In tomorrow’s New York Times Sunday Review, Lucian Truscott IV blasts General David Petraeus for failing to “conquer” Iraq and Afghanistan. Truscott unfavorably compares Petraeus to generals who “stormed the beaches of North Africa and southern France with blood in their eyes and military murder on their minds” and were “nearly psychotic in their drive to kill enemy soldiers and subjugate enemy nations.” Yesterday at the venerable Halifax International Security Forum, Wolfgang Ischinger admonished Western policymakers to avoid “military solutions” for “political problems.” The temporal juxtaposition of Truscott and Ischinger’s comments is striking precisely because they represent the Platonic ideal of two similar–and conceptually misguided–approaches to understanding modern conflict.
To Truscott IV, what matters in war is violence, and only one kind of violence. In this reading, the worth of a general derives only from his enthusiasm for pursuing decisive battle of the kind seen in popular “drums and trumpets” military history. But that kind of warfare is only one small slice of human history. That is why the Prussians were so confused by French resistance that continued long after her main armies were crushed on the field in 1870. It is also why German dreams of a second Cannae–on a battlefield that dwarfed any ancient engagement in size and intensity–foundered in 1914. In war, violence is ideally used to advance the dictates of policy, not for its own sake. Violence for the purpose of aesthetic should be left to Quentin Tarantino films, not the real world of war. Indeed, words like “conquer” and “subjugate” imply that Truscott IV imagines that the US should have executed an OPLAN derived from a certain major operation in CENTCOM’s AOR that took place in 1258.
Truscott IV’s rather Mongolian reading of American strategy’s purpose brings to mind the confusion inherent in hard-boiled critiques of modern counterinsurgency that idealize tools such as the destructive raid, targeted killing, or collective punishment rather than analyze how they were actually used to further a political community’s desired future condition. Phrased differently: does it really matter if Patton or Truscott IV’s grandpappy were nail-chewing, “nearly psychotic” go-getters if such “military murder” was inappropriate for the policy? Warfare in all eras of history is characterized by political and material constraints. These constraints were intimately familiar to American commanders in World War II, who had to balance operational necessity with keeping an unlikely worldwide coalition together. Breaking the will of the enemy was of paramount importance, but the manner in which it was done also had implications for the peace that would follow.
There will always be people that point out what ideally could be done with a certain military tool, like those that called on the US to utilize an “elastic defense” in Western Europe during the late Cold War. That had a superficial plausibility to it–why not trade space for time, bleeding out the Soviet army as reinforcements streamed into Europe? The problem with that approach is that the West German government would not tolerate a strategy that explicitly allowed much of its territory to be ravaged. Like it or not, the US had to fight with rules the Germans defined if we hoped to keep NATO united against the Red hordes.
Ischinger’s confusion is the product of a similar focus on tools rather than purpose. Indeed, to be fair, the idea has a long intellectual pedigree. But the argument that there are separate “political” and “military” problems with bifurcated solutions ignores the time-tested concept that the purpose of the military is to break the will of the violent objector to the policy. Hence by creating new political realities, the military is also a “political solution.” Admiral Mike Mullen’s now-famous dictum that “we can’t kill our way to victory” is often repeated but is also empirically unfounded. If the policy is correct, the strategy is sound, and the tactics are appropriate for the task one can often do precisely that. Indeed, recent academic research confirms Clausewitz’s hypothesis that it is precisely the nature of the war aims that weighs highest in questions of victory and defeat. Because an objective definition of “victory’ has never existed above the level of tactics, the way a state defines victory is key to whether it can achieve it through organized violence.
But that’s a rather long chain of “ifs” that a strategist must keep track of. Making good policy is hard. Crafting good strategy to break the enemy’s will and executing it is simple in conception but fiendishly difficult in practice. And there’s an entire military innovation literature about the problems of correctly judging military trends and developing appropriate tactics. That said, we shouldn’t confuse periodic failure of the military instrument with the idea that the utility of force itself has somehow universally declined. Some political objectives are genuinely unresolvable through force. But the reasons why matter. Maybe the enemy’s military power is too strong. Perhaps defeating the opponent is not worth the cost. The nature of the military instrument could be too blunt and imprecise to deliver the desired effects. The political community in question might normatively oppose a certain kind of violence and thus take it off the list of possible solutions.
Explaining precisely why the use of force would be ineffective is all more useful and helpful than a blanket statement that military solutions are inappropriate for a “political problem”—because the idea of a solely “military problem” defies thousands of years of history and most of what we know of strategic theory. There are only political problems, and they are decided through combinations of force and statecraft. And when someone criticizes a supposed “military solution” it is often a veiled way of stating that they disagree with an envisioned political end that differs from their own.
Unfortunately, the idea that tools are ends is common in most discussions of modern security topics. The depressing result of tool-fixation is that those ends remain unquestioned. That’s why “drone war” remains the topic of conversation rather than the fact that the United States has become an active participant in internal conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Shouldn’t the casualness with which we inject ourselves into local political disputes be cause for concern, flying robots or not? Tools are sexy, but how they actually advance (or don’t) policy most surely isn’t.
* Some apologies to readers unfamiliar with the show that inspired the title.