An illustration of a plane, tank, bomb and explosion

This is a formidable book. Its subject is nothing less than the past 75 years of military actions by the United States, and it comes appropriately at the 75th anniversary of D-Day, indeed a victory for America, and, so far, the last. John D. Caldwell ’63, who wrote this book in retirement after a career in defense think tanks and aerospace companies, offers not only a detailed military analysis of the wars we have fought, but also a granular dissection of many battles of those wars. A military historian will find much to ponder and to evaluate. But the average reader interested in policies and strategies that have worked and failed will find a compelling read as well. For Caldwell is a clear, cogent and engaging writer. More than a few times I told myself, “Just skim this next section,” only to find that I could not. He has the ability to appeal simultaneously to the expert and to the amateur.

The cover of the book Anatomy of a Victory

Anatomy of Victory: Why the United States
Triumphed in World War II, Fought to a
Stalemate in Korea, Lost in Vietnam,
and Failed in Iraq

By John D. Caldwell ’63
Rowman & Littlefield

Anatomy of Victory begins with the description of one clear victory by the U.S. military forces, and moves on to the objective dissection of three non-victories. Caldwell’s essential premise is that without what he calls a “strategic architecture” before engaging in a war, the chances of indisputable success are minimized. The three key elements for Caldwell’s “strategic architecture”—policy, strategy and operations—must be aligned, as they were in the complex two-front struggle in World War II. If they are out of alignment, then a clear, certain final victory will remain evanescent.

The first, and longest, section is a fascinating account of how Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill created, at the beginning of World War II, an architecture for success. By the time the Japanese attacked Hawaii and Hitler declared war against the United States, much of that structure was in place, though there was a period in 1942 when it seemed the Allies were merely trying to stay afloat. Sniping among Allied officials and military officers, disagreement among the Allied governments, and the fact that the U.S. had, in effect, no standing army, all threatened the construction of a “strategic architecture.”

But the leadership of George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, and the firmness of Churchill’s relationship with Roosevelt, steadied the Allies. By early 1943, the tide had turned in their favor. Caldwell’s analysis of 10 great battles of that war—among them the Battle of Britain, the German invasion of Russia, the North African campaigns, the battles of Midway and Guadalcanal, D-Day and the strategic bombing of Japan (including the atom bomb)—reflect time and again how the “back-to-front” alignment of policy, strategy and operations resulted in a massive, undeniable victory for the Allies.

This section is all the more compelling once one reads the rest of the book, which studies repeated failures to establish similar “architectures” in a variety of wars, not one of which carried for Americans the same moral and patriotic weight of the fight against the Third Reich and Imperial Japan.

The U.S. military has failed to learn from past successes.

Obviously, Caldwell thinks the absence of such alignments in the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Iraq/Afghanistan/ISIS wars have left the U.S. bereft, for more than seven decades, of decisive political and military victories.

He breaks down our 30-year involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia into five separate, related, “wars,” ranging from the 1990 Gulf War to the present stalemates in Afghanistan and with ISIS—engagements that have left a trail of complacent confusion that continues to bedevil U.S. military operations. After reading this book, I remain stunned at how the world’s most powerful military has failed, more than once, to learn from its past successes, not to mention its past failures.

Caldwell is convinced—and gives a range of information to sustain this belief—that it is easier to enter a war than to end it. This is an axiom that seems to have been ignored more often than not by military actors, and as a consequence, wars end indecisively, leaving poisonous seeds that blossom again in another conflict. Anatomy of Victory leaves us with a sense of foreboding as we watch present (and perhaps future) governments mistake the undoubted qualities of our massive military power as alone sufficient to enter and win wars, far away from our shores, without the wisdom to intricately mesh policy and politics with strategy and operations. This process must include a firm answer to the question: Why are we doing this, and what do we want the result to be? Should that question remain unresolved before entering a war, then when boots hit the sand, the lives of young men and women are unnecessarily at risk.

I found this book unputdownable; so will you.

Ronald C. Rosbottom, a professor of French, European studies and architectural studies at Amherst, is the author of When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940–1944, and the forthcoming Sudden Courage: Youth in France Confront the Germans, 1940–1945.

Illustration by: Justin Renteria