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The current method of differentiating levels of war did not exist during the Civil War. Most Civil War leaders only looked at the prospective battle (tactical issues), not at how each individual engagement fitted into a campaign (the operational level of war), and how this related to the nation’s military strategy (the methods for prosecuting it). Some tout a supposed awareness of the teachings of Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini’s Art of War among Civil War leaders, but all that can be proven is this work’s influence upon certain generals such as the Union’s Henry Wager Halleck and the Confederacy’s Pierre G. T. Beauregard.
It is critical to understand how to use military force to achieve the political aim sought. This requires conducting a rational assessment of the situation, developing a strategy or plan for getting there, and determining the means required for fulfilling the plan and achieving the political aim. Critically, one of the worst failures of previous limited war is thinking that the forces must be “limited” because the political objective is. This is a fallacy. One can use overwhelming force in a war fought for a limited political aim. One should – at the least –
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.
It is critical to understand the political objective or aim for which the war is being fought. These aims can be offensive, such as seizing a piece of a neighbor’s territory, or defensive, meaning holding what one has. This gives us a firm analytical foundation and the why of the war. One must understand the value each combatant places on the objectives because this helps determine the nature of the war, how long it will be fought, where, and at what cost. But we must remember that the objectives can change. Sometimes this is good. Sometimes this is bad. Leaders must understand when this happens and the effects, because changing the objective means you have embarked upon a different or even a new war and thus changed its nature. For example, the US changed from a limited to an unlimited objective during the Korean War when it decided to destroy the North Korean regime and unify the peninsula. In Iraq in 2003, the US fought the war to overthrow Saddam’s rule – an unlimited aim – but was soon fighting to prop up the new government it had established – a limited, defensive aim. The political aim determines everything.
Learning how to think about limited war is a critical skill for American political and military leaders. Currently, the US is failing to win its war in Afghanistan, a war now being fought to preserve the Afghan government. The US has been fighting for seventeen years, and there is no indication that victory is at hand. One of the biggest rèasons for this is the Taliban’s possession of sanctuary in Pakistan. As long the Taliban has this, and is willing to keep fighting, the US cannot guarantee the survival of Afghanistan’s government. Additionally, the most likely type of war in the immediate future – and the most likely one that the US will face – is a war fought for limited aims. India and Pakistan have bitter, unresolved border issues, and China is a revisionist regional power determined to become a global one. The US cannot afford to continue making the same mistakes in regard to so-called limited wars that it has made for the last seventy years.
Beginning with Harry Truman and the Korean War, America’s so-called “first limited war,” too often US leaders have refused to admit that the US is at war, been unclear about what they want, and failed to seek victory. Helping drive this is broken ideas about limited war that intertwine all US thinking about war and poisoned the US ability to fight any war. We need a clear foundation for critically analyzing our wars. The only thing that provides this is the political aim. Do we seek regime change, or something less than this? Anything less is a limited political aim. Our definitions of and ideas about limited war are generally based upon the military means used, something too subjective to provide a basis for analysis. You must understand the aim to understand the nature of the war. If you don’t understand the nature of the war, it is hard to figure out how to win it. Cold War works on limited war also taught us to not seek victory, which injured the US ability to do just this. If you aren’t trying to win the war, you aren’t trying to end it. This leaves us with “forever wars.”
All wars are fought under constraints. Wars for limited aims generally suffer from more numerous and intent constraints because the value of the political objective sought tends to be lower, and thus states will often do less and pay less for a shorter time. The most important constraints are the value of the enemy’s political objective, time, internal public opinion, the international political environment (which usually means third-party nations with an interest in your war), geography, and the military means (which includes nuclear weapons). Military and political leaders need to understand how these constraints affect their ability to fight and win the war, and they must also determine whether the constraints are actual or self-imposed, and, if they are self-imposed, whether or not they are wise. The constraints are examined via examples from the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq Wars.
dedicate sufficient forces and use them decisively. In the Korean War, the US failed to grasp opportunities to decisively defeat the enemy and failed to commit forces sufficient to bring about a quick conclusion to the struggle. The result was an attritional stalemate. In both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the US overestimated and misunderstood the effectiveness of airpower. Moreover, the US has also too often failed to understand that winning in a counterinsurgency struggle hinges upon three key factors: gaining the support of the people, eliminating insurgent sanctuaries, and isolating the insurgents from outside support.
How can you achieve victory in war if you don't have a clear idea of your political objectives and a vision of what victory means? In this provocative challenge to US policy and strategy, Donald Stoker argues that America endures endless wars because its leaders no longer know how to think about war, particularly limited wars. He reveals how ideas on limited war and war in general evolved against the backdrop of American conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. These ideas, he shows, were flawed and have undermined America's ability to understand, wage, and win its wars, and to secure peace afterwards. America's leaders have too often taken the nation to war without understanding what they want or valuing victory, leading to the 'forever wars' of today. Why America Loses Wars dismantles seventy years of misguided thinking and lays the foundations for a new approach to the wars of tomorrow.
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