Finishing the Job: Military Action in the Postwar Era

The destiny of modern civilized society has been shaped more by one single factor in the last 70 or so years than any other: the unwillingness of a warring state to see its military operations to a final, overwhelming, complete conclusion. In fact, the exact opposite is usually the case: A party will engage in hostile action and gain the upper hand, but then prematurely withdraw or end their campaign before a conclusive, permanent outcome is achieved. This results in either the underlying conditions that originally triggered the conflict remaining unresolved, or the worsening of the basic situation, leading to more conflict in the future.

There are several consequential examples of this, the repercussions of which are still felt acutely to this day:

Post-WWII Europe

When World War II ended in Europe in May 1945, the major victorious powers were left opposing each other in Berlin: The Russians on one side and the Western Allies -- France-Britain-United States -- on the other. The war had produced allies of convenience, united by the common threat of Nazi Germany. With Germany’s defeat, the moral/societal/military chasm between the Soviets and the West rose to the fore and there was no question that the Russian-West rivalry would be the dominant element in the world from that point forward.

U.S. General George Patton -- architect of the successful Allied ground campaign in Germany -- recognized the intrinsic threat that Russia posed to the West’s long-term prosperity and survival. Although it may be more urban legend than historical, verifiable fact, he supposedly suggested that the Allies initiate military action against the Soviets, “because we’re going to have to fight them soon or later, so we might as well do it now when we’ve got our armies right here.”

What if we had? What if the West had “finished the job” in 1945 or ’46? How much different -- and better -- would the world have been for the last 70 years without the Cold War, the global tensions and proxy wars and the mass suppression of human rights?  How would life today be different if the major world economies could have devoted decades’ more resources to life-saving, disease/hunger-defeating ‘butter’ instead of ‘guns,’ absent the polarization caused by superpower animus?

Korea 1950-53

The Korean War began in June 1950 when North Korea invaded the South. This action triggered the UN to come to South Korea’s defense, with the United States providing the vast majority of actual military aid. The war raged back and forth for three years at huge cost (nearly 40,000 U.S combat deaths among the hundreds of thousands killed in combat on both sides), ending in June 1953 with a cease-fire agreement between North and South. The war has never officially ended and a state of war between the two sides still technically exists.

Had the US-led UN forces conclusively defeated the North Koreans, resulting in a unified, democratic Korea, a 60-year-long source of world conflict would have been removed before it became a major factor. There would be no North Korean dictator starving his people while he develops nuclear weapons that threaten the world order. Granted, the likelihood of a “complete” U.S.-led victory at the time was highly questionable, given the involvement of both Communist China and the Soviet Union, and any wider effort on the part of the U.S. would probably have had to include atomic weapons, with all the complications that that would have ensued. Still, complete victory was possible and a present-day world that has never had to endure North Korea would be a vastly improved place.

American F-86 Fighter Jets over Korea

Israel and the Yom Kippur War, October 6-25, 1973

Still steeped in resentment and humiliation over their crushing defeat in the 1967 Six Day War, combined Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a two-pronged surprise attack on Israeli-held positions in the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula, areas that Israel had occupied since the June 1967 war. The attack was initiated on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, a day when Arab strategists thought that Israel might be most vulnerable.

The attack achieved great initial success, pushing Israeli forces back and inflicting significant casualties. It took several days for Israeli forces to regroup and counterattack. When they finally did, Israel dominated the battlefield, pushing toward the Syrian capital of Damascus and simultaneously encircling the Egyptian 3rd Army and the city of Suez. Israel was poised to convincingly crush the military capability of both countries. Tensions flared almost to the boiling point between the United States and the Soviet Union as their respective surrogates in the region headed to a final, irreversible armed verdict. (President Nixon actually ordered U.S. nuclear-armed bombers to their highest state of readiness in response to a perceived threatening posture from the Soviets.)

With worldwide implications, a ceasefire was imposed on the combatants on October 25th, before Israel could complete the total destruction of its adversaries. One can only speculate how the state of the Middle East would be different today -- with all the worldwide policy and economic ramifications that entails -- had Israel taken another day or 36 hours to fully implement the ceasefire on its forces.

Israeli F4E Phantom II in 1973

Iraq 1991

In the summer of 1990, Iraq’s displeasure with Kuwait over its continued excessive oil production in violation of OPEC quotas was reaching a critical point. Partly because of high Kuwaiti oil production, world oil prices were severely depressed, which was having a disastrous effect on Iraq’s national finances. With diplomatic efforts crumbling, Iraqi armed forces stormed into Kuwait on August 2, 1990, quickly overwhelming the curiously unprepared Kuwaiti forces. Within 12 hours, Kuwaiti resistance had dissolved and their Royal Family had fled the country. The Iraqi annexation of Kuwait was complete.

The U.N. met several times and declared through Security Council Resolutions that Iraq’s actions were unacceptable and the use of force was authorized. A U.S.-led coalition of 34 countries moved into the area and began military operations to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait and reinstall the Kuwaiti government.

In one of history’s best-conceived and best-run military campaigns, U.S.-led forces inflicted tremendous damage on the Iraqi military and virtually obliterated the vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard ground forces in a series of one-sided battles in Kuwait, stretching into Iraq itself. Having destroyed all the opposing Iraqi forces, nothing stood between U.S. armored divisions and the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. At this point in the war, popular folklore has it that Saddam Hussein’s “personal aircraft was on the runway, warming up its engines.”

Yet at an arbitrarily self-imposed round-number time limit of “100 hours” for the U. S. ground campaign, U.S. forces abruptly stopped their advance. Hussein was not forced to flee from power. Instead, he survived and his reign continued. Iraq was out of Kuwait, but they remained as big a threat and destabilizing entity in the region as ever.

Many weak, self-serving after-the-fact rationalizations have since come forth for the failure of America to finish what the world so desperately needed to be finished. The undeniable fact remains that Hussein’s evil actions and destructive influence could have been permanently ended at that point by simply allowing U.S. tanks to drive on the road towards Baghdad. Further actual military action was probably not even necessary; all we had to do was motion in Hussein’s direction and he’d have been gone, saving the world from the tragedy and expense of 12 more years of his rule and a second Gulf war.

Conclusion

Instantaneous political considerations too often get in the way of attaining enduring long-term solutions. Concern about excessive civilian deaths (euphemistically called “collateral damage”) is certainly a primary causal factor for incomplete military operations, as is the political imperative to get the country off its so-called war footing and return the public to its much-preferred normal daily routine, free of the rationing, social upheaval and security constraints that are often demanded of a population supporting large-scale warfare.

It’s understandable that people wish that a limited military engagement would accomplish their desired political/economic/social objectives. It’s just that history tells us, over and over again, that it’s an extremely unrealistic wish. In the examples given here, premature military disengagement has led to grievously negative long-term consequences.

The destiny of modern civilized society has been shaped more by one single factor in the last 70 or so years than any other: the unwillingness of a warring state to see its military operations to a final, overwhelming, complete conclusion. In fact, the exact opposite is usually the case: A party will engage in hostile action and gain the upper hand, but then prematurely withdraw or end their campaign before a conclusive, permanent outcome is achieved. This results in either the underlying conditions that originally triggered the conflict remaining unresolved, or the worsening of the basic situation, leading to more conflict in the future.

There are several consequential examples of this, the repercussions of which are still felt acutely to this day:

Post-WWII Europe

When World War II ended in Europe in May 1945, the major victorious powers were left opposing each other in Berlin: The Russians on one side and the Western Allies -- France-Britain-United States -- on the other. The war had produced allies of convenience, united by the common threat of Nazi Germany. With Germany’s defeat, the moral/societal/military chasm between the Soviets and the West rose to the fore and there was no question that the Russian-West rivalry would be the dominant element in the world from that point forward.

U.S. General George Patton -- architect of the successful Allied ground campaign in Germany -- recognized the intrinsic threat that Russia posed to the West’s long-term prosperity and survival. Although it may be more urban legend than historical, verifiable fact, he supposedly suggested that the Allies initiate military action against the Soviets, “because we’re going to have to fight them soon or later, so we might as well do it now when we’ve got our armies right here.”

What if we had? What if the West had “finished the job” in 1945 or ’46? How much different -- and better -- would the world have been for the last 70 years without the Cold War, the global tensions and proxy wars and the mass suppression of human rights?  How would life today be different if the major world economies could have devoted decades’ more resources to life-saving, disease/hunger-defeating ‘butter’ instead of ‘guns,’ absent the polarization caused by superpower animus?

Korea 1950-53

The Korean War began in June 1950 when North Korea invaded the South. This action triggered the UN to come to South Korea’s defense, with the United States providing the vast majority of actual military aid. The war raged back and forth for three years at huge cost (nearly 40,000 U.S combat deaths among the hundreds of thousands killed in combat on both sides), ending in June 1953 with a cease-fire agreement between North and South. The war has never officially ended and a state of war between the two sides still technically exists.

Had the US-led UN forces conclusively defeated the North Koreans, resulting in a unified, democratic Korea, a 60-year-long source of world conflict would have been removed before it became a major factor. There would be no North Korean dictator starving his people while he develops nuclear weapons that threaten the world order. Granted, the likelihood of a “complete” U.S.-led victory at the time was highly questionable, given the involvement of both Communist China and the Soviet Union, and any wider effort on the part of the U.S. would probably have had to include atomic weapons, with all the complications that that would have ensued. Still, complete victory was possible and a present-day world that has never had to endure North Korea would be a vastly improved place.

American F-86 Fighter Jets over Korea

Israel and the Yom Kippur War, October 6-25, 1973

Still steeped in resentment and humiliation over their crushing defeat in the 1967 Six Day War, combined Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a two-pronged surprise attack on Israeli-held positions in the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula, areas that Israel had occupied since the June 1967 war. The attack was initiated on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, a day when Arab strategists thought that Israel might be most vulnerable.

The attack achieved great initial success, pushing Israeli forces back and inflicting significant casualties. It took several days for Israeli forces to regroup and counterattack. When they finally did, Israel dominated the battlefield, pushing toward the Syrian capital of Damascus and simultaneously encircling the Egyptian 3rd Army and the city of Suez. Israel was poised to convincingly crush the military capability of both countries. Tensions flared almost to the boiling point between the United States and the Soviet Union as their respective surrogates in the region headed to a final, irreversible armed verdict. (President Nixon actually ordered U.S. nuclear-armed bombers to their highest state of readiness in response to a perceived threatening posture from the Soviets.)

With worldwide implications, a ceasefire was imposed on the combatants on October 25th, before Israel could complete the total destruction of its adversaries. One can only speculate how the state of the Middle East would be different today -- with all the worldwide policy and economic ramifications that entails -- had Israel taken another day or 36 hours to fully implement the ceasefire on its forces.

Israeli F4E Phantom II in 1973

Iraq 1991

In the summer of 1990, Iraq’s displeasure with Kuwait over its continued excessive oil production in violation of OPEC quotas was reaching a critical point. Partly because of high Kuwaiti oil production, world oil prices were severely depressed, which was having a disastrous effect on Iraq’s national finances. With diplomatic efforts crumbling, Iraqi armed forces stormed into Kuwait on August 2, 1990, quickly overwhelming the curiously unprepared Kuwaiti forces. Within 12 hours, Kuwaiti resistance had dissolved and their Royal Family had fled the country. The Iraqi annexation of Kuwait was complete.

The U.N. met several times and declared through Security Council Resolutions that Iraq’s actions were unacceptable and the use of force was authorized. A U.S.-led coalition of 34 countries moved into the area and began military operations to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait and reinstall the Kuwaiti government.

In one of history’s best-conceived and best-run military campaigns, U.S.-led forces inflicted tremendous damage on the Iraqi military and virtually obliterated the vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard ground forces in a series of one-sided battles in Kuwait, stretching into Iraq itself. Having destroyed all the opposing Iraqi forces, nothing stood between U.S. armored divisions and the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. At this point in the war, popular folklore has it that Saddam Hussein’s “personal aircraft was on the runway, warming up its engines.”

Yet at an arbitrarily self-imposed round-number time limit of “100 hours” for the U. S. ground campaign, U.S. forces abruptly stopped their advance. Hussein was not forced to flee from power. Instead, he survived and his reign continued. Iraq was out of Kuwait, but they remained as big a threat and destabilizing entity in the region as ever.

Many weak, self-serving after-the-fact rationalizations have since come forth for the failure of America to finish what the world so desperately needed to be finished. The undeniable fact remains that Hussein’s evil actions and destructive influence could have been permanently ended at that point by simply allowing U.S. tanks to drive on the road towards Baghdad. Further actual military action was probably not even necessary; all we had to do was motion in Hussein’s direction and he’d have been gone, saving the world from the tragedy and expense of 12 more years of his rule and a second Gulf war.

Conclusion

Instantaneous political considerations too often get in the way of attaining enduring long-term solutions. Concern about excessive civilian deaths (euphemistically called “collateral damage”) is certainly a primary causal factor for incomplete military operations, as is the political imperative to get the country off its so-called war footing and return the public to its much-preferred normal daily routine, free of the rationing, social upheaval and security constraints that are often demanded of a population supporting large-scale warfare.

It’s understandable that people wish that a limited military engagement would accomplish their desired political/economic/social objectives. It’s just that history tells us, over and over again, that it’s an extremely unrealistic wish. In the examples given here, premature military disengagement has led to grievously negative long-term consequences.

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