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Understanding Endgame: The Essential Re-Shaping of Military Thinking in 21st Century Warfare
Richard M. Ingleby
Volumes have been written on the various facets of warfare, and today ever-increasing amounts of effort are being devoted specifically to the study of insurgent conflict. In spite of this, scholars and students of warfare have yet to look at military occupations collectively to see if any common themes, trends or correlations emerge. As we currently seek to find solutions for occupations in light of recent conflicts, this scientific approach to the historical study of occupations is long overdue. Doing so is the aim of this article; what the reader will see is potentially ground-breaking in this regard, and perhaps the lessons here will finally give the US military an edge in insurgent conflicts that is so desperately needed for the future. The method for which will be seen at the end of this article.
When one looks at every Western military occupation from the advent of Total Warfare (e.g. the American Civil War) to the present, a singular, and thus far unstudied, critical common thread does in fact emerge, one that actually links all insurgent conflict in modern warfare: that the level of devastation a defeated nation suffers during initial conflict has a direct correlation, in every instance, to the rise of an insurgency during the subsequent military occupation. In other words, in every modern military conflict wherein Total Warfare was utilized, meaning the incorporation of civilian populations, infrastructure, etc. into the battlefield itself, the subsequent occupation never had to cope with a significant insurgency, if any at all. For the devastation suffered by a population in such cases was so immense that their will to resist was completely broken, to the point where continued resistance could no longer even be contemplated.
For example, during the period mentioned the United States has been involved in three military conflicts that have utilized Total War followed by an invasion and occupation: the US Civil War, and WWII Germany and Japan. In each case, after significant conflict and great loss on both the battlefield and at home, after each opponent’s surrender their militaries laid down their arms and resistance as a whole ceased thereafter. Yet note the level of dedication and even fanaticism in the case of each of these groups — it almost defies belief that in each case some of the most fanatical adversaries the world has ever seen so readily and collectively abandoned their cause and simply ceased to further resist. Why?
First, the American Civil War. As the guns gradually fell silent through the month of April 1865, the young American nation had suffered loss seldom experienced in history. After years of tremendously bloody conflict, the Southern states alone had suffered over 260,000 killed from combat and disease — one fifth of its pre-war white male population.1 Hundreds of thousands more suffered from serious injury. And while civilian casualties generally remained relatively light, vast portions of Southern territory, both rural and urban, public and private, had been completely devastated by Union troops as they destroyed anything of value during sieges and now-famous “marches” bent on destruction. Some of the largest Southern population centers like Richmond, Atlanta and Savannah were almost completely destroyed, where nothing of the city was left standing but a landscape of lone-standing brick chimneys.
In addition, any transportable property or wealth not destroyed by Union soldiers had long before been impressed through the poorly-run Confederate war effort, to include livestock, wagons or tools. Further still — although for good reason— the South’s system of labor was completely reformed, leaving the lands relatively uncultivated in this agrarian economy, causing a severe drop in property values and subsequent outputs that lasted though most the 1870s. For the South the price of the failed civil war indeed was an unimaginable burden to bear.
But the passion of Southerners at the start of the war should not be forgotten, as calls for secession passionately swept through the region in the middle of the 19th Century until finally put into practice by South Carolina in December of 1860. And the dedication and diligence of Confederate soldiers fighting against tremendous odds from 1861-65 likewise needs no mention here. Yet interestingly, as Robert E. Lee was considering surrender in the early morning of April 9, 1865, one of his staff officers suggested that the Army of Northern Virginia scatter and continue its resistance through guerrilla operations. But Lee quickly dismissed the idea, knowing that few had the heart to continue. And even if they did, he specifically worried that such action would only serve to give Union troops reason to continue to consume and destroy even more territory, responding, “the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many wide [areas] they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.”2 With this realization, that the cost of the war had been too great to consider continuing any further, even through alternative forms of resistance, Lee went to General Ulysses S. Grant and surrendered his army at Appomattox Courthouse.
As undeniably devoted as this “nation” was in its cause, and in spite of the fact that many of its veterans had significant experience with raiding and guerrilla warfare, as word spread of Appomattox, within weeks this absolutely fanatical and revolutionary society laid down its arms completely, never again to resist US national authority militantly.3 To see a society so passionately devoted to a cause capitulate so completely in such a short amount of time is absolutely astounding. After such devastation however, continued resistance in the South was unthinkable.
Later, in 1930-40s Germany, a different society became far more radicalized and fanatical than the Confederates. Under the direction of Adolf Hitler, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arteiterpartei (NSDAP, or “Nazi” party) indoctrinated and militarized an entire nation along the lines of racial superiority. Its militant political arm, the Schutzstaffel (or SS), displayed a fanaticism in both its civilian and military components only rarely seen in history, and German armies reigned a terror across Europe, Eurasia and North Africa so severe that its repercussions are still evident today. Yet in spite of a fanaticism that itself has been the subject of numerous works, as peace finally returned to Europe on May 8th 1945, the thought of continued resistance in Nazi Germany died away as quickly as did the fantasy of Das Drittes Reich.
In May 1945 the once proud and powerful nation of Germany lie in complete ruin. The Wehrmacht had lost an estimated 5 million soldiers killed and missing over the course of the war, in addition to suffering a further estimated 1.8 million civilian deaths — approximately 8.5 percent of its pre-war population.4 And these numbers do not include the millions more injured, nor the roughly 2.2 million that died in the years following the conflict due to disease or starvation as basic services nation-wide ceased to function for years. Twenty percent of German homes were destroyed by the war, with even more abandoned (by force or by choice), leaving an additional 16.5 million people homeless, unsheltered and vagrant.5
Yet even more surprisingly than in the Confederate example, although so many indoctrinated persons roamed a lawless Germany in the second half of 1945 and in the years following, German resistance ended with the Wehrmacht’s surrender.6 This is especially surprising in light of the feared and brutal occupation of the eastern half of the country by the Soviet Union. For while many, to include French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, felt that “…as long as there is reason for revenge [in Germany], there will be a renewed risk of war”, the truth of it was that in the case of post-war Germany, any reason or even thought revenge had been long since snuffed out.7
An even more astounding example of fanaticism was found on the other side of the world at the same time in Imperial Japan. Likewise, a belief in racial superiority led to the rise of a fanaticism that was comparable perhaps only to Islamic fundamentalists today — where the giving of one’s life during combat or through suicide was preferred; surrender or survival in defeat brought only disgrace. As a result, tremendously bloody conflicts raged across generally unknown and previously insignificant islands in the Pacific from 1941-1945, as Allied Soldiers and Marines inched forward and dug suicidal defenders out of never-ending caves and emplacements.
And such beliefs were not exclusive to Japanese military personnel — civilians were expected to conduct themselves likewise and equally. The most striking example of this was seen in the closing days of the battle for the Marianas’ island of Saipan, where horrified American Marines watched as Japanese mothers tossed their children from cliffs into the rocky and churning ocean below just prior to jumping themselves. This widespread militancy caused a fear so great that Allied planners for the invasion of Japan estimated that casualties in just that campaign alone would dwarf the total American losses suffered in the war thus far combined.
But much like Germany, by the summer of 1945 Japan had been equally devastated. Years of submarine warfare had strangled the island nation like a noose, causing an almost-complete collapse of even the most basic of provision and services. Heavy bombing had left most of Japan’s cities in ruins — particularly in the frequent firebombing that ignited paper and wooden homes, and caused city-wide firestorms resembling a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. Then finally, after the second atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 and Japanese war deaths had reached an estimated 2.6 million with scores of millions more to come should the Allies invade, the Imperial head and descendant of deity decided his nation could take no more and announced acceptance of the terms of surrender unconditionally.8 Almost impossibly, in a society so fanatical in combat and so imbued with suicide as the only other option to an honorable combat death, any discussion of continuation was short-lived and quickly dismissed, and millions of Japanese collectively turned to a life of peace.
In all three of these examples an extremely passionate and devoted opponent was defeated and their territory occupied. But while as historian Giles MacDonogh stated, “to be occupied is to be violated”, in all three cases, each of the most extreme of enemies laid down their arms and succumbed completely and unconditionally to such violation.9 With such diverse cultures and circumstances, the only reason each of these examples followed a similar course is because each had been so devastated by war that any will to further resist was completely broken — including the will of even the most hardcore of fanatics.
Contrast this then with far less devoted opponents who conversely were engaged against in Limited Warfare conflicts during the same period — those that did not suffer this unilateral devastation prior to occupation, where civilian populations and infrastructure were left relatively unaffected — in each instance, an insurgency always developed. For in the post-Spanish-American War Philippine Insurrection, in the many Axis occupations of the Second World War, in the Arab-Israeli wars, in Soviet and US Afghanistan, and in American Iraq, where in each case Limited War was used, and a major insurgency developed after.10 When contrasted with the previous examples mentioned, such developments in Limited conflicts can be no coincidence.
To be clear, this is by no means a call for the mass-targeting of civilians or for the unrestrained total devastation of opposing nations and their populaces in order to be militarily successful in the future. Doing so would in many instances be counter-productive in the long-term and extremely hard to justify morally. However, even today military planners must understand the advantages and disadvantages of each type of warfare — they must understand that the choice of either Total or Limited war is one of two options from which to consider and decide from based on their circumstances and mission requirements. But herein lies the issue that has proven such a struggle in recent history: military leaders must understand that there are in fact only these two options, and between these they must make a deliberate decision prior to engaging in conflict.
Planners should utilize this “if-then” planning model as they make to through this decision-making process, allowing the effects of each type of conflict to be clearly understood beforehand and ultimately planned against. Specifically, that if circumstances dictate or leaders for whatever reason chose to conduct a limited war that will be followed by an occupation, they must know the consequences that will automatically result: an insurgency. And if it is clearly realized up front that an insurgency will in fact be faced, it can then be planned for and engaged from the very beginning, thereby easing or even completely bypassing the hurdles that come with such long-term repercussions that occupiers seem so frequently prone to stumble over. Clearly, the application of a solid understanding of just this paragraph could have shaped recent history into far more positive outcomes.
This incorporation of planning for an insurgency from the beginning is absolutely critical. For although strategists today are devoting a massive amount of effort in an attempt to finally find the ever-elusive solution to decisively defeating an insurgency, their approach to the issue is flawed for one primary reason, and as a result their solutions will continually fall short of solving the problem: their focus and attention is devoted to a point in time so late in a conflict that only the combination of tremendous luck and sacrifice could then only possibly allow for a reversal to be brought about. In other words, to look at counter-insurgency operations as something to be implemented once an insurgency has become apparent is to administer medication after the patient’s illness has become terminal.
By waiting to implement a counter-insurgency strategy until the insurgency has actually raised its head enough to be recognized for what it is, enemies have already organized and taken the initiative, and a considerable amount of damage has already been done; damage that is most likely irreversible at that point. However, with a slight shift in strategic thinking, occupations can indeed become far less difficult and costly, and actually become decisively-successful endeavors — hard as that may be to believe. If leaders can follow the above model, and clearly understand that due to their choice in implementation of limited warfare, that they will undoubtedly face an insurgency during the subsequent occupation, they can therefore decide from the very start to implement an overall strategy that transitions without pause from conventional combat directly into a counter-insurgency campaign.12 Doing so undoubtedly will exponentially better the odds of success, far more than any we have experienced previously. But the only way this happens is if this concept becomes thoroughly understood, accepted and instilled now, before the next conflict begins.
And this can be easily done, through a small addition to the planning process. Although seemingly simple, the specific incorporation of this proposed “if-then” concept during the “Understand the Operational Environment” phase of their Unified Land Operations-based planning, military planners will know from the very outset the nature of the occupation they will deal with and can prepare accordingly. Currently, this step is at best only implied in recent and emerging military doctrine and only those familiar with this article will know to incorporate it — it must therefore be specifically directed as a deliberate step for the planning process in doctrine. Otherwise it will be left up to the individual leaders to follow this model, and the results will vary. And any such variance will lead to failure.
The harsh truth is that the United States, the leading Western military power, has engaged in four major conflicts since its celebrated victory in the Second World War.12 And although difficult to consider, in all four of these conflicts the United States has consistently performed exceptionally well tactically, yet in the end has withdrawn from the field without having achieved its original aims. Put more bluntly, this means having been defeated. To reiterate: in every major military campaign within the last three-quarters of a century, the most lethal and advanced military power in the world has been defeated. And three of these four conflicts were military occupations. And the United States is not alone in this performance. Other nations have faired similarly in the same time period in similar conflicts.
The bottom line is, we must first understand that while Western militaries are highly professional and their technologically superior to a level that has never been equaled in history, our actual military performance since the Second World War is in decline. Granted there are examples of success in conflicts such as the 1982 Falklands War or the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but these relatively short and conventional engagements played into the strengths of the Western militaries engaged and were up against far inferior opponents — and none involved post-conflict occupations. It is time therefore for a complete change in how we approach and think about future military conflicts; the “ways of war” in which we are familiar and comfortable are no longer the conflicts that we face today, and even if we do not like to admit it, they have not been for quite some time.
Unfortunately, the losses of the past cannot be reversed. But this does not mean that we cannot correct ourselves going forward. The mastery of military occupations is long overdue. It absolutely needs to be done, and immediately, for the civil and military leaders frankly owe it to the Soldiers they oversee. And with the preponderance of recent conflicts being or involving occupations, if the United States wishes to remain the world’s dominant military power it must become the unequalled master of occupations.
Historian Victor Davis Hanson states that one of the traits that gives the West and its “Way of War” its military preeminence over the rest of the world, is not the its military skill particularly, but its willingness to rapidly adapt itself to overcome any deficiencies that are found as new types of conflicts emerge.13 We are at the precipice of such a moment now. These findings here are significant and have major implications for military planners going forward, and the consequences for not doing so are even more critical.
This nation frankly cannot afford any longer to be indecisive in achieving our military aims in the future. We therefore cannot afford to look at our history and dismiss our shortfalls as circumstantial; we must look at our history analytically, clearly identify our failures and correct them. More specifically, we must absolutely, without question, return to unquestionable military supremacy in the world — which only comes through a mastery of military occupations. In order to do so, we must realize that there is this common thread in all insurgent conflict. Fortunately, this thread gives us clues towards its solution: it clearly shows us that by a simple adjustment in our thinking and planning, we can in fact overcome the recent and disheartening battlefield challenges and return the United States to decisive and unequalled military success once again.
 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2014), 125.
2 Edward P. Alexander, Military Memoirs of a Confederate (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 604-05.
3 Note that although the Ku Klux Klan was without a doubt a violent organization, its goals lied within the US system: to force white racial superiority and democratic political control. Never did their efforts target US military occupational garrisons, nor were they aimed at continued resistance toward secession.
4 Jason Pipes, Feldgrau.com - Research on the German Armed Forces 1918-1945, copyright 1996-2015. www.feldgrau.com/stats.html
5 Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 1.
6 There was a small amount of insurgent activity after the surrender committed by various independent groups known generally as Werewolves. However, the majority of their efforts were focused toward reprisals against alleged collaborators, and each group was quickly dispatched — in most cases by the Germans themselves. Many since have tried to over-inflate the impact of these Werewolves, but in reality, as historian Giles MacDonogh stated, “the Allied soldiers were more a danger to themselves” than any post-war Nazi insurgency.*
7 Robert Schuman, Pour l’Europe 2nd ed. (Paris: Nagel, 1964) 110. from MacDonogh ibid., 542.
8 Max Hastings, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 (New York: Knopf Books, 2007), 541.
9 Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, 3.
10 I have deliberately not included conflicts stemming from colonial occupations, since they are so different in nature from post-conflict occupations that their examples are outliers in this study, in spite of the fact that most of these conflicts involved guerrilla operations. This includes French and American involvement in Vietnam, where the occupation was not the result of a war previously with the occupied power — e.g. the US never fought and invaded South Vietnam (nor did it even do so with North Vietnam for that matter, its principle enemy) as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq.
11 This would include non-lethal operations such as reconstruction, establishment of government, policing functions, etc.
12 The term “major conflict” being defined here as a military conflict being of an extensive duration. In this case Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
13 Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York: Anchor Books, 2002).