Small Wars Journal

The Pipe Dream of Easy War

Sun, 07/21/2013 - 1:13am

The Pipe Dream of Easy War - New York Times Op-Ed by MG H.R. McMaster.

“A GREAT deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep,” the novelist Saul Bellow once wrote. We should keep that in mind when we consider the lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — lessons of supreme importance as we plan the military of the future.

Our record of learning from previous experience is poor; one reason is that we apply history simplistically, or ignore it altogether, as a result of wishful thinking that makes the future appear easier and fundamentally different from the past...

Read on.


In my argument below, I state that McMaster misses the mark by suggesting that what "makes the future appear easier and fundamentally different from the past" was/is advanced technology/RMA.

I argue that the factor that really threw us off -- and the factor that continues to throw us off -- was/is our belief that everyone wants to be like us.

This, not RMA, is what caused/causes us to only prepare to defeat a country's military forces and not, also, its belligerent population (who, post-the Cold War, we believe will see us as "liberators.")

This was/is grave error. Consider:

"While the ongoing RMA provides significant advantages to technology-based societies, the concept of a Peoples' War remains its Achilles heel, thereby underscoring the crucial role that cultural values, ideologies, and beliefs systems play in motivating a society for war." (See Item No. 3, the paragraph entitled "Conditions for Victory.")

Thus, while RMA and Air-Sea Battle might help to defeat an enemy country's military forces, these would seem to have much less utility --and much less relevance -- re: the real battle at hand, to wit:

a. "Our" goal to have other people adopt our values, our ideology, our way of life, etc., and

b. "Their" goal to retain their own cultural values, ideologies and belief systems.

And in this battle, it is the "deep illusion" regarding, shall we say, "the end of history" that hurts us most -- much more so than any thinking we might have regarding advanced technology/RMA.

This is what Iraq, Afghanistan et. al should have taught us.


Sun, 07/21/2013 - 4:13pm

On SWC there is a long running thread 'McMaster on war', which readers may wish to visit.

Bill C.

Sun, 07/21/2013 - 12:32pm

Close but no cigar.

Given the political and human nature of war, one must first, I believe, define "victory" in those terms.

For the United States and its allies, victory was/is defined as (1) the transformation of outlier states and societies along modern western political, economic and social lines and (2) the incorporation of these outlier states and societies into the western sphere of influence.

Herein, it was the belief in the universal appeal of our way of life and our way of governance that got us into trouble - and not so much the promise of fast, cheap victory through technology. (Technology, after all, cannot transform states and societies as I have described above and, therefore, cannot deliver "victory.")

Because of our belief in the universal appeal of our way of life and our way of governance, we only planned and prepared to (1) overthrow the regimes of those who would not cooperate with us and to (2) defeat their military forces. (Technology/RMA had/has utility here.)

Thereafter, we (erroneously) believed that these populations, voluntarily and primarily by themselves, would:

a. Rapidly rid themselves of their petty differences and their outdated/non-servicing way of life and way of governance and, in the place of these,

b. Rapidly adopt our values, attitudes, and beliefs and our political, economic and social structures.

This belief in the universal appeal of our way of life and our way of governance (and, via this attribute, fast, easy and cheap "victory" post-the Cold War); this would seem to be the "deep illusion" to which a great deal of intelligence has been invested in ignorance.


Sun, 07/21/2013 - 2:03am

I wrote this article [abridged] for the American Legion Magazine in 1995 when I was a student at US Army Command and General Staff College.

Prior to the Iraq War, US military operations incurred fewer casualties and concluded quickly and decisively, more so than any other conflicts since World War II. The reasons for this range from the effects of new technology such as precision guided munitions, the professionalism of the post-Vietnam All Volunteer Forces, the size and ineptness of the opposition where our military has been employed, and a combination of these. As a result of these quick decisive victories with minimum casualties (QDVMC), many Americans consider this to be the norm in military operations.

Given the American peoples' desire and expectations of QDVMC, two unsettling issues arise: (1) The military may be setting itself up for future failure due to unreasonable expectations of QDVMC, since casualties are inherent in military operations and not all operations can be accomplished quickly; and (2) An enemy commander may achieve victory against the us just by keeping our forces engaged and by not losing, preventing his defeat by our forces. To a certain extent this was the scenario that we faced in Somalia to our detriment. Its implications are that our political leaders must consider using force only with clearly defined goals and aims of what is to be achieved, within clearly defined parameters, and with a clear understanding of the potential costs involved. Military leaders must explain clearly to the political leaders the potential costs involved in these choices.

Is it realistic to expect QDVMC as a standard for future operations? Two likely future scenarios are (1) operations other than war (OOTW) like Haiti which, according to Harry Summers, the US military views as small-scale combat operations . These OOTW scenarios include small-scale operations such as Grenada, Panama, Rwanda, and Haiti. We can expect these to continue to occur as political instability is a hallmark in many areas of the world. (2) More dangerously, situations such as
Somalia and Bosnia where ethno-regional hatred recognizes no master.

Regardless of the nobility of our motives, or of ghastly pictures shown each night on television, we must be extremely wary of becoming involved militarily in conflicts where the hatreds run deep, in societies where, traditionally, political accommodation is non-existent. This is not to say that we should ignore conflict, but we must be prepared to use the other instruments of national power, i.e., the political, economic, and diplomatic to help to terminate it. However we should keep in mind what the eminent political philosopher, Hans Morgenthau, has observed:

Good motives give assurance against deliberately bad policies;
they do not guarantee the moral goodness and political success
of the policies they inspire. What is important to know, is not
the motives of the statesman, but his intellectual ability to
comprehend the essentials of foreign policy, as well as his po-
litical ability to translate what he has comprehended into suc-
cessful political action.

This is the real test for military officers as well. They must be able to comprehend the essentials of the problem, the nature of the threat that we are facing, and to elucidate possible courses of action in concise and effective terms. However, the key to ensure that we are in fact dealing with the correct problem is that we must understand the nature of the threat that we face, and the most problematic threat that we may face is that of a protracted war.

Thus the second issue that we must deal with in this analysis is the proposition that given our aversion to casualties and protracted operations, an enemy commander does not need to defeat us but rather must not lose against us in order to defeat us; as long as he is not losing, he is winning. Therefore the greatest threat that we face is the one of getting ourselves in a protracted war. The Chinese philosopher of war, Sun Tzu, warned against protracted war because they will ruin a country "Victory is the main object in war. If it is long delayed, troops become demoralized and their strength exhausted. When this happens your enemy will take advantage of your state. So though there may be blundering swiftness in war, there is no clever operation that was protracted, and no country has benefitted from protracted war. Thus those ignorant in the employment of troops will also not know how to use them. Because of this the country squanders its wealth by engaging in ineffective wars."

The classical example of protracted war is the Communist Chinese war of resistance against the Japanese in 1937-1945, and subsequently against Chang Kai Shek's Nationalists, the Kuomintang (KMT), in 1946-1949. Mao Zedong and the Chinese Red Army fought, both a protracted war of national resistance against the Japanese, and at the same time, a revolutionary war against the Japanese and the KMT. The war was revolutionary in that its aims were beyond merely the defeat of the Japanese but aimed at establishing communist power in China proper. The chief military aim of the communists against the Japanese was to wear them down through protracted guerrilla operations against their lines of communications (LOC). Politically, the communist objective against the same was to prevent the capitulation of Chinese forces, maintain a 'United Front' strategy, uniting their forces with those of the KMT in order to defeat the Japanese invaders, and to coopt every Chinese into the struggle. The chief strategic advantage of the Chinese communists was a clearly defined objective: defeat of Japan and communist control of China. All actions were designed with this in mind. The vastness of China and the remoteness of the center of Chinese Communist power ensured their survival through their ability to "move around". Mao Zedong identified communist limitations as being the smallness and weakness of the Red Army which prevented it from engaging the enemy in force and winning quickly. This is why they engaged in protracted war, using guerrilla warfare tactics which would eventually exhaust the Japanese and the KMT, and ensure final victory. As long as the Japanese were incapable of defeating the Red Army, the Red Army would continue to attack them using Maoist guerrilla tactics: "The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy encamps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue." These tactics were designed to wear down the enemy both physically and psychologically. They were extremely effective against the Japanese, and the KMT, who were confined to controlling some cities, while the communists controlled all the surrounding countryside, in effect isolating the cities from one another.

We experienced the effect of these tactics in Vietnam. After the war it became fashionable to make the argument that the reason we lost in Vietnam is that we did not use all of our available force against them. Regardless of the merit of the argument, that is precisely the point: in situations like Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Gulf, Haiti, we did not engage in an all-out effort because the political goals were limited, such as a peaceful and democratic Vietnam, and clearly did not entail us being involved in an all-out war with the possibility of Soviet or Chinese involvement. OOTW and potential conflicts will involve similar political objectives thus a determined enemy will feel that they can outlast us. An enemy commander wins as long as he does not lose.

A former senior United Nations representative in Sarajevo told an audience at the US Army's Command and General Staff College that Bosnian Government officials, as well as Bosnian Serb officials, both wanted US forces on the ground immediately. They wanted this so they could immediately start killing American troops, thereby getting the US involved in the conflict on "their side". Clearly a protracted war such as the one being waged in the former Yugoslavia, where historical ethnic hatred is the motivating force, is the last type of conflict we want to become engaged in.

In conclusion, the American people and their leaders must not draw the wrong conclusions from our recent military successes and assume that QDVMC are the norm in military operations; ideally, they are. We should strive for this end and, in the military, this is clearly what we desire. However, we must also realize that the nature of war involves the use of force. This works both ways, against the enemy and against us. Our political leaders must ensure, and the public must demand, that we do not become involved in a protracted war because democracies, in particular, are ill-suited for this kind of warfare, which as Sun Tzu said can only lead to our exhaustion. We must keep in mind that an enemy commander does not have to win against us, he just must not lose. This does not mean that we are indifferent to the suffering involved, it just means that the military instrument of national power may not be the most adequate one to deal with the problem. We must be creative in integrating the other instruments of national power with the military one in order to resolve conflicts and to help to achieve stability in troubled areas.