Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked for the United States NavyUnited States Marine Corps, and United States Army. In addition to Divergent Options, he has been published in the Center for International Maritime Security, the Washington MonthlyMerion West, Wisdom of Crowds, Charged AffairsBraver Angels, and more. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki, and on Medium at https://mdpurzycki.medium.com/.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessing the Costs of Expecting Easy Victory

Date Originally Written:  April 10, 2022.

Date Originally Published:  April 25, 2022.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes American leaders’ expectation of quick victory in post-9/11 wars, and the concomitant refusal to ask for material sacrifice by the American public, undermined the ability to win those wars.

Summary:  Unlike World War II, America’s post-9/11 conflicts did not involve shared material sacrifice, such as tax increases or reducing oil use. Previous success during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and initial U.S. success in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks led then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to doubt the need for large troops deployments to Iraq. These factors left the U.S., as a whole, unprepared for the reality of post-conflict stabilization.

Text:  Like the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led to widespread popular support for war[1]. In both cases, the deaths of thousands of Americans catalyzed lengthy deployments of U.S. troops overseas. However, the two eras varied widely in the extent to which Americans outside the military were asked to sacrifice to win the wars.

While 16 million Americans served in the military during World War II[2], the entirety of American society was mobilized. At least 20 million Victory Gardens supplied 40% of the country’s produce by 1944[3]. Citizens were urged to carpool to save fuel and rubber[4]. The war saw the introduction of income tax withholding, turning a tax previously limited to wealthy Americans into a way ordinary citizens funded the war effort[5].

No such ethos of sacrifice emerged after 9/11. A month after the attacks, President George W. Bush argued, “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop[6].” In 2003, President Bush signed a reduction in income tax rates[7]. Whatever the economic pros and cons of doing so, the decision to cut taxes during a war did not indicate the government intended to ask the public to sacrifice.

In the twelve years before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, major operations the U.S. led were brief and included relatively few American casualties. The 1991 Gulf War lasted six weeks, including only four days of ground combat, and fewer than 300[8] of the more than 500,000[9] Americans deployed were killed. The American-led interventions in Bosnia (lasting three weeks in 1995) and Kosovo (eleven weeks in 1999) consisted of air and missile strikes followed by deployments of NATO peacekeeping missions[10][11]. No Americans were killed in combat during the former conflict, and only two were killed in a training exercise during the latter[12]. After 9/11, the U.S. relied largely on air and missile strikes to oust the Taliban from control of Afghanistan in ten weeks; Afghan allies carried out most of the fighting on the ground[13].

Expecting a quick victory – and expecting Iraq to quickly stabilize after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was overthrown – Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Commander of U.S. Central Command General Tommy Franks underestimated the number of troops needed to stabilize Iraq. Before the invasion, General Eric Shinseki, then Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that stabilization would require “several hundred thousand soldiers[14].” Similarly, Middle East policy expert Kenneth Pollack argued for “two to three hundred thousand people altogether[15].” By contrast, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld expected the war to last a matter of months[16], while Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz dismissed Shinseki’s estimate, saying “It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in a post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself[17].”

When the invasion was launched, 145,000 U.S. troops were involved[18], along with 70,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters[19], 45,000 British troops[20], and others. A year later, the U.S.-led coalition troops in Iraq numbered 162,000[21]. This proved inadequate to stabilize Iraq, particularly after the disbanding of the Iraqi army in 2003[22]. Until the “surge” of 2007, in which more than 28,000 additional troops[23] were deployed, brutal fighting between Iraqi factions was rife – more than 96,000 Iraqi civilians were killed from 2003-2007[24]. More than 3,900 Americans were killed from 2003-2007[25], compared to fewer than 600 from 2008-2011[26]. Meanwhile, American popular support for the war declined, from 72% in 2003 to 43% in 2007[27].

The role of oil in the debates surrounding the Iraq war links to the lack of shared sacrifice[28][29]. From 2002 to 2006, 12% of crude oil imported[30] into the U.S. came from Saudi Arabia[31]. Analysts such as New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman argued for a large increase in the federal gasoline tax[32], which would have echoed the reduction of fuel use during World War II. However, U.S. officials did not make decreased reliance on Middle Eastern oil a Policy priority.

Fuel dependence was also a factor in American casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to a 2009 report by the Army Environmental Policy Institute, from 2003 to 2007, one in every 24 fuel and water resupply convoys in Afghanistan, and one in every 38 in Iraq, resulted in an American casualty[33]. But while the military has sought to reduce fossil fuel use in recent years[34], Americans at home were not asked to sacrifice for it at the height of the Iraq war.

While many factors contributed to America’s post-9/11 military struggles, one factor was the expectation of quick victory. Between underestimating the difficulty of stabilization and refusing to ask for material sacrifice by the public, American leaders were unprepared for a long struggle. This lack of preparation can serve as a lesson for leaders debating whether to fight future conflicts and preparing for difficult fights if they do.


[1] Washington Post. “Post-ABC Poll: Terrorist Attacks.” September 13, 2001. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/polls/vault/stories/data091401.htm

[2] National World War II Museum. “WWII Veteran Statistics.” https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/wwii-veteran-statistics

[3] Smithsonian Gardens. “Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.” https://gardens.si.edu/gardens/victory-garden/#:~:text=Roughly%20one%20half%20of%20all,by%20victory%20gardens%20by%201944

[4] Yale University. “’When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler!’ U.S. Government Propaganda Poster, 1943. https://energyhistory.yale.edu/library-item/when-you-ride-alone-you-ride-hitler-us-government-propaganda-poster-1943

[5] Hill, Adriene. “How tax withholding became the norm for American workers.” Marketplace, July 31, 2017.  https://www.marketplace.org/2017/07/31/how-tax-withholding-became-norm-american-workers/

[6] C-SPAN. “Presidential News Conference.” October 11, 2001. https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4552776/user-clip-bush-shopping-quote

[7] White House. “President Bush Helped Americans Through Tax Relief.” https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/infocus/bushrecord/factsheets/taxrelief.html

[8] Defense Casualty Analysis System. “U.S. Military Casualties – Persian Gulf War Casualty Summary Desert Storm.” https://dcas.dmdc.osd.mil/dcas/pages/report_gulf_storm.xhtml

[9] U.S. Department of Defense. “Desert Storm: A Look Back.” January 11, 2019. https://www.defense.gov/News/Feature-Stories/story/Article/1728715/desert-storm-a-look-back/

[10] North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “History of the NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR)

in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” https://www.nato.int/sfor/docu/d981116a.htm

[11] North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “NATO’s role in Kosovo.” https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_48818.htm

[12] BBC News. “Two die in Apache crash.” May 5, 1999. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/335709.stm

[13] Council on Foreign Relations. “The U.S. War in Afghanistan: 1999 – 2021.” https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-war-afghanistan

[14] Mills, Nicolaus. “Punished for telling truth about Iraq war.” CNN, March 20, 2013. https://www.cnn.com/2013/03/20/opinion/mills-truth-teller-iraq/index.html

[15] Lemann, Nicholas. “The Next World Order.” New Yorker, March 24, 2002. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/04/01/the-next-world-order

[16] Esterbrook, John. “Rumsfeld: It Would Be A Short War.” CBS News, November 15, 2002. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/rumsfeld-it-would-be-a-short-war/

[17] Mills, Nicolaus. “The General who Understood Iraq from the Start.” Dissent, April 25, 2008. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/the-general-who-understood-iraq-from-the-start

[18] Mills, March 20, 2013.

[19] Peltier, Major Isaac J. “Surrogate Warfare: The Role of U.S. Army Special

Forces.” School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 2005. http://www.jezail.org/03_archive/manuals_monogrms/Surrogate_war_UW.pdf

[20] NBC News. “Britain says most troops out of Iraq by June.” December 10, 2008. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna28161917

[21] Carney, Stephen A. “Allied Participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Center for Military History, United States Army, 2011. https://history.army.mil/html/books/059/59-3-1/CMH_59-3-1.pdf

[22] Thompson, Mark. “How Disbanding the Iraqi Army Fueled ISIS.” TIME, May 28, 2015. https://time.com/3900753/isis-iraq-syria-army-united-states-military/

[23] BBC News. “US Iraq troop surge ‘starts now.’” June 15, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6757329.stm

[24] Statista. “Number of documented civilian deaths in the Iraq war from 2003 to February 2022.” https://www.statista.com/statistics/269729/documented-civilian-deaths-in-iraq-war-since-2003/

[25] Statista. “Number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq war from 2003 to 2020.”  https://www.statista.com/statistics/263798/american-soldiers-killed-in-iraq/

[26] Ibid.

[27] Pew Research Center. “Public Attitudes Toward the War in Iraq: 2003-2008.” March 19, 2008. https://www.pewresearch.org/2008/03/19/public-attitudes-toward-the-war-in-iraq-20032008/

[28] Ahmed, Nafeez. “Iraq invasion was about oil.” Guardian, March 20, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/mar/20/iraq-war-oil-resources-energy-peak-scarcity-economy

[29] Tyagi, Tal. “The Iraq War Was Not About Oil.” Quillette, May 6, 2019. https://quillette.com/2019/05/06/the-iraq-war-was-not-about-oil/

[30] U.S. Energy Information Administration. “U.S. Imports of Crude Oil and Petroleum Products.” https://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=PET&s=MTTIMUS1&f=M

[31] U.S. Energy Information Administration. “U.S. Imports from Saudi Arabia of Crude Oil and Petroleum Products.” https://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=PET&s=MTTIMUSSA1&f=M

[32] Friedman, Thomas L. “The Real Patriot Act.” New York Times, October 5, 2003. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/05/opinion/the-real-patriot-act.html

[33] Army Environmental Policy Institute. “Sustain the Mission Project: Casualty Factors

for Fuel and Water Resupply Convoys.” September 2009. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADB356341.pdf

[34] Gardner, Timothy. “U.S. military marches forward on green energy, despite Trump.” Reuters, March 1, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-military-green-energy-insight/u-s-military-marches-forward-on-green-energy-despite-trump-idUSKBN1683BL