Small Wars Journal

Warrior Know Thyself

Sat, 12/24/2011 - 6:02am

What foundation does our war effort sit on? The strongest one available is built with a deep understanding of what Americans want out of war, how they are willing to fight, and what they are willing to lose. Any approach to war supported by extensive self study is reliable enough to push violence to victory. Policy makers have chosen a different guide though, studying the foreign populations we make war amongst as the key to success. This approach is a house built on sand and will force us to chase after unpredictably shifting preferences.

“Know thyself” is a bit of ancient Greek wisdom as applicable to us as it was to them. Self knowledge is the only basis for interpreting the rest of the world, the value of a thing being unique to the person assessing it. No two individual Americans will share a single definition of victory, or share an identical view on how to achieve it, but if America is at war then it is to Americans we should turn for an explanation of what success is and which paths lead to it.

Finding some aggregate of American values is impossible. People’s personal preferences are just that, personal. Regardless of how much in common a person may have with the people around him he is still an individual. He shares even less with a person from another city, another state. So how much more difficult is it to understand people from different corners of the globe? Yet our entire strategy revolves around winning over foreign populations whose unique habits are further complicated by the effects of our power and money.

Victory cannot be defined by our ability to know and shape the preferences of our enemies and their loosely unaligned neighbors. That is beyond our reach. It is a wonder that some feel so confident in making the attempt when domestic opinions on the war are divided and we continue to slog through an economic crisis. Where does this confidence in our talent for guiding a foreign government, culture, and economy come from? Certainly not from a knowledge and mastery of our situation at home.

Neither can we define victory as what the enemy considers defeat. Even if we could know with certainty what defeat meant to those we fight there would be no guarantee that it would align with what we want to achieve, or that the price would be acceptable. If their defeat meant the death of every insurgent, or the loyalty of every farmer, would Americans be willing to stay the course until that happened? The draw down over the next couple of years suggests not.

Our goals and the ways we reach them must be firmly based in who we are as Americans and what we are capable of. From an improved knowledge of our own desires, advantages, and limitations we can set realistic goals and be better assured of achieving them. War is a tool with far ranging effects that we are no more capable of controlling than the stock market. Our practice of it must be framed by an understanding of self, not because knowing the enemy is useless but because we can know comparatively so little about them. There is too much uncertainty in war already; chasing more is a fool’s errand.



gian gentile

Sat, 12/24/2011 - 9:35am

I liked this piece a lot, and at least in principle agree with it.

But in practice the ideas here are sadly with regard to current American society and domestic politics, well, problematic.

Of course it makes perfect sense to know ourselves as a nation, what are values are, what the American people want and expect from war, before we enter into them and when we do, craft our strategies around these things.

But alas, the American people by and large simply don’t care about these current wars which is why political and military leaders have been unconstrained in fighting them (proof is that we are 10 years plus and still going strong in Afghanistan, American dying nearly every day there, yet it rarely makes the front pages of the NY Times anymore). There is no moral connection between the American people and these wars via the draft (as we had in Vietnam).

So the real entity to know is not the American people writ large, but the political and military elites who put these wars into action, and keep them going, even when it becomes clear that they are being carried out with flawed methods and strategies.