January 7th, 2012

There Is No Substitute, Part 2.

Svenn Ortmann has written a critique of my most recent blog. While it is interesting, we appear to be talking past each other. Hence I will re-state my arguments in greater depth.

Ortmann argues that the “classic definition of victory” in today’s environment is impossible:

This kind of opposition cannot be defeated once and for all with conventional recipes. You may disarm them in a Clausewitzian way, but  unarmed elements would simply re-arm. These opponents refuse to sign a peace treaty or to surrender en masse. A full occupation of their country does not end a war, it does rather begin one. It’s awfully difficult to declare a classic victory in such a fight.

But this implies that Ortmann considers the “classic” definition of victory (which would imply a singular and contextless form identical to total war) to be unlimited war. This is precisely the reason I wrote my previous blog arguing the contrary.  I stated this outright in my blog when I talked about the careless equation of conditional and unconditional victory (the World War II example). Hence I am unsure why Ortmann argues that I, like many “mainstream military experts,” am frustrated because resilient enemies cannot be forced to disarm. This was never my argument—if you have an unlimited theory of victory which is predicated on completely disarming the Taliban and forcing them to sign a peace treaty, do not be surprised if you fail. If you try to completely destroy them and occupy their country, also prepare to fail.

This is not because such outcomes in and of themselves are impossible, it is because they are currently impossible in January 2012 for Americans. Because I write for an American strategic audience, with an American strategic bias, I am realizing more and more the problems that this causes. It is simply too easy to make a general strategic conclusion based on American experience to extrapolate it to the whole of strategic history. For example, “no land wars in Asia” is a good rule of strategic thumb for Americans, but someone forgot to tell the Indians.

Hence my initial post on why predicating the idea that “victory is over” on American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. First, other countries certainly can win and lose wars in their own unique contexts. Second, deriving the idea that victory itself is impossible because of poor policies and strategies is a categorical error of another kind. There is a simpler explanation—through bad policy decisions, we set up a situation in which our force, however competent or incompetent—could not produce the desired political effects we desire.

Dan Trombly’s description of the Persian Gulf War is a case in point:

The US victory conditions were to liberate Kuwait and to destroy Baghdad’s offensive military capacity. The United States succeeded, not through influencing Iraq but by killing its soldiers, seizing territory, and breaking the will of its leadership. That was victory – the problem came when the United States began cumulatively and in some cases retroactively piling on additional victory conditions that were irrelevant to the original aims of the war – the protection of Iraqi civilians, the cease of Iraq’s WMD programs, and finally, by 1998, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government was enshrined as a matter of US policy.

When one has a realistic and achievable theory of victory, force no longer appears to be intractable or useless. It suddenly becomes very practical. Granted, Saddam Hussein did not believe, at heart, that he was defeated, but from a strategic standpoint this was fairly meaningless. The US had gotten what it wanted and had used force to achieve it, until as Dan notes the script changed. To preview a theme I will return to later, the war decided that Saddam Hussein would not control Kuwait.

This brings us back to the central issue. Ortmann writes that the enemies cannot be compelled, victory is difficult, and war is immensely destructive and wasteful. Ortmann derides the “childish notion of victory which purports that we’re already fine if our opponents fail officially.” Again, I find myself in agreement—I included a disclaimer that “And of course achieving victory is no good if the policy that the military victory achieved was wrongheaded to begin with.” But this requires some, to borrow a phrase from Carl Prine, limning.

To restate—victory itself is no good if the policy goal was wrong or the strategies and tactics used to achieve it were unnecessarily wasteful. The United States, if it chose, could obliterate a small country tomorrow and perhaps achieve a defined policy goal. But while it would be silly to suggest that the United States “lost,” no one would be happy with the kind of gruesome (and pointless) victory it would represent. Moreover, if the US had a sound policy but fought in a completely strategically and tactically incompetent fashion and still, by dint of sheer numbers or adversarial mistakes, achieved its political objective, the public would not be satisfied with “victory” either. But neither of those factors invalidate the idea of a theory of victory.

So, what of victory? Colin S. Gray has a useful criterion:

A decisive victory strictly refers to favorable military achievement which forwards achievement of the war’s “political object.” …The idea of decisive victory, therefore, should not be equated necessarily with the military obliteration of the enemy. All that it requires is a sufficiency of military success to enable achievement of whatever it is that policy identifies as the war’s political object. [my emphasis]

Gray mocks the idea that war does not decide issues by running through a list of wars, many of which are popularly considered to be indecisive :

The Korean War, 1950-53, decided that forcible unification of the peninsula was not attainable at bearable cost to either side. It would not be correct to claim that 3 years of war—actually 1 year of quite intensive combat followed by 2 years of ‘negotiating’ and fighting—simply confirmed the status quo ante. Prior to June 1950, both North and South, and some among their backers abroad, could aspire not unreasonably to redraw the local geopolitical map along more favored lines.

The American war in Vietnam, 1965-73, decided that South Vietnam would not sustain itself as an independent polity. Although the military decision eventually was lost by America’s dependent ally, the protracted U.S. involvement had the effect of deciding that communist victory would be delayed by 10 years. That decision for delay, though ultimately unavailing for South Vietnam, may well have played a vitally positive role in the stability and development of South East Asia more broadly. The history of that region subsequent to 1975 suggests that, at least for once in its experience, the United States may have lost the war, but won the peace.

The war over Kosovo in 1999 decided whose writ would run in that Yugoslavian province, and in its consequences, it decided also that Slobodan Milosevic and his appalling family would cease to reign and rule in Belgrade.

Here we now begin to see the importance of a theory of victory. A theory of victory is not necessarily equivalent to a policy or strategy. Rather, it is simply a commonly shared narrative (with elements of both policy and strategy) that explains how military force will create the opportunity to realize the political object. For ten years, we had a theory of victory reflected in public discourse that explained that we would achieve victory by rebuilding the broken or nonexistent states that our adversaries resided in, and swaying those we could not directly reach with non-military tools. This did not work out. Now the United States is groping for a new theory of victory, and the COIN arguments in the blogosophere over the last few months reflect this stumbling in the dark.

If we want to achieve victory, we have to think, very simply, about how we can use force to enable ourselves to gain our political object. If that discussion leads us to the conclusion that force is ineffective, it should also trigger a simultaneous realization that it is the object itself that is the problem. Hence we will then need a new object that is within our means. This is far easier—and healthier—than creating an entirely new corpus of strategic theory based around the historically dubious idea that victory is a child’s notion.

Finally, Ortmann makes an interesting argument of his own. He starts by noting that war is destructive and unpredictable, and that wars of choice stopped leading to direct profit for many states a long time ago. Again, these notions are rather incontestable, and I am not sure where in my blog I do not suggest them in some shape or form. But I have a bit more difficulty with Ortmann’s next set of conclusions: 

With the usual notion of victory being all-too often pointless, what really counts is that the military does damage control: It should be sent to war if peace would be even worse. A military force suceeds if a war’s outcome is less terrible than what was expected of peace. That’s as much substitute for “victory” as we need.

First, again, the idea of the “usual notion of victory” is not helpful because Ortmann’s definition of it is synonymous with unlimited objectives. If you successfully use force to shape an environment that is “less terrible than what was expected of peace” you have met Gray’s criteria that I linked to previously. Hence, while ostensibly a critique of the “usual notion of victory,” Ortmann’s suggestion is in fact a critique of unlimited wars of choice. Which is, again, perhaps the point. But we are not in disagreement here.

What we are, however, in disagreement about, besides definitions, is his framework for military analysis. While the idea of a cost-benefit analysis between status quo ante and a future environment certainly has much to recommend to it, it also can lead the strategist astray.

As Bernard Finel noted, this sort of logic can be very dangerous in military planning:

Least bad is certainly a legitimate decision rule, if you have correctly identified the full range of options and accurately specified the cost and benefits of each.  It is, in short, a maximin strategy.  It is never a perfect decision rule because you always need to explore whether your maximin rule actually a saddle point.  If not, you need a more sophisticated approach that address expected utility and likely leads you into mixed strategies.

No one using the “least bad” arguement is actually doing steps (1) or (2).  What they are doing instead is, pardon my French, covering their asses.  See, if you admit your recommendation is the “least bad,” you are claiming that your support is reluctant.  You can’t really be held responsible for the recommendation, because, you know, you don’t really like the option, and in an “ideal world” you wouldn’t support.  But being a “realist” you are forced to the conclusion in question. There are some decisions where “least bad” is not good enough.  In some cases, I think you ought to try to make an affirmative case.  Wars of choice are a good example.  “Least bad” is not a sufficient justification for, say, getting into a war with Iran …A lot of stuff only seems to be “least bad” because (a) people are too lazy to consider alternatives, and (b) the over-estimate the benefits of their recommendation and under-estimate the costs.

We can all think of the top of our heads about many wars in history that suffered from the “least bad” flaws that Finel identifies. Rhetoric calling for war with Iran, as Finel notes, is also couched in “least bad.” Now, if you are in a war of national survival or a war in which the defeat would lead to the rise of a hostile power able to threaten your national survival, “least bad” is indeed “least bad.” Although immensely historically flawed, the movie 300 very much dramatized this point. If defeat leads to slavery and death, then fighting is a necessity whatever the hopeless chances of survival.

Moreover, the United states fought hard in World War II even though victory of the Axis powers would likely not have meant an American surrender and a Japanese-German occupation force. The consequences of defeat and the rise of hostile powers that dominated Eurasia would be a catastrophic decline in American national security and necessitate the rise of a true American garrison state. Contrary to the writings of Patrick Buchanan and others, we had to fight because it was indeed the least bad option.

The problem is that most wars states fight are wars of choice, or in the 18th century term, wars of position. Some limited wars are worth fighting under the political circumstances. And even if the cost-benefit analysis stacks up the right way, it still does not explain how force will be used to achieve the better outcome the cost-benefit analysis dictates. Hence the role of strategy and the theory of victory. Expected utility, in other words, as Finel argues, is crucial.

Finally, I am deep disagreement with Ortmann’s concluding metaphor: “In other words; soldiers are like firefighters; they should be equipped, competent and be sent when a house burns in the neighbourhood.” Fires are forces of nature—unpredictable, but not purposeful. A fire burns because it is a fire. An enemy, however, seeks to thwart the soldier at every turn. With proper training and equipment, a fire can be mitigated just like any other natural problem. No degree of certainty, however, can be attached to the enemy. Expensive training, technology, and tactics can be dissolved in an instant by one well-placed bullet, missile, or bomb.

Moreover, a fire itself apolitical. Granted, fighting a fire may have involve, to some extent, political considerations. The fire station may suffer from a procurement gap dictated by municipal politics, the office politics within the fire unit itself may have a detrimental effect on unit cohesion, and the neighborhood itself have some political characteristics that are larger than simply the fire itself. But the fire does not have purpose or goals of its own except to burn. The idea that war is akin to disaster management, and the enemy is an impersonal thing upon which our efforts can be imposed is precisely the problem with most popular theories of war.

To sum up our discussion, our problem for the last ten years has been an old one. Our policies and strategies were not up to the security challenges we faced. In some ways, what we regarded as challenges were never threats to begin with, as Finel argued:

As far as I can tell, no one has any idea what is going to happen next in Egypt. But that isn’t the problem. The problem is that what happens in Egypt can have major consequences for us and it shouldn’t. The angst with which we regard developments there are a consequence of a foreign policy orientation that keeps us too deeply involved in regional affairs and domestic politics around the world. Egypt is not a major trading partner. It is not a significant military ally or rival. Yes, we give them a big pot of money — 35 years of bribery in order to keep them relatively quiet vis-a-vis Israel; but the reality is that there is no reason why developments in Egypt should be a significant concern for the United States… except that we have convinced ourselves that Middle Eastern stability is of the utmost importance, and Egypt happens to be a populous country. Because we are so reliant on oil, and so deeply involved in Middle Eastern affairs, Egypt is crucially important. But if you take a step back, it should be apparent that the fact that we are now on pins and needles over developments in Tahrir Square is, itself, a sign of the dysfunctions and pathologies in how we engage the world.

This does not mean that the idea of victory is some kind of chimera. As Colin S. Gray noted, decisive victory is possible even in limited conflicts. What I object to is the bait-and-switch that is implicit in the “victory is dead” meme. Certain policy figures created policy goals, strategies, and theories of victory that were patently unrealistic. Now that they have failed or succeeded at an unacceptable cost, they argue that it was not the specific goals, strategies, and theories that were at fault—it was victory itself. This line of thinking is not only wrongheaded, but it also impedes us from learning from our mistakes and avoiding conflicts in which we cannot use force to achieve our goals.

As William F. Owen is often fond of saying, there is a simplicity to these matters that is very elusive in the present debates. Everything need not be complex or adaptive—which, taken to an extreme, can take become a form of strategic superstition.  Or, as Cassius said to Brutus in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but ourselves.”


After some offline comments, I should clarify my 300 reference. To be completely clear, the movie is as fictional as Star Wars. But the sentiments expressed in the linked clip are useful for explaining why people might fight a war of national survival even if they had little opportunity of success. Since such a situation is (thankfully) historically distant for us, a little pop culture sometimes helps for the purpose of education.

  1. rethinkingsecurity posted this
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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng