- Filed Under
If there is one strategic weakness or Achilles’ heel in American geostrategic thinking, it is a fixation on winning battles and not winning wars.
The North Vietnamese famously crowed: “America won every battle and lost the war.” In Afghanistan and Iraq four decades later, the same critique applies. America and the coalition won virtually every battle. But if winning the war meant establishing a safe, secure and stable state under the rule of law, by any definition America and its allies have lost in both countries.
How did this happen? What has transformed or metastasized American strategic DNA and thought to emphasize winning battles above winning wars? Are wars today, when similar conventional forces no longer meet on the battlefield in combat, winnable by military means alone if they ever could be, thus reinforcing the need to focus on battles?
Or does the fault lie elsewhere, perhaps with electing leaders who are largely inexperienced and unready for the demands of high office and become seduced by the ease with which battles can be won militarily and ignore the need to win wars?
The United States won independence from England not because it won every battle, which it surely did not, but by concentrating on winning the war — a strategy purloined by North Vietnam. Other than the War of 1812 and the Civil War, until 1917, American wars were against relatively weak adversaries, from ill-equipped Indian tribes in the West to the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines.
In World War II, America set unconditional surrender as the basis for winning the war. America did not win every battle — merely enough at the right time and place so that its overwhelming economic and industrial might, buttressed with two nuclear bombs, overpowered the enemy and won the war.
And while veterans of that war would continue to serve in high office for more than four decades, psychological mission creep gradually metastasized into the fixation with winning battles and not wars.
Korea marked the beginning of fixating on battles, not wars, by making the aim re-establishment of the borders between north and south at the 38th parallel. In the Cold War, the concept of winning wars was challenged by the massive if not societal destruction that would follow if a war escalated into use of thermonuclear weapons. In a sense, deterrence had to work, and that became the battle.
As the US inched and then plunged into the Vietnam conflict under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the generals of that war drew from their experiences in World War II and Korea. In those wars, the battlefield tactic was to employ overwhelming firepower to destroy the enemy. In Vietnam, search-and-destroy missions relied on firepower from artillery, fixed-wing fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships to defeat and destroy the largely invisible and elusive Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.
Body counts became the war’s metric, and the obsession of winning battles to wear down the enemy was the strategy. Killing one’s way to victory rarely works. And the US lost.
After the Vietnam War and as the Soviet Union increased its conventional forces, the US turned to technology and precision or “smart” weapons to offset conventional military numerical inferiority. Winning “the first battle” became doctrine because if it was lost, the belief was that the Soviets would quickly overrun and occupy Western Europe.
The two wars in Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and in Afghanistan in 2001 were indeed extensions of winning the first battle. Saddam’s Army was twice eviscerated and the Taliban routed in matters of hours and days. Tragically, President George W. Bush’s White House, unlike his father’s in the first Gulf War, became infatuated with winning the battle and failed to think about winning the war. So, as in Vietnam a generation earlier, every battle was won and both wars were lost.
This failure to focus on winning wars is not unique to Republicans. Bill Clinton did no better in Serbia in 1999, when it took 78 days to force a tinpot dictator to withdraw from Kosovo, a battle that if fought as a war should have taken hours to win. Yet NATO had no stomach for even threatening the use of ground forces until week 10 of the Balkan conflict.
Today, the Obama White House has succumbed to ignoring the differences between fighting battles and winning wars. Libya was a battle. Who knows what will happen in Syria, Iran and North Korea? Limited uses of force through no-fly zones and safe havens in Syria, as well as pre-emptive airstrikes to eliminate Tehran’s nuclear facilities, are routinely debated as options.
Tragically, this returns to the failure to think about wars and not battles first. But will America learn?
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based policy center, and chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business.