How to Win Wars

October 25, 1976.  This morning, we boarded a chartered bus to take us to the airport in Addis Ababa and thence to home.  Along the way, we picked up a police escort.  That seemed odd until we reached the gate of the airport.  Awaiting us was a vast sea of refugees extending to the horizon left and right.  This ocean of humanity was desperate to find a way out of the newly communist Ethiopia and the bloodbath that had already started a couple of days before.  The police motorcycles pushed slowly through the crowd like the prow of a ramshackle ship, our bus following behind.  Bow waves of reaction propagated away as people backed off from our vehicles, the waves flowing across the human sea until they were lost over the distant horizon.  This must have been the scene in far Saigon the year before, when we left South Vietnam to the mercies of the North.  I'm glad to have left this behind.

Viet Nam: a war won on the battlefield but lost in Congress.  Viet Nam is a melancholy episode in a long string of modern strategic failures that continue to plague us.  Something is wrong with our current thinking about war. 

It has become fashionable in academic circles to talk about "counterfactual history."  This is just a fancy way of formalizing the alternate history theme of a great many science fiction stories.  It is basically a what-if speculation on what the world would be like if a particular historical event had turned out differently.  For example, what if Stonewall Jackson had not been killed, with Lee therefore winning at Gettysburg?

Of course, history is as it is.  One cannot know what an alternate history really might have been like. 

Actually, that is not quite the case.  We do have real counterfactual demonstrations of historical outcomes.  The recent history of the United States provides such examples.

Consider the following seven wars: Germany, Japan, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.  Three long-term successes and four failures.  Seven counterfactual experiments with two diametrically opposite outcomes.

These experimental demonstrations do not seem to fit Colin Powell's Doctrine for War Decision:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and cost been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

Of course, Colin Powell's record of wisdom is not perfect.  He talked President George H.W. Bush into suspending the First Gulf War after a symbolic one hundred hours.  No war symbolism, please!  Finish the job.  Many recognized that this premature suspension of combat would inevitably lead to a second Gulf war.  And so it transpired.

Nevertheless, three of Powell's dictums are obviously correct.  These are the first, second, and seventh.  The rest provide useless, or even flat wrong, advice. 

The essential three points involve long-term national survival and not something we have much to say about.  The Second World War and the Korean War were forced upon us.  We had no choice in the matter.  These were defensive wars.  Two of them involved immediate national survival.  The Korean war was a serious threat to the long-term survival of America.  Our objective in these wars was simply the permanent defeat of the enemy.  In these wars, the objective was obvious to Americans right from the start.  Any cost necessary to achieve total victory would be borne. 

The Korean War required presidential leadership to explain the war's significance and long-term objective: stop Communist aggression.  Americans accepted the reason but required the war to be won as expeditiously as possible. 

Counterfactually, we have two radically different outcomes of these various wars.  Some of the wars produced permanent victory; other wars produced defeat and chaos.  Why the difference?  In three cases, we stayed after the fighting was done.  We still have military forces in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.  In the other four cases, we immediately left (or are leaving) the arena after the full combat victory.  The result has been instability and the resumption of conflict even before our withdrawal. 

We stayed after the fighting was done.  Why does this make the difference?  Any nation that has been a battleground is in a state of chaos.  Its native civil institutions have failed or been obliterated.  Leadership is lacking.  Crime is rampant.  Trust is broken.  There is widespread physical destruction, with ordinary civil services badly disrupted.  The situation is a mess.

Furthermore, declaring an exit date, as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a declaration that we have lost the war.  Our enemy needs only to wait us out to win.

In order for the society to re-establish itself, a scaffolding of security and stability is required.  That requires us.  We stay, however long it takes, until the new society can stand, securely, on its own.  Powell is wrong.  There must not be an exit strategy.  Our entanglement must be endless.  In the course of time, the battleground nation matures and becomes strong, and our entanglement changes its nature from a supporting and protective scaffold to friendship and alliance, as it has in Japan, Germany, and Korea. 

Is this colonialism?  Call it what you like.  In reality, it is simple pragmatism and wisdom.  Our constitutional philosophy has little room for real colonialism.  Nonetheless, we must look after the survival and prosperity interests of the United States first and last and always.  If this means foreign occupation for an extended time, so be it.  Occupation is not something we like to do.  Historically, we have not engaged in forced occupation for long periods.  The Filipinos are free.  Cuba has long had its independence.  Various other Central American countries we once occupied are independent.  Japan, Germany, and South Korea are allies where we are invited guests for mutual defense.

What about Powell's other points?  Eliminate the first and eighth points, and the remainder smack of preparation for a war of aggression.  They could have guided Germany's or Japan's war plan in the 1930s.  God forbid! 

There are key messages that we take from this.

First, go to war only when the national security is clearly threatened.  War should be a response only to foreign aggression that threatens our survival or our key national interests.

Second, win decisively and as quickly as possible.  Victory means the enemy no longer exists.  As a corollary to swift victory, accept that there will be innocent casualties.  Minimize these, but make sure everyone understands that the aggressor enemy has the real responsibility for any civilian casualties.

Third, make sure the American people fully understand, and continue to understand, why we fight, and why their sacrifice in this war is essential.  Leadership is the key to success.

Finally, stay until we no longer need stay.

October 25, 1976.  This morning, we boarded a chartered bus to take us to the airport in Addis Ababa and thence to home.  Along the way, we picked up a police escort.  That seemed odd until we reached the gate of the airport.  Awaiting us was a vast sea of refugees extending to the horizon left and right.  This ocean of humanity was desperate to find a way out of the newly communist Ethiopia and the bloodbath that had already started a couple of days before.  The police motorcycles pushed slowly through the crowd like the prow of a ramshackle ship, our bus following behind.  Bow waves of reaction propagated away as people backed off from our vehicles, the waves flowing across the human sea until they were lost over the distant horizon.  This must have been the scene in far Saigon the year before, when we left South Vietnam to the mercies of the North.  I'm glad to have left this behind.

Viet Nam: a war won on the battlefield but lost in Congress.  Viet Nam is a melancholy episode in a long string of modern strategic failures that continue to plague us.  Something is wrong with our current thinking about war. 

It has become fashionable in academic circles to talk about "counterfactual history."  This is just a fancy way of formalizing the alternate history theme of a great many science fiction stories.  It is basically a what-if speculation on what the world would be like if a particular historical event had turned out differently.  For example, what if Stonewall Jackson had not been killed, with Lee therefore winning at Gettysburg?

Of course, history is as it is.  One cannot know what an alternate history really might have been like. 

Actually, that is not quite the case.  We do have real counterfactual demonstrations of historical outcomes.  The recent history of the United States provides such examples.

Consider the following seven wars: Germany, Japan, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.  Three long-term successes and four failures.  Seven counterfactual experiments with two diametrically opposite outcomes.

These experimental demonstrations do not seem to fit Colin Powell's Doctrine for War Decision:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and cost been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

Of course, Colin Powell's record of wisdom is not perfect.  He talked President George H.W. Bush into suspending the First Gulf War after a symbolic one hundred hours.  No war symbolism, please!  Finish the job.  Many recognized that this premature suspension of combat would inevitably lead to a second Gulf war.  And so it transpired.

Nevertheless, three of Powell's dictums are obviously correct.  These are the first, second, and seventh.  The rest provide useless, or even flat wrong, advice. 

The essential three points involve long-term national survival and not something we have much to say about.  The Second World War and the Korean War were forced upon us.  We had no choice in the matter.  These were defensive wars.  Two of them involved immediate national survival.  The Korean war was a serious threat to the long-term survival of America.  Our objective in these wars was simply the permanent defeat of the enemy.  In these wars, the objective was obvious to Americans right from the start.  Any cost necessary to achieve total victory would be borne. 

The Korean War required presidential leadership to explain the war's significance and long-term objective: stop Communist aggression.  Americans accepted the reason but required the war to be won as expeditiously as possible. 

Counterfactually, we have two radically different outcomes of these various wars.  Some of the wars produced permanent victory; other wars produced defeat and chaos.  Why the difference?  In three cases, we stayed after the fighting was done.  We still have military forces in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.  In the other four cases, we immediately left (or are leaving) the arena after the full combat victory.  The result has been instability and the resumption of conflict even before our withdrawal. 

We stayed after the fighting was done.  Why does this make the difference?  Any nation that has been a battleground is in a state of chaos.  Its native civil institutions have failed or been obliterated.  Leadership is lacking.  Crime is rampant.  Trust is broken.  There is widespread physical destruction, with ordinary civil services badly disrupted.  The situation is a mess.

Furthermore, declaring an exit date, as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a declaration that we have lost the war.  Our enemy needs only to wait us out to win.

In order for the society to re-establish itself, a scaffolding of security and stability is required.  That requires us.  We stay, however long it takes, until the new society can stand, securely, on its own.  Powell is wrong.  There must not be an exit strategy.  Our entanglement must be endless.  In the course of time, the battleground nation matures and becomes strong, and our entanglement changes its nature from a supporting and protective scaffold to friendship and alliance, as it has in Japan, Germany, and Korea. 

Is this colonialism?  Call it what you like.  In reality, it is simple pragmatism and wisdom.  Our constitutional philosophy has little room for real colonialism.  Nonetheless, we must look after the survival and prosperity interests of the United States first and last and always.  If this means foreign occupation for an extended time, so be it.  Occupation is not something we like to do.  Historically, we have not engaged in forced occupation for long periods.  The Filipinos are free.  Cuba has long had its independence.  Various other Central American countries we once occupied are independent.  Japan, Germany, and South Korea are allies where we are invited guests for mutual defense.

What about Powell's other points?  Eliminate the first and eighth points, and the remainder smack of preparation for a war of aggression.  They could have guided Germany's or Japan's war plan in the 1930s.  God forbid! 

There are key messages that we take from this.

First, go to war only when the national security is clearly threatened.  War should be a response only to foreign aggression that threatens our survival or our key national interests.

Second, win decisively and as quickly as possible.  Victory means the enemy no longer exists.  As a corollary to swift victory, accept that there will be innocent casualties.  Minimize these, but make sure everyone understands that the aggressor enemy has the real responsibility for any civilian casualties.

Third, make sure the American people fully understand, and continue to understand, why we fight, and why their sacrifice in this war is essential.  Leadership is the key to success.

Finally, stay until we no longer need stay.