Small Wars Journal

The Limits of our Ability to Practice War

Tue, 08/23/2011 - 8:33am

War begins an inexorable march towards exhaustion. The resources we fight with are limited and the burden of their use only increases with time and the workings of violence, chance, and planning. Every culture handles that trinity a little differently creating experiences and possibilities too numerous to be known by any individual, war is too big. Its size conceals the fullness of its opportunities and pitfalls from those who move forward along the few paths they know.

There are two complementary ways to describe the enormity of war. First, it is a human phenomenon whose complexities multiply according to the number of people involved. Active duty servicemen are generally a small segment of a society and yet an entire society can be transformed when faced with occupation. Then opportunities to fight increase, a farmer can become a part-time soldier relying on tools like ambush and community intimidation to grind out victory. War is open to as many changes and interpretations as there are lives it affects.

Second, as the most visceral human action war draws a response from all aspects of life. It siphons wealth from civilizations, it builds and destroys political credibility, and it polarizes the religious into zealots and pacifists. War's effects rebound back onto itself creating criticism, support, opportunities, and constraints that were unexpected at its outset. The influence that even intangibles like faith and the economy have, combined with the endless changes wrought on the shape of war by individual participants, make for complexity beyond understanding.

War quickly exceeds our ability to know it, so we make it smaller. We discard approaches and possibilities until we have something we can grasp and practice at the expense of resources we are —to sacrifice. In the United States we rely on a volunteer force, augmented by advanced technology and massive sums of wealth. Our military is tailored to quick decisive engagements with minimal casualties and reflects the American consensus on what war should be, even when not employed that way. The forces that shape the way we fight are numerous, powerful, subtle and beyond our ability to master completely.

Likewise, the people we fight have their own narrow approach to conflict. Instead of mirroring the capital intensive military the United States fields they have forged a way of war that plays to their patience and extensive local knowledge while bypassing their lack of wealth. War brings these two approaches into contest and practitioners on both sides are forced to adapt. Some adaptations can be supported from our niche, spending more money to develop vehicles that can survive I.E.D.s is very much in line with how the United States fights.

However, when we adapt further away from our preferences and competencies we add a steep learning curve to an already heavy burden. Searching far afield from our finite knowledge of war for a more appropriate response to the current fight has led us down rough and unfamiliar paths. In addition to the wealth war is normally paid for with; time has been spent lavishly and with time more lives have been spent bitterly. We are quickly becoming more exhausted than our opponents because, forgetting where we came from, we press into the unknown. Those concerned about public policy must have a deep respect for our natural limitations as war-makers before accepting life's most brutal challenge.


Cpl Griff

Wed, 10/12/2011 - 3:17pm

Garrett Wood, Are you related to LtJg Frank S. Wood 1st ANGLICO Sub Unit 1 RVN 1970. My e-mail I would appreciate hearing from you. I am researching a possible award for a friend of mine who served with me in Viet Nam with ANGLICO.
Semper Fi,
Warren Griffin

I like the article also, I think it intelligently addressed the issue of asymmetry at the strategic level. I also agree with most of Bob's points, but tend to think while not exhausted certain elements of our military are definitely tired, since it is a relative few within our military (and a much smaller percentage within our society) who are actually carrying the burden of this conflict year after year, not to mention the wear and tear on our equipment. I realize that wasn't the author's point, but it is important.

Ken White

Wed, 08/24/2011 - 11:11am

Prescient and good commentary.

Shorter Robert C. Jones: Always play to your strengths and never on the other guys turf according to his rules.

Makes a great deal of sense to me. Of course, to do that, some Rice bowls here will have to be broken. That needs to happen. He goes on to identify some of those Bowls, notably the big one that seems to demand military solutions (<i>Does that equate to military spending? Ed. ...</i>) to intelligence shortfalls and to often short-circuited diplomatic efforts that take more time than a four year Presidential or SecState term allows. He correctly notes that our destructive fixation on Tasks (and conditions and 'standards'...) and 'engineering success' on ones Watch has caused us to fixate on sub optimal nits and subordinate issues, the next few yards, instead of focusing on the far more important long game.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 08/24/2011 - 5:39am

I guess my first observation is that America is not "exhausted" by war; we're just bored and intuitively I suspect we understand that we have mission-creeped our way into a problem that simply is not nearly as important as it has been made out to be and we just wish that we could be as smart at backing out of such messes as we are energetic in getting into the same.

Germany at the end of WWI was "exhausted." Big difference.

A second observation that is worth repeating until we get it is that arguably no insurgency-counterinsurgency contest is "war"; but rather an internal civil emergency rooted in illegal political challenges to the standing government that can often reach very war-like degrees of violence depending on the tactical choices made by the parties. Certainly for an intervening party, such as the US and the entire Coalition in Afghanistan, none of those countries are at war, and their respective populaces can intuitively sense that as well. They have troops in combat, but that is a very different thing than being a nation at war. We certainly have no existential threats at risk; in fact our greatest concern is how embarrassed our government might be by an ungraceful exit.

(One would think, having watched our government in action over the past several years that they would be over the whole fear of embarrassing themselves by their actions by now...take the recent debt ceiling/reduction debate for example.)

I think in many ways we have fallen into the very common trap of allowing intermediate supporting objectives overcome our focus on ultimate main objectives.

During the first Gulf War this was a question of did one make breaching the Iraqi defenses the main effort until accomplished, and then shift to the destruction of the Republican Guard once that critical intermediate task was complete; or did one designate the Republican Guard as the Main effort from the outset? The risk being that if one gets too focused on a supporting task, they may well become fixated and exhausted in dealing with it, and not have adequate resources to actually deal with the main effort.

In Afghanistan it is dealing with AQ that is the main effort, and the dealing with the internal challenges to the Karzai government by the Taliban as the supporting effort. Having just attended a 2-day conference hosted by CENTCOM on this effort I can report in good faith that the roles have reversed. We have become so fixated on the supporting effort that it has become the main effort that we "exhaust" ourselves against while AQ becomes secondary. We went from "we need to prevent the Taliban from prevailing as they might allow AQ to return to a formal sanctuary in Afghanistan," to what appears to be "if we defeat the Taliban we will defeat AQ." type of thinking. I would respectfully suggest that we need to step back and reassess our priorities.

Opening the aperture even wider, we overly focus on the "...effort to defeat al Qaeda to prevent attacks on the homeland and on our Allies and partners" (from the White House Defense position on their web site) in Afghanistan and Pakistan; while the organization thrives and operates across the Middle East and reaching into homes and communities around the globe to influence individuals and organizations disenfranchised (radicalized?) by their respective governments at home. We are so focused on "squeezing the balloon" in one location, we lose site of the fact that AQ is a distributed, networked organization that has no vital need for the sanctuary or the support of the land or people of the AFPAK region to operate and even thrive. Again, in making an intermediate objective the main effort, it has pulled our focus away from the big picture.

Open the aperture even wider and one can see that AQ itself is merely a symptom of even larger issues of flawed domestic policies of US allies across the Middle East, and US Foreign policy across that same region as well. By overly focusing on the hot pursuit of the symptoms, we allow the underlying problems to continue to fester and grow.

Open that aperture a bit more and one can see National Interests, and of those some are truly vital, and some are far less so, but do help to shape conditions to secure the ones that are vital. One could well make the case that the entire focus on "violent extremism", "terrorism," "Insurgency," etc is yet again an example of how easy it is to get off track when one becomes overly fixated on supporting or intermediate tasks.

So, in summary I don't believe we are exhausted by a war that is outside our competency to win; I believe we are bored our becoming fixed to someone else's internal conflict and frustrated by that nagging realization that even if we "succeed" in the effort it won't produce the ultimate effect we seek; and the growing concern that while we are so preoccupied on this adventure that much larger matters are allowed to fester and grow...

Ken White

Tue, 08/23/2011 - 11:42am

Prescient and good commentary.

Shorter Garret Wood: Always play to your strengths and never on the other guys turf according to his rules.

Makes a great deal of sense to me. Of course, to do that, some Rice bowls here will have to be broken. That needs to happen...