We do it wrong

"Decisive victory" - this is a very good concept at tactical and operational levels of warfare, but I think it's overstated as a political/strategic goal.
The quest for a "decisive" political/strategic victory is a very difficult one. Our politicians don't seem to like cost-saving compromises when it comes to war. This absolute 'destroy you or destroy me' attitude is historically actually not typical.
Alexander and early Roman leaders used it, Napoleon used it - and it was in use during the World Wars.
Most other wars in Western civilization's history were rather limited, though. Armies campaigned (not in winter, of course), besieged some fortresses, maybe fought some battles and eventually this or that province got a new owner.
Total submission or obliteration of enemies wasn't the objective.
Even a Clausewitzian defeat by disarmament wasn't really common - politicians were able to negotiate peace with much smaller gains that required no such success.

Today's equivalent is the often counterproductive approach of cease-fires due to international pressure. Somehow we seem to be unable to wage war for limited objectives today; objectives are always extreme, and often out of (easy) reach.

The whole approach to what war should be (if at all), its purpose and how to terminate it seems to be lost. We should re-learn it, for our wars have become too destructive, too threatening - and potentially shattering even to supposedly "winning" societies. That was obvious since 1916, of course.

Some wars are wars of necessity; there's no acceptable path of avoidance.
Others are wars of choice, and honestly; those politicians who bear the responsibility for wars of choice should die a terrible, cruel and slow death before they go to hell. The only exception is a war of choice in order to save others who cannot defend themselves.

Anyway; we need a good understanding of how to prevent and what to do in necessary wars, and how to avoid that they cause more net damage to us and innocents than necessary.

First choice should always be a "win-win" cooperation between powers.

Second-best is to keep peace by deterrence.

Third-best is to accept small disadvantages.

Fourth-best is to fight the war to achieve a quick political draw.
This should be quicker and easier than to achieve than a victory. It's thus less harmful to us.

Fifth rank goes to fighting a war to force peace on the aggressor, this is the Clausewitzian approach and today's fashionable total victory idea (Afghanistan).

Sixth rank goes to acceptance of a small defeat in war.
This can still be less terrible than a Pyrrhic victory.

Seventh rank goes to major defeat.
This is really a bad scenario, and it's quite obvious that it requires political mistakes.

The net damage to the own country and its allies increases the farther we go down this ranking system. Exceptions (like 3rd or 6th rank solutions being more less terrible than 2nd or 4th respectively) are imaginable, of course.

Total victory is good for boasting, but in reality it requires so much effort and so many losses that it's usually a worse net result than rather modest results on the political/strategic level. A decisive tactical/operational victory is great, but the concept fails us on the strategic/political levels of warfare.

We need to apply more rationality and brainpower to political decisions about war - and listen less to our feelings, intuition and instincts.

Sven Ortmann

1 comment:

  1. In a democratic society there is seldom much rationality when it comes to war. "They" are the "enemy" and must be destroyed at all costs or we lose. Even something as simple as a cost-benefit analysis is usually too complicated for the electorate(or at least politicians seem to think so). For example, in the run up to the Iraq war there was never even a suggestion that we might ever concede to Saddam having any WMD capability, no matter how costly a war to ensure that he didn't have them might be. There was seldom discussion of the cost of the war. Even today, people bemoan the high cost of the war, but they seldom talk about the value of what we have achieved so far and the value of our objectives. The political discussions boil down to black-and-white statements of morality that have little to do with the political, economic, and human consequences of the war in the real world. When military decisions are made on the basis of popular politics, the results are seldom optimal.