The temptation to quantify war is strong. Old systems of measuring progress in war fall out of favor just long enough to be given a new skin and praised for their more modern and refined approach. Metrics as a system of calculation only obscures our understanding of war, but taking a step back from that problem shows us much more than the numbers ever could.
The usual use of metrics in a war, body counts or materiel seized or destroyed, only means so much. Killing and destroying the resources of our enemies gives them less to work with, so they must be a in a worse position than when they started. But how much worse? We cannot calculate the value to them of what was lost. A modern example of this disconnect between systems of valuation will make the point better. Massive sums of wealth are spent by the US in preserving human life both because of its intrinsic value and because of the human capital that has been built up in that person. Life does not enjoy such high regard amongst the insurgents of the Taliban. They practice suicide bombing and spray their bullets through local populations in an attempt to hit their enemies. Our different values lead to different tactics and also make a common unit of measure impossible.
Attempts have been made to account for this kind of enemy. The most commonly accepted solution is to measure the amount of local support we enjoy in a place. This has the advantage of being better suited to the kind of fight we find ourselves in but also has two added problems. There are no “units” of local support to be counted up like bodies or bullets, and no one can tell us how many units are needed to win. We can neither measure our progress nor know when to stop.
If metrics cannot provide the mathematical simplicity that people turn to it for then what good is it? The answer is that it points to the truly precious resource in this sort of war: Time. If we want to reach our enemy’s breaking point but cannot find it through measurements then there is one option left: shoulder the draining hardships of war, hardships we know our enemies share with us to some degree, in a contest of endurance. The winning strategy for both sides is to outlast their opponent by minimizing their own war burden.
There is one other scenario. When both sides restrict themselves to the same style of war then certain resources become more obviously important and measuring may be easier though still not precise. Time could be the resource, or each side could turn similar physical materials into similar machines and use similar tactics. If war were simplified into tank battles then counting up how many tanks were lost on each side could be very illuminating.
But we must be careful. War need not be, and often is not, so simple. It is adaptive and messy and does not give in to bean counting. The failure of such an approach shows us the subtlety and enormity of war. Trying to calculate our enemy’s breaking point is dangerous, yet we cannot force our enemies to fight like us and long wars are a terrible burden. A more creative option must be found, one that accounts for our own system of values. One that is tempered by humble goals that reflect that subtlety and enormity. One that is not fooled by the latest numbers.