With the advent of nuclear weapons, many civilian think-tank warfare theorists and liberal politicians believed that direct superpower confrontation had become too dangerous to contemplate. Thus was born “limited-war” in the national lexicon of strategic thinking when the Korean War broke out in 1950, and President Truman limited the war objectives and means in order to avoid nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. The Korean War began the change in the American concept of war away from total war, or what was called at the time “general war,” to a form of war that was more “civilized” and “less dangerous” in the minds of politicians and social scientists.
The problem of limited-war from an American national interest standpoint was that it assumed all U.S. enemies would likewise be restrained in objectives and means. This fanciful social science assumption rested on the unproven belief that no foreign national leader in his right mind would dare oppose America, following its World War II victory, once U.S. willingness to fight was made clear.
However, the advocates of limited-war never came to grips with what would happen if an enemy refused to “play” by limited-war “rules.” In other words, how and when would limited-war be concluded when the enemy was pursuing uncompromising total war objectives, but with limited means (that is, means short of triggering nuclear attack), and the U.S. was in contrast erroneously waging a war for negotiable, limited objectives with limited means? This resulting mismatch of U.S. limited-war objectives versus enemy total war objectives spawned the modern version of asymmetrical insurgent warfare, which has bedeviled the U.S. since mid 20th century when the U.S. limited-war strategic doctrine was adopted.
In 1961 President Kennedy and his civilian social-science theorists rewrote the U.S. rules of war, conceiving and implementing a formal limited-war doctrine they dubbed “Flexible Response” to counter Soviet client-proxy warfare. It was at this point that we completely departed from the strategic thinking that had won World War II.
The change in national strategic mindset was profound. The fundamental change in the U.S. approach to warfare now had at its essence the new approach that America would answer enemy aggression against its interests with just a limited force response that was “proportional” to the threat, thus inculcating the institutional idea in the U.S. national security infrastructure that American military responses should only be gradually escalated according to the perceived immediate seriousness of the crisis. Crisis management replaced strategic thinking in the top levels of the U.S. Government.
The operative concept was that an enemy would “receive the message” that the U.S. intended to act militarily to defend its interests, and therefore, would be deterred from escalating the crisis further. Then, after it was clear to the enemy that his war objectives could not be attained, negotiations would ensue that would end the crisis. “Message sending” to the enemy through gradual escalation became an integral part of U.S. national security thinking and strategy. So, U.S. limited-war strategic doctrine is not geared to defeat the enemy, only to get the enemy to negotiate or temporarily withdraw from the battlefield. Of course, by not eliminating the enemy’s aggressor forces, the conflict is just put on hold until the enemy deems it advantageous to reinitiate aggression against U.S. interests, as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have conclusively demonstrated.
What it really suggests is a mind-set that believed the whole of mankind operated under the same set of values, which American politicians have. In other words, according to the mindset of American politicians, there is nothing really worth fighting for until the end. So, in the view of U.S. political policy-makers and academic social science advisors, total dedication to nationalist goals (North Vietnamese) or religious zeal (Muslims) are subject to compromise. After all, if that was the view of the American political leadership, they concluded, it must be the view of our enemies.
The first principle of warfare, which is that in order to prevail in armed conflict overwhelming kinetic force must be employed as quickly as possible to prevent increases in enemy power, was thus completely excluded from the U.S. warfare repertoire. That decisive force exclusion was a major fatal fallacy in limited-war strategic doctrine because it assumes the American people would support an open-ended war where the termination is completely determined by the enemy’s decision to discontinue hostilities.
Therefore, limited-war strategic doctrine totally cedes initiative and control of the war to the enemy.
The eventual fall of Saigon in 1975 was due in part to dragging the war out as opposed to destroying the enemy capability to continue the war that was located in North Vietnam and not in the South Vietnamese jungle where the U.S. mistakenly fought its limited-war.
As the commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific Theater, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, noted in his memoire, Strategy for Defeat: Vietnam in Retrospect:
Once the decision was made to participate in this war and engage Americans in the military conflict, I believe we should have taken the steps necessary to end the war successfully in the shortest possible time. It was folly to commit Americans to combat and then force them to fight without utilizing the means we so richly possessed to win an early victory. It is my firm belief, however, that we did exactly that by not using our air and naval power to its full effectiveness . . . . . We could have brought the Vietnam War to a successful conclusion in short order, early in the game, once the decision had been made by the civilian leadership to engage with US forces. All we needed to do was assemble the necessary force and then use it the way it was designed to be used . . . By 1966 we had the full measure of air power to do the job, and our ground forces were strong enough that in combination with such air power properly applied we could have forced Hanoi to give up its efforts to take over South Vietnam. But authority to use our air power to this end was simply not forthcoming.
How Wars Are Successfully Concluded
As Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz in his masterwork, On War, makes clear, 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 revanchist, while CAPABILITY is composed of manpower, firepower, and re-supplying that manpower and firepower, which is 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. Unfortunately the U.S. has consistently failed to protect MOTIVATION on its side, that is, public support for the war.
Again, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have conclusively demonstrated this failure and the sad results.
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 secular 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, while strategic objectives of U.S. Islamic enemies, like the jihadist, non-negotiable propagation of the Islamic religion and Islamic Sharia religious law, 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 objectives and efforts, so will those we are fighting.
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. The appropriate point to end combat is when the enemy knows he is defeated because he has lost the will and means to fight. But in 2003 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 insurgent warfare.
These U.S. 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 militaries and war industries. 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 victory was achieved with the destruction of enemy MOTIVATION-psychic forces and CAPABILITY-physical forces. While enemy CAPABILITY was severely damaged in Iraq in 2003, enemy MOTIVATION was as strong as ever.
Why U.S. Politics Preclude Sane War-Fighting
For whatever reason or reasons, be they cowardice, arrogant hubris, or just old-fashioned stupidity, U.S. political policy-makers since World War II have consistently not focused U.S. war efforts against what Clausewitz termed the enemy’s “centers of gravity.” These centers of gravity are the sources of strength; the destruction of which yield crippling effects on the enemy’s war-making MOTIVATION and/or CAPABILITY.
Instead, as noted above, limited and gradual force application has been used for “message sending” to induce the enemy to negotiate by blunting the enemy’s aggression and fighting him to a stalemate. This approach to warfare is the essence of U.S. limited-war strategic doctrine. From the national politicians’ point of view, such restraint in warfare is the intellectually enlightened and the prudent way of war. And also from the politicians’ perspective, it permits a cautious, incremental approach that is meant to avoid international political dangers, such as provoking decisive hostile reactions from unexpected quarters, as when the Chinese Communists unexpectedly entered the Korean War (although alert, intelligent national leadership would have foreseen it).
While judging the content of a politician’s heart and the intent behind his motivations are solely the province of the deity, it is possible to accurately assess the results of a politician’s policies and decisions and classify them. And when it comes to setting war objectives, strategy, and rules of engagement policy, the U.S. political leadership class has failed miserably since World War II to today in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the on-going worldwide world war against Islamic jihad. In each of these wars the U.S. political leaders have not only misjudged the enemies’ MOTIVATION and CAPABILITY, they also misjudged America’s MOTIVATION and CAPABILITY. Sun Tzu forewarned of such ignorance:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Due to America’s superior military technology and combat training, U.S. forces have not lost battles, but have lost or are losing the wars instead through U.S. political malfeasance. The final results of the Iraq, Afghanistan, and the on-going worldwide world war against Islamic jihad are not in yet, but the outlook is not good.
In every case the problem has been the same, the U.S. politicians have opted for limited-war strategic doctrine instead of setting the objective of attacking and eliminating the enemies’ centers of gravity, which generate the enemies’ MOTIVATION and CAPABILITY. Although the U.S. military leadership receives war objectives, strategy, and rules of engagement policy from the politicians, they also share blame for the failures because they have institutionalized limited-war strategic doctrine to the point that, even when retired officers are disagreeing with politicians in the public media, they pose their disagreements within the limited-war strategic doctrine framework. In other words, the military establishment has so completely embraced limited-war strategic doctrine that there are no professional military common-sense voices advocating that the U.S. take the offensive and destroy the actual sources of enemy aggression.
There is also a related ancillary problem. 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 thirteen years, a similar conclusion might to drawn concerning the U.S. officer corps. In U.S. academia, the study of warfare takes a distant second place behind black and women’s studies, while Reserve Officer Training Courses are shunned by universities. Consequently, only a tiny fraction of the American electorate even know enough to question politicians on the wisdom of limited-war strategic doctrine, or understand its inherent strategic shortcomings.
Surveying American political correctness culture, it is only logical to conclude that the reason why timidity rules U.S. war-fighting is because timidity rules the American political correctness culture. Both of the U.S. national political parties are led by faint-of-heart individuals, lacking character, that are more concerned with their personal fortunes than the nation’s. These characterless political leaders are the genesis of America’s inept war-fighting. And as the saying goes: A democracy gets the leaders it deserves.
However, more to the point, the both the Bush and Obama administrations have remained steadfast in their resolve not to identify the actual enemy to the American people. We are only told that we are fighting non-descript terrorism and terrorists.
Then at rare times, we are told they are radical Islamists who have somehow hijacked the “noble religion of peace.” But had presidents Bush and Obama made clear that our enemy is every nation, every regime, every network, every conspiracy, and every individual who preaches, teaches and advocates Islamic Sharia law, which is a politico-religious ideology bent on world domination, the ability to communicate war goals, progress, and strategy would become infinitely more effective, as would focusing the U.S. war effort. Instead, these presidents and their national security teams insist we are fighting just some kind of violent, non-ideological tactic without faces other than a limited and finite number of fanatical Al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists. This official governmental dissimulation leads people to wonder why the entire Islamic world actually seems to be on fire and at war with Western Civilization? The American people realize they are being continually lied to, but no political clarifying voice has yet arisen to identify Islamic Sharia as the enemy, regardless whether the Sharia is Sunni or Shia.
U.S. politics, which dictate the nation’s war objectives, strategy, and rules of engagement policy, are dominated by timid political correctness. So, regardless whether the American public wants to attribute U.S. politicians’ behavior to cowardice, arrogant hubris, or just old-fashioned stupidity, American warfare will remain ineffective as long as timid political correctness and self-serving, characterless politicians rule Washington, D.C. Consequently, sanity in U.S. war-fighting is not in America’s immediate future. (See “US Politics Preclude Sane War-Fighting”, originally posted HERE)