IF WE WIN ALL THE BATTLES
HOW COME WE LOSE THE WARS?
THOUGHTS ABOUT WINNING & LOSING
Working on my non-fiction military book has made me think a great deal about the widely accepted belief that the U.S. military tends to win at a tactical level virtually all the time—yet we certainly don’t seem to win most of our wars.
The following are the conflicts that come to mind immediately. Doubtless, I have missed a few, but they are sufficient to make the point.
We can report two complete successes—GRENADA and PANAMA. However. neither constituted a remotely serious enemy. We couldn’t lose. In fact, where Panama was concerned, we were already there. Invading a small country, when you already have bases there, is not too hard.
It strikes me that we are doing ourselves no favors by claiming to win all the battles because it is clear that we don’t. If an enemy attacks us, on his own initiative, inflicts damage, and then retreats on his own terms, we may claim victory—especially if he has suffered more casualties than we do—but we are fooling ourselves if our enemy achieved his objective of hurting us sufficiently so that, eventually, we would lose the will to fight. Our enemies consistently play the long game because they know we rarely can, or wish to.
In his terms, losing more people than we do is worth it (and all but inevitable given our superior firepower).
In this context, for us to win at the tactical level would require us to be able to operate with impunity—virtually free of effective attack—which has decidedly not been the case in either Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, we have suffered enormous materiel damage in both of those countries—and, though our fatalities have not been particularly high by the sad standards of such conflicts, we have suffered a considerable toll in terms of wounded, and very large numbers of soldiers are suffering from the after effect of IEDs—which include PTSD and a truly concerning number of TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injuries).
A disturbing byproduct of our belief that we are consistently victorious at the tactical level is that we see no good reason to change tactics. After all, if what we are doing is near 100 percent successful, we would be foolish, indeed, to change. In short, our intellectual dishonesty—or simple misreading of the situation—leads to complacency.
In saying this, I don’t wish to imply any criticism of the soldiers on the ground. Again and again they display astonishing courage. However, I do think that those in command might have done a better job if they had accepted the reality of the situation and adjusted their tactics accordingly.
In particular, we remained Big Base oriented, and road-bound, for far too long. In addition, we should have become much better at preventing IEDs being planted in the first place. The latter would have required significant tactical changes and an integration with air that have still not yet been achieved—nor, for the most part, even attempted..
Chuck Spinney, one of our most prominent military thinkers, is worth reading (although, ironically, he too states that we appear to win tactically). But, essentially, he is making the same point that I am—but provides more context. Not only our enemies like protracted conflicts.
Check out www.chuckspinney.blogspot.com
Lightly armed guerrilla/insurgent/terrorist forces are once again holding off the high-tech, heavily armed forces of the United States. A string of defeats is slowly accumulating at the strategic and grand-strategic levels of conflict, even though US forces almost always win battles at the tactical level, if they can fix the insurgents and destroy them with overwhelming firepower, particularly bombing. But when viewed through the overlapping lenses of the operational, strategic, and grand strategic levels of conflict guerrillas have advantages to offset US firepower.
Faced with the tactical threat of overwhelming conventional firepower, irregular fighters always strive to retain the initiative at the operational level of conflict by perfecting the arts of quick dispersal and blending in with the physical and cultural background, while relying on provocations (beheadings?), hit and run attacks, and the ubiquitous threat of booby traps to keep US forces on edge and increase our expenditure of effort. To paraphrase T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), the guerrilla’s operational level goal is to wage a war of detachment, presenting a threat everywhere, “never affording a target” and “never on the defensive except by accident or error.” [Boyd, POC, Slide 64] At the strategic level of conflict, guerrillas aim to wear down US forces by keeping them under continual mental and physical strain, while at the decisive level of grand strategy, their aim is to stretch out and increase the cost of the intervention to undermine the US political will at home, weaken its allied support, keep neutrals neutral or empathetic to guerrilla cause, and attract recruits.
In short guerrillas love protracted wars -- periods of apparent inaction punctuated by short, sharp fights — or in the naive lexicon of fascinated American counter-insurgency enthusiasts, guerrillas love long wars. That is because protracted wars create an unfolding stream of events that play into the guerrilla’s hands at the decisive grand-strategic level of conflict.
Juxtapose the guerrilla art of war to that described by President Obama in his declaration of a war on ISIS last September. Obama called for yet another high-cost, fire-power centric attrition strategy with the objective “to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS “through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.” This art of war at its core assumes the art is all tactical — i.e. destruction by bombing — and that this assumption of pure attrition is the only effect of military operations needed to eventually procure success at the operational, strategic, and grand strategic levels of war to “ultimately” destroy ISIS.
Put another way, the idea of a protracted military operations implicit in Mr. Obama’s words fits the guerrilla strategy like a hand fits a glove.
It is not as if the United States has not experienced the grand-strategic meat grinding effects of this kind of thinking. They clearly unfolded to our chagrin in Viet Nam. They are unfolding again in the perpetual Global War on Terror (GWOT), which, in terms money adjusted for inflation, is now by some estimates the second most expensive war in US history, requiring annual defense budgets far exceeding the annual budgets of the much larger, higher tempo Korean and Viet Nam Wars (see graphic).
One problem is that like guerrillas, the domestic political-economy of the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex (MICC) has come to love protracted small wars war for the obvious reason that high budgets enrich and strengthen the MICC’s iron triangle, thereby providing it with the political power and wealth needed to keep its game going, just as President Eisenhower feared over 50 years ago in his farewell address (January 1961) The explosive cost of small wars is a predictable consequence of the domestic politics of the MICC’s political-economy and its addiction to gold-plated weapons that naturally flow out of dysfunctional bureaucratic/political power games exhibited by the MICC’s well-documented decision-making pathologies. (a subject discussed throughout the variety of reports assembled here.)
VOR words 620.