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2 - The Way We Think about War (Particularly Limited War) Is Broken: Here Is How We Fix It

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 August 2019


The first thing we have to do is fix how we think about limited war. To do this we have to repair how we think about all wars. The basis of our approach is to start with the political aim. This is established by the policymakers. The political and military leaders should then develop a grand strategy for fighting the war, meaning using all of the elements of national power in pursuit of the objective. Military strategy is an important part of this and is supported by operations, which then dictate battles and tactical responses. We must also be careful to avoid jargon and unclear terms such as “total war” because these are based upon undefinable concepts, such as the means used. Existing ideas on limited war are also of little use and must be replaced because they are built upon a Cold War situation that no longer exists, based upon poor and inconsistent definitions, and take as their archetypal case study the Korean War, which is misunderstood by those who write about it. The most prominent limited war writers also assume a form of rationality on the part of opponents that logically cannot be expected.

Why America Loses Wars
Limited War and US Strategy from the Korean War to the Present
, pp. 20 - 43
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2019

Since words are hard to kill… 1

Urs Schwarz

The Task at Hand

Robert Osgood, one of the most prolific writers on our subject, insisted upon the impossibility of the construction of a functional limited war theory. “What we are almost certain not to witness,” he wrote in 1969:

is the perfection of limited-war conceptions and practice in accordance with some predictable, rational calculus and reliable, universal rules of the game. The conditions and modalities of international conflict are too varied, dynamic, and subjective for limited war to be that determinate. Any search for the strategic equivalent of economic man on the basis of which a grand theory of military behavior might be erected is bound to be ephemeral and unproductive.2

Osgood is utterly mistaken. Like nearly every other writer on limited war, he does not understand the purpose of theory. Clausewitz gave us the first steps to understanding: “The primary purpose of any theory is to clarify concepts and ideas that have become … confused and entangled.”3 Theory, as Corbett tells us, “can assist a capable man to acquire a broad outlook.” Theory should teach us to think critically, to analyze, to bring a testing but informed eye to the problem at hand and consider both its depth and breadth. It provides conceptual tools, and grounds us by defining our terms and providing us a firm foundation for analysis while teaching us to distinguish between what is important and what isn’t.4 It teaches us to ask the most important question: why?

But this can’t be the “pie-in-the-sky” theorizing of which academics like myself are so often guilty. The results of theory, Clausewitz insists, “must have been derived from military history, or at least checked against it,” thus ensuring “that theory will have to remain realistic. It cannot allow itself to get lost in futile speculation, hairsplitting, and flights of fancy.” Most importantly, particularly in any theory addressing warfare, it “is meant to educate the mind of the future commander.”5 Historian Peter Paret made similar points on the value and importance of solid theory: “A theory that is logically and historically defensible, and that reflects present reality, has the pedagogic function of helping the student organize and develop his ideas on war, which he draws from experience, study, and from history – the exploration of the past extends the reality that any one individual can experience.”6

Osgood also did not understand that Clausewitz not only told us why good theory is necessary, he also gave us the intellectual basis for building a solid theoretical approach to wars fought for a limited political aim. Chapter 1 poured the foundation of our analysis: the classification of wars based upon the political objective sought. But Clausewitz, though he provided a firm foundation in On War, did not finish the intended revisions to his text regarding the theoretical and strategic issues directly bearing upon wars fought for a limited political objective. He made clear his intention to rewrite his unfinished opus based upon his epiphany that all wars are fought for regime change or something less, but did not live to do so.7 Corbett built upon Clausewitz’s work to construct a theory of maritime warfare that deals with wars for limited political objectives, but this work also does not finish the task, and suffers at times from a mixing of ends and means that confuses his message.

Why does this matter? Using Clausewitz’s definitional and methodological approach, some of Corbett’s ideas, and relevant historical examples, we have the tools for building a strategic theory for analyzing wars fought for limited political aims. Such an approach will clarify a muddled field, and provide military professionals and policymakers with a methodology that will help them better understand a type of conflict that nations have always faced – and that the US has forgotten how to win.

First, though, in order to further establish the basis for our discussion, we must (as Clausewitz says) “clarify concepts” and untangle the muddled theorizing regarding war in general. This will give us something that other works on limited war lack, as well as what is of fundamental importance: a firm foundation for analysis. Without this secure base we cannot build a theory that is consistently and rationally instructive.

Figure 1 A Framework for Analyzing Policy and War

One way to conceptualize the relationship between the political objective and how power is used to achieve it is to view war’s dominant elements as distinct but interrelated realms. Figure 1 is presented as a conceptual, analytical tool. We start, as it does, in a top-down approach, with the realm of policy, or the political objective. As Clausewitz, Corbett, Machiavelli, and other theorists make clear, states go to war for political reasons: there is something they want to achieve, or they want to protect what they have. These objectives might be masked in religious terms or various euphemisms, but, in the end, when states or political entities go to war they are using violence to get something they want, violence that is inherently political in nature, and this violence is what divides war from peace. To ignore the political aim sought is to forget the very essence of what any war is about, and to forget the bloodshed involved is to refuse to accept the truth of war’s nature. Indeed, one of the problems with some limited war theorizing is that it ignores the fact that wars fought for limited political aims are indeed wars. It is certainly true that states pursue political objectives without resort to war (one wishes this were the preferred method), but the sweep of history demonstrates a human predilection for war – whether one likes this or not. Finally, elaboration of the policy objective should include a vision of what victory looks like or what it means.

When nations pursue their political objectives – whether defensive or offensive – they use various elements of national power to try to achieve them. This is the realm of grand strategy. Here we find the tools of the state beyond just military power. Sometimes this is represented by the acronym DIME (Diplomatic, Informational, Military, Economic).8 This is not a bad way to think about grand strategy, as it grants breadth and applies to the pursuit of political objectives in both peace and war, and “grand strategy” can be utilized in both. One should not forget, though, internal political influence upon national decision-making as well.

The term “strategy” is too often used without bothering to define it. Military strategy is generally discussed in the context of warfare, but “strategy” certainly applies in peacetime as well. For our purposes, strategy is defined as the larger use of military power in the pursuit of a political objective. It is how a nation uses military power to get what it wants and is the military element of grand strategy. Some examples of strategy include attrition, exhaustion, and protraction.9 This will be addressed further in Chapter 5.

Military operations are the campaigns one conducts to implement the strategy in wartime. Operations bridge the gap between strategy and tactics, and provide purpose for the subsequent tactical engagements. Operational art is the manner in which one conducts these campaigns and is defined by the US Army as “the pursuit of strategic objectives, in whole or in part, through the arrangement of tactical actions in time, space, and purpose.”10 Operations should support the implementation of strategy. They should also affect the enemy’s will or material ability to wage war. It is better if they do both. If your operations are doing neither of these, then you must question their efficacy and whether you understand the use of force, and also realize that you’re wasting time, resources, and – more importantly – lives.

The specific methods military forces use to conduct campaigns are known as doctrine (though this does not appear in Figure 1). This is important for our discussion because what is alternatively called Guerrilla War, Little War (Petite Guerre, kleiner Krieg, Kleinkrieg), or Partisan War (Parteigängerkrieg) is sometimes branded “limited war.” It is not. These are methods of waging war, fighting methods, if you like, not what the war is about. Little War is a doctrinal practice governing the use of light troops or militia in independent detachments that dates to the eighteenth century. It is often confused with modern guerrilla warfare because the tactical activities of forces implementing Little War closely resemble those of the modern guerrilla: hitting outposts and messengers, attacking supply lines and detachments, etc. But the guerrilla is usually an irregular or a non-state actor and not part of a regular army (at least not at first).11

“Tactics,” or the tactical realm, deal with how military forces directly fight the enemy. Weapons technology and methods for using them drive tactics more than any other factors, and the constant roiling of technology means tactics are never still. The operational and tactical realms are indeed important, but they are beyond the scope of our study.

“Total War” and Other Terms That Mean Nothing

Discussion and analysis of all wars and their various elements fits within the same framework by beginning with the starting point of both Clausewitz and Corbett: all wars are fought either for the political objective of regime change or something less than this. But there is another problem we must first address. Peter Paret pointed out in 1960 that “any discussion of war is bedeviled by a confusion of terms … the definitions have undergone repeated modification – and in different countries not always to the same effect.”12 Paret’s point applies not just to wars fought for a limited political objective, but to analysis and discussion of war in general. To properly explore war for limited aims, we must first destroy the shaky edifice that is the current approach to defining wars.

The modern use of the term “total war” can be dated to the French push in the last year of the First World War for guerre totale, which meant renewing the nation’s ideological and political dedication to the struggle.13 It is also often associated with German Field Marshal Erich Ludendorff’s 1935 work Der totale Krieg, which appeared in English as The Nation at War.14 Discussions of total war very often pick the First World War as the first example, though sometimes the French Revolutionary Wars and the US Civil War are branded the first total wars. These efforts focus generally – if not exclusively – on the means utilized or mobilized for the struggle in their effort to define it and are often tied to discussions on escalation that are based upon nations increasing the means they dedicate to the war.15 As with limited war, the definition is built upon means.

The terms “absolute war” and “total war” are sometimes used interchangeably – and mistakenly – to depict Clausewitz’s view, even though the term “total war” is not in the original text.16 When using the “ideal type” methodology, the writer sets up a theoretical ideal that cannot be reached. Various factors intervene to produce a reality that is acted upon by these factors that keeps the resulting creature from ascending to the ideal. This is the method of analysis used by Clausewitz in On War. To him, “absolute war” is the unreachable “ideal type.” War, if the state could utilize all of its resources and never stop moving toward its goal, would be absolute, but reality intervenes. Politics, friction, the actions of the enemy, and other forces unite to produce the reality of war.17

The most significant problem with the term “total war” is that it is used to mean everything and thus means nothing.18 Historian Brian Bond calls total war a “myth.”19 Historian Eugenia Kiesling compares discussions of total war to medieval “ruminations about angels cavorting on pinheads.”20 Total war is rarely defined but generally is used to mean a “big” war, particularly the twentieth-century world wars. Explications of total war also usually include wars fought for the overthrow or complete conquest of the enemy regime and sometimes include other elements, such as the use of nuclear weapons and genocide, or the extermination of an enemy. Some similar terms often used interchangeably can be thrown in the same bowl: general war, major war, big war, national war, all-out war, central war, and others in this vein. A related (though valueless) definition commonly accepted in certain academic circles is: “Major war means an operation where the United States deployed over fifty thousand troops and there were at least one thousand battle deaths.”21 Critically, all of these definitions are dependent upon a variable that is consistently fluid: the means used to wage the war. Rationally, we cannot do this because it does not provide a foundation for critical analysis.

Robert Osgood offers us one of the better definitions of total war, though it also reveals the analytical and critical failure demonstrated by the use of this term as part of a theoretical approach: “that distinct twentieth-century species of unlimited war in which all the human and material resources of the belligerents are mobilized and employed against the total national life of the enemy.”22 This definition has several problems. First, it is limited to the twentieth century, and thus is not consistently applicable as an analytical tool. Second, it insists upon the mobilization of all of a state’s “human and material resources.” This is impossible. A state cannot harness “all” of its resources for war or anything else. During the Second World War the Soviet Union’s leaders mobilized more of their nation’s human and physical resources than any nation in history, but even Stalinism could not mobilize “all” of the state’s power. During the US Civil War, nearly 80 percent of the Confederacy’s white male population aged 15–40 served in uniform at some point during the conflict.23 But even this extreme number is not “all.”

Osgood’s definition also mixes ends and means, which is not unusual. Indeed, the nearly universal element in definitions of total war is the emphasis upon means. Wars cannot be defined by the means, because this is a nebulous, subjective factor and thus does not pass the test of building upon solid ground. The means nations dedicate to pursuing political objects are a manifestation of the value they place upon that objective. The means used to fight the war are also one of the contributing factors helping to create the nature of the war. But they do not explain the war itself. The political objective sought is the only basis for analysis. The next two chapters address these elements.

Other discussions of total war center on the use of technology, particularly technology that intensifies the bloodshed and destruction delivered at the tactical level. This is yet another example of defining total war by the means used. Technology and the increasing power of the modern centralized state simply feed and intensify war’s inherent escalatory nature.

In military and political writing “limited war” and “total war” are often defined in opposition to one another. For example, in 1957 one author insisted that there existed no satisfactory definition of limited war, and that no one could explain when a conflict stopped being this and moved to being “total.”24 He makes this point by comparing one poorly defined thing with another defined equally badly.

The US Department of Defense once insisted that the term “total war” is “not to be used.”25 Unless someone is discussing war in a theoretical sense, “total war” should never appear in historical or policy writing. It has no analytical solidity, fails to clearly illuminate the nature of conflict, and destroys analysis rather than aiding it.

Limited War: A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come

Current thinking on limited war is as intellectually unsound as that on total war and suffers from a number of fatal conceptual problems. First, it is largely designed to address a specific, no longer extant geopolitical situation – the Cold War, and particularly the early Cold War. Second, “limited war” is inconsistently and poorly defined. Third, its archetypal case study – the 1950–53 Korean War – is poorly understood by those who write on limited war, resulting in the creation of theory based upon falsehoods. Fourth, too often the authors of limited war theory assume the existence of supposedly predictable, liberal democratic views of rational behavior on the part of combatants, even when writing about the Soviet Union or one of its clients.26

A Now Non-Existent Cold War Context

As historian Hew Strachan correctly observed: “We live with the intellectual legacy of the Cold War more than we recognise.” He also pointed out part of the problem with this: “The wars which actually occurred were defined, in the jargon of the 1960s, as ‘limited wars’ or ‘low-intensity conflicts’: in other words they were not assimilated into mainstream thinking about war, but were treated as exceptions to the rule.”27 This flawed view of post-Second World War conflicts has helped feed US and Western misunderstandings about waging war.

Modern limited war theory was born and developed under this Cold War cloud of a potential war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The most important concern of the era’s limited war theorists was preventing violence escalating into a nuclear exchange between the superpower blocs. Avoiding nuclear war so ingrains early limited war literature that the cover of Robert McClintock’s book on the subject depicts a mushroom cloud with a giant negating “X” superimposed over it. McClintock – confusingly but not atypically – defines limited war as “a conflict short of general war to achieve specific political objectives, using limited forces and limited force. As between the great nuclear powers, the maintenance of the global strategic nuclear balance of power would preclude the use of strategic nuclear weapons, and fear of escalation would inhibit the use of tactical nuclear weapons.”28 Bernard Brodie, William Kaufmann, and others were driven by similar fears, especially after the development of the hydrogen bomb.29

A theory developed largely as a means of preventing escalation to a nuclear exchange has limited value as a theoretical approach for fighting wars that don’t fit this specific model. Driven by dread of nuclear war, it became US practice to focus on deterrence, on “using policy to prevent war – and on a theory of limiting conflict – actually preventing escalation – should deterrence fail.” US leaders saw themselves as having constraints – often self-imposed – “or saw conflict itself as limited,” especially in regard to the means used. Their potential adversaries did not have the same views of warfare. But, again, it is a theory designed to deal with a Soviet–US clash.30

The Cold War no longer exists (though one could argue a new form of it is developing), and thus the theory constructed to meet this unique historical situation is obsolete. But we must not overlook that we certainly face some similar issues. The Western powers are confronted by a revanchist and nuclear-armed Russia. China, India, and Pakistan live in a very dangerous nuclear-armed neighborhood. All of these powers have fought a number of wars for limited political aims. How does theory deal with this, especially when we might have multiple nuclear-armed powers clashing with one another? This is addressed in Chapters 4 and 5.

Limited War: A Definitional Morass

“Limited War” is hardly a new term. Indeed, historians generally argue that eighteenth-century Europe endured “The Age of Limited Wars.” But the effort to develop limited war as a typology of conflict distinct to itself is a recent development partly deriving from the Cold War desire to avoid a Third World War between the US and the Soviet Union.31 The first modern piece on so-called “limited war” seems to be Basil Liddell Hart’s March 1946 article “War, Limited.”32 Liddell Hart is thus the modern concept’s likely but unintentional father.33 The term possibly reentered our modern, public lexicon during the famous Senate hearings on the military situation surrounding the Korean War. In May 1951, General George C. Marshall (then Secretary of Defense), when asked to describe the war in Korea, said: “I would characterize it as a limited war which I hope will remain limited.”34 Numerous authors since have written on limited war and related topics, but the three whose work defined the modern approaches to the subject are Bernard Brodie, Robert Osgood, and Thomas Schelling.

Much of the thinking on limited war builds upon the work that historian and theorist Bernard Brodie began for the RAND Corporation in 1952 in the midst of the Korean War. Brodie notes that he did his first writing on this when most still believed that all wars had to be fought as “total wars.” The fact that he suggested something different – limited wars – was, he insists, met with amazement.35 Brodie himself was “converted” to limited war thinking by the work of Liddell Hart, of whom he became “a follower,” also in 1952. This was probably the result of his reading Liddell Hart’s 1947 book The Revolution in Warfare, about which Brodie noted Liddell Hart’s linking the existence of atomic weapons to an “appeal for a return to limited war,” which they generally define as limitation of the military means.36 Among other things, the English theorist argued that Second World War area bombing, combined with the development of rockets and pilotless planes, demonstrated that warfare had moved “from a fight to a process of devastation,” a point the development of the atomic bomb made definitive. Warfare had become so potentially destructive it was impossible for major powers to wage war against one another.37 The ending of the US atomic monopoly in 1949 convinced more than one observer that this was indeed the case, but there was also the problem of potential Soviet aggression, particularly by a Soviet client state, as well as the hard reality that wars simply continued to be waged, regardless of the potential risk. Limited war theorizing filled what was perceived as a gap.

Brodie wrote an immense amount on limited war, but his seminal work here was Strategy in the Missile Age.38 His extended definition of limited war bears quoting, as so many successive writers on the subject draw upon his work:

What distinguishes limited war from total war? The answer is that limited war involves an important kind and degree of restraint – deliberate restraint. As a rule, we do not apply the term “limited war” to conflicts which are limited naturally by the fact that one or both sides lack the capacity to make them total (for example, the colonial war in Algeria). We generally use it to refer to wars in which the United States on the one side and the Soviet Union or Communist China on the other may be involved, perhaps directly but usually through proxies on one or both sides. In such wars the possibility of total or unrestricted conflict is always present as an obvious and immediately available alternative to limited operations. That is why we must emphasize the factor of deliberate restraint.

The restraint must also be massive. One basic restraint always has to be present if the term “limited war” is to have any meaning at all: the strategic bombing of cities with nuclear weapons must be avoided.39

One sees here a basis of our theoretical problem. Brodie does not provide a coherent definition of limited war and defines limited war in opposition to the insubstantial term “total war.” He does not define limited war by the objective sought, but by various factors that contribute to the waging of the war and its nature: whether or not the war is between the US and one of the great Communist powers, the possibility of escalation, and restraint in regard to the use of nuclear weapons.

The second key figure in limited war studies is one we have already encountered: political scientist Robert Osgood. His extended definition of limited war from his seminal 1957 book is also worth recounting in full, because it is generally cited in limited war writing and illustrates some of the problems in limited war thought:

A limited war is one in which the belligerents restrict the purposes for which they fight to concrete, well-defined objectives that do not demand the utmost military effort of which the belligerents are capable and that can be accommodated in a negotiated settlement. The battle is confined to a local geographical area and directed against selected targets – primarily those of direct military importance. It demands of the belligerents only a fractional commitment of their human and physical resources. It permits their economic, social, and political patterns of existence to continue without serious disruption.40

We see here key elements of much limited war thinking: a limited purpose (or political objective); the level of force is limited (sometimes proportionally); the bulk of a nation’s political, social, and economic forces are not required; the geographical scope is restricted; and what is attacked is restricted.

Osgood elaborated on his definition:

Limited war, however, is not a uniform phenomenon. Such a war can be limited in different ways; it can be limited in some respects and not in others, depending upon its physical characteristics and the perspective of the belligerents. Thus, conceivably, a war can be limited in geographical scope but virtually unlimited in the weapons employed and the targets involved within the area of combat.

Later, he repeats his insistence that a limited war required the limiting of political objectives and the limiting of means. All of this only clouds the issue by contradicting what he said in regard to the level of means. His definition of limited war provides no firm foundation for analysis because he does not – and indeed cannot – define “means” in a universally applicable manner. In Osgood’s defense, he does say the following: “there is one characteristic of overriding importance in distinguishing among wars: the nature of the objectives for which the belligerents fight.”41 But the other items he heaps onto his definition are not a basis for defining a limited war; they are factors contributing to the war’s nature possessed of infinite variation. They illuminate how the conflict is waged, but they do not define what it is about. Osgood did not sufficiently apply Occam’s Razor and conclude the truth: the objective sought is the defining element.

Brodie and Osgood are in good company. An American officer writing in 1957 said that a limited war is “any war however large or small, regardless of the geography, objectives, weaponry, or strategy, in which the national survival of the US and the USSR is not at issue.”42 Some treatises are worse. In a discussion probably inspired by a RAND publication, one early limited war author breaks limited war into “High Order Limited Wars,” by which he probably means a war by China in which the Soviets are not involved and where China can’t attack the US, or a Soviet attack on Western Europe; “Middle grade” limited wars, such as the Arab–Israeli Wars; and “Low grade” limited wars or quasi-wars, which are wars that are elements of the Cold War in such areas as South Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.43 Such an approach is a meaningless typology built upon seemingly random examples and lacking disciplined thought. It is worthless because it can’t be applied consistently, and dangerous because it creates policy and intellectual confusion.

One common point raised in efforts to define limited war is the necessity of the non-use of nuclear weapons.44 This is not a universal requirement and as early as 1957 Henry Kissinger was writing about “limited nuclear war.”45 Brodie said there might be limited wars in which nuclear weapons were used.46 Despite their destructive power, nuclear and atomic weapons are means for pursuing a political objective. They are particularly dangerous means, whose use (or potential use) is wrapped in unique political consequences, but they are still a manifestation of a combatant’s means. One cannot define limited war by the means used. We revisit nuclear weapons in Chapter 4.

Other authors attempt to lay out requirements for defining a limited war by insisting upon restrictions upon such factors as the level of violence, the conflict’s duration or time, and the geographical boundaries of the theater of war.47 In 1972, Swedish political scientist Nordal Åkerman wrote that a limited war was a conflict in which a nation used only part of its “total military capacity,” and where the “capacity for total war must not be affected by the conflict, nor must there be any engagement of the superpowers’ home territory.” He adds that the war must be confined to “a territorially limited area,” and the combatants “must exercise voluntary restraint and have limited and well-defined objectives.” Other restrictions include the types of weaponry, the geographical area, what can be attacked, the military objectives, “and the nature and number of the combatants involved.”48 Åkerman mixes ends and means, repeating the previously discussed error of basing parts of his definition on nebulous factors. He also adds “limitations” to his definition, but these are more accurately described as factors contributing to the nature of the war that govern where and how it will be fought: weapons, geography, the other combatants, and so on. All wars have geographical limits, even the Second World War (as some countries did not participate). Geographical limits cannot constitute part of a useable definition of limited war; they contribute to its nature, as do all other “limits” (though it is better to deem them “constraints”). These often describe how the war will be waged, but they don’t define what the war is about. We will revisit the key constraints in Chapter 4.

Various descriptors for conflicts are thrown into the limited war pit even though they might not describe wars fought for limited political objectives: “It has become fashionable,” one author noted as early as 1957, to brand guerrilla wars, civil wars, wars between small states, and between big states and small ones “limited wars, and to attempt to arrive at some sort of magic formula for coping with them.”49 Low-intensity conflict, “big war,” and “small war” also appear. “Big war” is sometimes used to mean a major national war or a so-called “total war.” “Small war” is often used with the implication that a limited war must be a “small war,” and is another fuzzy, badly defined designator. Political scientist and Iraq War veteran Craig Whiteside gives this tongue-in-cheek definition: “a small war is one in which you’re getting shot at but no one cares.” Well-known nineteenth-century soldier C. E. Callwell defined small wars as conflicts waged by regular forces against irregulars.50 Thomas Schelling, the third member of our limited war triumvirate, provides us with this example: “Small wars embody the threat of a larger war; they are not just military engagements but ‘crisis diplomacy.’”51 To say this is to try to analyze war without talking about war, a common criticism leveled at Schelling, Osgood, and some other limited war theorists.52 Unfortunately, this legacy has continued into the post-Cold War era. Too often US leaders and commentators on political and military affairs fail to realize that diplomacy is diplomacy, war is war, and that all wars should be analyzed beginning with the political objective sought. One author clearly explains the problem: “the big war/little war typology itself is not particularly useful because of its inherent ambiguity and lack of theoretical content.”53 Unclear thinking produces muddled ideas on this most important element of statecraft – waging war.

A 1961 article criticizing the use of the term “limited war” noted that “the wars envisioned by most people when they use the term ‘Limited War’ seem to be those in which non military [sic] constraints significantly limit the area of the conflict, the weapon and force mixture used, and the selection of military objectives and targets.” There have always been such constraints upon warfare: geography, means, even international law. These are factors that contribute to the conflict’s nature that must be examined to understand the war, but they do not lay a foundation upon which to base critical analysis. The same critic pinpointed the key problem: “The term has become a catch phrase describing a wide variety of past and possible circumstances and has been used by a variety of different people in a number of different contexts.”54 This has never been overcome.

Related to this is an ever-expanding group of buzzwords that generally describe the methods and means of warfighting (usually at the tactical level) and sometimes carry the added unintended evil of allowing political leaders to not call a war a war: Fourth Generation Warfare, Fifth Generation Warfare, Hybrid War, Gray Zone War, Measures Short of War, Low-Intensity Conflict, Political Warfare – the list goes on. They are generally part of the continuing (often unintentional) effort in the political science, international relations, and policy-wonk fields to repackage the old in a new wrapper.55 There are many, many more examples of this, and such terms invariably define war by the means and methods used.56 They also offer nothing new. For example, the war launched against Ukraine in 2014 by Vladimir Putin’s Russia sparked discussions about gray zone war. In his 1954 book Power and Policy, former American Secretary of the Air Force Thomas K. Finletter wrote about war in “Gray Areas,” deeming this “the countries outside of NATO which are in contact or nearly so with Russia and China.”57 Henry Kissinger built on Finletter in a 1957 article, and Osgood’s 1957 book on limited war has a section title Limited War in the Gray Areas.58 This is old wine in new bottles (often cracked ones).59

We see in all of this that the various definitions of limited war insist upon some or all of the following: limiting the objective (what is meant by this is rarely defined), limiting the means,60 the prevention of escalation (particularly into so-called “total war”);61 constraints of various types that usually revolve around targeting or the level of violence, non-use of nuclear weapons (usually),62 geographic limits,63 and the awareness of limits on the other side. None of these provides a solid, useable foundation for critical analysis. Beyond the political objective sought, these are factors contributing to the nature of the war being waged.

One of the criticisms sometimes leveled at Clausewitz’s On War is that he doesn’t concern himself with various types of war, such as civil wars. Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini in his famous Art of War provides a laundry list of types of war.64 What these works actually demonstrate is the weak reasoning offered by the authors of such texts. Jomini’s treatment is really a discussion of the reasons for the wars and factors influencing their nature, one that doesn’t differentiate by the political objective. More modern efforts on this line often mirror Jomini without knowing it. They all miss the point and fail to realize that the typology advanced by Corbett and Clausewitz, where one begins their analysis by examining the political objectives of the combatants, encompasses all wars: civil, guerrilla, or whatever other moniker is composed.

Another problem with using such a variation of definitional types is that it makes impossible the construction of a coherent theory of war. Hence, we are back to reducing this to its essence and basing our discussion on the political objective sought. One must keep in mind the critical distinction between the political objective – which is defensive or offensive – and the strategy and operations conducted during the war. One may have a defensive political objective but use an offensive military strategy in pursuit of it. In turn, this may require defensive and offensive operations. One must also remember that all of these things – the objective, the strategy, the operations – are subject to change from the defense to the offense, and then back.

Also relevant to this discussion is the so-called “Spectrum of Conflict.” This is a commonly used explanation that seeks to classify conflict (whether war or not) between nations, usually by the scale and type of means being used.65 Harry Summers pointed out that this notion entered the US military lexicon as the “spectrum of war” via the US Army’s 1962 Field Service Regulations. Then the spectrum stretched from “Cold War” to “Limited War.” Summers also correctly identifies a “serious flaw”: the spectrum fails to delineate between war and peace.66 This type of defective thinking continues to feed current American misconceptions. We continue to confuse war and peace, something manifest in the discussions of hybrid war, gray zone war, and cyber war. In a 2016 article, General James Dubik made a similar argument, observing that US leaders are fuzzy about just what war is, a problem fed by the 1994 adoption (really, re-adoption) of a “spectrum of conflict” approach to strategic analysis.”67

We need to kill the “spectrum of conflict” as a concept. Whether or not the nation is at war is the only proper delineation. One must not forget that nations can be in conflict and competition with one another and not be at war and involved in killing the soldiers (and usually civilians) of the other state. Competition is a norm and to be preferred, but allowing our analysis of a war to be based upon a system that fails to consider the critical distinction between war and peace means there is no foundation for the argument.

All wars – civil wars, guerrilla wars, limited wars, religious wars, and the list goes on ad infinitum – fit within Clausewitz’s typology because all wars are fought for political objectives. There are no so-called “new wars.”68 The insistence of Clausewitz and many of his intellectual forebears that wars are driven by political considerations solved this key analytical problem centuries ago: wars are fought for political goals. Together, Clausewitz and Corbett provide the foundation for evaluating wars: it is the political objective or objectives sought – does the combatant seek regime change, or something less than this; the means and methods used in an effort to achieve the political objective are not the basis for analysis, but its indispensable enablers.

The Korean War, 1950–53: The Archetype That Isn’t

The Korean War provided the cornerstone case study for the development of limited war theory and an example that ties all of the previously mentioned issues together.69 This war is often presented – inaccurately – as “America’s first limited war,” and this term even features in the titles of works on the conflict.70 This depiction has many problems.

When Kim Il-Sung’s Soviet-backed North Korean regime launched its invasion of US-backed South Korea in June 1950, the North’s political objective was clearly unlimited: conquest of the South. Initially, the US and UN fought the war in pursuit of a limited political objective: protecting South Korea. The US constrained the size of the force it employed to prosecute the war (the means) – particularly initially – and considered using, but never unleashed, its atomic arsenal (another means issue). Hence, we have why Korea is branded America’s first limited war.

However, on September 9, 1950, before US forces under General Douglas MacArthur landed at Inchon on September 15 and subsequently completed the liberation of South Korea, the US altered its policy objective and chose to eliminate the North Korean Communist regime.71 What is almost universally ignored in the war’s literature is that when the US crossed the 38th parallel into North Korea – a decision made by the Truman administration (which we address in detail in Chapter 4) and not MacArthur (who is often falsely blamed for this)72 – the US was no longer fighting a war for a limited political objective. The US was now pursuing an unlimited political objective, because it was seeking to remove the regime ruling North Korea. The objective changed – thus the nature of the war changed – whether US leaders realized it or not. The Chinese intervention decisively altered the nature of the war yet again. The Chinese political objective against South Korea was an unlimited one, because Mao sought the conquest of the peninsula. Against the US, Mao’s objective was limited, as he sought the expulsion of US and UN forces from the peninsula and not the overthrow of the US government.73 In May 1951, after much policy confusion, the US decided once again that it would settle for a limited objective: the status quo antebellum.74 Two years later, the Chinese and North Koreans agreed. The Korean War is an example of a conflict where the political objectives – and thus the war’s nature – were in constant flux. Classifying this as a so-called “limited war” ignores the reality of the conflict.

Improper scrutiny of this struggle fed the construction of bad theory. Thomas Schelling, one of the best-known writers on limited war, likens the Korean War to a “negotiation” over the fate of that country.75 One of the many problems with Schelling’s analysis is that he seems to see everything as a negotiation, something probably arising from being overly influenced by his groundbreaking work in game theory. The struggle in Korea was not a negotiation. North Korea sought to annex South Korea using military force – violence – to achieve a particular political objective. The US and UN used military force – more violence – to keep this from happening. It was a war – plain and simple; to say anything other than this obscures the true nature of the problem at hand. To explain a war as a negotiation is yet another example of removing “war” from writing about war. Schelling, like so many other limited war writers, depict war – mistakenly and tragically – as something it isn’t by branding the killing of hundreds of thousands of people as a business transaction. We must see things as they are, not as we wish them to be.76

Schelling’s work provides other building blocks for some of the resultant cloudy thinking and false lessons arising from studies of the Korean War. For example, most definitions of limited war insist that the combatants will restrain themselves, particularly in regard to the means they’re willing to commit to the struggle (we saw this earlier from Brodie and Åkerman). Schelling insists that the Korean War

was fought with restraint, conscious restraint, and the restraint was on both sides. On the American side the most striking restraints were in territory and weapons. The United States did not bomb across the Yalu (or anywhere else in China) and did not use nuclear weapons. The enemy did not attack American ships at sea (except by shore batteries), bases in Japan, or bomb anything in South Korea, especially the vital area of Pusan.77

There are many problems with Schelling’s assessment. The scale of the war was immense, no matter how one measures it. How, in any way, did the Chinese Communists practice restraint? Their entry into the war entailed an initial commitment of 260,000 troops.78 The combined North Korean and Chinese forces in Korea in June 1951 numbered 1.2 million – and this was after absorbing nearly half a million casualties since the previous November. In May 1951, the UN forces consisted of 256,000 American, 250,000 South Korean, and 28,000 other troops. In July 1953, the South Korean Army had 568,994 men.79 Moreover, Schelling is simply wrong about the lack of Chinese air attacks being an example of “restraint.” The reality is that the US and UN forces controlled the air during most of the Korean War and had little fear in regard to air attacks on their bases in South Korea and Japan because of their air superiority.80 The US did refuse to use atomic weapons in Korea, but this was as much because of their military impracticality in relation to the situation on the ground as it was to any other factor.81 Moreover, in the spring of 1953, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower “let it be known” that he was considering the use of atomic weapons if the Chinese and North Koreans would not sign an armistice.82 This does not amount to a picture of “restraint.”

What Schelling got right was that the US did not cross the Yalu River and expand the war into China. But this does not provide a corrective to the larger problem with Schelling’s analysis. What he has actually identified – again – are means-and-methods issues representing some of the various factors contributing to the nature of the war. All wars have constraints placed upon their conduct. This is normal. There is political control. There are restrictions on means. In the Second World War, the US limited the size of its army in order to build a larger air force. Wars fought for limited political objectives are more likely to have geographical constraints, but wars fought for unlimited political objectives have them as well. These are factors contributing to its character and nature, but fail to provide a foundation for a coherent examination of wars fought for limited political aims. Using the Korean War as the archetype for the development of limited war theory is flawed when one examines the facts within a consistent, rational context. The Korean War has its unique aspects – as do all wars – but it is also very similar to other wars in regard to the factors forming its nature.

The Assumption of Rationality and the Persistence of Irrationality

All of this leads us to our final point: the assumption of rationality made by limited war thinkers, particularly in regard to predicting the behavior of the enemy, especially the now-defunct Soviet Union. Historian Louis Morton raised this criticism of limited war thinkers in 1961: “Nor can one assume, as many of the proponents of limited war do, that the conduct of war will always be rational, and that the decisions of statesmen and soldiers will be governed in war by the same logic as in peace.”83 Nordal Åkerman wisely notes that “The special assumption of rationality on the part of one’s opponent lends many works on limited war a cast of unreality.” More importantly, he identifies the danger in such thinking:

It is no problem to construct a logical system of reactions and counteractions if you are convinced that the enemy will consistently think in exactly the same categories as yourself. But if you take into consideration such matters as a different cultural framework of reference, different strategic cultures and traditions, utterly disparate and antagonistic ideologies – to mention only a few decisive factors – then its seems wishful thinking simply to assume that the enemy will react to one’s gambit in the manner one has oneself defined.84

In this, Schelling is also the most important figure for our discussion. He proposed his own way of thinking about limited war in his 1960 Strategy of Conflict:

To characterize the maneuvers and actions of limited war as a bargaining process is to emphasize that, in addition to the divergence of interest over the variables in dispute, there is a powerful common interest in reaching an outcome that is not enormously destructive of values to both sides. A “successful” employees’ strike is not one that destroys the employer financially, it may even be one that never takes place. Something similar can be true of war.

Schelling went on to write: “Rather it is asserted that the assumption of rational behavior is a productive one in the generation of systematic theory.”85

There are many problems with Schelling’s approach here. First, as mentioned earlier, war is not “bargaining.” It is, as Clausewitz tells us, a violent clash of wills, a duel on a larger scale. To describe it as a simple transaction is to refuse to see its true nature. War is violence, and the desire to pretend it is something other than this is the greatest failing of limited war theorists (one that remains with us). Author William Olson dissects a key problem here: “There was, for example, implicit in limited war theory a concept of tacit bargaining which maintained that belligerents continue to negotiate but use violence or its threat as an instrument in their ‘dialogue.’” He goes on to note that limited war theory “was based on the notion that the belligerents had a common interest – to avoid nuclear holocaust,” and that because of this there were certain “implied” ground rules “whereby the opponents recognised escalatory steps and thus were attuned to signals that communicated intentions and recognised the need to impose limits on means and actions – limits on intent. While this may have been true for the US–Soviet confrontation, the fact was that for many situations the US faced, there was not such a reciprocal concern.”86

To Schelling, tacit bargaining – “bargaining in which communication is incomplete or impossible” – and “rationality” would produce mutually agreed-upon limits in warfare. Tacit bargaining was a form of “jockeying for limits in limited war.”87 The problem with this is that Schelling assumes the sides are “jockeying for limits.” The reality of warfare – even in wars waged for limited objectives – is that combatants tend to escalate the use of force and remove constraints when they are not achieving what they want but really, really want it. Combatants jockey for advantage. The Vietnam War gives us a fine example of this. When he became the US president, Richard M. Nixon used diplomacy with China and the Soviet Union to make it possible in the international political context for him to remove the self-imposed constraints on bombing North Vietnam and mining North Vietnam’s Haiphong Harbor. He also removed many of the prior constraints regarding air and ground operations in Cambodia, at least for a time.88

Schelling also presents a theory of conflict (though not war) that assumes rationality is sufficient to deal with irrationality, and his work speaks of a continuum stretching from rationality to irrationality.89 At first glance his analysis appears to be a version of the “ideal type” method, but when insisting that rationality explains irrationality he is actually presenting opposites and not a lesser form of an acted-upon ideal. Moreover, we also know from Clausewitz’s “Trinitarian Analysis” of rationality (usually manifested in the government), from passion (generally arising from the people), and from chance and creativity (primarily the military’s domain), that governments aren’t always rational and don’t always do things purely because it is in their best interest to do so. Schelling – unintentionally – gives us an example of bad theory based upon faulty reasoning that isn’t a universally applicable foundation upon which to build a theory of limited war. It is far more practical to simply seek to understand the reality of the other government’s ideology and actions than to try to frame a government – or its actions – as rational or irrational, because in such a context these terms are very subjective and can be politically loaded. Deeming a political opponent “irrational” is a typical ploy used to delegitimize them. They are branded “irrational” because they don’t agree with us or our solution.

This issue is further illustrated by the reality that the Soviets didn’t agree that US thinking on limited war was correct – or even rational. In the early era of US limited war writing, the Soviets did not have a limited war theory, as their ideology assumed continuous struggle between Communism and capitalism: the capitalist system had to be completely destroyed; there was no other acceptable result. The Soviets also assumed the use of atomic or nuclear weapons in any future war (unlike some limited war theorists), but they also believed this hadn’t removed the need for conventional units, because achieving victory would require defeating the enemy’s forces and occupying their territory. Any future war would also be a global affair requiring full mobilization of forces and material.90 Soviet leaders came to see US limited war concepts as a reaction to the shift in the strategic (meaning nuclear) balance in the Soviets’ favor, and believed the US hoped to fight limited wars in order to prevent nuclear retaliation by the Soviet Union in the event of conflict. The Soviets saw concepts such as “graduated restraint” and “limited” and “local” wars as examples of the bankruptcy of the 1954 concept of “massive retaliation” (a reference to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ speech in which the US reserved the right to meet Communist aggression with atomic or nuclear weapons). The Soviets saw “massive retaliation” as arising because of growing Soviet nuclear strength; US limited war ideas were merely its supplements. The Kremlin also perceived “limited war” as a US tool for suppressing “national liberation” movements as part of the US Cold War grand strategy of containment. When executed, a US “limited war” would be merely a prelude to the US fighting a bigger war against the Soviet Union.91

Soviet views, though, changed. In a speech delivered on January 14, 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced limited war as “nonsense.”92 But, the next year, Khrushchev identified several types of limited war, and soon Soviet writers were discussing limited war in a manner very much like US writers: they had no consistent definition of what made a conflict a limited war, and concerned themselves primarily with geography and the fear of escalation, particularly toward a nuclear exchange.93 But Soviet theorizing showed no interest in bargaining – tacit or otherwise. Schelling – and his ideas – failed Clausewitz’s supreme test: the necessity of the statesman and commander understanding the nature of the war in which they are involved. Schelling and many other limited war writers did not understand the Soviet mind, and thus how Soviet leaders would perceive US limited war ideas.94

Schelling also ignores the possibility of small powers acting on their own even when they are part of a larger alliance bloc of the East or West. This is a problem with much limited war literature: the failure to recall that all nations – even small ones – have their own agendas and will fight wars when larger powers do not want them to, even if they are clients of a larger state. For example, Cuban adventurism in Latin America, epitomized by Cuba’s 1967 Bolivian debacle in which Che Guevara was killed, angered the Soviet Union greatly. Moscow preferred détente with the West and less risky adventures on the part of their allies. This did not stop the Cubans.95

Schelling’s work – and the man himself – arguably exerted the greatest impact on the execution of an American limited war because his ideas on bargaining and signaling underpinned the prosecution of the US air war in Vietnam, especially the failed Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, something which is addressed in Chapter 5.96 “The dark side of Thomas Schelling,” journalist Fred Kaplan noted in 2005, “is also the dark side of social science – the brash assumption that neat theories not only reflect the real world but can change it as well, and in ways that can be precisely measured.”97

The Next Step…

In 2001, Indian author V. R. Raghavan noted this truth: “The fact remains, however, that limited war is not yet a fully developed idea, even at the turn of the 21st century.”98 We will now fix this problem by doing what Osgood said could not be done: construct a coherent theory of wars fought for limited political aims.

Figure 0

Figure 1 A Framework for Analyzing Policy and War

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