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The Limits of U.S. Military Capability

Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq

James H. Lebovic

Publication Year: 2010

Political scientist James H. Lebovic establishes that the size, strength, flexibility, and adaptability of the U.S. military cannot ensure victory in asymmetrical conflicts. In The Limits of U.S. Military Capability, Lebovic shows how political and psychological factors trumped U.S. military superiority in Vietnam and Iraq, where inappropriate strategies, low stakes, and unrealistic goals mired the United States military in protracted, no-win conflicts. Lebovic contends that the United States is at a particular disadvantage when fighting a counterinsurgency without the full support of the host government; when leveraging various third parties (the adversary's foreign allies, societal leaders, and indigenous populations); when attempting to build coalitions and nations while involved in combat; and when sustaining government and public support at home when costs rise and benefits decline. Lebovic cautions against involving the U.S. military in operations without first considering U.S. stakes and suggests that the military take a less-is-more approach when choosing to employ force. Ambitious goals bring higher costs, unexpected results, diminished options, and a greater risk of failure. Rejecting the heavy-handed approach that is typical of most comparisons between the Vietnam and Iraq wars, The Limits of U.S. Military Capability carefully assesses evidence to develop lessons applicable to other conflicts—especially the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xii

This is a very personal book, though not in style, substance, or approach. It is per-sonal in the sense that the subject is immediate for anyone who came of age in the United States during the turbulent 1960s. This book would probably not have been written, however, but for a fumbled toast in August 2006 in a poor Viet nam ese village in Quang Ngai province. There, the “American Professor and his wife” ...

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1 Introduction

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pp. 1-22

Few who achieve popular renown for a phrase are quoted (and misquoted) as often as George Santayana, who observed over a century ago that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The “present” for this book— and principal focus— is the half- dozen years of US military involvement in Iraq that commenced with a US aerial attack on Baghdad in March 2003 and culminated in the pullback of US combat troops from Iraqi cities on June 30, ...

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2 Leveraging the Adversary’s Forces: The Wars in Vietnam and Iraq

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pp. 23-82

In irregular warfare, the United States is confounded by an abundant variety of military limitations—inappropriate US doctrines and capabilities, deficient and counterproductive capabilities, offsetting adversary capabilities, and—perhaps—eventual exhaustion. These limitations are featured in this chapter, first, in a look back at US combat in Vietnam, and then in an examination of the sources, evolution, and challenges of the Iraq conflict. The chapter recognizes ...

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3 Leveraging the Adversary’s Support Base: States, Populations, and Societies

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pp. 83-109

Given the challenges of influencing adversary leaders and maintaining domestic support for a US war effort, US policymakers understandably look to increase their leverage by turning to various “third parties” that provide active or passive support to the adversary. This chapter assesses US efforts to leverage (a) border states or outside powers that supported US adversaries in Vietnam and Iraq, (b) the populations that fed the Vietnamese and Iraqi insurgencies, and (c) ...

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4 Leveraging the Adversary’s Leaders: The Balance of Resolve and US Exhaustion

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pp. 110-152

In asymmetric war, a combatant’s weapons or doctrines offset the overwhelming advantages of a qualitatively or quantitatively superior force. In “asymmetric conflict,” a variety of factors— including military capabilities and psychological or political “intangibles”— could permit a combatant to thrive under adversity. Its strength lies in knowing, then, that a materially stronger opponent will accept an unfavorable compromise or defeat when it appreciates the costs of persevering....

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5 Leveraging Host Governments: The Challenges of Institution-Building

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pp. 153-204

US officials knew that their success in Vietnam and Iraq ultimately hinged on the host government taking control of the conflict. They also knew that transferring “ownership” was impossible absent security gains and stronger host- government institutions. Yet these officials came to recognize that by taking the lead in both conflicts, the United States gave host- government leaders reason to “shirk,” that is, to allow the United States to carry the security burden, to ...

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6 Conclusions: Vietnam and Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Future

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pp. 205-230

One lesson from the Vietnam and Iraq Wars outshines all the others: any US victory in “asymmetric conflict” is likely incomplete and may always depend on conditions that the United States cannot manipulate. With its finite capabilities and resolve, the United States is seriously challenged when its goals include winning in combat and maintaining and extending support for US policies at home and abroad. The challenges increase enormously when US goals ...

Notes

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pp. 231-274

References

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pp. 275-288

Index

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pp. 289-310


E-ISBN-13: 9780801897504
E-ISBN-10: 0801897505
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801894725
Print-ISBN-10: 0801894727

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Military policy.
  • United States -- Armed Forces -- Operational readiness.
  • United States -- Armed Forces -- Combat sustainability.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975.
  • Iraq War, 2003-.
  • Military readiness -- Case studies.
  • Military planning -- United States -- Case studies.
  • Asymmetric warfare -- Case studies.
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