Editor’s note: The following is adapted from the author’s new book, Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and US Strategy from the Korean War to the Present.


In war there is nothing more important than understanding the political objective or objectives of the combatants involved. This is the why of the war; the reasons the warring states and insurrectionist groups such as Islamic State spill blood and spend treasure. Sometimes the objective is masked by religious or ideological terms, but there is always some underlying political concern. States go war to get something they want or to preserve what they have. Carl von Clausewitz provides the keystone for analysis of all wars by reminding us that “war can be of two kinds, in the sense that either the objective is to overthrow the enemy [an unlimited aim]—to render him politically helpless or militarily impotent, thus forcing him to sign whatever peace we please; or merely to occupy some of his frontier-districts [a limited aim] so that we can annex them or use them for bargaining at the peace negotiations.” The political aim provides the basis for understanding the nature of the war being fought, something Clausewitz insists is the job of both the military and political leaders, and to which he provides a related admonition: “No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses should do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” The last part of the passage demonstrates a key reason why understanding the political objective is so important. Everything else flows from this: “The political object—the original motive for the war—will thus determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires.”

But since the Second World War, the United States has too often had a problem determining its political aim as well as relaying it to the service members charged with achieving it. If you don’t know the political objective, what aim are you trying to achieve by fighting the war? If you don’t know what you are trying to achieve, why are you fighting? If you can’t answer these questions, you cannot define victory in the war (not on the battlefield, a sometimes-overlooked distinction), which makes it a lot harder to win the war and end it.

This failure of US political leaders to provide or explain the desired objectives is more prevalent historically than generally realized. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was rightly fired by President Harry Truman for insubordination, but what is forgotten in all of this is MacArthur’s accurate complaint in the wake of the Chinese intervention in Korea that he had not received clear political guidance from his civilian and military superiors regarding what he was supposed to achieve now that the Chinese intervention had changed the nature of the war. MacArthur testified about this in the congressional hearings held in the wake of his relief: “I felt that the position I was in, the military position, was untenable without having some directive, some mission which was more realistic than that which existed at the time; and I felt, in all conscience, I could not go on ordering men to their deaths by the thousands, in such a complete vacuum of policy decisions.”

MacArthur’s complaint against the Truman administration (at least in this case) is backed by the simultaneous experience of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. US Army Chief of Staff Gen. J. Lawton Collins, MacArthur’s superior, noted the key problem: the military leaders kept trying to get the State Department to detail the political objectives now that the Chinese had intervened, but the diplomats would only respond by asking for the delineation of military capabilities. Gen. Matthew Ridgway (MacArthur’s subordinate and then replacement) corroborates Collins’s assessment of MacArthur’s views, noting that in a December 26, 1950, meeting MacArthur said they seemed to be operating in a “mission vacuum.”

As the UN forces continued their retreat and approached the 38th parallel, the Joint Chiefs and representatives of the State Department met to discuss the future course of action. Collins noted that just as in January 1951, the State Department refused to deliver a political objective in Korea “until military capabilities there were established,” while the Joint Chiefs wanted a political decision so they could determine the required military courses of action. Collins eloquently described the problem:

The State Department representatives were laboring under the same basic difficulty as the Chiefs: the lack of a clear United States or United Nations policy [objective] with respect to Korea in the light of the existing circumstances. Such a policy could only be determined by the National Security Council for the United States—and, for all practical purposes, for the United Nations—and by the heads of state of the nations actively participating in the war. On the other hand, the National Security Council needed recommendations from the State Department staff and the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] to assist it in determining the basic policy. This was what the State-JCS discussions were struggling to provide. But under our American philosophy that the military should be subservient to civilian control—to which the JSC fully subscribed—it follows as a corollary that military considerations should rarely be the deciding factor in determining national policy.

What Collins failed to do here was to point out the obvious: President Harry S. Truman and his chief foreign policy advisor, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, had failed to fulfill their responsibilities as leaders by not addressing this critical issue.

The confusion over the policy aim continued through the winter and early spring of 1951. At a February 13, 1951, Joint Chiefs–State Department meeting, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Omar Bradley said that the political objective needed to be decided and then the military requirements for achieving this could be determined. When Ridgway replaced MacArthur he encountered the same problem: a lack of clear policy direction. But he also suffered from confused military guidance and contradictory constraints. One of Ridgway’s first acts as commander was to have his staff review all relevant directives and at one point even tried to write his own orders, an effort the Joint Chiefs of Staff rebuffed.

The May 1951 congressional hearings on MacArthur’s relief focused a lot of attention upon issues surrounding the war. On May 17, 1951, Truman approved NSC 48/5, which essentially agreed with a Joint Chiefs recommendations of April 5, 1951. Finally, this clarified the political objective and Collins had a new directive written for Ridgway that was sent on May 31, 1951. Ridgway’s orders (and the political aim) became to terminate the war at the 38th parallel.

All of this demonstrates terrible indecision at the top of the Truman administration. Moreover, a firm decision regarding the political and military objectives being sought by the administration was only made “after General MacArthur, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the senatorial investigating committee investigating General MacArthur’s dismissal had attempted to discover what we were trying to accomplish in the war.”

A Vietnam War example illustrates this issue in a different way. Soldier-scholar Harry Summers, author of the influential On Strategy, argues that the United States lacked a clear political objective during its war in Vietnam. He backs this by demonstrating the numerous justifications given for the US intervention in Indochina as well as revealing the results of a survey of US Army general officers holding commands in Vietnam that showed 70 percent of them did not understand the political objective.

Summers was mistaken regarding the political aim. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara clearly articulated the US political objective in South Vietnam in a March 16, 1964 document that became National Security Action Memorandum 288. “We seek an independent non-Communist South Vietnam,” it noted. “We do not require that it serve as a Western base or as a member of a Western Alliance. South Vietnam must be free, however, to accept outside assistance as required to maintain its security. This assistance should be able to take the form not only of economic and social measures but also police and military help to root out and control insurgent elements.” McNamara also explained the object’s value, insisting that “unless we can achieve this objective in South Vietnam, almost all of Southeast Asia will probably fall under Communist dominance (all of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).” This would, McNamara argued, then make many other states in the broader region susceptible to Communist influence or domination and threaten Americas allies in the hemisphere.

Why Summers’s account is important is because it reveals two related problems: the failure of the Lyndon Johnson administration’s civilian and military leaders to ensure its general officers were aware of the political aims the United States sought to achieve in South Vietnam, and the failure of these generals to find out for themselves the purpose of the war in which they were fighting. This is a dangerous situation to have.

In an August 2, 1990 meeting that included Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell, there was a back-and-forth discussion about how the United States should respond to Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait. Powell, worried the US public would not support it, was reluctant to use military force over the fate of Kuwait. As the conversation extended, Cheney pressed Powell for options regarding how the United States could use its military power against Iraq. Powell, for his part, insisted that his civilian leaders first provide the political objectives they wanted to achieve. Growing irritated, Cheney exploded at Powell, growling, “I want some options, General.” “Yes, Mr. Secretary,” Powell replied, and the meeting ended. Powell’s critics could argue that his efforts during the Gulf War to discourage fighting a war over Kuwait were out of bounds, but his insistence upon his political masters actually deciding what they want before they take the country to war is to be applauded loudly. Powell was asking the right question.

This problem has remained and is bipartisan. In a 2014 speech, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey noted that when the military leaders are consulted by their civilian superiors, the military leaders want to know the objective being sought. The civilian leaders respond by asking for options for how to deal with a particular problem. Dempsey has described a familiar cycle.

Since the time of the Truman administration, American leaders too often have failed to understand the overwhelming importance of knowing what the United States wants to accomplish and what this means. If they don’t understand this, they don’t understand anything else because they haven’t grasped the context of American actions nor those of the enemy. Clausewitz railed against this in 1827 when asked to evaluate a pair of defensive war plans sent by a former subordinate, replying that he couldn’t usefully assess them because he did not know the political objective the plans were supposed to help achieve. This persistent problem can only be solved by better educating our civilian and military leaders in regard to their roles in the formulation of policy and strategy. Undoubtedly, on too many occasions the task of trying to teach political leaders the importance of this will fall to US military leaders (see the Powell example above), and it will be a thankless one that could very well endanger the leader’s career. But it is imperative that it be done when necessary and will require great moral courage on the part of the unfortunate military commander in this position. When the political aim is decided, the political leaders must ensure the military leaders know what is desired, while the military leaders have a duty to seek out the political objective if it isn’t clear to them. Better understanding the importance and necessity of a clear political aim will help address at least one problem America faces in fighting and winning its wars.


Dr. Donald Stoker is the author and editor of eleven books. His most recent work is Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and U.S. Strategy from the Korean War to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2019). He is currently writing American Grand Strategy, 1775­–2020 for Basic Books.