Since 1945, the United States has experienced little except military stalemate and loss—precisely because it’s a superpower in a more peaceful world.

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At 9:44 p.m. On July 27, 1953, Harold Smith had just 16 more minutes of the Korean War to survive before a ceasefire came into effect at 10:00 p.m. You can imagine this 21-year old Marine from Illinois out on combat patrol that evening, looking at his watch, mentally ticking down the seconds. Suddenly, Smith tripped a land mine & was fatally wounded. As one soldier recalled, “I was preparing lớn fire a white star cluster to lớn signal the armistice when his body toàn thân was brought in.”

Twenty-two years later, on April 29, 1975, Darwin Judge và Charles McMahon were serving as Marine guards near Saigon in South Vietnam. Judge was an Iowa boy và a gifted woodworker. His buddy, McMahon, from Woburn, Massachusetts, was a natural leader. “He loved the Marines as much as anybody I ever saw in the Marines,” said one friend. They had only been in South Vietnam for a few days. At 4:00 a.m. On April 29, a communist rocket struck their position & the two men died instantly.

On the early evening of November 14, 2011, David Hickman was traveling in an armored truck through Baghdad. Hickman, an army specialist from North Carolina, had been in ninth grade when the Iraq War started in 2003. A massive explosion ripped into Hickman’s truck. It was a roadside bomb—the signature weapon of Iraqi insurgents. Hickman was grievously wounded. The next day, just before midnight, the Army visited Hickman’s parents in North Carolina to tell them their son was dead.

Smith, Judge, McMahon, và Hickman were the final American combat fatalities in Korea, Vietnam, và Iraq, respectively. An unknown soldier will have the same fate in Afghanistan.

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These men are the nation’s last full measure of devotion. The final casualty in war is uniquely poignant. It highlights the individual human price of conflict. It signifies the aggravated cruelty of near-survival. It has all the random arbitrariness of a lottery. The Soviet-made 122 mm rocket that killed Judge and McMahon in 1975 was famously inaccurate. It could have landed anywhere in their vicinity. But it fell just a few feet from the Marines. The sergeant who found their bodies wondered, “Why them & not me?”

Most of all, the final casualty underscores the value of ending a conflict. If the United States could have resolved the wars in Korea, Vietnam, & Iraq earlier—even just a few minutes earlier—Smith, Judge, McMahon, & Hickman’s lives would have been the first khổng lồ be spared.

Concluding the fighting has particular urgency in a war without victory. As former navy lieutenant John Kerry remarked during congressional testimony on Vietnam in 1971, “How bởi vì you ask a man to be the last man khổng lồ die for a mistake?”

Now, with ISIS seizing Palmyra in Syria và routing Iraqi security forces in Ramadi, an American victory in war once again seems an illusion. When the final U.S. Soldier dies in Iraq—in one year’s time, in five years’ time, in 50 years’ time—Kerry’s question may still linger in the air.

* * *

Why does the United States struggle in war? How can it resolve a failing conflict? Can America return lớn victory?

Today, these are critical questions because we live in an age of unwinnable conflicts, where decisive triumph has proved khổng lồ be a pipe dream.

On June 5, 1944, the day before D-Day, U.S. General George S. Patton strode onto a makeshift stage in southern England to lớn address thousands of American soldiers. “Americans play lớn win all of the time,” said Patton. “That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever thua a war, for the very idea of losing is hateful khổng lồ an American.”

It was the golden age of American combat. Patton could look back on a century of U.S. Victories in major wars against Mexico, the Confederacy, Spain, và Germany. And the glorious era was about khổng lồ reach its pinnacle. “By God,” he said, looking ahead khổng lồ D-Day, “I actually pity those poor sons of bitches we are going up against.” World War II was a testament khổng lồ the valor-studded splendor of American warfare.

The price of military triumph was often immense. In the Civil War alone, there were around 750,000 American fatalities—more than the deaths in every other U.S. War combined. But if the costs of conflict were staggering, so were the benefits. The Civil War saved the Union và emancipated the slaves. World War II ensured the survival of liberal democracy in Western Europe. For Americans, golden-age conflicts became the model of what war ought lớn look like.

And then, all of a sudden, the United States stopped winning major wars. The golden age faded into the past, & a new dark age of U.S. Warfare emerged. Since 1945, Americans have experienced little except military frustration, stalemate, & loss.

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The martial dusk began with the Korean War, which deteriorated into a grim stalemate at a cost of nearly 37,000 American lives. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the United States faced outright military defeat for the first time in its history—and, most shockingly, against North Vietnam, a “raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country,” as Lyndon Johnson put it.

After World War II, the U.S. Constructed the most expensive military machine that ever existed—and endured seven decades of martial frustration.

The British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once described the golden rule of politics: “Never invade Afghanistan.” In October 2001, the United States swaggered into this harsh và beautiful land. Within two months, the Taliban were routed from Kabul & retreated south toward the Pakistani border. But the war was not over. The Taliban recovered and escalated their attacks, setting the stage for today’s stalemated conflict.

An even bleaker tale played out in Iraq, where the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime triggered the collapse of civil government và widespread unrest. Each morning, dawn’s early light revealed car-bomb smoke drifting across Baghdad và a harvest of hooded bodies—a grim installment toward the overall tally of 100,000 civilian deaths.

Since 1945, in terms of victory in a major war, the United States is one for five. The Gulf War in 1991 is the only success story. The dark age is a time of protracted fighting, featuring the three longest wars in American history (Afghanistan, Iraq, & Vietnam). It’s a time when the ultimate price of conflict is usually far higher than Americans would have accepted at the start. It’s a time when military heroes are thin on the ground. It’s a time when movies & novels about war describe political conspiracy và futile campaigns. It’s a time when the signature illness for veterans is post-traumatic áp lực disorder. It’s a time when the most resonant images of conflict are children napalmed, helicopters rescuing Americans & Vietnamese from rooftops, và naked bodies intertwined at Abu Ghraib.

Why is the United States unable to lớn win on the battlefield? It’s certainly not for lack of power. From 1846 to lớn 1945, the United States had a minuscule peacetime army but won almost every major campaign. After World War II, Washington constructed the most expensive military machine that ever existed & endured seven decades of martial frustration.

Indeed, power nguồn is part of the reason the United States loses. After 1945, America’s newfound strength created a constant temptation to use force, & projected U.S. Forces into distant conflicts. But Washington chose an unfortunate moment to discover its inner interventionist. The nature of global warfare changed in ways that made military campaigns ugly at best and unwinnable at worst.

The good news is that, since 1945, countries have almost stopped fighting each other. Conventional interstate wars are now very rare. World War II was the thunderous crescendo that presaged what historian John Lewis Gaddis called “the long peace.” Great powers haven’t engaged in direct hostilities for over 60 years.

Nuclear deterrence stabilized relations between major states. The spread of democracy cultivated a zone of peace among elected regimes. Globalization & international trade deepened the linkages between countries & made interstate conflict seem costly or irrational.