as the first to have lost a war.  Just as history is often rewritten by the victors, or the persons who think that they were the victors, contemporary events follow the same pattern.  No matter how doubtful it might that the U.S. won a war, the chief executive will call it a “victory with honor.”

President Barack Obama is currently facing that problem with Afghanistan.  While brave American men and women are fighting against the Taliban and other adversaries of the U.S., the Americans cannot gain the popular support of the Afghani people.  Inadvertent events consistently occur that undermine the good will that American is trying to generate.  It might be accidental bombings of civilians in villages; it might be burning copies of the Koran, it might be a staff sergeant suffering from PTSD who guns down seventeen innocent civilians in a village.  American leaders duly apologize and say that it will never happen again.  However, it does.

The devastation brought to innocent Afghanis has resulted in increased opposition to the war by the American public.  A recent New York Times / CBS News poll indicated that 69% of Americans think that the U.S. should not be involved in the war in Afghanistan, up from 53 % in November 2011.

President Obama has given indirect indications that the U.S. may exit Afghanistan sooner than previously pronounced.  What he has not done is to say that the U.S. is not winning the war, and that the best alternative is to exit.  His strategy is essentially the same as that of all previous American presidents who were in office during other wars.

Abraham Lincoln presided over the Union’s victory over the Confederacy, but with 600,000 soldiers killed and resentments about the conflict bitter to this day, it certainly was not a clear-cut victory.

During the administration of President William McKinley, the Spanish-American War was fought, although the question might be raised, For what?”  The war was ignited by the “yellow journalism” of William Randolph Heart, and while the U.S. gained territory, it did so in a somewhat questionable way.

World War I under Woodrow Wilson was tragic, but also necessary.  Only one member of Congress voted against the declaration of war. World War II was devastating on two fronts; again only one member of Congress voted against the Declaration.  Journalist / writer Tom Brokaw called those who fought in and supported those in World War II “the greatest generation.”

The Korean War from 1950-53 was brutal and frustrating.  It ended where it began; with North Korea and South Korea separated at the 38th parallel.  The U.S. could have ramped up its forces, but China could have sent more reinforcements to help the North.  It was generally deemed as wise to agree on an extended armistice.  Many men and women fought in the conflict, but with the primary achievement being their bravery and fortitude; not a military victory with territory gained or an aggressive force defeated.  All the same, Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, who were commanders in chief during the war, could not come to call the conflict a draw; they saw it is a successful American stand against communism.

The Vietnam War actually had its roots in World War II. as France tried to maintain its colonial power over most of Southeast Asia.  As the United States tried to accomplish what the French failed to do, the conflict became one of trying once and for all to end communist aggression.  Years of fighting settled little, and by 1975 the United States had decided (1) that the threat of communism was not as great as it has previously thought, and (2) even if it was, the U.S. had very little chance of achieving a clear victory over the amorphous entity known as the communist world.

One war that brought an element of peace and stability was the American involvement in Kosovo and other Balkan states.  Under President Clinton, the U.S. used air power to essentially end ethnic conflict in a very troubled part of the world.

As we entered the 21st Century, the success of U.S. military engagement soured, but that did not keep presidents Bush and Obama from declaring victory, whether justified or not.  Iraq was clearly a misbegotten war which caused enormous physical and emotional trauma to Iraqis and Americans.  Saddam Hussein was removed from power, but conflict and brutality remain in one of the countries that oncewas called the ‘cradle of civilization.”

American incursion into Afghanistan following 911 made sense, as forces sought to track down Osama bin Laden and destroy al Qaeda.  However, President Bush, under the influence of his neo-con friends, chose to focus more on Iraq, which had nothing to do with 911, rather than Afghanistan, which at that time was as close to a headquarters that bin Laden and al Qaeda had.  He essentially forfeited both wars, and President Obama has extended the conflict in Afghanistan well beyond what would have been reasonable and at the expense of thousands of Afghani, Pakistani, American, and other NATO troops.

What remains constant through all the wars that America has fought is the unwillingness of either our Presidents and, in many cases, the populace to acknowledge failure.  Like his 43 predecessors, President Obama does not want to be the first president to acknowledge that it was on his watch that the United States lost a war. However, there always is the strategy that has been considered more than once when the U.S. was in a similar position: Declare victory and leave.  President Obama may be moving in that direction.  He could do American GIs, the American people, and Afghani civilians a big boost by uttering those words now.

Arthur Lieber Arthur Lieber (309 Posts)

Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.


  • Danny224

    Arthur, Why is the 1812 war viewed as a victory? The US invaded Canada and was soundly beaten, the Brits and Canadians pushed them all the way back, before US pride was recovered a nice tune was written and everyone went back to the status quo.

  • Arthurlieber07

    It was not exactly a victory for the U.S. but President Madison never saw it as anything else.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002815981297 Mugsy’s RapSheet

    I think the REAL question is if America has ever actually “WON” a war. Even WWII… most notably Japan becoming an economic powerhouse that decimated the American auto industry in the 70′s, and the electronics industry in the 80′s & 90′s.

  • Keefer

    I suspect most Canadians would be pretty surprised to learn that we lost the War of 1812!

  • sus_scrofa

    There is nothing “inadvertent” about the US support for brutal Afghan warlords that are making Afghanistan hell on earth and the corrupt Karzai government. There is nothing “inadvertent” about the US torture camp at Bagram. There is nothing “inadvertent” about the fact that 90% of the world’s opium is produced in Afghanistan “despite” total American control of  the country for a decade. There are plenty of reasons for Afghans not to support the US and the mayor of Kabul, not just the stuff that the media choses to report. Counterinsurgency is aimed at terrorizing the civilian population into submission by its very nature. 

    As for the Kosovo war stopping ethnic cleansing, the US role was wholly negative. The US stage managed the KLA, directing them to attack Serbs to maximize retaliation. When the KLA got beat, the US imposed a “ceasefire” to allow the KLA to regroup and rearm. The Kosovo war was also finished with ethnic cleansing, but of Serbs, Roma and other non-Albanian groups.

  • Gerald Callow

    Well, they didn’t invade very hard, as “Americans then believed that many in Upper Canada would rise up and greet a United States invading army as liberators, which did not happen.”

    Sounds familiar, eh?

  • Thomas Ware

    The Seminole Wars of Florida ended also in ambiguity.

  • Stepper997

    With that latitude, I guess the REAL question would be if ANYONE has ever actually won ANY war.  There’s no more Rome, no more Qin dynasty, no more British empire.  But that might seem specious, but then so is your comment.  I, personally, do think that American Revolution thing worked out okay.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_FIOL77QXBZFVVVB7BLPWFSX6E4 thekidde

    Having been a combat infantry officer in Vietnam in 1968, the son of a Marine Corps NCO in WWII and the father of a son who is currently a combat infanty officer in Afghanistan, I can say the US hasn’t “won” a war since WWII.   And of course the results of WWII were really a continuing waste of blood and treasure since then on politico-religious-corporate nonsense promoted by the elitist war profiteers on all sides as well as religious f*cknuts.

  • theanarchistmedic

    in regards to your comments about afghanistan…having been deployed to afghanistan in the full “counterinsurgency” phase of the war, i can honestly say that you don’t know what you are talking about. counterinsurgency is what happens when an IED producer lets his 9 children get blown up in their living room because he didn’t build his bomb properly, his only only living son gets brought to my aid station by his neighbor and we not only save the boys life but the army fronts the bill for this 8 year old boy to receive prosthetic eyes that cost $10,000 dollars a piece, and then after that boy gets medevac’d to a higher level of care, you load up in your trucks, drive out to where this whole shindig took place and you help everyone else that suffered only minor wounds. they then tell you that the father who built the IED has family in such and such village and you can most likely find him there, not because we put a gun to their face and said “WTF IS THIS GUY” but because we saved a boys life, and then we came to make sure the rest of the village was alright.

    US torture camp at Bagram…there’s a detainment center at Bagram, where bad guys caught doing bad things are held temporarily, sure some people probably mistreated the prisoners but in the military we ARE held under various laws that relate to how you are to handle POW’s and detained civilians so by calling a detainment facility a “torture camp” you’re once again just holding a big sign that says “i’m ignorant and blindly obedient to everyone else that opposes all war”

    90% of the world’s opium is produced in afghanistan…i highly doubt it’s 90%, especially since now the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Uniformed Police arrest opium farmers and burn down their fields (seen firsthand), but you probably read 90% somewhere else that had uncited sources and thought “YEAH THIS WILL DEFINITELY HELP THE CAUSE OF MAKING AMERICA’S MILITARY LOOK LIKE THE BIGGEST PIECES OF SHIT IN ALL EXISTENCE” and just stuck with it, or you don’t actually know how much opium is produced in Afghanistan so you just put a high number there for shock and awe purposes.

    “despite” total American control of the country for a decade…HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA i shouldn’t even say anything to that but that would just be ignorant of me and I don’t wanna stoop to your level…when you’re deployed to Afghanistan (excluding big fobs like Bagram of course), you will most likely be on what’s called a COP (combat out post), most COPs usually hold about 30-40 Soldiers and sometimes they’ll have up to 100. Each COP usually has an area of about 5 to 30 square miles that is considered its “battle space” meaning that’s where those Soldiers operate out of…do you honestly think that 30 Soldiers can have “total” control over 5 square miles? Do you honestly think 100 Soldiers can have total control over 30 square miles?

    I’m not saying America is right being in Afghanistan, I’m not saying we’re making the world a better place…but after helping to build clinics, schools, police stations, and other necessary infrastructure facilities that facilitate a government taking care of its citizens, I can honestly say that the US Military does more to help in Afghanistan than anyone else is currently trying to do.

    And the sad truth is, until you’ve been there and experienced firsthand what’s going on, until you’ve had to save the life of the guy that just shot your best friend in the chest with an RPG from 20 feet away, until you’ve seen the respect and appreciation that the majority of the Afghan civilians show for the things the US has done in Afghanistan, you won’t understand any of this. all you’ll comprehend is the bullshit you read from people that do what ever the hell they can to make the military look like shit, all you’ll get from reading this is “this ignorant grunt, he probably supports a war with Iran, too. fascist pig. Barbarian. Statist. Probably a Christian republican from Texas that thinks everyone needs to carry a gun with them at all times and thinks that women belong in the kitchen or in the bedroom” and that’s really sad if i’m right.

  • AHL

    Let me say to theanarchistmedic that I apologize for anything in the post that may have been disparaging towards the men and women who have served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam. As theanarchistmedic points out, there are many things that American troops have done for the Afghan people. There have also been problems. I should not have painted the picture with such a broad brush. For that I am sorry and hope that you will accept my apology.

  • jim adams

    Oh c’mon … Nixon lost Viet Nam to a peasant culture, particularly ironic after his “I have a Plan” reiteration turned out to be introducing hi tech, machines, chemicals, bombers and tried to saturate the north with these machines poisonous and destructive droppings. And America was taken down by peasants with guns and sandals. Our final leaving was struggling to get in helicopters as unfriendly fire bullets were whizzing around

    We deserved it, since this was a war Johnson created to create money to pull the American economy out of a doldrums. (that part of it was fairly successful) Somewhen around the time of JFK’s death, he’s quoted as saying he asked some economists: Historically, what has pulled the US economy out of a tailspin, and they answered “War….”. So that’s what he gave us and our economy improved. I don’t believe Nixon knew that and so he lost the war as well as his domestic crookedness

    And then technically GWB lost Iraq, tho his luck was in that he could hand it to President Obama who just ended it, and he ended the war on terror, and is ending the war in Afghanistan. Obama didn’t try to win or lose any of those. He just ended them.

    And finally, there is GWB’s war on corporate taxes. It looks like corporations won’t win as big as Republicans talked they would, tho this dance isn’t over.