Why Can't We Finish Wars Anymore?

Because we don’t begin them:


Lately there has been a significant shift in US defense doctrine.  Just as it used to be fashionable to talk about the “Revolution in Military Affairs,” defense experts and analysts are now talking about how “Counter Insurgency” is the new way of waging war.  Large force engagements, we are expected to believe, are relics of a bygone era.  Now, instead of preparing ourselves to win wars, we have accepted the premise that victory is a foregone conclusion, but that victory will be attended by endless insurgencies such as we see in Iraq and Afghanistan.


I reject this premise.  Firstly because I interpret America’s current trajectory as an invitation to large-scale war.  Secondly, and this is what I want to talk about right now, I reject the premise because we are mistaken if we accept the notion that we must address insurgencies at their own level.  This is a trap, the result of which is to cede the initiative to the insurgents, and to be drawn into a battle that obviates our strengths and highlights our weaknesses. 


The mainspring of this trap is our unwillingness to declare wars. Fail to call it war, and you can be certain that neither Congress, nor the US population, nor the strategic levels of our military will be prepared to fight it as one. War, we know, is supposed to be Hell, but contingency operations and nation building shouldn’t be. So when the IEDs start going off we are unprepared.  We are surprised because we have failed to recognize a basic fact of life: “Insurgency is nature’s way of telling you that you’re not done with major combat operations.”


Which leads me to the second thing we do wrong. Having failed to declare war, we fail to fight it like a war. With one hand we try to destroy (as we should) but with the other, we try to build simultaneously. This does not work. Counter Insurgency doctrine calls for civil efforts to separate the population from the insurgents, but this is foolishness. We must convince populations that harboring insurgents is too costly and too dangerous, and the only way to do that is to inflict a lot of pain. My southern relations have no love for Sherman, but even they would agree that he was right about one thing. To end a war quickly, you have to burn your own path to the sea, and much of what you burn through will be civilian infrastructure.


If you do not wage war in a manner that is sufficiently brutal, you will undoubtedly fail to press what remains of the enemy’s leadership for a public, complete, and unconditional surrender. This is deeply unfortunate, because nothing else will work to give the population permission to cease its resistance. In the Second World War, we expected tremendous resistance in the Japanese homeland, and when resistance failed, we expected wholesale suicides. We had neither, because we had the presence of mind to make a public ceremony of the Japanese surrender, and because the emperor himself addressed the Japanese people by radio, and told them the war was over.  More recently, we have made war (or none-war, if you please) on people who have suffered for years under brutal dictators.  Despite the hardening effects of that suffering on their societies, we expected them to give up after only a few hours of battle. We thought that Iraqis, who for years feared crossing the street without permission from Saddam Hussein, would suddenly shift their support to us when he went into hiding. Then we expected it would happen when he died. We’re still wondering why we don’t enjoy broader support from Iraqis. It’s because, no matter how much they feared their leader, he was still THEIR leader, and absent an official surrender from him, they were left without orders to stop fighting. To put it into Oprah-speak, they have no closure. Without closure, without permission to stop being what they’ve been for 40 years, or, in the case of the Japanese, for centuries, they find it very difficult to make the psychological leap.


We’re of no help to them in making that leap if, while we’re trying to destroy insurgents, we’re building schools and digging wells. We should be doing nothing of the kind. Suffering is what is needed to make the population shift its perspective, and alleviating the suffering at the same time we’re administering it does not help. The Japanese people went from preferring suicide to laying down their arms and accepting occupation because they had suffered grievously first, which made the surrender acceptable and meaningful. If we had been passing out lead suits and airdropping food at the same time we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, our message would have been seriously muddled. It’s no different in Iraq and Afghanistan.


As MacArthur demonstrated, there is plenty of time for magnanimity after the surrender.  After the surrender, kindness means something. It’s appreciated. How else can we account for MacArthur’s popularity in Japan after the war? Before the surrender though, these well-intended gestures are seen as a sign of weakness, and they are skillfully exploited.




If our presidents returned to the practice of calling upon Congress to declare war, we could have a national debate before we committed our military to “kinetic” actions.  If Congress declines to honor the President’s request, then the endeavor should be shelved.  And if an effort is too insignificant to merit a declaration, then it is most likely not serious enough to warrant the loss of American lives.  If, however, Congress consents to declare war, that declaration will have a galvanizing effect on the population, just as it should have a sobering effect on the leadership.  Failure to subject ourselves to this process deprives us of these effects, and leaves us ill-prepared politically and emotionally for the brutality that awaits us.  It is this ill-preparedness, rather than a shift in the fundamental nature of warfare that leaves us unable to end our current wars.