James Joyner provocatively argues in the National Interest on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War that “it has been nearly seventy years since America’s last successful major war.” It’s a provocative argument well in keeping with the pessimistic mood of the moment. But is it true?
Well, there’s the Cold War. Joyner concedes we definitely won it, but it was “fundamentally a contest of political systems and economies” and therefore “wasn’t a war in a literal sense.” I think the Russian version of Joyner would be counting the Cold War as a loss for his side, but fair enough.
The Korean War seems like a relatively successful endeavor. As Joyner concedes, the war’s goal was to repeal the North Korean invasion, and we succeeded. Nope, says Joyner. Since the military overreached and tried to unify all of Korea, and failed, “getting back to that point took an additional two and a half years of better fighting and incurred the bulk of U.S. killed in action during this period, it’s difficult to regard it other than as a failure.” By that standard, you could probably also argue that the Union lost the Civil War.
What about the Gulf War? That seems to have fulfilled its goals. Doesn’t count, says Joyner: “It was not a major war in any meaningful sense. The whole conflict lasted less than seven months and the actual fighting took six weeks.”
So the method here is that if a war takes too long, it’s not successful, and if it happens too fast, it’s not major. The method of ruling out conflicts that are won too quickly also, naturally, excludes interventions in the Balkans and Libya.
Obviously, the whole idea of a successful military operation often entails avoiding a major war. If the warnings of opponents of the Libya intervention had turned out to be correct, we’d have troops on the ground there right now and it would count as a major war. We didn’t. So, whatever his argument is trying to do, it isn’t helping us figure out whether uses of military force have worked.