Book Review – Anatomy of Failure

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts is a meticulous examination of American strategic choices about fighting wars  written through the lens of Harlan Ullman’s experience in US politics, foreign policy and the military.

The book is organised by a chronological examination of each US President through the second half of the Twentieth Century. On the basis of this analysis, Ullman argues that the perceived incompetence of each President has three root causes. First, an inability to articulate a clear desired strategic outcome when planning for war, second, a lack of detailed knowledge of the leaders of potential adversary nations and, third, the absence of ‘just cause or legitimate provocation’.

Ullman does a thorough job of building the investigation of each President, outlining their experience and the domestic and global issues at the time of their election. By doing so, Ullman avoids the pitfalls of perceived political bias and this gives his critique of presidential decision making an air of objectivity. Ullman pulls no punches, openly critiquing the decisions and performance of each president from JFK to Obama, and the start of Trump’s term in Office. The only president to escape unscathed is George H. W. Bush. As Ullman explains, George H. W. Bush would get the ‘big crises’ right; the integration of former Warsaw Pact states into whole, free, and peaceful Europe; and the first Gulf war, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in August 1990. 

Two points of difference separate this book from its contemporaries. First, the extracts of conversations between the author and Presidents, advisors and other administrators, highlight the complexities inherent in US politics and foreign policy making, but are at times an unwelcome distraction. Further, they disrupt the tempo of the book and risk being more egotistical than informative.  Second, the language and tone used throughout the book make it clear to the reader that Harlan Ullman is passionate about the need for ‘a brains-based approach to sound strategic thinking’ in US politics, but at times this verges being argumentative rather than persuasive. The emotive and frank language used throughout the book does, in parts, add emphasis and is refreshing to begin with; however, as the book progresses, the tone comes across as more jaded and too emotive for this readers taste, thereby detracting from the overall narrative. 

Despite these criticisms, ‘Anatomy of Failure’ is a unique window into US politics and political strategic decision making. Those interested in global politics and a ‘behind the scenes’ look at the drivers behind the leaders of the world’s only superpower will find the tone equally as interesting. Ultimately however, what this reader took away from the book was ‘All this does not mean that past administrations did not employ the best intellects and means to derive strategies and policies for using force. The criticism is that too often they failed, and what we did was not successful.’

About the Author:

Jessica Ward is a RAEME Officer in the Australian Army