Logo

The Basics of War and How the U.S. Went Wrong

Written by Col. Thomas Snodgrass

Share

In view of the public frustration with a decade of largely unsuccessful U.S. war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the impending cuts to the U.S. military budget, there is an active debate at present as to what military strategy and force structure should be fashioned for the future. Unfortunately, many taxpayers and most politicians are totally illiterate when it comes to the subject of warfare. (Judging from the dismal results in the last ten years, a similar conclusion might to drawn concerning the U.S. officer corps.) In an attempt to fill this critical knowledge void and perhaps raise the level of the on-going national defense dialogue, this essay is offered to provide the lay reader with an awareness of the basics of warfare.

arlington_national_cemeteryOne qualifying note is that this essay will not deal with the morality of war or justification for going to war. While understanding “just war theory” is integral to the study of warfare, it is beyond the scope of this essay, which is intended to focus on the “how of war,” rather than the “why of war.”

The appropriate place to begin a discussion of war is with the purpose of war as defined by Carl von Clausewitz in his masterwork, On War:

WAR THEREFORE IS AN ACT OF VIOLENCE INTENDED TO COMPEL OUR OPPONENT TO FULFIL OUR WILL . . . Violence, that is to say, physical force (for there is no moral force without the conception of States and Law), is therefore the MEANS; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate object. In order to attain this object fully, the enemy must be disarmed, and disarmament becomes therefore the immediate OBJECT of hostilities in theory, ~ Carl von Clausewitz, On War, p. 87, Princeton University Press, 1989. (Capitalization emphasis in original text) 

Elsewhere in the document, Clausewitz delineates the specific conditions that must be attained in order to compel the enemy to fulfill the victor’s will:

. . . victory consists not only in the occupation of the battlefield, but in the destruction of the enemy’s physical and psychic forces, which is usually not attained until the enemy is pursued after a victorious battle . . . ~ On War, p. 71

So, with appropriate deference to Clausewitz, war reduced to the most fundamental equation is WAR = MOTIVATION (psychic forces)+ CAPABILITY (physical forces).  Historical war motivations have been religious, politico-nationalist, geo-strategic, economic, and revanchism, while capability is composed of firepower and re-supplying that firepower (logistics).  Remove one or both of these motivation and capability factors in war, and the war is over in short order. It should be noted that in war a combatant must not only attempt to destroy the opponent’s motivation and capability, it is also imperative to safeguard one’s own motivation and capability.

With the purpose of war and the necessities of destroying enemy motivation and capability while protecting yours in mind, it is now time to consider the severe nature of war. The stark nature of war is succinctly summarized in three separate quotes from the memoirs of General William T. Sherman:

“War is hell.”

“Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”

“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” 

Obviously preparing to destroy an enemy’s motivation and/or capability is dependent on the enemy’s existential interests and the character of his fighting forces. In considering the various international conflict motivations, religious and politico-ideological rationales have historically produced more vicious and sustained combat than those wars that have been conducted for justifications unrelated to belief systems, such as for geo-strategic and/or economic gains. Material goals are more readily forsaken than are belief goals. This very important motivational differentiation has been over-looked by our political class increasingly in every conflict since the end of World War II. American politicians and the public tend to think of war in terms of “one size fits all.” As a result Americans only see war through a U.S. cultural prism; strategic objectives, like the propagation of their religion and religious law, of U.S. enemies are consistently ignored or downplayed. U.S. policy makers make the irrational assumption based on their secular beliefs that, because we will limit our warfare efforts and objectives, so will those we are fighting.

The problem of ‘limited war’ from an American national interest standpoint is that it assumes U.S. enemies would likewise be restrained in objectives and means.  This fanciful social science assumption rested on the unproven (and now disproven) belief that no foreign national leader in his right mind would dare oppose America, following our World War II total victory and our subsequent development of high technology weapons, once our willingness to fight was made clear.  However, the advocates of ‘limited war’ never came to grips with what would happen if a foreign enemy refused to play by ‘limited war’ rules.  In other words, how and when would ‘limited war’ be concluded when the enemy was pursuing ‘total war’ objectives and the U.S. was waging a war for limited objectives? When an enemy is committed to achieving his strategic objective, regardless the cost or duration of the conflict, do our ‘limited war’ policy makers expect that the American people will support the hostilities as long as the enemy persists in fighting? This asymmetry in war strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan has become glaringly apparent in the formerly so-called “Global War on Terror” (GWOT), which is more accurately characterized as “Islamic jihad against the West.”

As an example of the detrimental effect of such strategic mismatch, Lyndon Johnson never comprehended Ho Chi Minh’s uncompromising nationalist determination to unite North and South Vietnam under his communist government. Johnson thought that he could buy an end to the war by offering Ho a billion dollar economic development program for Vietnam as a bribe, as if he were dealing with a local West Texas politician. Johnson’s failure to understand the North Vietnamese’s politico-nationalist ideological commitment to ‘total war’ led to the U.S. conducting a ‘limited war’ of half-measures, when the enemy’s reason for going to war meant that compromise was not an option for him in terminating the conflict. The only way the U.S. could have exited the war with its stated objective of preserving South Vietnam in tact was to have destroyed the motivation and capability of the communist government of North Vietnam. If U.S. politicians weren’t prepared to carry the war to that extreme, they should have never entered into the conflict. Not grasping our North Vietnamese enemy’s unlimited motivational commitment culminated in a tragedy that is still politically reverberating negatively in American life.

Another basic aspect of war where American government policy makers, who set the politico-military parameters of U.S. wars, have been totally misguided is in the timing of termination of hostilities. Desert Storm was ended to great public acclaim as a successful war, yet the cause of the war, Saddam Hussein, remained in power after suffering what amounted to a tactical defeat, albeit a substantial one. Consequently, part two of the Iraq war was necessitated twelve years later because Saddam’s rogue regime persisted acting in conflict with U.S. national interests in the Persian Gulf. (Whether Saddam actions, which were unquestionably in conflict with U.S. foreign policy, justified the invasion of Operation Iraqi Freedom is the subject for another essay.) The important point is that, once the decision to reinitiate hostilities against Saddam’s Iraq was made, the U.S. Government again terminated the combat before the enemy’s motivation and capability were destroyed for mistaken reasons.

The appropriate point to end combat is when the enemy knows he is defeated because he has lost the will and means to fight. U.S. Government policy makers stopped the fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom and began repairing battle damage to Iraqi civilian infrastructure while, undaunted, the enemy was in fact transitioning from conventional to unconventional guerilla warfare. These policy makers misinterpreted capturing the enemy capital, Baghdad, and vanquishing enemy main force formations of Republican Guards as the equivalent of capturing Berlin and Tokyo and the total decimations of German and Japanese capabilities to make war. When U.S. and allied forces entered those enemy capitals in 1945, there was no doubt in German and Japanese minds that they had been completely defeated. Their will to fight and their means to fight were gone. U.S. governmental policy of unconditional surrender in a ‘total war’ ensured that Clausewitz’s dictum, that victory is only achieved with the destruction of enemy psychic and physical forces, was carried out.

e95d_arlingtonFollowing the monumental death and destruction involved in the World War II victory, civilian “defense intellectuals” like Bernard Brodie, Henry Kissinger, Robert Osgood, Albert Wohlstter, Oskar Morgenstern, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, John McNaughton and Thomas Schelling authored various strategic theories whose central theme was that modern war could be won, while sparing massive death and destruction, by ‘limited war.’ For instance, Thomas Schelling was the moving intellectual force behind the self-defeating strategy employed by Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam. In 1960 Schelling published a book, The Strategy of Conflict, based on “game theory” that was totally divorced from reality. According to Schelling, because modern weapons were so destructive, the principal aim of strategy had shifted from destroying the enemy to hurting him enough to coerce him into doing something or refraining from doing something as one might desire. Game theorists like Schelling premised their work on the conviction that emotional and irrational life situations like war can be formally modeled. Schelling postulated that war was no different from the human conflicts which characterize business transactions, labor negotiations, and arms control bargaining - these human contests may be bitter, but they can be resolved by bargaining - therefore, Schelling theorized that war was merely bargaining by violent means. Simply stated, Schelling postulated that Clausewitz’s purpose of war, compelling the enemy to do our will, is possible without actually achieving Clausewitz’s conditions for victory – destruction of the enemy’s motivation and capability.

In Schelling’s concept of war, that is, all that a warring state need do to prevail is to continually up the ante through “graduated response” until the enemy concludes that his escalation efforts are futile and cries “enough, no more!” Simply put, Schelling’s view of war is that two rational actor warring powers take to the battlefield to pummel one another with measured, increasing violence until one or the other does an economic analysis and decides that further combat would be counterproductive. Unfortunately, Schelling’s counter-historical concept of war has become the U.S. concept of war for all conflicts, in spite of the concept’s disastrous result in Vietnam. Schelling’s game theory totally ignores Clausewitz’s and Sherman’s hard won battlefield experiences in the Napoleonic and Civil wars.

Once U.S. Government policy makers accepted the idea that war must be limited and that the “graduated response” of game theory was the appropriate method of applying force, one of the unfortunate outgrowths of this way of war was adoption of the strategy of counterinsurgency. Because the U.S. held and holds the overwhelming preponderance of force against all powers except Russia and China (the preponderance is just not quite as overwhelming in these two force matchups), enemies of the U.S. are constrained to only employing the low intensity, asymmetrical, unconventional guerrilla warfare, especially after the crushing defeats suffered by Iraqi conventional forces in 1991 and 2003.

The essence of guerrilla warfare or insurgency is to attack a conventional military force by ambush, inflict casualties, and to disappear back into the civilian populace before the conventional force can mass its superior firepower and bring it to bear on the guerrilla force. Guerrilla war was renamed insurgency during the Vietnam era to take into account the expansion of this concept of unconventional war to include media propaganda and political measures. The insurgency strategy is not geared to win through momentous battles and victories, rather the essence of insurgency warfare is to wear down and outlast the stronger power by inflicting unending casualties and propagating demoralizing psychological warfare. Insurgency, in this expanded and more diverse form of unconventional warfare, has continued and proliferated in the 21st Century. To suppress and defeat the illusive unconventional guerrilla/insurgent forces, conventional force commanders have struggled through the centuries to develop effective counterguerrilla or counterinsurgency tactics. Today, the counterinsurgency tactical development struggle goes on with renewed fervor and urgency as we face the insurgency of Islamic jihad throughout the Islamic world and beyond.

One problem with counterinsurgency is that it is basically a defensive, reactive form of war. Defensive war is by definition only victorious when the enemy ceases making war. Thus, counterinsurgency concedes the initiative to the enemy.  While not totally impossible, war is most difficult to win when the enemy holds the initiative. It is almost impossible to destroy an enemy’s motivation and/or capability when fighting in a reactive mode on the enemy’s terms. Victory in war on the defensive usually requires the enemy to make monumental blunders in his offensive operations, thus defeating himself.

Another problem with the counterinsurgency strategy for the American people is that our government has used counterinsurgency as a substitute for waging a war that actually eliminates the threat, which has caused the conflict in the first place. In other words, it is easier to wage a type of ‘limited war’ counterinsurgency combat that avoids hard decisions, which may entail the wider war necessary to remove the true and underlying threat to U.S. national interests. The proof for this controversial contention may be found in three pertinent cases – Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The U.S. began fighting the Vietnam “insurgency” by pretending that the insurrection in South Vietnam was “homegrown” instead of what it actually was — a war of foreign aggression totally sponsored and supported by North Vietnam. Under the U.S. political leadership of presidents Kennedy and Johnson, North Vietnam’s sponsorship of the war in the south was treated ambiguously; that is, the U.S. Government extensively publicized the activities of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam as the cause of the conflict, while not completing the true picture for the American people that there were war supplies and North Vietnamese Army personnel constantly flowing into the south from Communist North Vietnam. In other words, the war totally originated in the north, not the south of Vietnam.

As has been explained in the intervening years since the Vietnam War ended, Kennedy, and later Johnson, did not aggressively challenge the Sino-Soviet Communist Bloc fiction that the South Vietnamese Viet Cong, and not the North Vietnamese Communists, were the initiators of the war because they did not want to be forced by American public opinion to take action (like destroying North Vietnamese capability to sustain the war by bombing the Red River dykes and flooding much of the country) that might cause Soviet and/or Chinese Communist direct reaction against U.S. interests. Of course, the Kennedy-Johnson rationale that the Soviets and/or the Chinese Communists had vital national interests in North Vietnam was clearly exposed as a false premise sham in December 1972 when President Nixon did everything short of bombing the dykes that was recommended to Johnson as early as 1964 to knock North Vietnam out of the war.

fighter-plane_1024x768_19448A point of fact and clarification must be interjected here in the discussion of U.S. conduct of the war in Vietnam – the bombing campaign against North Vietnam carried out under Johnson, code named “Rolling Thunder,” was structured and executed merely as a component of Schelling’s game theory war plan. Johnson himself selected the targets in North Vietnam at White House luncheons on Tuesdays, often without even a U.S. military representative present. Johnson’s targets were never intended to be more than “gradual escalation” of the war to increase pressure on the communists to negotiate a compromise settlement. Johnson’s targeting was never meant to demolish strategic installations that in turn would destroy North Vietnamese motivation or capability as was accomplished in Germany and Japan during the Second World War. Much is made that the bombing tonnage dropped in Vietnam exceeded that dropped during World War II, but inherent in the ‘limited war’ doctrine is the idea that all the U.S. needs to do is indefinitely escalate “message sending attacks” until the enemy is convinced it is in its best interest to desist from further belligerency. Consequently, this huge tonnage of bombs was largely dropped in the wrong places on the wrong targets at a tremendous cost of U.S. military aviators.

Such a concept of ‘limited war’ is built upon three very obvious fallacies.  First, this kabuki dance of attacking non-vital targets conveys a message of indecision and weakness, and most certainly neither a message of strength nor that the situation will get worse for the enemy if the war continues.  There is simply no incentive for the enemy to forego his efforts to obtain his strategic objective. Second, and related to this first fallacy, is the fact that “kabuki bombing” does nothing to diminish the enemy’s capability to carry on the war, so there is no material progress toward ending the conflict. In other words, the enemy grows suspicious that the implied threat of a ratcheting up of the destructive force of the war will never occur in fact. Third, indefinite escalation implies open-ended war and an ability to sustain casualties over a long period of time, presumably on the side utilizing this doctrine. This third fallacy is transparent in its failure when viewed from the underlying assumptions of the doctrine itself. Thus, the ‘limited war’ doctrine is based upon three fundamental assumptions. Assumption one is that there is some limit to the casualties and destruction the enemy is prepared to suffer. Assumption two is that the enemy has an implicit understanding that the adversary utilizing the ‘limited war’ doctrine is fully prepared to continue ratcheting up the war while sustaining casualties until the enemy has had enough. And assumption three is that the side pursuing the doctrine does in fact have the stomach (i.e., motivation) for an indefinitely prolonged war with mounting casualties.

Consequently, when any of these three assumptions is wrong, the ‘limited war’ doctrine will actually become a doctrine the enemy uses to defeat the advocate of the doctrine. Specifically, we understand this quite intuitively: when the U.S. engages in limited war against an enemy that does not value its soldiers’ lives with the same high regard as does the U.S., the outcome of the war suddenly becomes dependent on the American public’s will to sustain seemingly unending casualties. With this change in warfare focus, the decisive battlefield shifts from enemy targets to the U.S. homefront where the enemy’s principal weapon is the American news media.

Nixon’s unambiguous war escalation ended North Vietnamese intransigence to conclude an armistice because Nixon was finally doing the very targeting that the North Vietnamese had feared since the U.S. entered the war. The North Vietnamese always knew that the U.S. could have ended the war within weeks to months by bombing Hanoi rail and road logistical movement points, closing the Haiphong harbor by mining, and destroying the dykes and flooding the country, if Johnson had ever acquired the moral courage to stop the senseless slaughter of American GI’s in South Vietnam jungles. The World War II combat veterans who were the U.S. military leadership during the Vietnam War understood that unless the center of gravity source of the war is attacked and destroyed, the war would end only when and if the enemy is disposed to cease combat. Unfortunately President Johnson, along with his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, ignored and suppressed the advice and concerns of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in order to continue to pursue their suicidal, but politically expedient, ‘limited war,’ game theory, counterinsurgency strategy.

Next it was in Operation Iraqi Freedom, beginning in March 2003 and continuing to December 2011, that the ‘limited war’ fallacies made themselves evident and eventually destroyed President George W. Bush’s GWOT. Bush had begun the fight with a war strategy that proclaimed:

We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. … From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.

His strategy, premised on “no sanctuary for the enemy,” promised a break with the self-inflicted failure of the defensive ‘limited war’ posture. Then, when the crucial determiner of the Iraqi outcome shifted from the Mesopotamian battlefield to the strategic resupply lines flowing to the Islamic jihadists from Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia (which was primarily replacing Sunni terrorist personnel rather than materiel), Bush was seduced by the advocates of ‘limited war’ that embraced a policy of granting safe haven to the Sunni and Shia jihadists in the nations bordering Iraq who were keeping the war going with men, arms, money, and supplies. Taking maximum advantage of the U.S. granted sanctuary, it was not long before both the Sunni and Shia jihadists were directly attacking the U.S. strategic center of gravity – American motivation or will to continue the fight. President Obama’s headlong rush to exit from Iraq at the end of 2011, in spite of military counsel to the contrary, clearly demonstrates that when a combatant’s motivation is destroyed, the fight is over. Fighting a war employing ‘limited war’ counterinsurgency, as the U.S. has done since 9/11, is a setup that all but guarantees the Islamic jihadi insurgents will outlast U.S. will to fight by inflicting continual, demoralizing casualties that seem unending.

On coming to office as the Operation Iraqi Freedom debacle was drawing down, President Obama prioritized Afghanistan as “a war of necessity.” Our enemies in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) Theater of Operations are basically three different Shari’a-allegiant Islamic jihadist groups. There are various Sunni Salafist groups including al-Qaeda with a transnational target focus (the U.S., Israel, Western Europe, and secular Arab dictatorships), the Taliban with a religious, nationalist target focus in Afghanistan, and another Taliban group, also of the Sunni Hanafi Deobandi religious school, but with a religious, nationalist target focus on Pakistan. While al-Qaeda’s composition is primarily Arab, the Taliban membership is drawn largely from the Pashtun tribes of the AFPAK border.

Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan appeared highly successful during the first five years until 2006. Initially the U.S. forces’ quickly and effectively removed the Taliban from power and totally destroyed the al-Qaeda organization in the mountainous country. Consequently, the old ‘limited war’ dilemma of enemy sanctuary did not immediately materialize as an issue in regard to U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

But during 2006 the Taliban began to make a significant comeback using the adjacent tribal areas of Pakistan as base camps and staging locations which were/are immune to U.S. ground attack. While the Government of Pakistan was/is a U.S. ally in the war against the Islamic jihadists in name and in terms of receiving millions of U.S. military aid dollars for their assistance, the Pakistani Army never in its history controlled the AFPAK border regions inhabited by the Pashtuns. So the Pakistani Army was/is limited in effectively combating the Taliban because they lacked AFPAK border dominance, as well as the fact that they had/have ethnic, religious, and political ties to the Pashtun Taliban. As a consequence, the U.S. forces again face the insurgent logistics, safe haven sanctuary problem, this time in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the Pakistani governmental reluctance to rigorously counter the Taliban notwithstanding, the U.S. has had success with unmanned aerial vehicle strikes inside Pakistan using Hellfire missiles against high value Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership targets, presumably with Pakistani government clandestine, if reluctant, concurrence. Then there was the successful SEAL Team 6 raid that eliminated Osama bin Laden. Those successes notwithstanding, the U.S. has futilely poured men, money, and resources down the black hole of counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan since 2009, and President Obama has again declared a cut and run policy for 2013 because the insurgents have destroyed U.S. motivation by psychologically wearing it down. Obama’s claim that it’s “mission accomplished” because the Afghan Army and Police forces will have completed sufficient training to successfully perform security duties is just not credible, given their dismal performance to date.

To sum up, the ‘limited war’ doctrine reigns in U.S. Government policy circles today, and it in turn has fostered the employment of the defensive counterinsurgency strategy. As a consequence, after 9/11 when the U.S. entered into the GWOT, our national strategic thinking was not geared for global war. Hence both opponents and proponents of GWOT measured the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan solely in terms of ‘limited war.’ We continue to be trapped in the same mental box that pre-ordained our Vietnam defeat. It is not widely understood that Afghanistan is merely a campaign in the GWOT, not a limited “Afghanistan War.” Today we are battling the Shari’a faithful Muslims of the world who wish to establish a Shari’a-based worldwide Caliphate, and this jihad is being lead by the foot soldiers of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, the many Pakistani Sunni jihadist organizations, the Afghani Taliban, al Qaeda core in Pakistan, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb among others.

Moreover, the very idea that America can no longer fight a ‘total war’, but only a ‘limited war,’ has grown out of the bitter polarization of our body politic. When World War I and World War II were fought, the national leaders and especially the Commander-in-Chief had relatively few political constraints on their war making authority and strategies. The average American citizen simply did not expect to carry on a national debate about how to fight the war. The average citizen only had the expectation that the war would be fought and won decisively.

This situation is all the more troubling when the war is an existential threat. Long hard wars, especially against stubborn and ideologically committed enemies such as Marxists of the past and the Shari’a touting Islamic faithful of today were and are problematic. In fact, it is now questionable if the U.S. will ever again be able to prosecute war with a ‘total war’ strategy because the political leadership, and by implication the military as well, are subject to censure of the nightly talking heads flailing them with polling data. War today is one part war strategy and five parts domestic public relations because politicization has supplanted national interest.

This nation desperately needs an open, frank, factual national dialogue about the consequences of continuing the current national security policies regarding ‘limited war’ and unquestioning toleration of Shari’a-propagating Islam. Col. Thomas Snodgrass, USAF (retired), was stationed in Peshawar, Pakistan, where he worked daily with Pakistani military personnel for more than a year and had many subsequent dealings with Muslims as an intelligence officer during a thirty year military career

You are now being logged in using your Facebook credentials