Why do powerful nations lose small wars?

  • Why the USA lost in Vietnam– and now in Afghanistan


By Muhammad Asif Baloch


War is like a game which has rules and regulations to play with hearts and minds. But in war, the utmost considerable factors are military equipment and technologies, economic resources and well-formed strategies. Despite that, the major powers having modern technologies, well experienced armed forces, and aircraft, were defeated in small wars. The USA is the prime example, which was badly beaten by Vietcong’s guerrilla forces in Vietnam. it was the first major defeat of the USA during the Cold War, despite its being a superpower. So, only modern weapons and technology alone cannot win wars, but there are innumerable determinants that must be considered. Same is the case with the Afghan war where the USA is willing to withdraw its forces instead of fighting the Taliban and settling the internal conflicts.

However, after World War Two, the victorious parties, the USA and the USSR became the sole major powers in global politics. Due to power politics and ideological expansion, they fought their war not directly but through proxies. Whereas, in the early Cold War period, the USSR was emerging as a superpower through encouraging the international revolution of communism in Eastern Europe and Asia specifically. On the other hand, the USA perceived it as a major threat to its global hegemony and formed a containment policy to prevent the domino effects of communism. Undoubtedly, the USA made the domino theory a basis to invade Korea and Vietnam.

There had been an accord known as the Geneva Accords 1954 to settle the long-lasting war against French colonists in Vietnam. Under it, Vietnam was partitioned into North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel. Whereas in North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh formed a communist government, in South Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem formed a pro-western. Nonetheless, the USA did not sign the accords because the Ho government was unacceptable. By the 1955 Vietnam War, the capitalist government of South Vietnam was supported by the USA. But, the US involvement in the Vietnam War was full of costs and casualties, where a small and less well-equipped insurgent group defeated a professional military.

The greatness of a power cannot compete with the patriotism of a country. Besides that, nationalism and passion for self-determination, expertise in one’s own terrain and geography, strategies and tactics, and public support are pre-disposing factors for guerrillas

After the 19th century, war had shifted from conventional direct professional military confrontation to non-kinetic and asymmetric warfare. Contemporary war between belligerents whose relative power, resources, technologies and strategy or tactics are different or uneven significantly. Asymmetric warfare means a war in which the resources and equipment interact and attempt to demoralise each other, while policies and plans to destroy and battlefields differ and are blurred. Such wars are also called insurgency, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and proxy wars or state-sponsored terrorism between a formal and an informal armed force. Such strategies may not necessarily be militarised, and war might be unwinnable. So that’s why, most of today’s wars are long lasting and unwinnable even by major powers.

The foremost cause of the US withdrawal from Vietnam was continually killing the wrong people and civilians, that demoralised their own troops. After the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks by Viet Cong on major US military bases and the South Vietnamese army, immediately, the US Army began a mass killing in a village, known as the My Lai Massacre of 1968. it was a brutal murder of unarmed civilians in My Lai including women, children, old men and young girls by US military forces where ‘more than 500 people were slaughtered. it was reported in the US press, sparking a firestorm of international outrage’.

Secondly, media and public perception played a vital role in Vietnam war. Before WWII there had been just printed newspapers but after that it was the first time that the horrors of war were reported through TV. Whereas, the images of massacre were leaked in Pentagon reports that consequently changed the public perception against the US government on a domestic as well as global level. As a result, the anti-war sentiments took hold in different universities of the USA to the extent that students and even the general public came on the roads against US mass murder in Vietnam. According to BBC, “In October 1969, one of the largest protests that America has ever seen was held in Washington, with 250,000 protesting against the war.” The war became very ostracised in the USA and lost public support.

In addition, the terrain and guerrilla war strategies of the Viet Cong were hard to defeat. Most importantly the Vietnam War had been most fought in jungle, mountains and rural areas and the Viet Cong were much rewarded by their experience. On the other hand, US troops were not properly aware of the terrain or of guerrilla warfare, and were not aware how to fight guerrillas. Undoubtedly, Khalid bin Waleed’s ‘Kar Wa Far’ (Hit and Run) strategy was practiced by the Viet Cong. The USA finally realised that Hanoi would not give up at any cost and this made the USA troops withdraw from Vietnam.

Furthermore, besides other factors, determination and morale are necessary elements to win a war. It was the key strength of Viet Cong that they were obsessively determined to drive out the Americans, whatever the cost to pay and also encouraged fighting at home to unite country. Once Ho Chi Minh asserted that “You can kill ten of my men for everyone I kill of yours, yet even at those odds, you will lose and I will win,”. On the other hand, US soldiers were demoralised and demotivated, also they took drugs, shot superior officers and dodged the draft. The same is the case with the Afghan War where the nonstop attacks by the Afghan Taliban are forcing them to retreat.

But US was defeated in Vietnam because of some major factors, which are media war, public opinion or perception, peace movements in the USA, terrain and guerrilla warfare, and the Cu Chi Tunnels system. These are some justifiable reasons for the USA losing. The Vietnam War tells that without public support, appropriate strategies, morale and motivation, and knowledge about the enemy and their strategies, a war cannot be won.

In a nutshell, the greatness of a power cannot compete with the patriotism of a country. Besides that, nationalism and passion for self-determination, expertise in one’s own terrain and geography, strategies and tactics, and public support are pre-disposing factors for guerrillas.


The writer can be contacted at [email protected]