Small Wars Journal

No Exit, No Problem

Thu, 04/21/2011 - 2:15pm
No Exit, No Problem

by Jason Whiteley

"♫Nowhere to run to baby, ♪nowhere to hide. ♫" Those quintessential Vietnam -era lyrics from Martha and the Vandellas in 1965 describe well the passion with which the baby boomers assiduously avoid becoming stuck in political situations with "nowhere to run." Being associated with a political quagmire akin to the Vietnam War is the kiss of death for political support for any contemporary military action. Accordingly, when the first U.S.-fired ordinance hit the ground in Libya, the question, "What is the exit strategy?" immediately exploded across the U.S. airwaves. The public wants to know, "Where can we run, baby?"

The term 'exit strategy' implies a potential military failure can be avoided with a clear delineation of goals and objectives. The genesis of the term is credited to military reviews of strategic failures in Vietnam. The conceptual primacy of an exit strategy was later popularized by journalists who credited such a strategy for the United States' success in the First Gulf War. Although there is much to suggest that the victory was largely symbolic, public demands for an exit strategy have prevailed. Recent experience, however, suggests that reckless pursuit of an exit strategy more often engenders strategic failure than success.

Despite the martial name, exit strategies are political paradigms that exist to create and maintain popular support. Take, for example the much ballyhooed withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq in 2010, which was hailed as a moment in which the U.S. had achieved its exit strategy. Look more closely and you will see that thousands of U.S. forces remained behind conducting a myriad of logistics, security, and support tasks. After eight years of telling world that 'insurgencies have no front lines', and 'all soldiers are combat soldiers' it is intellectually dishonest revert to traditional definitions of combat and combat and combat support in order to justify that an exit is in progress.

Contrary to the intended effect, exit strategies imperil military effectiveness. In the current era, Army units replace one and another once every 12 months. Most of the time, units are replaced by successors who are smaller-sized in order to further the public perception tha the Army is downsizing and approaching an exit. In each transition, regardless of its quality, there is a loss of continuity that affects the performance of the unit for at least a month. In contrast, when the Greatest Generation marched to war, they did so to the sound of tunes such as "Over there" whose chorus had an ominously permanent ending "And we won't come back till it's over, over there." The sense of purpose that soldiers derive from finality cannot be overestimated. If you ask any soldier today if he would be happier deploying until the job was done, and done in such a way that he need never return, he would answer affirmatively - even if that meant he would be back in several years. Notably, soldiers do not share the same aversion to commitment as policy-makers.

Pursuing manufactured exit strategies lowers operational support at home. Army families who have lived through multiple deployment cycles attest to the trauma of deployment and reintegration. The stunning rise in suicide, domestic violence, and mental illness all witness not the difficulty in returning from combating, but rather the difficulty in returning time and time again. Unlike the American public who can eagerly move on once victory has been declared, or the exit event has been achieved, soldiers and their families must continue to serve, even they becomes increasingly marginalized with each cycle by a public who believes that the mission has been "accomplished."

So, why should the Army stay involved on the ground so long after the initial military tasks have been met, instead of seeking a fast exit. In years past, the answer would have been that the Army logistics capabilities are the only ones sufficient to sustain the ongoing works of other government agencies. This is no longer true, even for the Army, which flies to war on Continental airlines and live in barracks maintained by Halliburton. No, the Army stays involved because it must continue to provide security and a strong military presence. Attempts to hasten this hand-off to local forces invariably result in the unwinding of any hard-won progress.

Thus, exit strategies cannot be tied to certain events or be beholden to political timeline at home or abroad. The inherent cyclicality in post-war recovery makes determination of a proper exit point fraught with risk and uncertainty. Therefore, instead of an exit strategy, it would be more desirable to articulate an end-state, while acknowledging that the timeline for achieving such an end-state may be quite long by contemporary standards. After all, the military has remained in Germany for 66 years, and Korea 50 years, and those are two examples of stable post-war end-states. In contrast, the military interventions of the last twenty years including the so-called "missile diplomacy" in Africa, the deployments to Somalia, and, most recently, Afghanistan and Iraq have so far failed to produce stable outcomes.

The lesson seems clear, it is not an exit strategy we need, it is an understanding that these strategic efforts have no exit. Instead of fearing that we have "nowhere to run," it may be more appropriate for policy-makers to look to the Four Tops whose melodies spoke to an enduring, long-term presence. "reach out and I will be there."

Before we can decide if Libya is worth the effort, we must also accept that this will be a generational commitment. In others words, for the foreseeable future, when Libya reaches out, will we be there?

Jason Whiteley is a West Point graduate and an Iraq veteran. He has been widely quoted on building governance capacity in post-war countries. He is author of the forthcoming book Father of Money: Buying Peace in Baghdad (Potomac Books, 2011)


Dave Seigel (not verified)

Thu, 04/21/2011 - 9:52pm

Jason -- excellent article, concur with your thoughts. I look forward to your book that is due out is indeed a weapons system in stability operations. Mustangs!

Dave Seigel

gerald (not verified)

Thu, 04/21/2011 - 3:21pm

Very good article.The American Public has been sold a false image of what War is. Armed conflict doesn't have a plot.Or a time limit.It must be entered into reluctantly and pursued relentlessly.