Donald Stoker, Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and US Strategy from the Korean War to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2019)


“War is the most complex thing humans do. To seek to always impose rationality upon war—and to expect rational behavior from an opponent whose mind and passions it is impossible to fully fathom—is to ignore the reality of human behavior and experience.”

“Wars fought for limited objectives usually have more constraints placed upon their conduct because the objective or objectives sought usually are not existential and thus possess less inherent value.”

– Donald Stoker, Why America Loses Wars

In most of the wars since World War II, American senior civilian and military leaders have exhibited an aptitude for tactics and an inaptitude for strategy. Both strategy and war are hard. But war without strategy is violence without reason. A strategic predilection for tactics brings stalemated wars, perpetual wars, and meaningless wars. The fact that most of America’s wars since World War II have been limited in the ends sought and means employed is one reason why the United States has continued to confuse tactics with strategy. The other reason lies in the dearth of knowledge and understanding of strategy and war engendered by the senior leaders who embarked on those wars.

In Why America Loses Wars, Donald Stoker has given himself the ambitious purpose of designing a coherent theory for wars fought for limited political aims. Stoker has produced a relevant and necessary book on policy and strategy that is a valuable contribution to the existing corpus of works on this topic. The work does an excellent job of distilling fundamental ideas and variables form Clausewitz’s On War. The author also applies his knowledge from teaching strategy at the graduate level. The book explores and indicts America’s rather inept approach to limited wars from the Korean War to the current, post-9/11 wars. It is not certain that Stoker fulfills his purpose of fully constructing a cogent theory on limited war. What he does excellently is distill the most salient aspects of Clausewitz’s theory of war to explore the reasons for the difficulty manifest in America’s approach to these wars.

The main difficulty with limited-war strategy for America stems from a propensity for focusing on the means instead of thinking through the strategic logic that aligns the means to the political objects. This predilection poses a challenge for strategy in wars with limited aims because the values of the political objects are variable and the scope and magnitude of the violence are scalable, but not knowable. Stoker is indeed qualified to write such a book. He taught strategy for almost a decade at the US Naval Postgraduate School and has authored eleven books, including a biography of Clausewitz.

Emphasizing Means over Ends

This book aims to clarify the conceptual muddle that is typically manifest in the theoretical and historical works on limited war. Stoker finds that the literature on this subject generally defines limited war, implicitly or explicitly, by the magnitude of means that the belligerents employ rather than by the political object and its limitations in scope and value. This puts the cart before the horse and does not comport with the most important idea found in On War, that the political object and its value determine the character and scope of the war. Ends determine means, not the other way around. In other words, when waging war, America often fails to clearly define and comprehend the strategic logic that connects the fighting to the purpose of the war. This results in a focus on the how, or the means, rather than on the why and to what end, or the political object. Tactics are confused or conflated with strategy and the purpose of limited war becomes war itself, and not a victory linked to a better peace.

Stoker postulates four reasons why this is important. Firstly, all of the wars that America has waged since World War II have essentially been described as limited wars. Secondly, because senior civilian and military leaders have not understood the nature of war or its fundamentals found in Clausewitz’s On War, they have failed to comprehend or define the character of limited wars the United States has fought since 1945. Thirdly, the limited war theorists who came to the fore during the Cold War combined with the Cold War experience itself to lead many to believe that achieving victory could actually be a bad thing. Lastly, badly incongruous limited war theory has precluded an understanding and a determination to wage war decisively. If senior statesmen cannot clearly articulate what they want to achieve then it makes it exceedingly difficult for their military forces to attain victory. Because of an inability to align sufficient means against the political object in limited wars, Stoker asserts that the word “victory” has generally disappeared from policy and strategy documents.

According to Stoker this matters a great deal because if civilian and military leaders are not trying to win the war then they are not serious about trying to end the war. An unwillingness to seek victory produces perpetual war. He cites Swedish scholar Caroline Holmqvist’s work on military interventions in this century: “War is becoming perpetual or endless quite simply because the liberal world is unable to imagine conclusive endings to the wars it is currently fighting.” Moreover, the unwillingness to define, value, or seek victory in limited wars is a policy problem that bears on the military’s ability to fight the war to a successful outcome. Stoker argues that if it is not important enough to seek a victory, then it does not warrant starting a war in the first place. The result has been a series of limited wars that ended poorly or did not end at all.

From Vietnam to Afghanistan, Why Haven’t We Won?

Why America Loses Wars offers much to commend it. It is a readable book that delves into Clausewitz, strategy, and limited wars in a way that offers clear insights, relevant excerpts, and pithy quotes. For example, the chapter on fixing how statesmen think about war explains the mistake strategic leaders make by defining war by its means. The means that states employ to pursue political objects reflect the value that those states place on those objects, and so the means used to fight war contribute to the character of the war, but it remains the political objects that define war. The same chapter explains strategy, operations, and their relationship cogently. Stoker defines strategy as the use of military power to attain the political objective and operations as the conduct of campaigns to undertake the strategy.

The chapter on strategy for a limited political object expounds the requirements for a good strategy. A good strategy must be linked to an attainable and clear political object that envisages a post-war peace. A good strategy also requires a rational assessment of the enemy’s political object, capacity, and will; one’s own political object, capacity, and will; and what the potential consequences of interaction, reciprocity, and escalation could be. To be good, a strategy must include a clear understanding of the relationship between the political object, the strategy, and the sufficient means to achieve that object. In addition, policymakers must be aware of the limits of military force, and the potential costs of the war, in magnitude and duration, compared to the benefits of bringing the war to a successful end. Finally, any good strategy must have a plan for ending the war and securing the peace based on the policy aim. There is a pithy reference to Cicero at the end of the first chapter that adds emphasis to this final requirement: war is about the restoration of peace; if it does not seek this, the war is not just.

Stoker rightly dedicates an entire chapter to the political object and its value because the political object is of paramount importance in driving, guiding, and limiting war. Its value and its limits determine the costs that states are willing to pay for a successful outcome of the war. Stoker notes that there is nothing more important in war than understanding the political objects of the belligerents involved. These are the reasons why states spend resources and spill blood. This chapter explains the salience of the political object laudably and concisely. “The political object underpins the nature of the war and where and when it will be fought,” Stoker writes. Too often, though, US political leaders particularly fail to appreciate the meaning and value of the political object. Adversaries are willing to pay more and fight longer if the object is more valuable. In limited wars, the relative value of the object between the belligerents is important to understand because the limits can vary and therefore influence the will to incur costs. The importance of understanding the value of the object that the state seeks cannot be emphasized enough. Everything in war derives from the object and its value.

Victory, to paraphrase Clausewitz, is to achieve the political object for which one fights war at a cost in magnitude and duration that is commensurate with the value of that object. In limited wars fought for limited aims of modest value with circumscribed means, the magnitude and duration one is willing to incur are conditional and finite.

The Vietnam War, for example, was an enduringly controversial war for which the reason for defeat and victory for each side can be reduced to one word: attrition. For North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies, it was a war for an unlimited political object of high value from which the North derived the will to pay tremendous costs in magnitude and duration. For the United States, it was a war for a limited political object of modest value for which the American polity exhibited a conditional and circumscribed will to pay the costs of a protracted war. “The erosion of public support for the war ground away American will,” Stoker writes. For the North, attrition was a winning strategy; for the United States it was a losing idea that was utterly incongruous with the political object it sought.

Interpreting Yesterday’s Wars

The number of things in this book open to dispute or criticism are few. This work offers much more to commend than to impugn. It is a compact work of sound scholarship with a formidable bibliography that explores those essential factors, precepts, and variables from Clausewitz and other theorists that pertain to understanding limited wars and America’s difficulty with them in aligning means and ends to achieve victory or success. This review essay has focused more on Stoker’s keen analysis of the logic of war as it pertains to limited war than the grammar and history of fighting the limited wars that he explores. The book aptly examines the limited wars the United States has undertaken from the Korean War to the post-9/11 wars. It also refers to a number of other wars that help amplify key aspects of his arguments.

There are essentially two things open to correction or dispute. The first one is a minor criticism and it is about the incorrect use of obsolescent Pentagon jargon. The US Department of Defense rightfully rescinded battlespace in 2011 for being unhelpful and unclear. It was an example of the gibberish that a large bureaucratic machine generates. The second critique is more substantive, but also interpretive. This relates to some of the author’s central and ancillary analyses and assertions about the limits and the values of the political objects for various belligerents in the wars he examines. Some of his views on the Americans in the American Revolution, both sides in the American Civil War, the Japanese in World War II, North Vietnam in the Vietnam War, and counterinsurgents in any war diverge markedly from my interpretation and understanding of Clausewitz, strategy, and war. His most significant and disputable assertion among the aforementioned was that the American Civil War was a limited war for both sides, and not an existential war, one fought for survival with fully mobilized means.

Still, these are criticisms of interpretation, and despite the book’s divergence from my own understanding, it does not strip the book of its value in helping provide a framework to think about limited wars and why the United States has struggled to achieve victory in them.

In Why America Loses Wars, Stoker offers practitioners, scholars, and students of international security, strategy, and war a valuable and compelling work of scholarship. This must be essential reading for those who want to better grasp the theory of war and the character of limited war. It provides great analysis and distillation of the most important factors from Clausewitz on the nature of war and the character of limited wars. Stoker candidly and cogently explains some of the most essential ideas that Clausewitz penned on war, and in ways that will be readily understandable by a range of readers.

He also correctly identifies and amplifies what has plagued and prevented senior civilian and military leaders from clearly thinking about and understanding the wars that they have undertaken for limited aims with limited means. None of these post–World War II limited wars have met full and unqualified success.

The purpose of strategy is to logically link the violence of war to a policy that could not otherwise be fulfilled with nonviolent instruments of political intercourse. Tactics, or battles, aggregate into operations. Cumulative operations can coherently build into campaigns with the adroit design of operational art. All of the aforementioned comprise the violence of war. The purpose of war’s violence in theory is to serve policy but in practice this becomes impossible if the logic of strategy is missing or misunderstood. There is both an expectation and an imperative that senior civilian and military leaders, or statesmen and commanders, possess the knowledge and judgment to understand the character of a war before they undertake it.

They must understand what they want to achieve and how much they are willing to pay for it in magnitude and duration. In Clausewitz’s terms, this is the political object and its value. As importantly, these senior leaders should have some comprehension of the political object and the relative value of that object for their enemy. A failure to understand any of these factors equates to a failure to understand “the kind of war on which they are embarking.” This is because the political objects and the relative values of those objects, with the concomitant will of the belligerents to incur the costs and sacrifices to attain their objects, essentially determine the limited or unlimited character of the war. In On War, Clausewitz emphasizes that the smaller the value of the political object, the less value policymakers will place upon it and the more easily they will be induced to abandon it. However, the difficulty with labeling a war “limited” is that the enemy’s objective may be unlimited, with a higher value, reflecting more will to pay the costs in duration and magnitude. In the Vietnam War, for example, the United States had a limited objective of lower value relative to North Vietnam. Stoker concisely summarizes the problem this asymmetry posed for America. It failed to achieve “success within the time its people would stomach a large commitment to the war.”

The purpose of war is to serve policy. Unchecked by reason, unguided by policy, the nature of war is to serve itself. When war serves itself, absent strategy, it is violence serving violence. In theory, we fight wars to fulfill a political purpose and to achieve objectives by aligning the means and methods of war toward that purpose. In theory, the purpose of war is a better peace. In theory, there is no difference between the theory and practice of war, but as history has shown repeatedly, in practice there is.

War and violence decoupled from strategy and policy—or worse yet, mistaken for strategy and policy—have contributed to long wars that ended badly, like the Vietnam War, or wars without ends, like Afghanistan and Iraq. In its wars since September 11, 2001, the United States has accrued some of the most capable, best equipped, and most seasoned combat forces of the remembered past. These forces win battles, execute raids, and conduct strikes with great agility and skill. But absent strategy, these tactical and operational successes where forces assault compounds to kill or capture insurgents and terrorists are ephemeral. Strikes and raids that kill or capture enemy leaders do disrupt and impede Islamist terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamist State, but they are not decisive and do not equate to strategy or strategic victory. When not linked to political objectives tied to an end with a better peace, successful raids and strikes are just tactics, without enduring meaning or strategic consequence.


Robert Cassidy, PhD, is a retired US Army colonel. He is the Andersen Fellow n Defense and Foreign Policy at Wesleyan University and an adjunct scholar with the Modern Warfare Institute. He has served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any of the institutions with which the author is associated.


Image credit: Sgt. Duke Tran, US Army