How Wars End

Why We Always Fight the Last Battle

A penetrating look at American wars over the last century.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Read an excerpt of How Wars End.

In early 2009, when the Obama administration assumed responsibility for the unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of the new president's supporters were "surprised and dismayed" when U.S. policy toward either war did not change dramatically. Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose explains that, in fact, "wars are difficult to close out even when they are started well, and mistakes at the beginning complicate the job exponentially, no matter who is in charge later on."

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In How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle, Rose asserts that leaders are often focused on defeating the enemy and find it difficult to switch gears and construct a stable political environment in the aftermath. For instance, in the early stages of the Afghanistan war, a memo was sent to then secretary of defense Donald H. Rumsfeld stating that the United States government "should not allow concerns about stability to paralyze U.S. efforts to oust the Taliban leadership.... Nation-building is not our key strategic goal."

Rose attributes this to an "inherently flawed" clear-division-of-labor approach to war, in which policymakers deal with political matters and military leaders with military matters. In fact, "political issues can permeate every aspect of war," he says.

Such confusion stems from an incomplete understanding of the nature of war: "Wars actually have two equally important aspects. One is negative, or coercive; this is the part about fighting, about beating up the bad guys. The other is positive, and is all about politics. And this is the part that, as in Iraq, is usually overlooked or misunderstood," writes Rose.

While this might seem like common sense, he writes, "in war, as in life more generally, common sense is actually quite uncommon." Surveying the endgames of six U.S. wars from World War I to Iraq, Rose finds:

  • "Woodrow Wilson fought a war to make the world safe for democracy but never asked himself what democracy actually meant and whether, say, a constitutional monarchy in Germany would fit the bill." A generation later the United States found itself once again "dragged into a battle against an aggressive German regime and its partners";
  • Franklin Roosevelt "resolved not to repeat Wilson's mistakes but never considered what would happen to his own elaborate post-World War II arrangements should the United States' wartime marriage of convenience with Joseph Stalin break up after the shooting stopped." In the aftermath, the administration realized that even a "complete transformation of Germany would not be sufficient to guarantee peace in Europe," as a new threat was forming from the Soviet Union;
  • The Truman administration casually established "voluntary prisoner repatriation" as a key American war aim in Korea—thinking that no prisoners should be repatriated against their will—"but never thought how many prisoners might grab the option and whether it would block an armistice, which it did for almost a year and a half." (Forty-five percent of the United Nations' casualties during the war occurred after negotiations began: "more than 124,000 of them, including 9,000 Americans, came during that period when prisoner repatriation was the sole contested issue");
  • "The Kennedy and Johnson administrations dug themselves deeper and deeper into Vietnam without any plans for how to get out," making it impossible for the Nixon and Ford administrations to escape unscathed;
  • "George H. W. Bush assumed Saddam Hussein would fall as a result of defeat in the Gulf War, but did little planning for how to achieve that outcome or what would happen if it didn't occur";
  • "When the [George W. Bush] administration toppled Saddam, the "United States was left presiding over a country rapidly spinning out of control, with officials having no plans or resources for what to do next. Liberation turned into occupation; local ambivalence into insurgency and then civil war."

Rose argues that the crucial test for Obama and his successors "will be not simply whether they can muddle through the struggles that were bequeathed, but whether they can avoid making major mistakes themselves in the wars that will follow down the road."

He concludes, "If new generations of wartime policymakers fail to think clearly about what they are doing and stumble badly once again, they will have nobody to blame but themselves.... For them, exercising prudence when deciding how to spend the blood and treasure of their fellow citizens is not an option; it's a moral obligation."

A Council on Foreign Relations Book

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Reviews and Endorsements

It's true that nearly everyone has a tendency to over-learn the lessons of the last war. That was one of the conclusions of Gideon Rose's excellent How Wars End.

Kevin Drum, Mother Jones

Chilling . . . fascinating.

David E. Sanger, New York Times

This is a brilliant book on an important subject. Americans are always disappointed with the outcomes of wars and the troubled peaces that follow. Gideon Rose explains that this is because of the way we think—or don't think—about war and peace. The book is a masterpiece of historical analysis with lessons for our strategy in Afghanistan and beyond.

Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World and editor of Newsweek International

Gideon Rose's wise, trenchant review of the last century of world conflict is one of the startlingly rare books that gets the connection between war and politics, means and ends.

Fred Kaplan, War Stories columnist, Slate

Fred Ikle's 1971 book Every War Must End has influenced analysts and policymakers for decades. Gideon Rose's How Wars End is likely to be just as influential for generations to come. You may think you know something about the wars he writes about, but you are guaranteed to learn something new here. Rose is always accurate and fair, neither sycophantic nor unduly scathing. This is a book that should be read by everyone involved in military planning—and everyone affected by the decisions those planners make.

Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Savage Wars of Peace and War Made New

In his trenchant study of how difficult it was to end wars in the past century, Gideon Rose draws fresh and persuasive lessons for how to define and achieve U.S. interests, both in Afghanistan and in the face of future challenges. A timely and important work.

Strobe Talbott, author of The Great Experiment and president of Brookings Institution

By focusing on the intricate, often overlooked endgames of conflicts, Gideon Rose makes a compelling case that the unintended consequences of wars have overwhelmed even the best-intentioned plans of American leaders. Every top official contemplating military action should read this terrific book—and take its lessons to heart.

Andrew Nagorski, author of The Greatest Battle

In the News

Gideon Rose on Morning Joe

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Gideon Rose on NPR’s The Takeaway

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Gideon Rose on DEFCON3

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Sunday Book Review: Get Me Out Of Here

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Gideon Rose on the Mike McConnell Show

A CFR Book. Simon & Schuster

Gideon Rose on The Roundtable

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Gideon Rose on Late Night Live

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Gideon Rose at Stanford University

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Gideon Rose on The World Today

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Gideon Rose at the World Affairs Council of Northern California

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Gideon Rose on AirTalk

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Zócalo Public Square: How America Ends Its Wars

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Gideon Rose on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show

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Politico: How the war in Afghanistan might end

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