Thursday, March 24, 2005

War and politics: Do today's military officers have the right formula?

One of the dramatic results of the Iraq War has been to emphasize how unprepared the US military is - the Army in particular - to fight a counterinsurgency war on the scale they are facing in Iraq.  Although the "lessons of Vietnam" were debated at great length over the last three decades, the prevailing view among military officers basically has been that the US should just avoid guerrilla wars.  That allowed the armed forces to prepare for refighting the Second World War with higher-tech equipment.

Now, avoiding guerrilla wars is not a bad idea in itself.  Avoiding all kinds of wars is generally a good goal.

But what we're seeing in Iraq is that the Bush doctrine of preventive wars of liberation to spread democracy by bullets, bombs and torture requires the US to fight a large-scale counterinsurgency war in Iraq.  The ongoing Afghan War is also a counterinsurgency, and the attempt to treat it as a conventional war whose main goal was replacing the regime in Kabul has meant that actually combating Al Qaeda and Taliban and other Islamic guerrillas there hasn't been as successful as it might have been.  And should have been.

I've come across an unusually good example of one of the dysfunctional lessons from the Vietnam War that has become conventional US military wisdom, in this article: Lessons from a Successful Counterinsurgency: The Philippines, 1899-1902  by Col. Timothy Deady  Parameters (US Army War College) Spring 2005.  Col. Deady is a civil affairs officer in the Army Reserve.

Nostalgia for the good old days of the "white man's burden"

Col. Deady recognizes, rather sorrowfully it seems, that some of the approaches used in the Philippine War (1899-1902) would be rather difficult to reproduce today, more sissy standards having prevailed among the weak-kneed civilians.  He gives some historical background on the conflict, although he's so impressed with the neoconservative fascination with the Philippine War as a model for today that his enthusiasm seems to overwhelm his analysis.

Very briefly, at the end of the Spanish-American War, the United States took the Philippines as a colony, although our government preferred to call it a "protectorate."  A nasty counterinsurgencywar followed, ending with US forces quelling the rebellion.  Rebel forces led by Emilio Aguinaldo declared independence on June 12, 1898, which is still celebrated today as the Philippine independence day.

Among the American tactics Deady praises and regrets aren't as easy to use with today's softie civilians back home were "chastisement measures" including "fines, arrest, property destruction and confiscation, population concentration, deportation, and scorching sections of the countryside."  He recalls that in those good old days, the Americans set up "concentration camps" of 300,000 civilians in Luzon province.  (That's what he meant by "population concentration.")  The camps were modeled on Indian reservations, he notes.  He writes:

The United States employed collective punishments that involved families and communities. Municipal officials or principales [leading figures] were held responsible for events that occurred in their towns. Prisoners were held until they—or family or friends—provided information, weapons, or both. Crops, buildings, and other property could be confiscated or destroyed as punishment.

By his figures, there were 16,000 Filipino combat losses and another war-related 200,000 civilian deaths "due to disease, starvation and maltreatment by both sides."  But with the wusses in Congress and the public these days, Deady worries that such approaches may not be entirely acceptable, despite what he sees as the near-model outcome of the war in the Philippines.

He notes sadly, "One need only consider Kipling’s poetic admonition to 'Pick up the White Man’s Burden' for a quick jolt into how different the prevailing standards of acceptable discourse are today.

Clausewitz to the rescue

We can hope that its not a common view among our officer corps to idolize the Philippine War as Deady does.  But I'm afraid that his view of the politics of war is widely shared by our military leaders as one of the mean "lessons of Vietnam."

In thinking about Vietnam, it became fashionable among US military thinkers to look to the theories of the 19th century theorist of war, the Prussian (German) Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831).  Since Clausewitz is known in particular for building his military theory around the concept that war in the continuation of politics by other means, it makes sense that his ideas would be intriguing in thinking about counterinsurgency warfare.  In addition, the Russian revolutionary Lenin was a big fan of that idea of Clausewitz' in particular.  And his influence certainly had an effect on the theory and practice of revolutionary warfare by Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap.

The influential book On Strategy (1982) by Harry Summers promoted a particular kind of "Clausewitzian" look at the Vietnam War.  Although he denies that any stab-in-the-back theory took hold among military officers, we get a good idea of where his theory is going from the quotation with which he opens Chapter 1. It's from the Department of the Army Field Manual 100-1 (Washington, D.C: USGPO, 1978); the emphasis is Summers'.

Political purposes and military aim in warfare serve together to define and limit its scope and intensity, the number of national actors, the limits of geographic involvement, and restrictions on the employment of weapons and choice of targets, as well as other factors. The interactions of military operations and political judgments, conditioned by national will, serve to further define and limit the achievable objectives of a conflict and, thus to determine its duration and conditions of termination.

In other words, instead of seeing war as a form of politics in the broader sense, such as setting that the goals of an intervention within an overall context of national policy and international relations, was often reduced in practice to a much narrower meaning.  In that narrower sense, it's the job of politicians to create overwhelming public support for a war.  Then once the war stops, the politicians should leave the war itself to the generals and let them concentrate on the operational aspects of fighting the war.  The generals can then fight the war the way they want, i.e., re-fight the Second World War with the latest weaponry.

Rather than become a broader theory for integrating political goals with military goals and operations, it became a justification for concentrating the enormous resources of the US military on training for conventional war and avoiding "indecisive" wars like the Vietnam War.  Or the Iraq War.

The half-
Clausewitz view of war

Deady's article gives some good glimpses of that kind of thinking.  For instance, he writes that n 1900, rebel leader Aguinaldo's goal:

... was to sour Americans on the war and ensure the victory of the anti-
imperialist William Jennings Bryan in the presidential election. Concentrating forces for attacks in September 1900, the guerillas achieved successes against company-sized American units.

McKinley’s reelection sapped motivation from the resistance that had anticipated his defeat. ...

Now I'm not familiar enough with that aspect of the war to know how close to correct he is in thinking that Aguinaldo's strategy was to elect a Democrat as President of the United States in 1900.  I'm guessing that Aguinaldo was more focused on rallying support and unifying his supporters in the Philippines than on helping Bryan's long-shot candidacy for the American Presidency.  Deady returns to the theme:

Having adopted the guerilla tactics of protracted warfare, Aguinaldo and his generals mistakenly led their followers to expect a quick victory with McKinley’s defeat. The pre-election peak of guerilla activity in late 1900 cost soldiers, equipment, weapons, and morale that were never replaced. [my emphasis]

 What's interesting here is Deady's focus on the politics of war being focused so heavily on the civilian decision-makers back home and whether they would support the operational actions that the generals wanted to take.  The question of whether conquering the Philippines was a good idea for the United States in 1900, whether it was in the national interest and worth the potential costs in life, treasure and international standing, those are not questions that trouble Deady's analysis in this article.  He cites Clausewitz as an authority for his focus:

Strategy is the manner in which a nation employs its national power toachieve policy goals and a desired end-state. The “center of gravity” is an important concept for understanding how and where to employ the elements of power. The concept’s originator, Carl von Clausewitz, identified it as the source of the enemy’s “power and movement, upon which everything depends.” Current US doctrine extends the concept to both belligerents in a conflict and differentiates between strategic and operational levels of the center of gravity. The essence of strategy then is to apply the elements of power to attack the enemy’s centers of gravity and to safeguard one’s own.

The Filipino insurgents accurately targeted the US strategic center of gravity—the national willpower as expressed by the Commander-in-Chief and supported by his superiors, the voting public. The American populace’s will to victory was the powerful key that brought the nation’s formidable elements of power to bear.
[my emphasis]

This viewpoint is only one lost war away from a stab-in-the-back theory.  If a war like the Philippine War or, more currently, the Iraq War turns out to be far more costly than the military and civilian leaders led us to believe, if hearing generals and colonels and Pentagon press flaks repeatedly declare turning points and tipping points and broken backs of the resistance wrecks their credibility with the public, if people become disillusioned with grotesque scenes of sadistic torture carried out by American soldiers and sanctioned by "honorable" generals, well all that is a lack of will!  If these soft, cowardly civilians wusses and wimmin and pacifists would've just cheered for the home team until we'd killt us enough foreigners to declare victory, everything would have been all right.

It's often said that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces never won a battle against the Americans.  I believe that's technically true.  But so what?  All those victories became an escalating disaster with no end in sight and, for most Americans, no understandable purpose involved.  Cheering to win is fine for the hometown football team.  But in wars, it's a lot more complicated.  People have to ask what they're cheering for, and what they and their children and they relatives and friends are being required to kill and die for.

Here we see the strategy/operational split, which in Deady'sanalysis is essentially the same as the division between the proper field of civilian authority and the area which should be left to the wisdom of the generals:

America’s source of operational power, its operational center of gravity, was the forces fielded in the Philippines. ...

I've posted before about the dysfuntional lessons that the military learned from Vietnam about the effect of press coverage on public support, including comments on another article in this same issue of Parameters.  Deady touches on another piece of dysfunctional conventional wisdom related to that:

Discussing the impact of the modern media on combat operations could fill volumes. Considerations that particularly deserve mention are the US populace’s famous impatience and aversion to casualties. Americans prefer quick, decisive, and relatively bloodless victories like Urgent Fury and Desert Storm. ... [my emphasis]

Now, except for the armchair warmongers, most Americans don't want to see other Americans killed in war.  But this notion of the alleged "aversion to casualties" is at least as much justification as it is analysis.  There is very good reason to believe that, in a cause that was considered necessary and right, the general public would be willing to accept significant casualities.  But this assumption serves another purpose in the military conventional wisdom, validating the use of proxies like the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan (who failed to capture Osama bin Laden and allowed large numbers of key Al Qaeda combatants to escape) and of relying heavily on aerial bombing of cities and even small villages.

In his conclusion, Deady sets up the stab-in-the-back theory for Iraq.

At the strategic level there is no simple secret to success. Victory in a counterinsurgency requires patience, dedication, and the willingness to remain. The American strategic center of gravity that Aguinaldo identified a century ago remains accurate today.

Translation from Pentagonese:  When we decide the Iraq War is not worth it any more and pull out, it's not because of the Army's lack of counterinsurgency training, or the timidity of the generals who refused to stand up to ideologues like Rumsfeld, or the disastrous international politics of the war, or the fact that the whole thing was justified on cooked intelligence about nonexistent WMDs, or the torture scandal, or the checkpoint shootings, or the massive destruction over two years of counterinsurgency warfare after which we can barely identify who the enemy is.  No, not because of any of that.  It's because of the lilly-livered civilians and traitors and cowards who wouldn't let the military finish the job they started.

Not that anything can stop our superpatriots from saying that when its over.  But those of us in the reality-based community can remember to ask them what they have in mind by "winning" or "finishing the job."  If it's like the same sorry excuse on the Vietnam War, most of them want have a clue what you're talking about.

Missing Clausewitz's point

Military anlayst Andrew Bacevich has some perceptive observations on this in a review of Gen. Tommy Franks' memoir American Soldier:  A Modern Major General by Andrew Bacevich New Left Review 29 Sept-Oct 2004.  I'm surprised to see an article by Bacevich in that particular journal.  But the point he makes here is an important one: 

Thus, although the author of American Soldier mouths Clausewitzian slogans, when it comes to the relationship of war and politics, he rejects the core of what Clausewitz actually taught. And in that sense he typifies the post-Vietnam American officer.

Clausewitz sees the nature of war as complex and elusive; generalship requires not only intensive study and stalwart character, but also great intuitive powers. For Franks, war is a matter of engineering—and generalship the business of organizing and coordinating materiel. ...

Here we come face to face with the essential dilemma with which the United States has wrestled ever since the Soviets had the temerity to deprive us of a stabilizing adversary—a dilemma that the events of 9/11 only served to exacerbate. The political elite that ought to bear the chief responsibility for formulating grand strategy instead nurses ideological fantasies of remaking the  world in America’s image, as the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy of 2002 so vividly attests. Meanwhile, the military elite that could possibly puncture those fantasies and help restore a modicum of realism to us policy instead obsesses over operations. Reluctant to engage in any sort of political–military dialogue that might compromise their autonomy, the generals allow fundamental questions about the relationship between power and purpose to go unanswered and even unrecognized.
[my emphasis]

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