How to Lose a War

Michael Randazzo
4 min readOct 27, 2021


America has been busy fighting battles since her inception, and you’d think we’d be pretty good at winning wars by now. Our venture into Afghanistan is objectively a failure because after twenty years of effort, we withdrew hastily and never met our unclear objective.

The lack of a clear objective went against our politician’s initial promises. They promised a finite effort, with clear objectives, followed by a quick withdrawal. I was in Afghanistan when Osama Bin Laden was killed and I figured when I got back to my bunk, I’d start packing to go home. Bless my heart.

America’s last clear victory was World War 2, and since then, we’ve stumbled in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan along with many other ventures to try and shape the world. Libertarians will point out that World War 2 was ‘declared’ by Congress and the other efforts were not. Those ‘undeclared wars’ don’t have the same level of public support or political risk as a declared war. If we had just listened to Carl Von Clausewitz, or the Founding Fathers, maybe our track record would improve.

Clausewitz was a German soldier who was captured by Napoleon’s forces and used that setback to write a set of rules for fighting a ‘total’ war, where nations direct their whole set of resources towards the war effort. After reading this statement, you probably can already see some important differences between World War 2 and our more recent engagements.

Clausewitz most famous idea about industrial war is that to maximize the chance of victory, leaders must secure the ‘trinity’ before going to war. Although there are different translations of what the trinity consists of, I’ve come to understand that to win a war, you must have three sectors of society focused on the war effort: 1) the politicians, 2) the military and 3) the people.

While the founders weren’t thinking about an effective warfighting strategy when they granted only Congress the responsibility to declare war, they knew that lowering the bar to enter into conflict could entangle us in many poorly-directed efforts. Now, instead of ‘war’, politicians called our conflicts ‘police actions’ or ‘operations’, and this allows our politicians to send the military to war without notifying the people. Because of this, American Presidents can authorize drone strikes from the comfort of their Oval Office with no oversight or pushback. Another example of an undeclared war was the run-up was the second Iraq conquest, where Congress refrained from voting for war and avoided the political fallout when things didn’t go as planned. Americans have long been dispensing deadly force around the world without our politicians acknowledging their responsibility

For the military part of the triad, the World War military looked different than the military in the following wars. In his book ‘The Generals’, Thomas Ricks pointed to military leadership as one example. In Vietnam and Afghanistan, military leaders regularly cycle in and out on predetermined schedules. They’d get an assignment for six or twelve months, try to make some progress, and pass the reins to the next commander. In World War 2, there were no assignment cycles: Generals either completed the effort, got killed, or were fired. You can see how that simple arrangement might deter another twenty-year war.

Still, the military has been holding up its corner of the triad continuously since the beginning. But American troops know when bad policy is made, when lives are lost in vain, and when vast amounts of money are lost in a third-world desert. Further, attempts to use the military to push an agenda beyond the assigned mission also weakens the integrity of the force. The military is strongest when the troops believe they are doing good things by defending the homeland and the constitution, but too often, political maneuvering alters this course.

If you’re reading this, you’re at least part of the ‘people’ concern of Clausewitz’ equation. When you last heard of a drone strike, did you give it more than a glancing thought? If you’re like me, you sighed, wished things were different, and moved on. What would it be like if the people were really part of the equation? If you were old enough to remember September 11, 2001, you know that the news focused on the progress made, the names of the troops who died, and the famous playing cards of the high-value targets. If asked, most Americans would’ve made some sacrifice to the war effort, and in fact, some people sent gear downrange because they didn’t think the military-issued gear was adequate. I’m confident that most Americans were ready to give even more, but as the war dragged on, other news took over the headlines, and before we knew it, people who were babies in 2001 were dead in Afghanistan in 2021. As the meme said, “The Marines went to war; America went to the Mall”. In World War 2, American society was fundamentally changed by the sacrifices the people made to the war effort.

Along with the triad, Clausewitz focused on the mission. Decide your mission, focus all of your energy on that mission, and complete it. If you look at Afghanistan, the mission went from finding Osama Bin Laden, to slowing terrorist camps, to counter-insurgency, to training Afghani soldiers, and finally to withdrawing. There was no clear goal, the politicians didn’t take responsibility, the people got distracted and the military tried to keep up. This is how you lose a war.



Michael Randazzo

Grumpy old man who loves all of you.