January 13th, 2012

Critiquing the Strategic Corporal

Anyone with even the most passing interest in military history knows that atrocities in war are commonplace—even during “good” wars. This is why the analogies to the WWII Pacific Campaign are coming out in droves during the commentary cycle about Marines desecrating the corpses of dead Taliban fighters. Already, the debate is bogging down into extrapolations of the incident into out-of-place critiques of American foreign policy and “war is hell” cliches. I would like to take the opportunity to make a different point about the framework we use to interpret the incident and media during war.

Inherent in the popular idea of the “strategic corporal" is the proposition that a tactical action—executed incorrectly—can screw up the war by ruining public opinion at home or repel the host nation population. I found the idea to be relatively straightforward when I read the original essay in 2004, as we live in an age of instant and networked communications. But the more I think about it, I’ve come to a different conclusion.

First, the notion of the strategic corporal fails a basic logic test when arrayed against mainstream strategic theory. Outside of Hollywood movies, the idea of a single combat action as the dominant factor in victory is nonsensical. So why would a single action prove decisive in defeat, especially if that defeat is rooted in perception rather than reality?

Tet may have dealt a massive blow to the Vietnam war, but it was not the Vietcong/NVA action itself (a dismal failure) but the general American failure to achieve military victory that lowered public support. The fact that the enemy could mount a massive attack at a time when the American public had been told the Vietcong were on the run was simply rubbing salt in an existing wound. This interpretation is consistent with political science research that shows that the American public at large is not squeamish about war—but it will make a cost/benefit analysis based on future costs relative to expected utility when considering terminating or continuing military operations.

In other words, if it doesn’t see evidence that the war will be won or that winning will incur unacceptable costs, the public will be (rightly) skeptical about calls to stay the course. Although I couch this in statistical language, I am by no means suggesting that cost/benefit analysis is a matter of number crunching. “Cost” and “benefit”—especially to friends, family, and relatives of those bear the cost—are highly loaded terms.

As for foreign audiences—the Afghans have seen their country ravaged by civil war for 30 years. They know what war is. And we have an imperfect, but useful model of how populations in civil wars determine allegiance. This doesn’t mean that incidents like these cannot be exploited for political reasons, but there have been many worse incidents in the Afghan conflict that did not threaten the entire war effort. There is something to be said about the cumulative effects of negative incidents, but this is far different from a single incident.

The biggest problem about the strategic corporal concept, however, is what it says about our wars themselves. If we are really so afraid that a single YouTube atrocity video can torpedo our entire war effort, then this speaks volumes about the cognitive dissonance of the modern military theory from which the strategic corporal concept springs. We think we can become culturally adept warriors fighting in the “war among the people” and fixing failed states—a process that by necessity is massive and protracted—but the war can be brought a screeching halt by a single YouTube video? It doesn’t make sense.

What the strategic corporal concept—and its popularity—really speaks to is a more unpleasant fact. If Somalia could be derailed by Black Hawk Down—a nasty incident but an unavoidable product of friction in war—then it should tell us that an architecture that flimsy was ultimately unsustainable. But instead of concluding the obvious—out of area operations with a distant relationship to the national interest are difficult to sustain public support for—the evident lesson learned was that the military had to become more media savvy.

But no amount of cultural adeptness and PR magic is going to prevent men engaged in violent conflict from sometimes doing stupid things. And with a media-saturated battlefield, Grandpa’s gory anecdotes of the skulls he brought back from Okinawa have morphed into actual video footage. If war will continue to be war, the lesson we should learn is to fight wars that do not cause Washington to fly into a tailspin whenever a disgusting YouTube video surfaces.

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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

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