America’s Performance in War

We’re honored to have R. D. Hooker, Jr., as a guest author today. Hooker is a University Professor and the Theodore Roosevelt Chair in National Security Affairs at the National Defense University.

America’s performance in war since 1945 has been mixed, at best. Beyond Vom Kriege attempts to explore both the virtues and the flaws which attend American national security and strategy making. America’s advantages are many: the world’s leading economy; a strong and innovative technology base and skilled workforce; an unmatched military, particularly in the air and on the ground; an invulnerable nuclear deterrent; a public that is both confident in and supportive of its military institutions; a large pool of qualified young people; a dense network of allies and partners that together account for much of the military capacity on the planet; and a favorable geostrategic position. These attributes propelled the U.S. to dominance in the 20th century, enabling successful outcomes in both world wars and the Cold War. Yet since 1945, America has often faltered in conflict, its strategic performance falling well short of its promise. Why is this, and what can be done about it?

How is it that our economic and military power so often fails to translate into success in war? Great military strength, the largest economy in the world, strong alliances and partnerships, forward basing, a powerful and innovative industrial and technology base, and an invulnerable strategic nuclear deterrent underlay the great success of the Cold War and ensured America’s global preponderance. But in many specific cases—Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—“victory” proved elusive. Why?

Too often, our “ends” proved aspirational and unrealistic, our “means” manifestly inadequate. If there is a lesson to be found in these three conflicts, it is that America is poorly suited to large scale counter-insurgency campaigns.

The American military’s ability to attack and destroy targets is clearly not the problem. In almost every example on record in recent decades, the U.S. has prevailed in battles and engagements. Our ability to see and understand the strategic challenge—in the words of Clausewitz “to understand the nature of the conflict upon which we are about to embark”—is all too often flawed. In the Korean conflict, U.S. political and military leaders failed to discern, despite many warning signs, that China would not permit North Korea to be defeated and occupied, or that our massive air and seapower might not translate into success on land. The means we prepared to bring to cope with China’s intervention were manifestly inadequate to achieve the desired end. In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we failed to discern that the problems of sanctuary in adjoining countries and incapable and corrupt host nation governments—themselves drivers of the conflict—could not be solved with the means we prepared. Too often, our “ends” proved aspirational and unrealistic, our “means” manifestly inadequate. If there is a lesson to be found in these three conflicts, it is that America is poorly suited to large scale counter-insurgency campaigns.

While it is unfair to hold the U.S. military accountable for poor political decisions, it must share responsibility for outcomes. Since the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in the late 1980s, we have seen much triumphalism about improved “jointness.” Yet the reality is quite different. In peacetime the military services rarely train with each other. Service approaches to warfighting and roles and missions remain grounded in the definitive experiences of WWII, updated with new technology. Even on the battlefield, the services fight hard to preserve their freedom of action relative to each other. Joint doctrine at best papers over sharp disagreements between services, above all with respect to the use of airpower. Lacking Title 10 authorities, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs can cajole and suggest but cannot demand material changes in service culture, while strong congressional influence and typically short tenures and high turnover limit the ability of the Secretary of Defense to address the problem.

In the post-war period, there is one striking example of strategic success in major theater war: Operation Desert Storm in 1991.The Gulf War was marked by clear, limited political objectives (“eject Saddam from Kuwait”); overwhelming force; strong support from the Congress, the public, and allies; sound and intelligent planning from the national to the tactical level; and extraordinarily competent execution. Casualties were extremely low, while the campaign was won in a matter of weeks—the ground phase in only four days. The difference was leadership. President George H. W. Bush came to office as arguably the most experienced and qualified commander-in-chief in modern American history. Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, has been described as “the gold standard” in this critical position. General Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs—himself a former national security adviser—is generally considered the most outstanding Chairman ever. General Norman Schwarzkopf, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, provided driving and intelligent command and control, suppressing service rivalries and proving himself a master of joint and coalition warfare. In many ways, Desert Storm represents a blueprint for success. Regrettably, its lessons have been largely ignored by later administrations.

“Strategy is a profoundly pragmatic business.”

A strategic education and experience in managing wars are not normally found on presidential resumes, a phenomenon compounded by the American custom of salting government departments and agencies three and four levels deep with political appointees with varying levels of expertise. This political reality has consequences. In surveying the history of America at war, one is struck by a strange sense that we must learn and relearn the same lessons over and over again. As Sir Hew Strachan and others have pointed out, “strategy is a profoundly pragmatic business.” In its essence, it need not be diabolically difficult. Yet war punishes fundamental mistakes severely—the inability to identify the problem, poor assumptions, failure to link means with ends, failure to learn and adapt. Our ahistorical approach is abetted by an apparent inability to see the problem from the adversary’s point of view and a tendency to calculate probable actions and responses as we might. This problem of “filters”—the tendency to assume that one’s opponent and one’s allies see the world as we do—is a besetting sin in American strategy making.

To improve our strategy making, let us begin with a better understanding of war. In America we resort to it far too often, win far too infrequently, and comprehend it far too poorly. The first lesson is that war is a poor vehicle for solving inherently political problems. War done right can serve the ends of policy by helping to set conditions for successful political outcomes. It cannot substitute for political solutions like better governance, rule of law, or fair elections. Too often we have tied our military and political fortunes to corrupt and failing regimes. A better approach is to fight less often, for clearer objectives, with stronger forces and stronger support from our voters and allies. Presidents will always be tempted to reach for the sword or the button as an immediate answer to an urgent problem, in recent decades unencumbered by congressional or judicial checks. Yet war has its own nature. If permitted, it will get out of hand. For the soldier and the president alike, war is about survival—and the struggle for survival is impatient of limits.

Successful strategy therefore begins with an intuitive understanding of the “nature of the conflict upon which we are about to embark.” At the outset we must carefully define the problem, consulting the important national interests that may be engaged and resisting the impulse to set aspirational, vague goals or to resort to force when other approaches may suffice. Before we rush to generating courses of action, we must gather the facts, and where facts are missing, we must make sound assumptions about capabilities, intentions, and risks. We must strive to view the case from the perspective of the adversary if we are to have any hope of understanding their action and reactions. We must link means to ends, and where the available means fall short, we must adjust our ends or increase our means. We must devise metrics (measures of effectiveness) so we can judge our progress and adjust if necessary. At all times, we must weigh the support of our voting publics, of our legislatures, of our friends and allies, and of international public opinion. Finally, if we decide on war, we must wage it with a determination to win and, if at all possible, to win quickly and decisively. Fail at any one of these steps and overall failure is probable.

Beyond Vom Kriege releases July 21, 2020 and explores the global conflicts and strategies that influenced American national security strategy.

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About Jillian Murphy

Jillian Murphy is the Assistant Managing Editor of the UNG Press. She is a UNG alumna, class of 2016.

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