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Great Power Failure in the ‘Hot Wars’ of the Cold War: A Strategic Theory Analysis

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Great Power Failure in the ‘Hot Wars’ of the Cold War: A Strategic Theory Analysis

 

Euan Findlater

 “We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war - the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”[i]

 

--Henry Kissinger

Introduction

 

In this quote, Henry Kissinger was specifically discussing how the United States was ultimately defeated in the Vietnam War by a guerrilla force. However, Kissinger’s idea can be extended to encapsulate why, during the Cold War, great powers infrequently succeeded in the conflicts they embarked on against seemingly inferior adversaries. As compared to the total war of the Second World War, the ‘hot wars’ of the Cold War were primarily limited conflicts in which big powers fought guerrilla insurgents. This essay will use both theory and case studies to analyze why the great powers failed in the limited asymmetric wars of the Cold War. The theories presented include: Strategic Paradoxes of Asymmetric War Theory, Limited War Theory, Military Organizational Culture Theory and Civil-Military Relations Theory. The case studies that will illustrate the analysis of these theories are the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975). These two case studies have been chosen because they are two of the biggest ‘hot wars’ to be fought by each of the great powers of the Cold War – the Soviet Union and the United States – and thus, comparing and contrasting two different conflicts of two different great powers allows for a more substantial overall analysis. Overall, the theories and case studies show that the great powers failed for two overarching reasons. First, was that they failed to balance what is known as the secondary Clausewitzian trinity of the people, the government and the military.[ii] Furthermore, they failed to appreciate the three crucial maxims taught by the infamous Carl Von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu: they did not know themselves, they did not know their adversaries and they did not know the kind of war that they were engaging in. [iii]

 

Asymmetric War and Strategic Paradoxes of Asymmetric War Theory

 

Asymmetric warfare is not a new phenomenon and since the end of the Second World War it has been the predominant type of warfare fought by great powers. In relation to the Cold War, this essay will define a great power as a post-industrial nation that is overwhelmingly superior in terms of world-wide influence politically, economically and militarily and stronger in production of resources and technology vis-à-vis an inferior pre-industrial power that is semi-feudal or semi-colonial, predominantly acting as guerrilla insurgents.[iv] Major Robert Cassidy presents a theory on the strategic paradoxes of asymmetric warfare that is useful in explaining the essence of asymmetric warfare. Cassidy posits that the superior opponent, or great power, has limited strategic goals, unlimited strategic means, superior technology and armament, conditional will and domestic cohesion, low tolerance of casualties and a Clausewitzian or direct military culture. On the other hand, the inferior opponent, or insurgent, has unlimited strategic goals, limited strategic means, inferior technology and armament, unconditional will and domestic cohesion, high tolerance of casualties and a Fabion-Maoist or indirect military culture and tactics. [v] These paradoxes have historically shown that superior powers often win tactical victories during asymmetric limited wars but ultimately fail to win strategically – this echoes Lieutenant Colonel Harry Summer’s critical analysis of the United States’ failure in Vietnam.[vi] Both the United States and the Soviet Union, two great powers, had to eventually withdraw from their respective wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan before achieving their war aims. In the end, the inferior adversaries, the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan and both the North Vietnamese regulars’ and the South Vietnamese insurgents’ will and guerrilla hit-and-run tactics prevailed in avoiding defeat and protracting the conflicts long enough that the great powers’ wills to continue waging their limited wars eroded in the domestic, political and military spheres.[vii] The next paragraph will expand on the first paradox of limited and unlimited warfare theory, which is critical to explain why force was used in the way it was during the ‘hot wars’ of the Cold War era.

 

Conventional Warfare and Limited War Theory

 

Coming out of two world wars, in both the United States and the Soviet Union, the idea of major war and conventional warfare was ingrained into the public, political and military psyche. In essence, the notion of superior conventional military and technical capability equated to victory in conflict. However, the conflicts the great powers found themselves in during the Cold War were comparably limited wars. Distinguishing between the two, author Spencer Bakich states that major wars require “an outright battlefield victory or unconditional surrender” to secure the political purpose of the war, whereas, in limited wars, political objectives are secured by “balancing the demands of strategy with those of diplomatic policy, post-war occupational strategies, and the inevitable strain on domestic resources.”[viii] Bakich goes on to suggest that the defining feature of limited war is the “inherent potential of escalation…where limited war strategies seek to obtain a state’s military objectives while simultaneously controlling the pressures of escalation.”[ix] There are three types of escalation in limited wars: vertical, horizontal and durational. Vertical escalation refers to the increase in intensity with which a war is being fought; horizontal escalation is the expansion of participants in the war; and durational escalation is the prolonging of time the war is being fought. [x] In terms of Cold War conflicts, one can see vertical escalation occurring in the Soviet-Afghan war, where the Soviets significantly increased the intensity of warfare from 1984 onwards, initiating a “scorched-earth policy” that led to a “migratory genocide” of the Afghanistan population.[xi] Horizontal escalation can be witnessed during the Korean War, when China entered the conflict on the side of North Korea in 1950. Durational escalation was evident in both the Soviet-Afghan War and the Vietnam War, where the wars dragged on past the pre-war estimations and desirable time in which either great power wanted to or could commit due to the parameters and political pressures of fighting a limited war.

 

In studying limited war theory, Robert Osgood and Thomas Schelling are two prominent theorists that highlighted the Cold War era thought on limited wars and whose influence transcribed to policy and strategy of the United States and can arguably be observed in the way the Soviet Union approached limited warfare as well. In his acclaimed work, Limited War: Challenge to American Strategy, Osgood viewed politics as the central element and object of war and believed that limited war was a specific diplomatic tool of negotiation and compromise that should be centrally directed by political leadership.[xii] Thomas Schelling expanded Osgood’s theory on limited war to posit that the “strategy of conflict” in limited war is the bargaining and communicating of power to condition an adversary’s behavior through concepts including: deterrence, communication of resolve, war-limitation by tacit communication, and rationality of looking irrational. [xiii] Osgood summarised that: “the theory of limited war came to be seen as part of a general ‘strategy of conflict’ in which adversaries would bargain with each other through the mechanism of graduated military responses…in order to achieve a negotiated settlement.”[xiv] One can certainly see how both the United States and the Soviet Union used their respective military involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan as a diplomatic tool led by politicians to condition the behavior of their adversaries in the ‘hot wars’ themselves and in the greater Cold War context. Emphasizing graduated escalation of military force as a communicative political strategy significantly devalued the use of military strategy, tactics and force, which consequently reduced the effectiveness of the great power militaries when they became engaged in asymmetric warfare. In each case, the military organizational culture and civil-military relations also negatively impacted the superior power’s military effectiveness leading to their infrequent success against inferior opponents.

 

Military Doctrine and Organizational Culture Theory

 

Military doctrines are vital for the effective functioning of military organizations in combat operations. In essence, military doctrine is an intellectual framework of understanding that guides a military force’s actions in support of their objectives both philosophically and practically from tactical, operational and strategic standpoints.  It is a foundation that allows an army to prepare for and adapt to future conflict. Historian Larry Cable explains that military doctrines are “historically derived as a synthetic product of experience in previous conflicts,” and “condition the military and civilian perceptions and decisions before and during conflict.”[xv] As mentioned earlier, in the wake of World War Two military doctrine for the great powers was centred on conventional military capabilities for engagement in total war. Consequently, everything from troop formations, training and equipment to operational strategy and low-level tactics were all designed specifically for winning conventional battles through the physical destruction of the enemy and the enemy’s lines of support. Both the Soviet Union and the United States sought to engage in high-intensity set-piece combat with adversaries in order to use superior firepower, technology and organization to destroy the enemy’s will and ability to continue fighting.[xvi] As such, this was the concept of war that transcended the organizational culture - “the pattern of assumptions, ideas, and beliefs that proscribe how a group should adapt to its external environment and manage its internal affairs” - of great power militaries.[xvii] As a consequence of being so fixated on conventional attrition-based doctrine and due to the fact of having an organizational culture that was too hierarchical and too rigid to adapt, meant that both the great powers struggled to effectively fight an asymmetric, unconventional limited war against guerrilla-type insurgents. Not only were both the Soviets and Americans unable to implement an adequate counterinsurgency strategy, their reliance on firepower and annihilation was specifically detrimental to any counterinsurgency effort by undermining any progress made or credibility with the local population. In terms of the Soviets’ scorched-earth strategy in Afghanistan, historian Scott McMichael states that: “rather than drive the Mujahedeen from the countryside, the Soviets elected to drive off the population, which fed, sheltered and supplied the resistance.”[xviii] The same can be said with regards to the American operations in Vietnam, particularly with the Operation Rolling Thunder air campaign and due to brutal suppression and repression of the local population by American and South Vietnam government forces.[xix] The inadequate implementation of counterinsurgency operations and the failing of limited war theory’s political use of military force led to vertical and durational escalation of the conflicts that positively impacted the guerrilla insurgents and negatively impacted the great powers, specifically by crippling civil-military relations and eroding the public’s will to support limited wars that were not existential threats and costing too much money and too much blood.

 

Civil-Military Relations Theory and Why Modern Democracies Lose Small Wars

 

There are two important variables concerning civil-military relations: the domestic balance of power between civilian leaders and the military and the extent of convergence (or divergence) between civilian leaders, the military and the public.[xx] During the Vietnam War and the Soviet-Afghan War, due to the prominence of limited war theory and other organizational dynamics, decision-making in terms of use of force was centralized and micromanaged by political leaders. This is visible in the Soviet Politburo’s Commission on Afghanistan who “deliberately isolated themselves from any dissenting opinions within the policy-making structure” in order to use force in Afghanistan.[xxi] For the United States, the centralization of power was accrued in the hands of the presidential administration and civilian analysts with little-to-none military experience and who followed the limited war theory and strategy of conflict theory of Osgood and Schelling.[xxii] As both wars protracted in time and as both militaries were seemingly ineffective in achieving their political aims, the centralization and micromanagement of power increased, as did the mistrust of and between the military and the political bureaucracies. For both great powers, this apprehensive relationship between the civilian leaders and military adversely impacted success in their respective wars, as strategies were unclear, un-definitive, and inappropriately used force. Such a failure to communicate capabilities and limitations “resulted in the military being called upon to perform political, economic, and social tasks beyond its capability while at the same time it was limited in its authority to accomplish those military tasks of which it was capable.”[xxiii] Mistrust also extended to the public sphere, where the people began to question and eventually protest against the respective wars. The deterioration of will in both the Soviet Union and United States to support the wars stemmed from the fact that, due to the nature of engaging in limited war, neither governments ever acquired the full commitment of the public and when situations got worse on the battlefield, combined with the fact that the governments tried to hide the true nature of the wars, that commitment turned into outcry and dissent. In both the Soviet Union and the United States, unrest was exemplified by: bereaved mothers, draft-dodgers, university students and nationalists – which ultimately drained the political will for war and began the withdrawal of troops before the war aims were accomplished. In How Democracies Lose Small Wars, Dr. Gil Merom argues that: “modern democracies lose protracted small wars because in situations of deep instrumental dependence, the politically most relevant citizens create a normative difference of insurmountable proportions. Essentially, what prevents modern democracies from winning small wars is disagreement between state and society over expedient and moral issues that concern human life and dignity.”[xxiv] This maxim was true for the United States in Vietnam and true for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and, in the end, neither great power was willing to escalate or sacrifice enough to provide a military solution for a protracted limited war.

 

Conclusion

 

This essay has used different theories to analyze why great powers were unsuccessful in the ‘hot wars’ of the Cold War, using the Soviet-Afghan War and Vietnam War as primary case studies. In both instances, the great powers were unable to overcome the paradoxes of asymmetric warfare. Four main explanations are behind this conclusion: the negative influence of limited war theory that devalued the true nature of military force; a military doctrine and organizational culture that was unable to adapt to unconventional warfare due to a form of hubris and obsession on superior conventional military capabilities to achieve war aims; a poor and detrimental relationship between civil leaders and the military, which increased the power of politicians and limited the effectiveness of the military through an unclear and unsuitable formulation of strategy; and finally, mistrust between the public, political bureaucracy and the military, which precipitated the erosion of will to continue fighting a protracted limited war.

 

To refer back to Henry Kissinger: “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”[xxv] It is clear that great powers did not truly know, appreciate or attempt to understand the true nature of the ‘hot wars’ in which they were engaging during the Cold War and this led to an imbalance between the public, the political leaders and the military. Furthermore, ignoring historical experience and exuding hubris, the superior powers fully underestimated their adversaries and fully overestimated their own capabilities. They only needed to recall the infamous and universal strategic maxims of Carl Von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu to understand that when engaging in any type of conflict, one must do three things: know oneself, know one’s adversary and know what kind of war one is embarking on.[xxvi] These lessons remain relevant today as great powers continue to engage in asymmetric warfare around the world. At the same time, learning these lessons and answering these questions does not just apply for fighting asymmetric warfare, but applies for any kind of war a power may see itself engaging in.

 

Bibliography

 

Bakich, Spencer D. Success and Failure in Limited War: Information and Strategy in the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq Wars. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

 

Cable, Larry E. Conflict of Myths: The Development of American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and the Vietnam War. London;New York;: New York University Press, 1986.

 

Cassidy, Robert M., Ph.D. Counterinsurgency and the Global War on Terror: Military Culture and Irregular War. Paperback ed. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2008.

 

Clausewitz, Carl von and Anatol Rapoport. On War. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968

 

Sunzi and P. J. Ivanhoe. Master Sun's Art of War. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2011.

 

Hughes, Geraint. "The Soviet-Afghan War, 1978-1989: An Overview." Defence Studies 8, no. 3 (2008): 326.

 

Kissinger, Henry A. "The Vietnam Negotiations: Foreign Affairs January 1969." Survival 11, no. 2 (1969): 38-50.

 

McMichael, Scott R. Stumbling Bear: Soviet Military Performance in Afghanistan. London: Brasseys, 1991

 

Merom, Gil. How Democracies Lose Small Wars: State, Society, and the Failure of France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon, and the United States in Vietnam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

 

Osgood, Robert Endicott. Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy. London;Chicago;: University of Chicago Press, 1957

 

Rosen, Stephen Peter. "Vietnam and the American Theory of Limited War." International Security 7, no. 2 (1982): 83-113.

 

Schelling, Thomas C. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge Massachusetts: 1960

 

Shultz, Richard H. and Andrea J. Dew. Insurgents, Terrorists, and Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

 

Strachan, Hew and Andreas Herberg-Rothe. Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

 

Summers, Harry G. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. New York: Dell, 1984.

 

End Notes

 

[i]Kissinger, Henry A. "The Vietnam Negotiations: Foreign Affairs January 1969." Survival 11, no. 2 (1969): 38-50.

[ii]Strachan, Hew and Andreas Herberg-Rothe. Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

[iii] Clausewitz, Carl von and Anatol Rapoport. On War. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968; Sunzi and P. J. Ivanhoe. Master Sun's Art of War. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2011.

[iv] Cassidy, Robert M., Ph.D. Counterinsurgency and the Global War on Terror: Military Culture and Irregular War. Paperback ed. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2008.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Summers, Harry G. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. New York: Dell, 1984.

[vii] Shultz, Richard H. and Andrea J. Dew. Insurgents, Terrorists, and Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

[viii] Bakich, Spencer D. Success and Failure in Limited War: Information and Strategy in the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq Wars. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Cassidy, Robert M., Ph.D. Counterinsurgency and the Global War on Terror: Military Culture and Irregular War. Paperback ed. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2008; Hughes, Geraint. "The Soviet-Afghan War, 1978-1989: An Overview." Defence Studies 8, no. 3 (2008): 326.

[xii] Osgood, Robert Endicott. Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy. London;Chicago;: University of Chicago Press, 1957; Rosen, Stephen Peter. "Vietnam and the American Theory of Limited War." International Security 7, no. 2 (1982): 83-113.

[xiii] Schelling, Thomas C. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge Massachusetts: 1960; Rosen, Stephen Peter. "Vietnam and the American Theory of Limited War." International Security 7, no. 2 (1982): 83-113.

[xiv] Rosen, Stephen Peter. "Vietnam and the American Theory of Limited War." International Security 7, no. 2 (1982): 83-113.

[xv] Cable, Larry E. Conflict of Myths: The Development of American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and the Vietnam War. London;New York;: New York University Press, 1986.

[xvi] Cable, Larry E. Conflict of Myths: The Development of American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and the Vietnam War. London;New York;: New York University Press, 1986.; Hughes, Geraint. "The Soviet-Afghan War, 1978-1989: An Overview." Defence Studies 8, no. 3 (2008): 326.

[xvii] Bakich, Spencer D. Success and Failure in Limited War: Information and Strategy in the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq Wars. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

[xviii] McMichael, Scott R. Stumbling Bear: Soviet Military Performance in Afghanistan. London: Brasseys, 1991

[xix] Cable, Larry E. Conflict of Myths: The Development of American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and the Vietnam War. London;New York;: New York University Press, 1986.

[xx] Bakich, Spencer D. Success and Failure in Limited War: Information and Strategy in the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq Wars. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

[xxi] Hughes, Geraint. "The Soviet-Afghan War, 1978-1989: An Overview." Defence Studies 8, no. 3 (2008): 326.

[xxii] Summers, Harry G. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. New York: Dell, 1984.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Merom, Gil. How Democracies Lose Small Wars: State, Society, and the Failure of France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon, and the United States in Vietnam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[xxv] Kissinger, Henry A. "The Vietnam Negotiations: Foreign Affairs January 1969." Survival 11, no. 2 (1969): 38-50.

[xxvi] Clausewitz, Carl von and Anatol Rapoport. On War. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968; Sunzi and P. J. Ivanhoe. Master Sun's Art of War. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2011.

 

About the Author(s)

Euan Findlater is a postgraduate student at the University of Glasgow studying Global Security.

Comments

How about the US Military does not really understand warfare. They understand fighting and are very good at the physical element of warfare. They fail at the intellectual and moral elements of warfare.

https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_memoranda/2006/RM6278-2.pdf

 

The author's initial premise above, to wit: that during the Old Cold War, the great powers were engaged against weaker, inferior enemies; should we say that this such initial premise may need to be questioned/changed; this, due to the actual "great revolutionary power versus great revolutionary power" status/context of the Old Cold War?

First, from the beginning of our article above: 

BEGIN QUOTE

“We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war - the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”                                      -- Henry Kissinger

In this quote, Henry Kissinger was specifically discussing how the United States was ultimately defeated in the Vietnam War by a guerrilla force. However, Kissinger’s idea can be extended to encapsulate why, during the Cold War, great powers infrequently succeeded in the conflicts they embarked on against seemingly inferior adversaries. 

END QUOTE

Next, from Hans Morgenthau's 1967 Foreign Affairs article entitled: "To Intervene or Not to Intervene:"

BEGIN QUOTE

The United States and the Soviet Union face each other not only as two great powers which in the traditional ways compete for advantage. They also face each other as the fountainheads of two hostile and incompatible ideologies, systems of government and ways of life, each trying to expand the reach of its respective political values and institutions and to prevent the expansion of the other. Thus the cold war has not only been a conflict between two world powers but also a contest between two secular religions. And like the religious wars of the seventeenth century, the war between communism and democracy does not respect national boundaries. It finds enemies and allies in all countries, opposing the one and supporting the other regardless of the niceties of international law. Here is the dynamic force which has led the two superpowers to intervene all over the globe, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes openly, sometimes with the accepted methods of diplomatic pressure and propaganda, sometimes with the frowned-upon instruments of covert subversion and open force.

END QUOTE 

Thus, based on the great revolutionary power v. great revolutionary power "war" clarification/understanding of the Old Cold War -- provided by Hans Morgenthau above -- should we suggest that our author above change his initial thought/statement/premise:

From:  (During the Old Cold War) "Great powers infrequently succeeded in conflicts they embarked on against seemingly inferior adversaires."

To:  (During the Old Cold War) "Great revolutionary powers infrequently succeeded in the "hot wars" they embarked on against seemingly inferior adversaries; this, given that these such seemingly inferior adversaries were, in fact, supported by similarly powerful -- and indeed similarly revolutionary -- other great powers enemies?

(Or something to that, or some other, better-said and/or better-articulated, effect?) 

 

There are a number of points in this essay that don't ring true about Vietnam.

Kissinger saying we were "ultimately defeated by a guerilla force" in Vietnam should, more properly, be rephrased by deleting "a guerilla force" and substituting "politics."

We knew our adversaries were ruthless communists who wanted to rule all of Vietnam and didn't hesitate to kill thousands to get their way.

The Soviet Union, China and the Warsaw Pact countries supported North Vietnam, not the poor, little, wayward country that they readily portrayed.

Next time anyone has a war, let's use a stop-watch to begin and end a war. I'm sure even Chairman Mao and Stalin would have laughed at imposing a deadline to impose their spread of communism.

Using Larry Cable's book as a reference concerning Rolling Thunder is amazing considering he faked his way up to become a professor and lied about his military service (Stolen Valor). "Brutal suppression" by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces? What of Hue, or the Highway of Horror, or the possible massacre at the Rockpile, using flamethrowers on an entire village (Dak Son), or the near daily atrocities committed by the VC? War Crimes all, but no one cares, do they?

By 1972, the percentage of rural pacification in South Vietnam was: in A and B hamlets - 84.3 percent. In A/B/C - 96.8 percent. BTW, when South Vietnamese fled during the Easter Offensive, they didn't flee northward, either.

The deterioration of will can also be chalked up to the press and weak-kneed politicians who didn't really want to win. If they had, then the restrictions they emplaced ( https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/historically-and-factually-accurate ) wouldn't have been imposed in the first place.

The bottom line is really, if you're going to fight, do it quick and to the point.