Small Wars Journal

Would Sherman Pursue Today’s Jihadists?

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 1:05pm

Would Sherman Pursue Today’s Jihadists?

Robert Alan Murphy


In December of 1860, William Tecumseh Sherman delivered a speech to Louisianans on the subject of secession and articulated the kind of timeless logic Americans ought to apply before deciding to go to war. You can read his full remarks here. Sherman’s entreaty, excerpted below, expertly distills the pragmatic and philosophical underpinnings of why nations should not go to war.

"The North can make a steam-engine, locomotive or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth--right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with.

In 1977, CIA analyst Ray Cline applied mathematics to Sherman’s intuitive logic and developed an objective equation for measuring national power. It sets a nation’s materiel strength as an equal multiplier to its strategic purpose and will to pursue the strategy, with a nation’s power as the product. Clines and Sherman’s approach to national security offers a useful tool for contemporary Americans policymakers to evaluate the soundness of how America pursues its security interests. Do Americans support the strategic purpose? Do the materiel and moral side of the great power equation make sense? For the South in 1860 and America in 2019, the answer is objectively no.

America’s 2017 national security strategy (NSS) defines America’s vital interests along 3 pillars; protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life; promote American prosperity; and preserve peace through strength. All sound like perfectly logical ends to a strategy, but as with so many things, the devil is in the details, and many of the ways and means articulated in the NSS are specious and actually detract from American security.

A troublesome requirement within the first pillar, Protect the American people, is that America must pursue threats to their source. Specifically, it must pursue Jihadists and transnational criminal organizations. Despite the legitimate doubt created by the casus belli for America’s interventions in Libya in 2014, and Iraq in 2003, we’ll agree. It is also evident that America possesses sufficient resources to win the fight. The questions then remains about whether or not pursuit makes America safer, and more importantly, do Americans have the stomach for the fight? Objective assessment indicates the answer to both questions is no. Despite the visceral satisfaction exacted from killing terrorists, the net outcome to security is not commensurate to the cost. This assessment is true across the board from America’s two decade military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq to its tangential adventures in Yemen, Libya and Syria.   

Sherman described how miserably ill-prepared the south was relative to the north. Southerners had the will, but not the means or a just cause. Conversely, contemporary America has the means and a just cause, but empirically doesn’t have the will to win the fight, as evinced by extraordinary Army recruitment incentives, among other objective measures. As Cline demonstrated during the cold war, a nation’s will is a multiplier of its materiel resources. With NATO, America, Iraq and Afghanistan at close to zero in the will to win category, it simply won’t matter how many JDAMS, Jondis or Kandaks thrown at the Jihadist fight. Contemporary polling further indicates that Joe and Jane Q. Public just want the war on Jihadists all to be over already, and who could blame them?

America’s insatiable appetite for the commodities that transnational criminals deliver suggests much the same regarding the criminal threat. After decades of a war on drugs, Americans overwhelmingly feel that it isn’t winning. Support for legislation that weakens consequences for drug offenders, expands publicly funded rehabilitation programs, and thwarts efforts to secure America’s borders suggest that America has given up on the pursuit and has prioritized domestic solutions to address the threat posed by transnational criminals.

Alternatively, Jihadists and criminals certainly have an abundance of the will to win. Fueled by the zeal of a cosmic sense of righteousness, jihadists have sustained the kinds of casualties and losses in battle that might make Stalin blanch, yet they are as determined to beat America today as they were in 2001. America has decapitated that hydra so many times as to beggar belief, yet each fighting season in Afghanistan legions of fresh recruits show up, determined to join thousands of seasoned veterans in killing the kafir.

In its pursuit of thwarting criminal networks, America has thrown a dizzying array of military and civilian resources at the fountainheads and arteries of criminal trafficking. Plan Columbia has been dusted off, copied and pasted in a number of new places, all of which retain much from the original, including its mixed results. While the public hears of the occasional seizures of a few tons of contraband, the country remains awash with it, and no end appears in sight. America’s hunger for criminal merchandise is only matched by the criminals’ fervor to turn a profit.

America’s approach to the pursuit is just as problematic, and contributes to Americans’ apathy toward it. It has used a sledgehammer to address a virus, and has surrendered its interest in the strategy to whatever commercial media outlets deem as reportable news. It burdens its military and law enforcement bodies with so many political preconditions and objectives that tactical victories cannot be translated into a decisive strategic win. The equivalent to a World War II news reel doesn’t exist, and the US government has no strategy to generate public support.

America’s greatest ‘victories’ in the approach it has taken have been in popular acts of vengeance. As glorious as it was to see Bin Laden and Zarqawi killed, it wasn’t long before the hydra regenerated its heads, and their martyrdom added fuel to the cosmic fire for Jihad. The interception of criminal contraband has simply spawned innovative smuggling and increased methods of graft and terrorism to retain market access. America’s military and law enforcement community is embroiled in a surreal form of warfare where success in battle doesn’t lead to victory in war, and where the American public sympathizes with their hardships but has stopped expecting their success.

After decades of fruitless pursuit, it is time for a sober assessment of whether or not America was ready for this fight, and how it might protect the American people going forward. Just as the South would have had to concede that their cause was unjust and their resources insufficient, America has to admit that it doesn’t care enough to pursue jihadists and criminals to their source. It likely must also question whether it has the political courage to make necessary changes to the strategy.  

Sherman would likely say no, and might lecture to America in 2019, like he did the South in 1860, that it has undertaken a desultory and unproductive strategy to secure objectives it’s not quite sure of and unable to deliver. The future looks bleak. While Armed Service posture testimony in 2019 makes no mention of pursuing either jihadists or criminals, it has simply shifted attention to new, equally dubious adversaries that America will not have the will to fight. It doesn’t have to be like this. America has a history of cutting its losses with no discernable negative effect to American security. Somalia in 1993 and Lebanon in 1983 demonstrate that it is possible to extricate itself from continuing to throw good blood and treasure after bad. American strategists must concede that the public appetite for sustained pursuit of its adversaries is a co-equal part of the national security equation, and policymakers must have the courage to challenge the status quo.

Sherman warned the South about the locomotive barreling towards them on the secession track. Cline predicted the implosion of the Soviet Union. Both promulgated a prophetic strategic logic by which America should evaluate itself. The next strategy must account for what the American public will support, and the strategy that will ignite and sustain the fire necessary for decisive victory. Just as the south had an opportunity to avoid disaster in 1860, America’s policymakers have the opportunity to inject objective reasoning into the national dialogue about security.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Army.

About the Author(s)

Robert "Alan" Murphy is a retired US Army Infantry Officer and career strategist. He has led infantry troops in combat and developed strategy at echelons from Army Division to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.



Sat, 09/25/2021 - 8:03am

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Rosie Dunn

Fri, 08/27/2021 - 3:45am

A very actual topic, I considered this when doing history homework using Indeed, America does a lot to the detriment of its own interests, and its future depends on the regulation of this factor.