Read an Excerpt
ROGER J. SPILLER
For years the Corinthians had been storing up resentments against the Athenians, whose power was great, and growing. They were aggressive. The Corinthians said that the Athenians “possess a thing almost as soon as they have begun to desire it, so quickly with them does action follow upon decision.”1 As if preparing for war, the Athenians had fortified their city and closed to the Corinthians the market at Athens and all the ports in the Athenian Empire. They had taken possession of Corcyra and were even now laying siege against Potidaea, both Corinthian colonies. The Athenians were insufferable, arrogant. They falsely claimed the privilege of their arrogance by right of having defeated the Persian invasion years before, when everyone knew, the Corinthians said, the real reason for Persia’s defeat was a mistaken policy by the Persians themselves. Far from beneficent, the Athenian Empire was rapacious, and it endangered the peace.
And so the Corinthians mobilized opinion among the lesser city-states of the Peloponnesus and laid their grievances before Sparta’s governing assembly, the Ekklesia. If the Spartans could be convinced of the injustices Corinth suffered, a coalition to oppose the Athenians might be raised to defend their liberties behind Spartan shields. The Spartans, nursing resentments of their own, were receptive to these complaints. The Ekklesia seemed almost certain to declare for war against Athens.
A group of Athenians already in Sparta tending to other affairs learned of the Corinthians’ maneuvers and petitioned to address the Ekklesia, hoping to dissuade Sparta’s leaders from giving in to Corinth’s demands for war. The Athenians were not defensive, and they did not apologize for their power. “We did not gain this empire by force,” they declared. “We have done nothing extraordinary, nothing contrary to human nature in accepting an empire when it was offered to us and then in refusing to give it up.”2 The Athenians’ message was blunt: a war against Athens would be both unworthy and unwise. Athens would fight. Regardless of the confidence that might propel Sparta into war, Sparta was taking a risk. Who could predict how a war might end? The Athenians concluded their brief with a warning: “Think, too, of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war: think of it now, before you are actually committed to war. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accident. Neither you nor we can see into them; we have to abide their outcome in the dark.”3
The Athenians’ warning was to no avail. Sparta declared war on Athens, igniting thirty years of tragedy, “death in every shape and form” that spread beyond the confines of ancient Greece from Sicily to Macedonia.4 The Athenians’ defiant confidence did not protect them from disaster, however. They lost the war, suffered the dismantlement of their empire, and saw their mother city reduced to a shadow of its former glory, its golden age brought to a definitive end.
The Athenians were not wrong to have been confident. History had been kind to them, and they saw no reason it would not continue to be so. Their leaders did not imagine victory would be won easily, but they were sure Athens would win in the end. Had they been less certain of their power they would have mollified the Spartans and their allies, relaxed their markets, and lifted their sieges. They would have relinquished the power they had attained, but this they would not, or could not, do. Yet in all their calculations they had not foreseen how their strategies would go awry, how successes would lose their potency and lead to reverses, how nature itself might intervene with a cruel plague, and how their leaders, thinking more of their own fortunes than those of their fellow citizens, would squander their advantages. The Athenians had failed to heed their own warning.
The way we commonly see war and how it ends comes to us from the world of the soldier. This world is highly utilitarian and quite simple in its most basic form: If I kill enough of the enemy, the rest will stop fighting and I can live. In this way the soldier means to impose control over events that are fundamentally unpredictable and chaotic. The chain of command from which he and his comrades receive their orders not only describes how this control is managed; it is also a chain of knowledge, prescribing how military ideas are organized.
In its ideal form this chain of military thought is hierarchical and deductive, proceeding from the general to the specific. Strategy sets the terms and objectives; campaigns are designed to meet those terms and objectives by means of engagements and battles, which are themselves composed of smaller unit actions and minor tactical events.
This is a world in which causes are meant to be translated into effects, in which decision is to lead as directly as possible to action. Successful actions are supposed to result in successful engagements whose sum will produce successful campaigns leading to the attainment of final victory. The ideal map has one straight road to victory. It is somewhat amazing that for some time the world’s armies, great and small, have fought in consonance with this worldview, especially as it has so often proved to have little relevance to real war.
This highly structured world is also suffused with a unique value system, built upon good and practical reasons. In earlier days war was a blunt instrument, no more fit for surgery than an axe. Orchestrating the use of military power was very difficult even in ideal conditions, and soldiers regarded with a jaundiced eye any scheme that required them to reserve or limit their strength. Even now the principle of economy of force is sometimes seen as subtracting from an army’s main effort. Soldiers everywhere have always preferred to be stronger than their enemy, so strong that the outcome of their war will be in no doubt. If one is very much stronger, so much the better; the enemy may be compelled to surrender without a fight, or he may be defeated quickly and thoroughly, thus sparing lives and treasure on both sides. For these reasons a soldier is bound to regard any sort of limitation on his strength as playing with his life.
But we outside the soldier’s world are not obliged to see war in this way. To do so would make us like physicians who see an illness only from the patient’s point of view. The soldier’s perspective might serve him well, but that is not to say it advances our knowledge of war equally well.
This essay addresses the conduct of war and how it ends, seen from the perspective of the American military experience. Although its chief concern is how America’s most important conflicts drew to a close, it is based on the premise that the actions of all wars and the conclusions they produce cannot be separated from one another or indeed from the influences of the world beyond the battlefield. To that end I advance six general propositions about the history of American war termination and its implications for the conduct of modern limited war, propositions that may at first glance seem counterintuitive from the soldier’s perspective:
- Wars are defined not by their extremes but by their limitations. The concepts of absolute war, total war, and total victory are theoretical abstractions whose function is to depict an ideal case against which real war can be understood and conducted.
- War’s original aims and methods, no matter how unyielding or uncompromising they may seem at first, are constantly revised by the stresses and actions of war.
- In every war the aims of all sides, no matter how opposed at the beginning, gradually converge toward an agreement to stop fighting.
- This convergence of aims is not produced on the battlefield alone. It is also driven by wider influences beyond the battlefield, only some of which may be manipulated by policymakers, strategists, or operational commanders.
- The public face of war is ever more cosmopolitan, and so therefore is the conduct of war itself, which can no longer be quarantined from the influence of the world beyond, if it ever could.
- Within the confines of war itself, a war’s terminal campaign exercises the greatest influence over the manner in which it ends, and therefore is not always a war’s final campaign. This suggests that the concept of a decisive campaign or victory is not as useful as orthodox military thought has traditionally assumed.
In 1965 the U.S. Army’s dictionary of military terms defined doctrine as “the best available military thought that can be defended by reason.” This definition was admirably idealistic. If reason controls military doctrine, it is the sort of reason that is a creature of the moment, for military doctrine is above all a modern army’s way of thinking out loud about what it must do next. For one who studies doctrine but doesn’t have to act on it, doctrine therefore is valuable for what it reveals about the state of military thought and practice at a particular point in time.
Current American military doctrine refers to war termination as the conclusion of “operations on terms favorable to the United States.” Defense strategists and operational planners are enjoined to keep the question of how a conflict might end uppermost in their minds as they go about their work. The doctrine makes clear that strategies and plans should aim toward a certain “end state,” which must be in accord with the goals of the conflict as set by national policy. Once the course of action has been decided, the doctrine recognizes that plans may well be interrupted by “unforeseen events” that force a “reassessment” of the terms on which hostilities will be concluded. Doctrine is less definitive about how all this might actually be accomplished.
That the subject of war termination is addressed at all is somewhat surprising. As a term of art war termination is of fairly recent vintage, having made its appearance during the First World War. There was no serious work on the subject between the two world wars, and although there was official and scholarly interest in the termination of a hypothetical nuclear war during the Cold War years, it was overshadowed by developments in nuclear arms control. Among social scientists toward the end of the war in Vietnam the subject attracted academic interest that persisted to the end of the century.5 Only a few military theorists and historians paid any attention to the problem, and the subject does not seem to have found its way into professional military thinking. Now the term is not frequently heard in war or staff colleges, and over the past twenty years professional military journals have offered but two essays on the subject.6 It is not difficult to understand why. The term implies something less than the ideal outcome of a war: reservation, equivocation, ambiguity, limitation—substitutes for victory.
Victory: for centuries statesmen, soldiers, and scholars have made do with this simpler, more encompassing concept of how wars end. The nature of victory seemed so self-evident it was seldom if ever examined. In its classical, ideal form, victory meant the triumph by force of arms over one’s enemy, the kind of success to which the enemy cannot reply by force and which rewards the victor with complete freedom of action. This was the only proper goal of war. To aim for less or to settle for less was to expose oneself to the enemy’s actions and to squander the sacrifices in blood and treasure war always demands. How a war ended was seen as the logical result of battlefield successes and failures, a final reckoning toward which all sides struggled. Every battlefield success contributed to final victory, and every failure subtracted from the possibility of attaining it. Victory settled all questions, one way or another. Indeed professional soldiers could hardly afford the luxury of thinking any other way. They would react instinctively against any suggestion that the course of a war toward its conclusion is a more complex process than treasuring up successes or guarding against reverses. “Man does not enter battle to fight,” one soldier wrote, “but for victory. He does everything that he can to avoid the first and obtain the second.”7
Soldiers are likely to recoil at the thought that a battlefield defeat might in some way contribute to their ultimate goal. The American survivors of Japan’s victory at Pearl Harbor would not take kindly to the suggestion that their defeat exercised a far greater influence over the outcome of the Pacific War than if they had successfully repelled the attack with little loss of life or damage to the Pacific Fleet. Yet the defeat at Pearl Harbor drove the United States to declare war sooner than it might have. The vulnerability of its battleships forced the United States to create a new fleet of aircraft carriers that would carry the burdens of its war far more effectively. And for Americans on the home front as well as the fighting front, Pearl Harbor served as a powerful incentive for retribution until the day the Enola Gay appeared over Hiroshima. But if you were to ask a veteran of Pearl Harbor whether any of these results lessened the sting of his defeat, you need have no doubt about the answer.
Today you will search in vain for any definition of victory in American military doctrine. Exactly when the classical ideal of victory disappeared from official doctrine is an open question, but its absence invites the thought that at some time in the recent past, victory, which so long dominated military thought and practice, lost some of its official appeal. Regardless of its present status in public discourse or as a doctrinal term, however, victory has by no means gone out of fashion, and there is no reason to think that war termination, with its vaguely clinical, antiseptic feel, is likely to supplant it anytime soon. The ideal of victory still exerts a powerful hold over modern war making. This ideal was what General Schwarzkopf had in mind when he recalled the end of the First Gulf War. “Our side had won,” he wrote, “so we were in a position to dictate terms.” His meeting with Iraqi commanders at Safwan that halted the fighting, he insisted, was in no way a transaction. “I’m here to tell them exactly what we expect them to do,” he told reporters at the time.8 A dozen years later, under a banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” President George W. Bush declared victory in the second Iraq War, just as his secretary of defense had done after the initial campaign in Afghanistan had overthrown the Taliban. These are only the latest instances across the long expanse of the American military experience in which the ideal of victory met its limits. As Carl von Clausewitz wrote long ago, once one moves “from the abstract to the real world, the whole thing looks quite different.”9
Since the American Revolution the world has seen more than 650 wars, more than a third of which have occurred since the Second World War.10 The American military experience, according to the neat divisions of history, includes twelve major conflicts, from revolution and civil war to colonial and imperial wars, wars against other nations as well as irregular wars. Some of these, such as the Mexican War, the 300-Years War against the Native Americans, and the Spanish-American and Philippine Wars, have been blatantly aggressive; others have been less so. In some cases aggression is very much defined by the mind of the beholder. How one classifies the Mexican War, for instance, depends on the credence one grants President Polk’s view that Mexico started the war when its troops intruded on disputed territory along the Texas border. And American readers are not likely to see the Pacific War as anything but a defense against Japanese aggression, but it was launched in part because of Japan’s long-standing concerns about an antagonistic American foreign policy that encroached on its strategic sphere of influence.
Seeing these wars as self-contained events, with distinct beginnings, coherent, sequential battle actions, and distinct endings, can pose other questions. The War of 1812, for instance, can be seen as a continuation of a war for independence that left issues unsettled, some of which persisted even years after the Treaty of Ghent, which formally ended the war. If one were to include southern social and political resistance that followed the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox, the Civil War, often depicted as the most complete victory in American history, had a very long denouement that ended in the political resurgence of the defeated. And given the less-than-complete victory sealed by the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, there is reason to expect that historians of the future, instead of seeing the Second World War as distinct from the First, will see these together as another Thirty Years War.
In nine of its major conflicts America did not fight alone, but in the company of allies, and in the Civil War both sides contended for either direct military or diplomatic support of other nations. None of America’s allies entered war for America’s sake, but in pursuit of their own goals, some of which were barely in consonance with America’s. The nation’s World War II alliance with Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and France, often depicted as a model of cohesion, was beset by strategic and operational disagreements from beginning to end, disagreements that not only influenced the peace that followed but carried on for years afterward. In the War of 1812, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, diplomatic maneuvers between allies and enemies alike exercised a critical role in setting terms for the cessation of hostilities.
Seen in detail, America’s major conflicts have produced far more limited victories than is often supposed. And in this the American military experience is by no means unique. In its abstract, ideal, most extreme form, victory is the result of an enemy’s complete moral and physical collapse produced by force of arms. But real war, as Clausewitz recognized long ago, is a resistant medium. From inception to conclusion those who direct and conduct war are fighting not only the enemy but the dynamic nature of war itself. As the Athenians warned, the kind of victory so often imagined at the onset of war rarely if ever survives intact at war’s end.
However one may imagine war in the abstract, in reality all wars are defined not by their extremes but by their limitations. America’s wars, like all real wars, have been creatures of their place and time. The purposes for which they have been fought, the manner in which they are fought, the ways they have ended, and their lasting results arise from their social, political, and material circumstances, and their influences are not held in suspension as the war is being fought.11
Even in wars in which the United States aimed for an unlimited victory, the practicalities of translating its social and material strength into military power intervened. No two antagonists could have pursued aims more diametrically opposed than the North and the South during the Civil War: the South would not remain in the Union, and the North could not let it go. Despite early hopes that the actual fighting would be far more constrained than its aims, the operational course of the war eventually became just as uncompromising. But the transformation of both sides’ social power into military power was far from comprehensive. In its fight for independence the Confederacy mobilized more than 80 percent of its white males of military age, but intentionally did not recruit its huge slave population. For social and political reasons the South willingly paid a very high price that President Davis would try to rectify very late—too late—in the war. With war aims no less demanding, the North, beset by a clumsy and poorly administered system for getting its citizens into uniform, did far worse.12
Even when American society was far better organized than in the Civil War and more easily managed, social mobilization was far less than total. In pursuit of Germany’s and Japan’s unconditional surrender during the Second World War, the United States mobilized more extensively than any time before or since. But the nation reserved much of its potential social strength for industrial mobilization, with the result that only one-sixth of its male population served in the armed forces. Even at that, more than six million draftees were rejected for service on grounds that, according to one authority, would not have excused them from serving in other armies.13 America’s calculations of the number of men needed on the fighting lines were so fine that the army came close to running out of infantrymen during the critical last year of the war.
The limits imposed on war by material resources are even more pronounced. The state of science, technology, and industry directly influences a war’s geographic scope, its pace of operations, and the effectiveness with which these resources are employed from the strategic to the tactical level. Moreover the mere existence of such resources is no guarantee that their potential can be fully exploited. The theoretical foundations necessary to construct an atomic bomb were well understood by physicists before the onset of the Second World War, but only after four years of the most expensive engineering project in American history could an operational bomb be produced. Even when America’s industrial capacity hit its stride after two years of war, the global logistics essential for bringing equipment into action at the right time and place were strained. Americans produced 82,000 landing craft and ships in the war, but to the very end America and its allies struggled with the strategic effect of shortages in one theater or another. In these and many other instances the practicalities of war acted as a check on the full expression of military power.14
To all these limitations one must add those exacted by the actions of the enemy. Yet the list of America’s wars in which its statesmen, strategists, and generals have embarked with only the dimmest understanding of their enemy’s intentions and capacities is depressingly long. The common conceit is that if one is strong enough, if one’s plans are well designed, and if one’s operations are well generalled, how the enemy responds is of secondary importance, perhaps of little relevance at all. In the opening pages of On War Clausewitz famously described war as a duel, but he wisely chose not to take this metaphor, with its connotation of sequential action and thrust and parry, too far. Instead he wrote later on of war as “a continuous interaction of opposites.”15 In practice, from the moment war is declared the interactions of the two sides are increasingly more, not less, intimate, no matter how intense their hostility toward one another, as the war goes on their relations will become more intimate than ever. As the ancient Chinese theorist Sun Tzu wrote, “Leaders who are able to rise above the passions of the moment will enjoy an advantage over opponents who cannot.”
The reciprocal, evolving, intimate nature of war is perhaps the single greatest challenge for leaders to comprehend and act upon. During the Vietnam War, President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara occasionally took notice of the enemy and found their knowledge lacking. Rather than attempting to learn as much about their enemy as they could, their solution was to imagine what they would do if they were Ho Chi Minh. The historian Douglas Pike found in the writings of Aldous Huxley the perfect term for this conceit: “vincible ignorance,” or “that which one does not know and realizes it, but does not regard as necessary to know.”16 This attitude prevailed in the general public at the time as well. Informed Americans might have known the names of Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap or, if pressed, Ho’s close advisor Le Duc Tho, but otherwise the most important field commanders of the North Vietnamese Army and the National Liberation Front might as well have been invisible. Americans in World War II were accustomed to hearing of Emperor Hirohito and Gen. Tojo Hideki, usually as targets of official ridicule. The three army officers who succeeded General Tojo after his resignation in the summer of 1944, however, had nothing like his official or public visibility. And now few Americans, official or otherwise, could name the commander of the Iraqi Army’s most capable formation, the Republican Guard, in either of America’s wars with Iraq.
Yet even if such a thing as perfect knowledge of the enemy ever exists, it is no protection against war’s unpredictability. The Civil War was to all intents and purposes a West Pointer’s war: Academy graduates commanded on both sides in fifty-five of the sixty largest battles, and on one side in the rest. Although concerns were voiced on both sides that their generals were all too familiar to their enemies, a common professional background and personal acquaintance in themselves were no guarantee that their strategies and operations would benefit. On the contrary, an officer’s professional reputation could be misleading. When General Grant took command in the East in 1864, General Lee’s staff officers were skeptical that he would pose much danger to their cause. By the time they surrendered to him at Appomattox they had been disabused of this notion.
Wars begin not by accident, but with an agreement to fight, deliberately and with purpose; that is how they are fought and that is how they end. All too often a state of war is assumed to create such an impenetrable wall of enmity that the adversaries have no relation to one another except when they meet in battle. But even if such absolute hostility were possible, the interactions of the war itself would constantly redefine their relationship. Moreover even the most vicious of America’s wars have been shot through with shared assumptions, traditions, treaties, and formal or informal understandings with the enemy. As both sides prosecute their war these interactions intensify until their interests converge toward terms for ending the war that each will accept.
One might think this convergence is somehow nullified in wars where the nature and purposes of the adversaries are so remote from one another that they seem to belong to separate universes. This indeed seemed to be the case in America’s war with Japan. Depths of enmity not present in the war against Germany, fed by racial animosity that was intensified by Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and its conduct in the campaigns that followed, sustained the Americans to the very end of the war. Most Americans would not have minded if Japan had been erased from the face of the earth. Any sort of concession or accommodation with this enemy was unthinkable. For their part Japan’s most powerful leaders could not countenance the idea of surrender in any form until the last days of the war. Even the atomic attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not enough to dissuade some in Japan’s Supreme War Council from fighting on. Scholars now believe that the use of atomic weapons against Japan, rather than delivering the knockout blow that led to Japan’s unconditional surrender, exercised less influence over its decision makers than the Soviet Union’s belated entry in the Pacific War.
From the first days of that war, President Roosevelt aimed for the unconditional surrender of his Axis enemies. Judged by the actions of war alone, all signs pointed to a Carthaginian peace: the utter destruction of Japan as a nation and the subjugation of its people. Yet currents of official opinion for a far less draconian peace emerged on both sides even as the war reached a white-hot intensity.
The redefinition of what unconditional surrender meant to both sides ran a slow, convoluted course. In the United States this process of moderation toward a convergence of purposes began as early as 1942, when the war’s end was far from view. In Japan two years of strategic and operational reverses were required to move some officials to consider how their nation might manage to survive the war.
The intersection at which the two sides would finally meet turned critically on the question of what the Japanese knew as kokutai: the irreducible nature of Japanese culture itself, and the emperor who was its living embodiment. Thus the postwar fate of the nation and its emperor were inseparable. On this point at least, all parties on both sides—even the most militant and unforgiving—agreed.
Judged by the actions of war alone, the course of the Pacific War seemed straightforward, yet the strategic landscape in which they occurred was far from fixed. As the war advanced, whether or when the Soviet Union might join the war came to dominate Japan’s strategic calculations. To this was added, for the few Americans who knew of it, the question of whether or how to use the atomic bomb and the result it might produce.
Nor was the convergence of interests that eventually produced Japan’s surrender guided by calculations in airless conference rooms or by their enactment on the fields of battle. Policymakers and strategists were careful to consider the opinions of their fellow citizens. Japanese leaders, including the emperor himself, were by no means isolated from domestic opinion, especially that of the powerful military constituency, which had a long history of reacting violently to national policies. For their part American policymakers were well attuned to public opinion, which polls showed was as uncompromising in 1945 as the day the war began. President Truman, having been sworn in after Roosevelt’s untimely death, understood very well what his secretary of state meant when he warned that Truman would be “crucified” if he showed any signs of appeasement toward the Japanese.
At this distance it is easily enough forgotten that Japan emerged from the war having preserved many of its most important conditions for surrender. Japan was not destroyed as a nation. Although stripped of his godhood, the emperor was not brought to account for his part in the war. Relatively few leading political or military leaders were prosecuted, and still fewer were executed. Japan did not suffer the partitioning that Germany did, and Soviet incursions on Japanese territory were checked by the United States. Ultimately Japan took the place of China as the mainstay of American strategy in East Asia. The shadow of Pearl Harbor and the draconian American war aims it inspired had faded as all sides moved toward war’s end.17
The age of modern limited war began with the dropping of the atomic bomb. War, limited as always, was now more constrained than ever. The bomb’s unprecedented expression of power, and the prospect of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, created a new strategic context that exercised a commanding influence over America’s conflicts for more than four decades.
Many believed the new weapon threatened to overturn the sum of military knowledge. Above all, the traditional relationship between ends and means in war was curiously inverted: the means of future war were in place well before the policy that might require their use was articulated. No one could confidently describe the process by which a nuclear war might be ignited, nor the vital interests—save national survival itself—for which such an apocalyptic war might be fought. Still less could anyone imagine how to prosecute such a war or how to end it.18 Classical military theory seemed obsolete, and dangerously so. Lt. Gen. James Gavin, the World War II airborne commander who was to play an important role in postwar weapons development, said of the bomb, “Military thinking seemed, at the outset, to be paralyzed by its magnitude.”19
Historical knowledge, which had long served as the foundation of military thought, seemed of little use in a world that to all appearances transcended history itself. Few if any strategists looked back to the war just finished for any guidance about the atomic future. Although the bomb was an integral part of the Second World War, the history of the atomic bomb was abstracted from the history of the war itself, as if it belonged to a separate time, untouched by the context in which it was created or the circumstances in which it was first used. The dramatic role of the bomb in terminating the war was so compelling that the rest of the war seemed almost incidental to the Allies’ final victory. The effect of the bomb appeared to be so definitively war-ending no one thought to consider, as Geoffrey Blainey did many years later, what its effect would have been had it been used a year or two earlier, before Japan’s military power was so depleted. In that case the Japanese reaction might well have been to intensify their resistance.20
Strategic thinking during the Cold War years thus became highly speculative, theoretically remote from the real conflicts that entangled the United States. A new class of strategic thinkers emerged during this period, drawn not from the uniformed ranks but from academia. Undeterred by their lack of military experience, confident of their intellectual powers, and openly contemptuous of those in uniform who might be called upon to execute their theories, these new strategists helped frame the nation’s defense policies for more than two decades after the end of the Second World War.21
One of the most important consequences of this trend in strategic thought was the devaluation of the role of battle in the prosecution of war. The atomic bomb was not only a strategic weapon; it was above all a policy weapon. If traditional tools of war such as ground combat were susceptible to all sorts of limitations, the atomic bomb—theoretically—was not. The bomb was above all an efficient weapon; there could be a seamless line between executive command and employment that no other instrument of military power could match.22
Further, the advent of the atomic bomb called into question the traditional roles and missions of the American armed forces. Not only the awesome power of the weapon itself, but the means of employing it seemed to open a new chapter in American war making. Whereas the expression of power on land had been the foundation of American statecraft since its inception, airpower became the strategic tool of choice during the Cold War. In the hypothetical nuclear war that dominated strategic thought, the use of ground combat to achieve the nation’s aims seemed a quaint relic of wars gone by. Modern war could be made into a more precise instrument of statecraft.
No strategic thinker advanced this new concept of war more effectively than Thomas C. Schelling. Schelling’s understanding of war was resolutely ahistorical. His insights, inventively and closely argued, were drawn not from the American experience of war but from the field of economics, in which he was an accomplished, prominent figure. From this frame of intellectual reference Schelling argued that the management of war was little different from the management of markets, especially markets dominated by a small number of corporations. Elite managers dealt with one another in a closed, self-referential system, where “winning” meant “gaining relative to one’s own value system . . . by bargaining, by mutual accommodation, and the avoidance of mutually damaging behavior.” Strategy as traditionally defined seemed beside the point to Schelling; instead strategy should not be “concerned with the efficient application of force but with the exploitation of potential force.” Seen in this way strategy could prevent us “from becoming exclusively preoccupied either with the conflict or with the common interest.”23
Schelling’s theories would be put to the ultimate test during the war in Vietnam, when the air campaigns of Presidents Johnson and Nixon against North Vietnam were specifically designed to persuade Hanoi and its allies in the South to negotiate an end to the war. Events on the ground were seen to count for less in this process of bargaining. Had the new strategists been so inclined they would have seen that America’s military experience had long anticipated their theories and in many ways invalidated them. That some aspects of their concepts had come to life in the War of 1812 would have seemed scarcely creditable. In what was America’s first and only “cabinet war,” as Wayne Lee has observed, “every military move was accompanied by a diplomatic initiative” meant to secure by negotiation each side’s territorial ambitions. Far from being irrelevant to the outcome of the war, gains and losses in battle served as the engine that moved both sides toward the peace table at Ghent.24 But the new strategists need not have consulted their history books to find instances in which processes of negotiation and battle were so interdependent. All they needed to do was look over their shoulders to the Korean War.
The war for the dominance of the Korean peninsula is in many respects the quintessential modern limited war, and nowhere more so than in its results. North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 with the objective of unifying the peninsula under the Communist banner. For the Koreans themselves the war was much like our own Civil War, in which the adversaries fought to define their people’s future. But the war was not Korea’s alone, and there is reason to doubt that the fighting would have ended the way it did if it had been. Instead Korea was the first major armed conflict of the Cold War and a test of the long-term strategies of the Western alliance and the Communists. China and the Soviet Union stood behind North Korea; the United States intervened at the head of a hastily formed United Nations Command, whose original mission was to defend South Korean territory and sovereignty. The determining question for both coalitions was to what degree the Korean conflict would advance their strategic purposes. Thus from the outset military actions were strictly subordinated to grander strategy. Even when successes on the ground met traditional definitions of victory, the larger strategic context commanded the war’s progress toward mutual accommodation, however distasteful.
To American military leaders such as the UN commander Douglas MacArthur, such an outlook flew in the face of his professional upbringing and long personal experience, which had convinced him that only success in battle made strategy possible. He disagreed with his civilian and military superiors on the most fundamental premise of American strategy: that beyond the security of the United States itself the defense of Europe against Soviet aggression was paramount. The way President Truman and his national security advisors saw strategy meant that the war MacArthur commanded was not the main effort at all, but an exercise in economy of force. This crisis in strategic outlook deepened after MacArthur’s counteroffensive in the fall of 1950 erased the gains made by the North Korean People’s Army the preceding summer and drove it north of the 38th Parallel. Although China threatened to intervene in the war, MacArthur, citing his victories at Inchon and advances into North Korea, successfully lobbied for an escalation of the UN’s war aims to reunify the peninsula by completely defeating the Communist North. When the Chinese made good on their threat, President Truman reversed the objective of the war, aiming once again for the status quo ante bellum. This, MacArthur would not accept, and his public defiance of political direction by insisting that East Asia was the true cockpit in which the struggle with Communism would be decided led to his relief of command in the spring of 1951. MacArthur could not imagine a form of warfare in which his battlefield successes counted for less than his career of soldiering had taught him.
By the summer of 1951 the main line of resistance stabilized along the 38th Parallel after a last UN offensive, and from that point forward in the conflict the sounds of battle along a static front served as a background to diplomatic wrangling over the negotiating table at Panmunjom. By then the North Koreans and their Chinese allies were incapable of launching another offensive, and the UN Command, more capable than ever, was unwilling to.
Although the ground war continued during these negotiations, the Joint Chiefs of Staff came to believe that America’s air supremacy over the peninsula offered a channel through which the North could be persuaded to terminate the war. After months of futile peace talks and stalemate on the ground, senior commanders in the Far East Air Force mounted an air campaign in the spring of 1952 against targets specifically selected to influence the talks at Panmunjom. Having spent its energies in the first phase of the war on interdicting enemy supply lines, the air force turned to a highly orchestrated campaign of destruction against hydroelectric dams close to the Chinese border. But from the outset of the campaign the air force was hard-pressed to identify targets sufficiently critical to advance the peace talks. It became clear that if their sorties were sending a message, it was not at all clear who would receive it and, still less, whether the receiver would respond as the sender wished. This “signal-sending approach” was to be repeated during the war in Vietnam with similar results. Signals sent but not received were, if anything, worse than no signals at all.25
More than half a century after the Korean War began, peace still has not been concluded. Although the peace negotiations that began in 1951 produced an armistice two years later, the purposes of the two sides had converged only in a barely tolerable mutual dissatisfaction, separated by a demilitarized zone that is anything but. The age of modern limited war had begun, and with it a new definition of victory and a new role for the battles that once gave it meaning. Battles could no longer be thought of as important in and of themselves, capable of producing results without reference to the purposes that set them in motion; the relationship between strategy and battle seemingly had become more tenuous.
As the United States began its long strategic retreat in the aftermath of its war in Vietnam, the historian Russell Weigley concluded his history of American strategy in a way that reflected the nation’s disappointments and frustrations with the war. “The history of usable combat,” he wrote, “may at last be reaching its end.”26
For the first time in its history the United States had lost a war, failing to attain any of the objectives for which it fought. The miscalculations that led the United States into the war persisted throughout the war and poisoned any chance for a favorable conclusion. If the results of America’s earlier wars did not exactly correspond to their original aims, the results were sufficiently consoling; if not examined too closely, some measure of victory could always be claimed. But several of these earlier wars had also left rough edges that could not be smoothed over by the passage of time. In every case they revealed the limits of what war could accomplish.
In the hard mathematics of war, military action had no greater purpose than to drive war toward a final campaign that would crown the nation’s efforts with victory, its interests at war’s end satisfied in every particular. Yet on closer inspection the course of the major conflicts and the effects they produced are not so simply measured. War’s dynamic nature does not follow such a logical course, no matter how determined our efforts to make it do so.
Traditions of military thought tell us that the final campaign is the most decisive of all; its proximity to the cessation of hostilities naturally leads to the assumption that it has the most to do with the character and conditions of the peace that follows—that is, that the final campaign is also the terminal campaign. In real war, however, the two are not synonymous.
The difference between a decisive campaign and a terminal campaign lies in the effects they produce. A decisive campaign may be won at any point of a conflict, and by either side, regardless of whether that side was losing or winning when it was fought. Any side can fight a decisive campaign or even a succession of them and still be defeated. The true measure of its decisiveness lies in the degree to which it drives the war in a different course than it would have taken had it not been fought. Although historians still wage battles over how decisive the Gettysburg campaign was, there is no question that the rest of the war was different than it would have been without it. Furthermore, however positive the outcome of a decisive campaign, the results are not necessarily permanent. They do not suspend the action of war. They do not fix the future on an unalterable course. However decisive Gettysburg may seem in retrospect, the war still continued for nearly two years. The results of the Gettysburg campaign were not sufficient to convince hundreds of thousands of soldiers and the governments that commanded them to stop fighting.
By contrast a terminal campaign may exercise an influence over the outcome of a war neither side intends, nor does it derive from military action alone. A terminal campaign is strategically important; it plays a role in educating both sides about how much—or how little—their efforts can accomplish. Chronologically, North Vietnam’s offensive of 1975 was the last campaign of the Vietnam War. Seen from the present, however, North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive some seven years earlier exercised the greatest influence over how the war would end. Although North Vietnam and their National Liberation Front confederates in the South suffered heavy losses, Tet’s strategic effect was profound, convincing President Johnson that he should not stand for reelection, leading to the replacement of his principal field commander, General Westmoreland, and a sea change in public attitudes toward the war at home and around the world.
From Tet onward the United States was on the strategic defensive, and not in Vietnam alone. Although in 1968 the nation was more deeply and powerfully engaged in Vietnam than ever, the war had eroded America’s strategic will. Politically and socially in disarray, the readiness of its armed forces in Europe and Korea reduced to a state of dysfunction, America’s response to an aggressive turn in Soviet policy in Eastern Europe was muted. The North Koreans’ seizure of the USS Pueblo that year caught the United States unprepared to respond, when in earlier days it might have reacted far more aggressively.
The immediate, tactical results of the Tet Offensive certainly gave North Vietnam’s leaders little cause for optimism, while they encouraged American commanders in the field. But operational and tactical successes, then or later, were not enough to forestall the fundamental change in the strategic environment that Tet had achieved, and it was on that wider stage that the interests of the several sides in that war intersected at the peace table in Paris. At Paris and in its aftermath the United States would learn that if the end of a war is badly handled the consequences can be every bit as damaging as losing the war itself.27
If military action still plays a crucial role in moving a war toward its termination, of what value is it to redefine the terms of victory that have sustained armies for centuries? The answer is that modern war, no less than any other, is a creature of its unique place and time. The terms by which war was understood in the past have been overturned by the view that modern war must be more precisely attuned to the limited objectives for which it is being fought—limited objectives that must be precisely defined as well.
The demands made on those who direct war today are therefore substantially different from those of the past. The use of military power in pursuit of national objectives in the age of modern war is more a question of its efficient employment than use of its full potential. That today the United States accepts these limitations at risk to its interest means that its enemies benefit from advantages they might not otherwise enjoy, including the deliberate protraction of conflict as well as the expansion of the scope of war well beyond its immediate operational zones to regions that seem to have no direct involvement in the war. Under these circumstances the immense military power of the United States is no guarantee that it can seize and sustain the strategic and operational initiative, and steering a war toward a desirable end is no small task even in the most favorable circumstances. The policymaker who decides for war must at the same time understand that there will be mutually acceptable terms in the end, that these terms may bear little resemblance to those originally envisioned, and that in any case no single nation or party to the conflict will be the sole arbiter of the peace. Thus every war should be designed so that the strategic effect it produces contributes to the nature of the peace that will inevitably follow, and on no other basis.
Gen. George C. Marshall once wrote that the art of war has no traffic with rules. No book of rules on the art of ending war is likely to grace the bookshelves of the Oval Office or the doctrinal libraries of the Pentagon. The propositions advanced in this essay derive from America’s own military experience. Although these propositions may appear to be self-evident, it is nevertheless true that every one of America’s major conflicts has been fought in ignorance—or defiance—of one or more of them. Seen together they bid us to understand that the course by which a war ends, if embarked on without care, can be as dangerous to a nation’s vital interests as the war itself, regardless of the war’s military results. It is for that reason that the essays in this volume are now offered as aids to the judgment of the policymaker and the soldier as they face the test of ending America’s wars in the future.
© 2011 Matthew Moten