Can America win a war?

To be sure, the United States won the Cold War without battling Soviet troops. But since its humiliating defeat in Vietnam, America has engaged in a string of significant military conflicts and emerged the clear winner in only two—ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 and bombing Serbia to the negotiating table in 1995. More recently, even quick, dramatic triumphs in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned into grinding guerrilla wars, the seeds of which sprouted into the Islamic State, or ISIS. So on the 40th anniversary of Saigon’s collapse, it seems timely to ask: Can America win a war? And what does winning look like in this seemingly endless era of murky counterinsurgencies, rogue nuclear states, Russian intrigues and Chinese encroachments?

In interviews with Newsweek, military experts, strategists, historians and former government officials say that absent some major miscalculation on the part of Russia, China or Iran, the wars America will fight in the foreseeable future will be protracted, low-intensity struggles with no clear victories. There will be no raising American flags over a vanquished enemy’s capital, no parades. Wringing something resembling victory from the messes Washington is in now will require Americans to accept a new way of thinking about conflict.

For a country that boasts the best military in the world, the goal of containment may seem paradoxical or even defeatist. With annual defense budgets topping $500 billion since 9/11—more than any other country—the American military is unrivaled in its global reach, technological sophistication and destructive power. America’s stealth bombers and cyberwarriors, by most accounts, can paralyze a major adversary. But in the kinds of wars the United States is now fighting, badass new weapons may be less important than creative thinking. Airstrikes and drones, not to mention the powerful electronic surveillance capabilities of the National Security Agency (NSA), haven’t delivered victories over the Taliban or ISIS. Indeed, for all its technological know-how, the U.S. military hasn’t even figured out how to neutralize improvised explosive devices—one of the least sophisticated yet deadliest weapons U.S. troops have faced on the battlefield.

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