Reprinted from Dec 2009, as it is still relevant two years later
We have had a sorry record with respect to war since the end of World War II. We have not won a single conflict in which we have engaged, major or minor. This is not a slam on our troops; we have won virtually every battle we have fought, whether it be Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq, as well as all the minor conflicts in between. Our army is demonstrably the best there is in the world. We have not won the conflicts, however. Korea is still a flash point. In Vietnam we retreated in an inglorious fashion. We conducted a brilliant campaign in Desert Storm, and then had to go back eight years later to do the job over again. We conducted brilliant campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we are still fighting there, five years later.
What is wrong? Why can we not seem to finish what we start? Why do we end, but not win our conflicts? They all boil down to the same basic principle. In order to win, one must want to win. One must have the will to win, and the will to do what one must do in order to win. One cannot win, if one does not define the meaning of victory, and maintain that definition to the end. Napoleon had a maxim; “if you set out to take Vienna, then take Vienna”. A corollary to that is that if one sets out to take Vienna, ensure that one does, indeed, want to and need to take Vienna, and that one is willing to pay the cost to do so. Articulating a goal, without understanding the full implications of achieving that goal is as worthless as not attempting that goal in the first place. The United States has lacked that will to win that would make the best use of our military superiority. We are afraid of conflict.
Conflict is as much a part of our natural world as is the weather. Every endeavor we attempt involves conflict of some sort, whether it be competition in the business world, competition between nations over resources, individual attempts to rise in the world of corporate life or two football teams attempting to achieve victory over each other on the field of sports. Few of us would deny that such conflict exists, but there has risen, at least in the American nation, a general distaste at the very idea of conflict. It is considered to be a fault in human nature that one person should triumph, while another should fail, or that one company or nation should triumph over their competition. Despite the evidence that conflict, indeed, benefits a society, by forcing it to extend itself beyond what it thinks possible, our schools outlaw such competitive games such as tag, and conflict resolution and ‘peace studies’ abound at Universities, while military history is rarely taught.
A United Nations body of experts has recently denied that war is essential to man’s nature, as an array of sociologists adds that we have no innate aggression in our genes. Sociologists and political scientists favor international conferences and peacekeepers in lieu of U.S. aircraft carriers and Special Forces. Such faith accordingly argues that military investment is unessential, and so defense spending is reluctantly agreed to only when there are immediate adversaries on the horizon. Those who argue in favor of military preparedness are labeled warmonger, peace is considered to be the natural order of man, war an aberration, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
To quote the famous military historian Victor Davis Hanson:
Yet history more often proves otherwise. Note the use of the plural to describe chronic conflict-the Persian Wars (490 b.c.; 480-79 b.c.) or the Punic Wars (264-146 b.c.), Sometimes the noun “years” is necessary nomenclature-Seven Years’ War, Thirty Years’ War, or Hundred Years’ War-to describe chronic fighting. Battles as well are often identified by numerical adjectives-Second Mantinea, First Bull Run, or Third Ypres-suggesting that the same places are the repeated sites of major campaigns. The Germans scattered the French in the Ardennes in spring 1940, before themselves retreating through the same forest in a failed second try in December 1944-a landscape pockmarked by the artillery of World War I. Epaminondas called the great plain of Boeotia the “dancing floor of war”-since the battles of Plataea, Coronea (first and second), Oinophyta, Delium, Haliartus, Tegyra, Leuctra, and Chaeronea were all fought within a few miles of each other.
The myth is that we can do away with conflict, if we can all get together and talk. We, as Americans, have always shied away from conflict, when at all possible, and tried to do as little damage as possible, when we did, aware of the fact that reconstruction is harder the more the toll that war takes on the combatants. We could get away with that, prior to WWII, when we were not one of the major powers in the world. We are, however, the major power in the world, now, and we are the target of everyone else who seeks power. If we are not capable of fighting off our enemies, winning our conflicts with those enemies, they will destroy us.
One cannot win in war without proving to the other side that you can beat them, and that you have beaten them. You cannot allow them to salvage their pride. You must, in fact, demonstrate, without a doubt, that you have beaten them without any possibility of their coming back to fight another day. If we had done so at the end of World War I, there would not have been a World War II.
That point is demonstrated in the American Civil War. That war went on far longer than it should have, because there were few, if any, Americans who understood what victory actually meant. Most, at the beginning of the war, thought that a few big battles would end the war, and everyone would go home. Many, in the North, sympathized with the South, and did not want to see it destroyed. They simply wanted the South to surrender, with as little damage to its people and institutions as possible. This was not how the war was going to be won.
One of those few who truly understood what victory in war actually meant was William Tecumseh Sherman. As a General in Ohio, in 1862, he told the press that it would take an army of 500,000 men to conquer the South. He was called crazy and dismissed from his command. In fact, it took far larger numbers to win this war than even Sherman imagined. Sherman understood that, to win a war, one must use all the strength, heart, soul and mind one has. Sherman undertook a campaign against the civilian population to convince them of the overwhelming force available to the Federal government, and the government’s willingness to use that force against them. He performed one of the epic marches in American history, 1500 miles, from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta, Georgia, to Savannah Georgia and finally up to Richmond Virginia, in the meantime laying waste and devastation to the peoples of the South. When the Southern armies surrendered, so did the people. The war was over, no question about it. He knew what had to be done to win that war better than almost anyone else, and he did what he had to do, despite the toll in human lives.
Obviously the Americans did not understand this in Afghanistan, or in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the American armies scored a brilliant victory over the Taliban government, destroying its power and establishing a Democratic government in its place…and then they let the Taliban slip across the border into Pakistan, where we could not attack them. From this safe haven, the Taliban was allowed to rebuild their strength, and come back as strong as before. We are still fighting the Taliban, five years later. In Baghdad, we, again, conducted a brilliant campaign…and, again, gave the enemy time to rebuild.
In both cases, we were too timid to do what needed to be done. We were too afraid of the consequences of using our strength. Unlike Sherman, who was ruthless, and cared less for the possible future consequences of what he knew needed to be done militarily than he did winning, we did not follow the Taliban into Pakistan, to utterly destroy them. We did NOT clamp down on Iraq, after our conquest, and root out the enemy. In both cases, political considerations took precedence over military…and we are still fighting. We should have followed the Taliban wherever they went, and dealt with the consequences as they happened.
Half-way measures yield half-way victories, and a half-way victory is no victory at all. Ultimately, such timidity costs far more lives than if we had done what we knew needed to be done, ruthlessly, and without care for the feelings of the vanquished, at the time, but were too timid, too ‘civilized’ to do the job well. I do not believe we are ‘too civilized’ to defend ourselves against our foreign enemies. Sadly, I cannot prove that, to date.
I would like to hear from veterans who read this article. The anger of veterans should be white hot as my own. Perhaps we can develop a veterans organization to ensure that we do not accede to the current calls for a pull-out from our responsibilities in the Mideast.
© 2009 Steve Haas, All Rights Reserved