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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.
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.”
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