Why the Strong Lose
The continuing insurgency in Iraq underscores
the capacity of the weak to impose considerable military and political
pain on the strong. Whether that pain will
compel the United States to abandon its agenda in Iraq remains to
What is not in dispute is that all major failed
US uses of force since 1945-in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia-have
been against materially weaker enemies. In wars both hot and cold,
the United States has fared consistently well against such powerful
enemies as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union, but
the record against lesser foes is decidedly mixed. Though it easily
polished off Milosevic's Serbia and Saddam's Iraq, the United States
failed to defeat Vietnamese infantry in Indochina, terrorists in
Lebanon, and warlords in Somalia. In each case the American Goliath
was militarily stalemated or politically defeated by the local David.
Most recently, the United States was surprised by the tenacious
insurgency that exploded in post-Baathist Iraq, an insurgency now
in its third year with no end in sight.
The phenomenon of the weak defeating the strong,
though exceptional, is as old as war itself. Sparta finally beat
Athens; Frederick the Great always punched well above his weight;
American rebels overturned British rule in the Thirteen Colonies;
the Spanish guerrilla bled Napoleon white; Jewish terrorists forced
the British out of Palestine; Vietnamese communists drove France
and then the United States out of Indochina; and mujahideen handed
the Soviet Union its own "Vietnam" in Afghanistan. Relative
military power is hardly a reliable predictor of war outcomes.
Why do the strong lose? One must distinguish
between general factors common to many cases of great-power losses
to weaker adversaries and those that, I argue, may be peculiar to
the United States. With respect to common causes of the stronger
side's loss to the weaker, Andrew Mack, in his pioneering 1975 assessment,
argued that the place to look was differentials in the political
will to fight and prevail, which were rooted in different perceptions
of the stakes at hand. Post-1945 successful rebellions against European
colonial rule as well as the Vietnamese struggle against the United
States all had one thing in common: the materially weaker insurgent
was more politically determined to win because it had much more
riding on the outcome of war than did the stronger external power,
for whom the stakes were lower. In such cases:
The relationship between the belligerents is
asymmetric. The insurgents can pose no direct threat to the survival
of the external power because . . . they lack an invasion capability.
On the other hand, the metropolitan power poses not simply the threat
of invasion, but the reality of occupation. This fact is so obvious
that its implications have been ignored. It means, crudely speaking,
that for the insurgents the war is "total," while for
the external power it is necessarily "limited." Full mobilization
of the total military resources of the external power is simply
not politically possible. . . . Not only is full mobilization impossible
politically, it is not thought to be in the least necessary. The
asymmetry in conventional military capability is so great and the
confidence that military might will prevail is so pervasive that
expectation of victory is one of the hallmarks of the initial endeavor.1
Superior strength of commitment thus compensates
for military inferiority. Because the outcome of the war can never
be as important to the outside power as it is to those who have
staked their very existence on victory, the weaker side fights harder,
displaying a willingness to incur blood losses that would be unacceptable
to the stronger side. The signers of the Declaration of Independence
risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in what became a
contest with an imperial giant for which North America was (after
1778) a secondary theater of operations in a much larger war. For
the American rebel leadership, defeat meant the hangman's noose.
For British commanders in North America, it meant a return to the
comforts and pleasures of London society and perhaps eventual reassignment.
The tables were reversed in Vietnam. There,
the United States attempted to suppress a revolution against foreign
domination mounted by an enemy waging a total war against a stronger
power, a power for which the outcome of that war could never be
remotely as important as it was to the insurgents. The United States
could and did wreak enormous destruction in Vietnam, but nothing
that happened in Vietnam could or did threaten core overseas US
security interests, much less the survival of the United States.2
Thus, whereas the Vietnamese communists invested all their energy
and available resources in waging war, US annual defense spending
during the war averaged only 7.5 percent of the nation's gross national
product.3 Far more important to President
Lyndon Johnson than securing South Vietnam was securing the enactment
of his expensive Great Society program of social reform. Indeed,
after he left the White House he bemoaned the resource competition
between "that bitch of the war on the other side of the world"
and "the woman I really loved- the Great Society."4
Key Vietnam War players in the Johnson Administration
grasped neither the disparity in interests and will that separated
the United States and the Vietnamese communists nor its consequences.
They could find no reason for the enemy's tenacity and staying power.
In 1965, US Ambassador to South Vietnam (and former Chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Maxwell Taylor marveled, "The ability
of the Vietcong continuously to rebuild their units and make good
their losses is one of the mysteries of this guerrilla war. We still
find no plausible explanation for the continued strength of the
Vietcong. . . . [They] have the recuperative power of the phoenix
[and] an amazing ability to maintain morale."5
A year later, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara remarked to an
acquaintance, "I never thought [the war] would go like this.
I didn't think these people had the capacity to fight this way.
If I had thought they could take this punishment and fight this
well, could enjoy fighting like this, I would have thought differently
at the start."6 Secretary of State
Dean Rusk later confessed: "Hanoi's persistence was incredible.
I don't understand it, even to this day."7
Even General William Westmoreland conceded that the US leadership
"underestimated the toughness of the Vietnamese."8
Reinforcing blindness to the fact and implications
of the Vietnam communists' commitment to total war was an ignorance
of Vietnamese history and culture, an arrogant confidence in American
ability to determine the future of South Vietnam, and a bad strategy.
Indeed, superior political will-a greater commitment to the fight-would
not, alone, seem sufficient to defeat a stronger enemy. Having even
a significant edge in resolve cannot overcome a strategy that pits
insurgent military weakness against the bigger enemy's military
strengths. The Tet Offensive was a military disaster from which
the Viet Cong never recovered because communist forces came out
in the open and tried to take and hold fixed positions, thereby
exposing themselves to crushing US firepower. (The Taliban made
the same mistake in Afghanistan 33 years later.) Tough is one thing.
Tough and stupid is quite another.
Ivan Arreguin-Toft, in his seminal assessment
of how the weak win wars, argues that "the best predictor of
asymmetric conflict is strategic interaction," and that "strong
actors will lose asymmetric conflicts when they use the wrong strategy
vis-à-vis their opponents' strategy."9
In his view, the strong actor has two strategies available: "direct
attack," aimed at destroying the weak actor's armed forces
and thereby his capacity to offer violent resistance; and "barbarism,"
aimed at destroying the weak actor's political will to fight via
such depredations against noncombatants as crop destruction, roundups
into concentration camps, hostage-taking, rape, murder, and torture.
Two strategies are also available to the weaker side: "direct
defense," or the use of armed forces to thwart the stronger
side's attempt to capture or destroy the weaker side's territory,
population, and strategic resources; and "guerrilla warfare"
(and its related strategy of terrorism), or "the organization
of a portion of society for the purpose of imposing costs on an
adversary using armed forces trained to avoid direct confrontation."10
For both the stronger and the weaker sides, the direct approach
targets the enemy's armed forces, or capacity to fight, whereas
the indirect approaches of barbarism and guerrilla warfare or terrorism
seek to destroy the enemy's will to fight.
Arreguin-Toft contends that the stronger side
is most likely to lose when it attacks with a direct strategy and
the weak side defends using an indirect strategy, all other things
being equal. Why?
Unlike direct strategies, which involve the
use of forces trained and equipped to fight as organized units against
other similarly trained and equipped forces, indirect defense strategies
typically rely on irregular armed forces (i.e., forces difficult
to distinguish from noncombatants when not in actual combat). As
a result, an attacker's forces tend to kill or injure noncombatants
during operations, which tends to stimulate weak-actor resistance.
Most important, because indirect defense strategies sacrifice values
[territory, population, resources, etc.] for time, they necessarily
take longer to resolve so long as weak actors continue to have access
to sanctuary and social support. In asymmetric conflict, delay favors
This was pretty much what happened in Vietnam.
The United States opted for a direct "search-and-destroy"
strategy against enemy field forces practicing (with the exception
of Tet) an indirect strategy of guerrilla warfare.
The result, for the stronger side, was a politically
intolerable protraction of bloody and indecisive hostilities. The
British in North America also pursued a direct strategy against
American forces, which were waging what amounted to a protracted
guerrilla war. The Minutemen fought as irregulars, and General George
Washington was careful not to risk the survival of the regular Continental
Army. He was always prepared to run away from superior British force.
Both the Vietnamese communist and American rebel leaderships understood
a critical reality that their stronger opponents failed to grasp:
the guerrilla can win simply by not losing, whereas the counterinsurgent
power can lose by not winning.
Indirect defense via irregular warfare is in
most cases the only sensible strategy for the weaker side, because
a direct defense is an invitation to swift defeat. The principal
elements of irregular warfare are protraction, attrition, and camouflage.
Protraction and attrition are dictated by the conventional enemy's
military superiority. Because the weaker side has no hope of quick
and decisive victory, it employs time and the steady infliction
of casualties and other war costs to subvert the enemy's political
will to continue fighting. Protraction also requires a willingness
to trade space and resources for time, because attempted territorial
defense plays to the conventional enemy's superiority in firepower.
Camouflage, or the capacity to dissolve into the local population
and terrain (natural and man-made), shields irregular forces from
the potentially catastrophic consequences of the enemy's firepower
superiority and compels the enemy to inflict politically self-defeating
collateral damage on the civilian population.
In the 20th century, Mao Tse-tung crafted a
theory and practice of irregular warfare known as "protracted
war" or "revolutionary war" that delivered communist
victories in China and Indochina and inspired other insurgents elsewhere
in the Third World. When the United States encountered this particular
brand of irregular warfare in Vietnam, it grasped neither the essentially
political nature of the conflict nor the limits of its own conventional
military power in the Indochinese political and operational setting.
It waged the only war it knew how to fight, but was stalemated by
an enemy with a ferociously superior will to win and a strategy
of warfare that denied decisive application of US military strengths.
The stronger side's vulnerability to defeat
in protracted conflicts against irregular foes is arguably heightened
if it is a democracy. In his persuasive study of how democracies
lose such wars, Gil Merom argues that "democracies fail in
small wars because they find it extremely difficult to escalate
the level of violence and brutality to that which can secure victory."12
For democracies, the strategy of "barbarism" against the
weaker side's noncombatant social and political support base is
neither morally acceptable nor, over time, politically sustainable.
Since 1945, wars against colonial or ex-colonial peoples have become
increasingly unacceptable to most democratic states' political and
moral sensibilities. Merom says that "what fails democracies
in small wars is the interaction of sensitivity to casualties, repugnance
to brutal military behavior, and commitment to democratic life."
Democracies fail in small wars because, more specifically, they
are unable to resolve three related dilemmas: "how to reconcile
the humanitarian values of a portion of the educated class with
the brutal requirements of counterinsurgency warfare, . . . how
to find a domestically acceptable trade-off between brutality and
sacrifice, [and] how to preserve support for the war without undermining
the democratic order."13
Dictatorships in the business of practicing
brutality at home and unanswerable to public opinion do not share
modern democracies' vulnerability to defeat via protracted hostilities
with a highly motivated irregular foe, which almost certainly explains
why such war has been practiced more often against democracies than
dictatorships. Insurgents seem to grasp democracies' lower tolerance
for such war. In his landmark study of suicide terrorism from 1980
through 2003, Robert Pape discovered that, contrary to conventional
wisdom, almost all suicide attacks during that period, including
those in Iraq, were motivated primarily by nationalism and conducted
against the territory or forces of democracies and quasi-democracies-specifically,
the United States, France, India, Israel, Russia, Sri Lanka, and
Turkey-perceived to be occupying, or supporting the occupation,
of territory the terrorists considered to be their homeland. (Post-2003
suicide attacks in Spain and Great Britain, which participated in
the US-led occupation in Iraq, are consistent with Pape's findings.)
Pape believes that suicide terrorism, which,
like guerrilla warfare, is "a strategy of coercion, a means
to compel a target government to change policy,"14
targets democracies for three reasons. First, democracies "are
thought to be especially vulnerable to coercive punishment."
Their threshold of intolerable pain is lower than that of dictatorships.
Second, democracies are believed to be more restrained than authoritarian
regimes in their use of force, especially against noncombatants.
"Democracies are widely perceived as less likely to harm civilians,
and no democratic regime has committed genocide in the twentieth
century." Third, "suicide attacks may also be harder to
organize or publicize in authoritarian police states."15
Pape notes, for example, that not a single suicide attack was conducted
in Iraq during the 25 years of Baathist rule, even though al-Qaeda
and other radical Islamist groups regarded Saddam Hussein's secular
state as an apostate regime. Saddam Hussein effectively monopolized
terrorism in Iraq.
The conclusion that democracies are softer
targets of coercive insurgent violence than dictatorships would
seem validated by Merom's case studies of the Algerian War, the
Vietnam War, and the Israelis in Lebanon. In all three cases the
stronger side relied on conscripted armies that incurred substantial
casualties, and in a democracy there is nothing so toxic in weakening
domestic political support for limited war as dead and maimed conscripts.
But hasn't the United States shown that a democracy can reduce its
vulnerability to weaker-side coercive violence via reliance on professional
troops and on advanced military technologies that have lowered casualty
rates to unprecedented levels?16 Democratic
vulnerability to insurgent coercion is hardly a given in low-casualty
fights waged by volunteer professionals.
Mack, Arreguin-Toft, and Merom offer path-breaking
insights on the phenomenon of the strong losing to the weak. Disparities
in strength of interest and willingness to sacrifice, the dynamics
of strategic interaction, and the relative vulnerability of democratic
states to coercion via properly conducted irregular warfare go a
long way in explaining the outcome of many "unequal" wars,
especially insurgencies conducted against foreign occupiers.
Most insurgencies fail, however, and few succeed
without decisive external assistance. Curiously, neither of these
facts, most importantly the issue of outside help, has drawn the
attention of Mack, Arreguin-Toft, or Merom. The weaker side's possession
of superior will and strategy is hardly a guarantee of success.
Substantial external assistance may be required to convert superior
will and strategy into victory. Indeed, external assistance, be
it direct or indirect, can alter the power relationship between
weaker and stronger, and thus distort the very meaning of the two
terms. Consider the following cases: the American Revolution, the
Chinese Communist Revolution, the French-Indochinese War, the Vietnam
War, and the Soviet-Afghan War.
The American War of Independence turned decisively
against the British only after the formation of the Franco-American
military alliance of 1778 and the subsequent French infusion of
massive financial credits and munitions (most critically, artillery
and gunpowder), and the dispatch to North America and its coastal
waters of a powerful French army and fleet. Indeed, it was French
forces ashore and afloat that sealed the fate of Cornwallis's army
at Yorktown, which in turn prompted the British to sue for peace.
As for the Chinese Communists, it is commonly
believed that their victory was won without major external material
assistance. To be sure, in August 1945 Stalin began turning over
to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) large stocks of Japanese war
materiel which the Soviets had seized in Manchuria. By then, however,
the Nationalist side was almost certainly doomed by 14 years of
Japanese aggression and occupation, which greatly weakened Nationalist
military forces and deprived the Nationalist government of control
over most of China's population and much of China's territory. Though
it was certainly not Japan's intention to assist the Chinese Communists,
the effect of Japan's behavior in China did exactly that by weakening
the Nationalists, probably fatally. Thus Mao profited immensely
by outside help-albeit indirect and unintentional.
In the French-Indochina War, the insurgent
Viet Minh were initially (1946-1949) isolated from outside assistance;
they were short on military experience, poorly armed, and incapable
of mounting the kind of major military operations that finally collapsed
French political will in 1954. What turned the tide was the PLA's
victory in China in 1949 and subsequent conversion of the Sino-Vietnamese
border into a conduit of major Chinese military assistance in the
form of professional advisors and training teams, large quantities
of small arms and military gear, and, most important, modern artillery
captured from Nationalist armies.17
It was Chinese-supplied artillery that enabled the Viet Minh to
crush the large French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, and it was the
fall of Dien Bien Phu that produced the French political concessions
at the Geneva Conference that ended French rule in Indochina and
established communist rule in what became North Vietnam.
The subsequent and largely indigenous communist
insurgency the United States faced in South Vietnam, culminating
in the Tet Offensive of early 1968, had clear and mounting negative
effects on public and congressional support for continued prosecution
of the war. Tet shocked the American electorate, forced Lyndon Johnson
from the White House, and compelled a reassessment of US war aims.
During the Tet Offensive, however, the Viet Cong suffered horrendous
manpower losses. By 1971 the insurgency had been substantially reduced
and effectively contained by a combination of military action, ruthless
counterterrorism, land reform, and major improvements in economic
infrastructure and agricultural productivity. But this success counted
for little, because by then the original insurgency had been replaced
by a large and superbly armed conventional North Vietnamese army
as the primary threat to South Vietnam's survival. It was this army,
not the Viet Cong, which brought South Vietnam down in 1975. South
Vietnam was conquered by an external military force that had, especially
after 1968, access to massive logistical support from China and
huge quantities of sophisticated weaponry from the Soviet Union.
The Soviets had their "Vietnam" in
Afghanistan, where insurgent mujahideen profited significantly,
perhaps decisively, from US and other external assistance, including
thousands of Arab volunteers funneled through friendly Pakistan.
Especially important was the US provision of Stinger surface-to-air
missiles. The Stingers greatly reduced the effectiveness of Soviet
heliborne operations, which formed the backbone of Soviet tactical
mobility in Afghanistan.
It is, of course, impossible in any of these
cases to determine with certitude whether external assistance was
decisive, or even whether it contributed more to the weaker side's
victory than superior insurgent will and strategy. Fighting power
is a mélange of measurables (e.g., troop strengths, weapon
counts, sortie rates) and intangibles (e.g., generalship, organizational
quality, morale). It seems reasonable to conclude that no amount
of outside assistance could redeem the fortunes of a weak-willed
and strategically incompetent insurgency. It seems no less reasonable
to conclude that highly motivated and skilled insurgents can be
defeated if denied access to external assistance and confronted
by a stronger side pursuing a strategy of barbarism against the
insurgency's civilian population base. Here, the militarily defeated
insurgencies of the Boers in South Africa, the Insurrectos in the
Philippines, and the National Liberation Front in Algeria come to
mind. (The irony of the Algerian War was that French political will
to continue the war collapsed even as truly barbarous French military
policies, including the widespread use of torture, were driving
the insurgency toward defeat.)
The discussion so far has focused on factors
that analysts regard as common to many, perhaps most, stronger-side
defeats by materially weaker adversaries. But, of course, no two
stronger sides are alike; each has its own history, culture, and
way of war. Are there peculiarities in America's history, culture,
and way of war that further disadvantage a democratic United States
in wars against a materially weaker irregular foe with superior
will and strategy? I believe there are at least two. The first is
the American tendency to separate war and politics-to view military
victory as an end in itself, ignoring war's function as an instrument
of policy. The second is the US military's profound aversion to
counterinsurgency. Both combine to form a recipe for politically
sterile uses of force, especially in limited wars involving protracted
hostilities against weaker irregular opponents.
General Douglas MacArthur spoke for most Americans
when he declared, in an address to a Joint Session of Congress on
19 April 1951: "Once war is forced upon us, there is no other
alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a
swift end. War's very object is victory, not prolonged indecision.
In war there is no substitute for victory."18
MacArthur had just been fired as commander of UN forces in Korea
because he had publicly challenged President Truman to widen the
Korean War by bombing and blockading mainland China, a course of
action Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed. They did not
want an open-ended war with China at a time when Europe remained
defenseless against a Soviet attack. MacArthur, on the other hand,
rejected the very idea of politically restricted military operations.
War was, for him, a substitute for policy, not its continuation.
This Jominian view underpins the conventional
wisdom in the United States regarding the failed prosecution of
the Vietnam War. Meddling politicians and Defense Department civilians,
it is said, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory; if they had
just gotten out of the way and let the military professionals do
their job, the United States would have won the war. One need look
no farther than the Gulf War of 1991 to see what happens when the
civilians stand aside, so this reasoning goes, or no farther than
Bosnia and Kosovo to see what happens when they resume their interference.
Conventional wisdom conveniently overlooks
the reality that limited war necessarily entails restrictions on
the use of force (and the 1991 Gulf War was no exception); otherwise,
it would not be limited war. Military means are proportional to
the political objective sought; thermonuclear weapons are not used
against insurgency.19 Letting MacArthur
attack mainland China would have involved a use of force excessive
to the limited objective of restoring South Korea's territorial
integrity. Even in Operation Iraqi Freedom, whose object was the
overthrow of a hostile regime via invasion of its homeland, extensive
restrictions were placed on ground force size and aerial targeting.
Perhaps worse still, conventional wisdom is
dangerously narcissistic. It completely ignores the enemy, assuming
that what we do alone determines success or failure. It assumes
that only the United States can defeat the United States, an outlook
that set the United States up for failure in Vietnam and for surprise
in Iraq. Custer may have been a fool, but the Sioux did, after all,
have something to do with his defeat along the Little Big Horn.
Military victory is a beginning, not an end.
Approaching war as an apolitical enterprise encourages fatal inattention
to the challenges of converting military wins into political successes.
It thwarts recognition that insurgencies are first and foremost
political struggles that cannot be defeated by military means alone-indeed,
that effective counterinsurgency entails the greatest discretion
in the use of force. Pursuit of military victory for its own sake
also discourages thinking about and planning for the second and
by far the most difficult half of wars for regime change: establishing
a viable replacement for the destroyed regime. War's object is,
after all, a better peace.
There can be no other justification for war.
"Military conflict has two dimensions," observe former
presidential national security advisors Samuel Berger and Brent
Scowcroft, "winning wars and winning the peace. We excel in
the first, but without an equal focus on the second, combat victories
can be lost."20
The US military's historical aversion to counterinsurgency
is a function of 60 years of preoccupation with high-technology
conventional warfare against other states and accelerated substitution
of machines for combat manpower, most notably aerial standoff precision
firepower for large ground forces. Indeed, past evidence suggests
a distance between the kind of war the United States prepared to
fight and the kinds of war it has actually fought in recent decades.
Hostile great powers, once the predominant threats to American security,
have been supplanted by rogue states, failed states, and non-state
actors-all of them pursuing asymmetrical strategies to offset US
military strengths. This new threat environment places a premium
on stability and support operations-i.e., operations other than
the powerful conventional force-on-force missions for which the
US military is optimized. Such operations include peace enforcement,
counterinsurgency, stability, and state-building.
The need for such stability operations has
been reinforced in the Iraq War, which, once again, has exposed
the limits of conventional military power in unconventional settings.
Operation Iraqi Freedom achieved a quick victory over Iraqi conventional
military resistance, such as it was, but did not secure decisive
political success. An especially vicious and seemingly ineradicable
insurgency arose, in part because Coalition forces did not seize
full control of the country and impose the security necessary for
Iraq's peaceful economic and political reconstruction. Operation
Iraqi Freedom followed not only three decades of determined US Army
concentration on conventional operations but also over a decade
of steady cuts in active-duty US ground forces, especially Army
infantry.21 Most stability and support
operations, however, including counterinsurgency, are inherently
manpower-intensive and rely heavily on special skills-e.g., human
intelligence, civil affairs, police, public health, foreign language,
foreign force training, psychological warfare-that are secondary
to the prosecution of conventional warfare. Forces postured to achieve
swift conventional military victory thus may be quantitatively and
qualitatively unsuited for post-victory tasks of the kind that the
United States has encountered in Iraq.
Antulio Echevarria, director of research at
the US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, believes
the United States "is geared to fight wars as if they were
battles, and thus confuses the winning of campaigns . . . with the
winning of wars." He further contends that "the characteristics
of the US style of warfare-speed, jointness, knowledge, and precision-are
better suited for strike operations than for translating such operations
into strategic successes."22 Strategic
analyst David Lonsdale observes that America's strategic culture
stresses "technological fixes to strategic problems" and
"the increasing removal of humans from the sharp end of war,"
resulting in post-modern warfare "in which precise, distant
bombardment dispenses with the need to deploy ground forces in a
combat role and thereby relegates them to a constabulary function."
He warns that "these notions are not only astrategic and ignore
the paradoxical logic of strategy; they also implicitly rely on
unrealistically effective operations, and thereby seemingly ignore
the presence of friction."23
Former West Point professor Frederick W. Kagan
also believes that the primary culprit in delivering politically
sterile victories is the US conception of war. The reason why "the
United States [has] been so successful in recent wars [but] encountered
so much difficulty in securing its political aims after the shooting
stopped," he argues, "lies partlyin a 'vision of war'
that see[s] the enemy as a target set and believe[s] that when all
or most targets have been hit, he will inevitably surrender and
American goals will be achieved." Unfortunately, this vision
ignores the importance of "how, exactly, one defeats the enemy
and what the enemy's country looks like at the moment the bullets
stop flying." For Kagan, the "entire thrust of the current
program of military transformation of the US armed forces . . .
aims at the implementation and perfection of this target set mentality."24
But target destruction is insufficient and
perhaps even counterproductive in circumstances where the United
States is seeking regime change in a manner that gains support of
the defeated populace for the new government. Such circumstances
require large numbers of properly trained ground troops for the
purposes of securing population centers and infrastructure, maintaining
order, providing humanitarian relief, and facilitating revived delivery
of such fundamental services as electrical power and potable water.
It is not enough to consider simply how to
pound the enemy into submission with stand-off forces. . . . To
effect regime change, US forces must be positively in control of
the enemy's territory and population as rapidly and continuously
as possible. That control cannot be achieved by machines, still
less by bombs. Only human beings interacting with human beings can
achieve it. The only hope for success in the extension of politics
that is war is to restore the human element to the transformation
Too much focus on the perfection of military
means can cause the user to lose sight of the political purpose
on behalf of which those means are being employed. Did the Pentagon
simply lose sight of the main political objective in Iraq, which
was not the destruction of Iraqi military forces but rather the
establishment of the requisite security environment for Iraq's successful
reconstruction? To be sure, the former was a precondition for the
latter, but was the latter an especially, perhaps impossibly, tall
order for a military not structured for the stability operations
required in the aftermath of a swift conventional campaign?26
Accelerated military speed may in fact be strategically
counterproductive. "The focus on high-intensity conflict means
that the United States is winning wars faster and with fewer casualties,"
observed Berger and Scowcroft. "But that 'transformation' has
had an unintended consequence. Rapid victory collapses the enemy
but may not destroy it. Adversaries can go underground to regroup,
creating a need for more troops for longer periods of time after
combat ends."27 The highly respected
British strategist Colin Gray contends that though "the transformational
push may well succeed and be highly impressive in its military-technical
accomplishments, it is likely to miss the most vital marks."
There are a number of reasons for this harsh
judgment. First, high-tech transformation will have only modest
value, because war is a duel and all of America's foes out to 2020
will be significantly asymmetrical. The most intelligent among them,
as well as the geographically more fortunate and the luckier, will
pursue ways of war that do not test US strengths. Second, the military
potential of this transformation, as with all past transformations,
is being undercut by unstoppable processes of diffusion which spread
technology and ideas. Third, the transformation being sought appears
to be oblivious to the fact . . . that there is more to war than
warfare. War is about the peace it will shape. It is not obvious
that the current process of military transformation will prove vitally
useful in helping to improve America's strategic performance. Specifically,
the country needs to approach the waging of war as political behavior
for political purposes. Sometimes one is moved to the despairing
conclusion that Clausewitz wrote in vain, for all the influence
he has had on the American way of war.28
None of the foregoing is to argue against continued
conventional military perfection. US conventional military primacy
is inherently desirable because it deters enemy attack in kind and
effectively eliminates conventional warfare as a means of settling
disputes with the United States. These are no mean accomplishments.
Conventional primacy also enables the United States to crush the
conventionally weak and incompetent, like the Taliban in Afghanistan
and the Baathist government in Iraq. Primacy, at least the kind
sought by Pentagon transformationists, also permits increasing substitution
of technology for blood, which in turn has reduced US casualty rates
to historic lows and arguably increased public tolerance for the
use of force overseas (a very mixed blessing, to be sure). The same
primacy that has yielded conventional deterrence, however, has pushed
America's enemies into greater reliance on irregular warfare responses
that expose the limits of conventional primacy.
The policy question is not whether the United
States should continue to maintain its conventional primacy, but
whether, given the evolving strategic environment, it should create
ground (and supporting air) forces dedicated to performing stability
and support operations, including counterinsurgency. Forces and
doctrine optimized for conventional warfare and the rapid application
of intense violence are hardly optimized for the counterinsurgent
mission, which demands the utmost restraint and discrimination in
the application of force. Firepower is the instrument of last rather
than first resort. There is no big enemy to close with and destroy,
but rather the presence of threatened civilian populations that
must be protected in ways that minimize collateral damage. Conventional
ground force preparation for counterinsurgency requires major doctrinal
and training deprogramming of conventional military habits and reprogramming
with the alien tactics, doctrines, and heavy political oversight
inherent in stability and support operations. Needless to say, forces
so reprogrammed-commonly manpower-intensive and relatively low in
firepower-will not be optimized for big, high-tech conventional
Whatever the arguments for the establishment
of forces dedicated to dealing with asymmetric threats (and there
are serious arguments against), they are not likely to find favor
in the Pentagon, which like any other large bureaucracy has organizational
preferences based upon what it likes to do and does well. The United
States is exceptionally good at conventional warfare but not particularly
good at fighting irregular adversaries to a politically decisive
finish. Marine Corps small-war expert Thomas X. Hammes points out
that though war against an unconventional enemy "is the only
kind of war America has ever lost," the Defense Department
"has largely ignored unconventional warfare. As the only Goliath
in the world, we should be worried that the world's Davids have
found a sling and stone that work. Yet the internal DOD debate has
largely ignored this striking difference between the outcomes of
conventional and unconventional warfare."29
Strategic Studies Institute analysts Steven Metz and Raymond Millen
observe that while "the strategic salience of insurgency for
the United States is higher than it has been since the height of
the Cold War, [insurgency] remains challenging for the United States
because two of its dominant characteristics- protractedness and
ambiguity-mitigate the effectiveness of the American military."30
Historically, in the two decades post-Vietnam,
institutional resistance to counterinsurgency operations inside
the US military was strong. This tendency was reinforced by a (proper)
concentration on conventional warfare capabilities required to deter,
and if necessary defeat, the massive threat posed by the Warsaw
Pact. A 2005 RAND Corporation study delivered to Secretary of Defense
Rumsfeld concluded: "Iraq underscores . . . the overwhelming
organizational tendency within the US military not to absorb historical
lessons when planning and conducting counterinsurgency operations."
The study proceeded to recommend:
In the future, US military forces engaged in
counterinsurgency operations must be composed of personnel with
training and skills similar to special operations forces, i.e.,
the language and culture of the country, and in the critically important
political, economic, intelligence, organizational, and psychological
dimensions of counterinsurgency warfare. Serious attention should
also be given to creating in the Army a dedicated cadre of counterinsurgency
specialists and a program to produce such experts.31
The argument here is not that the Defense Department
is hopelessly unadaptable to the deconventionalized global strategic
environment-only that its force-structure bias toward conventional
combat is long-standing and well entrenched, and that overcoming
it will entail fundamental change in how US military forces are
organized, equipped, manned, and trained.
Recent initiatives within the US Army may be
a step in the right direction. The Army is in the midst of the most
significant restructuring since World War II, as it moves to the
Modular Force. The resulting changes in active and reserve forces
are intended to provide units more effectively organized for both
conventional operations and stability and support operations. Personnel
policies have been adjusted to promote stabilization of units, teams,
and leaders throughout the preparation for, conduct of, and return
from combat operations. In recent years the Army also implemented
a new officer management system that develops and promotes officers
with the skills necessary for success across the full spectrum of
Even with such military changes, strategic
success is not guaranteed. The strong, especially democracies, lose
to the weak when the latter brings to the test of war a stronger
will and superior strategy reinforced by external assistance. In
the case of the United States in Vietnam, a weaker will and inferior
strategy was reinforced by an apolitical conception of war itself
and a specific professional military aversion to counterinsurgency.
In the case of Iraq, the jury remains out on the issues of will
and strategy, but the unexpected political and military difficulties
the United States has encountered there seem to have arisen in part
because of a persistent view of war as a substitute for policy and
an antipathy to preparing for war with irregular adversaries.
1. Andrew Mack, "Why Big
Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict,"
World Politics, 27 (January 1975), 181-82.
2. The chief argument
for intervention in Vietnam was that failure to intervene would
undermine the credibility of US defense commitments elsewhere. There
is no evidence, however, that any major US ally in Europe or Asia
saw Vietnam as a test of US credibility. On the contrary, many regarded
US intervention in Southeast as a mistake that undermined US capacity
to defend its commitments worldwide.
3. This is the average
for years 1965-1974 and is based on figures appearing in Jeffrey
Record, Revising U.S. Military Strategy: Tailoring Means to Ends
(McLean, Va.: Pergamon-Brassey's, 1984), p. 100.
4. Quoted in Doris Kearns,
Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: Harper and Row,
1976), pp. 251-52.
5. Quoted in George
McTurnan Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), p. 249.
6. Quoted in Tom Wells,
The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam (New York: Henry Holt,
1994), p. 99.
7. Dean Rusk with Richard
Rusk and Daniel S. Papp, As I Saw It (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990),
8. Interview with Tom
Wells, in Wells, The War Within, p. 99.
9. Ivan Arreguin-Toft,
"How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict,"
International Security, 26 (Summer 2001), 95.
10. Ibid., p. 35.
11. Ibid., p. 107.
12. Gil Merom, How
Democracies Lose Small Wars: State, Society, and the Failures of
France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon, and the United States in Vietnam
(New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), p. 15.
13. Ibid., pp. 230-31.
14. Ibid., p. 27.
15. Ibid., pp. 44-45.
16. During the eight
years of major US combat operations in Vietnam, the United States
sustained a daily average of 19 dead and 100 wounded; in Iraq, the
average daily loss rate as of August 2005 was slightly over two
dead and almost 16 wounded. See Jeffrey Record and W. Andrew Terrill,
Iraq and Vietnam: Differences, Similarities, and Insights (Carlisle,
Pa.: US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, May 2004),
pp. 11-12, 59; and data appearing on the Iraq Coalition Casualty
Count website, http://icasualties.org/oif.
17. Qiang Zhai, China
and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina
Press, 2000), pp. 47-49.
18. Reprinted in Jay
M. Shafritz, Words on War: Military Quotations from Ancient Times
to the Present (New York: Prentice Hall, 1990), p. 425.
19. This does not
mean that each and every restriction imposed on force is necessary
and consistent with the political object being pursued. Civilian
decisionmakers, especially those prone to err on the side of caution
or captivated by notions of finite gradations of coercion, can and
do get it wrong.
20. Samuel R. Berger
and Brent Scowcroft, "The Right Tools to Build Nations,"
The Washington Post, 27 July 2005.
21. See Robert M.
Cassidy, "Back to the Street without Joy,: Counterinsurgency
Lessons from Vietnam and Other Small Wars," Parameters, 34
(Summer 2004), 73-83; John Waghelstein, "Counterinsurgency
Doctrine and Low-Intensity Conflict in the Post-Vietnam Era,"
in The American War in Vietnam: Lessons, Legacies, and Implications
for Future Conflicts, ed. Lawrence E. Grinter and Peter M Dunn (New
York: Greenwood Press, 1987), pp. 127-37.
22. Antulio J. Echevarria,
Toward an American Way of War (Carlisle, Pa.: US Army War College,
Strategic Studies Institute, March 2004), pp. 10, 16.
23. David J. Lonsdale,
The Nature of War in the Information Age (New York: Frank Cass,
2004), pp. 9, 211.
24. Frederick W. Kagan,
"War and Aftermath," Policy Review, No. 120 (August-September
2003), p. 27.
25. Ibid., pp. 44-45.
26. David C. Hendrickson
and Robert W. Tucker, "Revisions in Need of Revising: What
Went Wrong in the Iraq War," Survival, 47 (Summer 2005), 27.
27. Berger and Scowcroft.
28. Colin S. Gray,
"How Has War Changed Since the End of the Cold War?" Parameters,
35 (Spring 2005), 21.
29. Thomas X. Hammes,
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (St. Paul, Minn.:
Zenith Press, 2004), pp. 3, 5.
30. Steven Metz and
Raymond Millen, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century
(Carlisle, Pa.: US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute,
November 2004), p. vi.
31. Iraq: Translating
Lessons into Future DoD Policies (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation,
February 2005), p. 7.
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