This Naval War College professor wrote the book on why America loses wars

Elizabeth Howe
August 16, 2019 - 1:08 pm

Cambridge University Press


According to Donald Stoker, an 18-year professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College, America's leaders no longer know how to think about war — and that's why we're stuck in an endless one. 

Stoker taught at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California from 1999 to 2017 and has published or edited 11 books on military strategy. He saw the opportunity to help future servicemembers rethink the way they understand American wars — but it meant he would have to literally write the book on it.

Connecting Vets spoke with Stoker about his book "Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and US Strategy from the Korean War to the Present" which will be on-sale August 29, 2019. 

CV: What did you teach at the Naval Postgraduate School? 

DS: I taught a course called Strategy and War. Every term, we taught the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War. We taught about the idea of limited war, but over the years I just was not really happy with how we were teaching it, and it just didn't make sense the way we were teaching it.

CV: We have a loose understanding of a limited war as one that's restricted by limits on weapons, territory, soldiers, etc. And we know that a lot of America's war policies follow a limited war strategy because it was developed during the Cold War when we were limited by the threat of nuclear weapons. But what is a limited war really?

DS: Limited war literature is a wreck — to be generous. They don't even know what limited war means in the literature. You read five different books on limited war and get six different answers. And this was the literature I had to teach with. I really just concluded the literature we had — it wasn't doing the job. It all boiled down to "I need to teach this better than what I'm doing — but what I have to teach it with doesn't make any sense."

CV: From there, what was the writing process like? 

DS: I look at all the limited war thinking for the last 70 years, and I tried to read every bit of the literature I could find on it — the bibliography is almost 100 pages long — trying to get a grip on what other people were saying and what was good and what was bad about it. Then I developed a system that built off of it.

CV: How does your idea of war strategy clarify and build off of the idea of limited war?

DS: I essentially stole [Carl von] Clausewitz's ideas as the basis for analysis — wars are fought either for regime change to overthrow the enemy regime or they're fought for something less than this. So they're either fought for an unlimited aim to overthrow the regime or for a limited aim. I used that as the basis for the analysis — and that gave you a really firm point of discussion. 

CV: So using that as a basis, where does the book go from there? 

DS: In a nutshell, the book is about — with these limited wars that are more difficult to win because you're not going to eventually impose your will on the enemy — how do you win them, what does win mean, and then how do you get a peace that's secure so you don't have to do it again? That last part is important. I want readers to see the difficulty in ending wars, and how important that is to figure out. 

CV: You were teaching future officers — and you felt you weren't able to teach them well. How did that impact military readiness and operations? 

DS: The students we had were from all the services except for the Air Force — so they would go to do different things, but a lot of them would go on to be planners, or work on staffs, or go on to be military advisors to political leaders. They really need to understand — and hopefully that's something they take away from the book — how important it is to know what the political aim is. What is your political aim? What is your enemy's political aim? How valuable is this? Because understanding this relationship here and the value that both sides place on it can tell you something about how intense and how messy this war might be. What are the constraints that will keep you from getting this objective? How do you use your military power? How much time do you have to do it? Once a war starts, the clock is ticking. 

CV: If readers took one overarching concept away from reading your book, what would you want it to be? 

DS: The most important thing about the book is that it's trying to teach us to think more clearly about war. And what we mean by it. And what we think about it.

Stoker's book will be available for purchase here starting on August 29, 2019. 

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