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December 05, 2006


Fascinating stuff, Andrew, particularly the insights (new to at least some of us layfolk) about what experiences have shaped those now higher up the ladder, and what change means to them. Very much thanks.

Andrew’s post is an interesting one for what it leaves out as well as for what it says.

There is also the possibility that some wars simply should not be fought, and others that have to be fought would have been more wisely avoided had earlier actions been more far seeing. Iraq I think is pretty clearly in the first category. The official reasons for attacking were either wrong or dishonest, or both. Building a viable democracy there was all but impossible, as some of us said years ago. Nothing has happened to intelligently question our arguments.

Afghanistan is another story. Its government did assist Al Qaeda, and we really had little choice after 9-11 but to take the Taliban out. The aftermath has been bad not because of our and our allies troops but because of the incredible incompetence of the civilian leadership. Here I think Andrew’s comments are probably very applicable.

But there is another dimension to consider. What constitutes winning? The American South still harbors grudges over the Civil War. Reconstruction failed to build a liberal society there, and even now there is legitimate reason to question whether that has happened. How much less likely it is that we will succeed in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Acting to reduce the region’s importance would be part of an intelligent long-term strategy utterly lost on the current Washington crowd. I can think of no developed or developing country that would not benefit from finding ways to reduce dependence on petroleum for energy. That in itself is enough to justify seeking in as many ways as possible weaning us from petroleum. When CAFÉ standards were imposed the US dependence on imported oil declined from 46% to 30% between 1977 and 1985. That was with a growing economy.

We had troops in Saudi Arabia because of oil. Had we not had troops in Saudi Arabia, it is likely that 9-11 would not have happened, and if it had anyway, Osama Bin Laden would have had less popular sympathy. Absent that, we would not have had to attack the Taliban nor fulfill the fantasies of the oil industry by seizing Iraq, with the hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed as a result.

Yes, the military must always be ready to fight the next war, and generally successful militaries have to learn the hard way when the next opponent adopts new tactics. But lacking in Andrew’s post is the very important question of whether the most intractable wars are so because of previous actions by our own leadership that drew us into conflicts where, for example, the distinction between civilian and combatant is very difficult to discern before an attack. If civilians were more on our side, for example, that would be far less a problem. Iraqi polls indicate over 60% of Iraqis support killing Americans, and even more want us to leave right now. If we were serious about democracy we should abide by their will and leave. One reason we may find it difficult to win there is because we cannot win in any decent sense of the word because the population as a whole wants us out.


I intentionally left out questions of what wars should or should not be fought from this series. While those are certainly important questions (indeed, I'd argue they're more important than the ones I've asked here), I did not feel they were appropriate questions for this series, which attempts to puzzle out how we need to rebuild our military.

If we were serious about democracy we should abide by their will and leave.

Ah, but we're not really serious about democracy. While we throw that word around, we're really fans of republican government, and so the real test of seriousness will be what we do if the Iraqi government asks us to leave.

War, Clauswitz observed, is politics via other means. Winning a battle doesn't mean a thing if you can't exploit that victory. And the U.S. has demonstrated that while we are very good at winning conventional military battles, we're lousy at exploiting those victories politically. Our enemies have observed this problem and have developed strategies that allow them to defeat us politically, which is the only place victory really counts.

I seem to recall that we disputed something similar to this a while ago. I can't recall the specific source of the disagreement; but in any case, I wholeheartedly agree with this paragraph.

And welcome back, btw.


I don't know if it was here or somewhere else, but John Keegan expressly disclaims the Clauswitzian view of war as too narrow, too Euro-centric. At a certain point the 'reason' for going to war becomes indistinguishable from fighting for the sake of fighting ("sending a message" falls into this category, I feel.)

er, s/b "I don't know if it was here or somewhere else, but it was recently discussed how John Keegan..."

At a certain point the 'reason' for going to war becomes indistinguishable from fighting for the sake of fighting ("sending a message" falls into this category, I feel.)

"Sending a message" is, to me, an inherently political operation. It's usually a stupid, short-sighted and calamitous one, but a political operation nonetheless. I'd also include wars whose purpose is to influence domestic politics (as one could argue Iraq was) to fall in this category. Obviously, YMMV.

Andrew -

Welcome back, it's good to hear from you.

A couple of quick comments.

First -- I think American tolerance for casualties is directly related to whether we see a conflict as being, actually, existential or not. I have no doubt that Americans will tolerate enormous casualties if they believe the US is, itself, threatened. Americans have a far lower tolerance for casualties in conflicts having other motivations. The difference between "interests" and "survival" is significant.

My other comment, I suppose, is that it seems to me that war, under any circumstances and for any reason, is an enormous gamble. When you commit to war, regardless of how overwhelming your advantage in principle, you are rolling the dice. That's how it seems to me, anyway. Training, equipment, morale, etc -- all of these things are important. When it comes down to the actual conflict on the ground, however, something as unpredictable as the weather can mean the difference between success or failure. Wars have been lost because of mud.

To my mind, that is the cardinal reason that you don't go to war for any reason other than a genuine and compelling threat. Clausewitz or no Clausewitz, engaging in wars for political ends short of ensuring survival seems, to me, to be the geopolitical equivalent of playing the lottery with the rent money.

Not to mention the death, destruction, and blighted lives.

Thanks -

Nice to see you back, Andrew: and it's interesting (as always) to see the problems that the US military has from an insider's POV.

About casualties: I've said before, and will now say again, that I have never actually seen much evidence that Americans are averse to casualties (except in the obvious 'of course we don't want our soldiers to die' sense. Maybe I mean: over-averse, or: so averse that we don't do things we actually should do for fear of casualties.)

Both in Vietnam and now in Iraq, it's less the casualties than a combination of two things: first, complete loss of faith in the government and what it's telling us about the war; second, and relatedly, a complete lack of faith that what we're doing will actually accomplish anything. In both cases, the hope of victory just died out at a certain point, and was replaced with 'we must maintain our credibility' (Vietnam) or 'we have to stay the course/can't cut and run' (Iraq). I don't see, in either case, any reason to think that people would not be willing to take casualties if they thought we were actually in a position where we might win. ('Might' is key: we could be losing, or in trouble, and still be able to see how we might win. I don't see even that in Iraq, and haven't for some time.)

It's politicians who are casualty-averse. They should, imho, be more reluctant to start wars, but should also trust us more if they have to start them.

Welcome back. Thanks for reposting the article here. It all seems obvious in retrospect, but I don't think I've ever seen it put together so well before.

Anarch, I think we're just agreeing in differing terms - at the point where the goal is so meta as all that, I don't really see it as distinguishable from a reason of "because we want to."

And the U.S. has demonstrated that while we are very good at winning conventional military battles, we're lousy at exploiting those victories politically.

WWII is the exception that proves the rule, since in subsequent wars we keep naively believing that the post-war will be as wonderful as that example.

And the post-WWII experience was probably heavily influenced by the sense that the war was brought on by the horrible post-WWI experience -- we had to get it right to avoid another catastrophe. The threat of the Cold War also intensified the need to get the peace right. Subsequent efforts overlook how hard it was to get the peace right post-WWII.

And what Hilzoy said about the alleged American aversion to casualties. One of the disgusting political lines making the rounds is that failure in Iraq was tied somehow to Americans not wanting to win badly enough and being casualty averse, instead of the reason hilzoy states -- no one supports an effort that causes pointless or needless casualties. Nothing like scapegoating Americans for the failures of the Republican leadership responsible for Iraq policy.

the world has taken a look at what the United States does well and does poorly, and has found methods of attacking us where we are weak. This is the infamous asymmetrical warfare that we've heard for years. But people tend to assume that because it's asymmetrical, it is somehow inferior.

I tend to think that 4G warfare actually goes back to colonialism of the European powers. Again you had overwhelming conventional force but then most rebellions were not that successful. There was clearly a change that allowed an effective 4GW strategy to develop, especially in the middle east.

What is "4G warfare"? Google tells me it stands for "4th generation warfare", but what does that *mean*? It sounds like managmentspeak to me, coming from some horrible cross between Dilbert's Pointy-Haired Boss and Beetle Bailey's General Halftrack.

I think your analysis here is spot-on, Andrew. The military has to be able to depend on civilian politicians doing their duty of actual politics if wars are to be effectively waged. Without the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Japan IMHO World War II would have been a Pyrrhic victory as World War I was. The only justification for waging war is to make a worthwhile peace, and peace doesn't just happen.

Relevant article by Michael J. Mazarr, professor of national security strategies at the U.S. National War College, on theories of war and the 'evolving nature of conflict as a whole' which Mazerra says 'sets the stage for warfare and battle'.

Oh, and perhaps in answer to Doctor Science's question re: 4GW, the Mazarr essay (excuse the typo above) contains the following passage:

[4GW's] core contention is that the nation-state is losing legitimacy and a monopoly on the use of force; one leading exponent refers to the “universal crisis of legitimacy of the state.”17 Fourth Generation Warfare seems to imagine a sort of neofuedalism, a “return to the way war worked before the rise of the state,” in William Lind’s words: a situation in which many entities wage war, for many different reasons, with many different tools. This is radically fragmented, decentralized, bottom-up conflict.18 To some exponents, 4GW is also very much about the clash of cultures, and the sorts of conflict it produces.19 The contestants in 4GW — and here the concept does depart from traditional assumptions about warfare — focus not on an enemy’s military forces, but on broadcasting messages directly into its political system, in order to bring about (in the interpretation of another leading 4GW proponent, T.X. Hammes) “political paralysis” in the target countries.20

Google tells me it stands for "4th generation warfare", but what does that *mean*?

It is, IMHO, warfare by an indigenous people against a foreign presence (broad definitions, here). More specifically conducting war against a conventionally superior power outside of their borders.

The power is at a disadvantage as they do not have the support of the populace except to the extent that they provide security and opportunity. Perhaps the best description of the 4GW mindset can be found, in all places, in Monty Python's Life of Brian:

Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Attendee: Brought peace?
Reg: Oh, peace - shut up!

OK MattB's definition is much better than mine. As Andrew noted, war is politics by other means. For us Americans the prime example was Vietnam - we won every damn conventional battle yet with every win we were no closer to victory.

It's something that goes against every lesson of western history - clearly something has changed in the world in the last century: either among the hegeminons or the colonial subjects/insurgents.

Unfortunately, with the current administration, I would venture that the Clausewitz doctrine has been revised to read:
"War is P.R. by other means."

Adding to fledermaus and others' comments,
Martin van Creveld also talks a lot about (in fact, may have coined the term--can't remember) 4th generation warfare in _Transformation of War_, among other books. One of the elements of 4GW whose morality etc. has been argued a lot in the pages of ObWi is the use by guerilla forces of civilian populations for shielding and to hide among. Because the other side is more "classically" powerful, in some of the senses that Andrew discusses here, they are constrained not to do things like high-intensity bombing of areas where there might be enemy fighters but are definitely civilians. (Constrained in the sense of losing support from 3rd parties.) This can be contrasted to things like the firebombing of German cities or the bombing of Nagasaki, involving the deaths of many thousands of civilians, where there has been a certain amount of criticism, but it is far more muted than we have seen with respect to certain events in Iraq. That's because, as russell points out, there's no existential threat for the greater power in 4GW.

JakeB- It is not just that there is no existential struggle, there are other reasons we haven't used the total war model, it is also an effort to retain the consent or at least aquiessence of the governed. The US runs an empire that isn't called an empire, but it gets harder to keep the mask on when Americans start to develop a 'more rubble, less trouble' attitude.

Of course. Your use of the term "governed" (as opposed to "conquered") I think touches obliquely on just what the problems are. What I think van Creveld means is that the more powerful force is held to account in a way that the less powerful is not; the appearance of what the treatment of civilians is, both to them and to outsiders, is part of what makes up that accounting. And there's also the effect of causing radicalization among the governed, which you point out.

This particular question is awfully old, I realize. I am recalling now just how chilling the Athenians appear in the Mytilene debate, as described* by Thucydides.

*n.b.: perhaps with a great deal of fictionalization.

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