How to Lose a War
America has been busy fighting battles since her inception, and you’d think we’d be pretty good at winning wars by now. Our venture into Afghanistan is objectively a failure because after twenty years of effort, we withdrew hastily and never met our unclear objective.
The lack of a clear objective went against our politician’s initial promises. They promised a finite effort, with clear objectives, followed by a quick withdrawal. I was in Afghanistan when Osama Bin Laden was killed and I figured when I got back to my bunk, I’d start packing to go home. Bless my heart.
America’s last clear victory was World War 2, and since then, we’ve stumbled in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan along with many other ventures to try and shape the world. Libertarians will point out that World War 2 was ‘declared’ by Congress and the other efforts were not, and that gives too much power to one person. I agree with that idea, but there are a couple of other things we should think consider before we start any more ‘operations’. If we had just listened to Carl Von Clausewitz.
Clausewitz was a German soldier who was captured by Napoleon’s forces and used that setback to write a set of rules for fighting a ‘total’ war, where nation’s direct their whole set of resources towards the war effort. After reading this statement, you probably can already see some important differences between World War 2 and our more recent engagements.
Clausewitz most famous idea about industrial war is that to maximize the chance of victory, leaders must secure the trinity before going to war. Although there are different translations of what the trinity consists of, I’ve come to understand that to win a war, you must have three sectors (the Trinity) of society focused on the war effort: 1) the politicians, 2) the military and 3) the people.
While the founders weren’t thinking about effective warfighting strategy when they granted only Congress the responsibility to declare war, they knew allowing one person to make that decision was dangerous. It’s hard to understand how politicians were able to get around this provision, but they did. Instead of ‘war’, they called our adventures ‘police actions’ or ‘operations’, and strangely, it seemed to work. Now, American Presidents authorize drone strikes from the comfort of their Oval Office. Also, in the run-up to the second Iraq conquest, many in Congress remained silent when the bombs dropped and avoided political fallout when things didn’t go as planned. Americans have long been dispensing deadly force around the world without our politicians acknowledging their responsibility
For the military part of the triad, the World War military looked different than the military in the following wars. In his book ‘The Generals’, Thomas Ricks pointed to military leadership as one example. In Vietnam and Afghanistan, military leaders regularly cycle in and out on predetermined schedules. They’d get an assignment for six or twelve months, try to make some progress and pass the reins to the next guy. In World War 2, there were no assignment cycles: Generals either completed the effort, got killed, or fired. You can see how that simple arrangement might deter another twenty-year war.
Still, the military has been holding up its corner of the triad continuously since the beginning. But American troops know when bad policy is made, when lives are lost in vain, and when vast amounts of money are lost in a third-world desert. Further, attempts to use the military to push an agenda beyond the assigned mission also weakens the integrity of the force. The military is strongest when the troops believe they are doing good things defending the homeland and the constitution, but too often, political maneuvering alters the course.
If you’re reading this, you’re at least part of the ‘people’ concern of Clausewitz’ equation. When you last heard of a drone strike, did you give it more than a glancing thought? If you’re like me, you sighed, wished things were different, and moved on. What would it be like if the people were really part of the equation? If you were old enough to remember September 11, 2001, you know that the news focused on the progress made, the names of the troops who died, and the famous playing cards of the high-value targets. If asked, most Americans would’ve made some sacrifice to the war effort, and in fact, some people sent gear downrange because they didn’t think the military-issued gear was adequate. I’m confident that most Americans were ready to give even more, but as the war dragged on, other news took over the headlines, and before we knew it, people who were babies in 2001 were dead in Afghanistan in 2021. As the meme said “The Marines went to war; America went to the Mall”. In World War 2, American society was fundamentally changed by the sacrifices the people made to the war effort.
Along with the triad, Clausewitz focused on mission. Decide your mission, focus all of your energy towards that mission, and complete it. If you look at Afghanistan, the mission went from finding Osama Bin Laden, to slowing terrorist camps, to counter-insurgency, to training Afghani soldiers, and finally to withdrawing. There was no clear goal, the politicians didn’t take responsibility, the people got distracted and the military tried to keep up. This is how you lose a war.