Summary: Fifth in a series of notes about America’s grand strategy.
A clear and sound justification for using force provides a basis for clear thinking and speaking about this vital subject. The latter helps motivate our allies, attract support from the uncommitted, and weaken the resolve of our enemies. As Thomas Jefferson said of an earlier crisis:
“This was the object of the Declaration of Independence … to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”
— Letter to Richard Henry Lee dated 8 May 1825
But a weak moral and intellectual basis for our actions leaves us vulnerable to our enemies and looking unpredictable to our friends. Which describes our situation today, due to a conflict between our strategy and tactics, one which seriously weakens both our internal cohesion and global authority. This post discusses the problem and proposes a solution.
Most Americans want to fight only just wars: wars undertaken for good causes, fought according to the “law of nations” (the language in Section I, Article 8 of the Constitution). In western thinking going back to the Peace of Westphalia, civilians are distinct from soldiers and military forces is properly directed (when possible) only at soldiers. This is a core concept in both our self-image and grand strategy.
“Strategies are things you talk about, not things you do.”
— Scott Adams, Dogbert’s Management Handbook (1996)
Unfortunately this is not the American way of war (nor that of our enemies, the subject for a different discussion). Our military tactics rely on intensive firepower. This minimizes our casualties but only at the cost of massive numbers of enemy civilians injured and dead. The use of nuclear weapons under Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is the logical consequence of this approach. As is use of heavy firepower in Baghdad neighborhoods. Calling the dead “collateral damage” provides us with moral cover only to those not paying attention.
Flawed thinking has bad consequences
“My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains.”
— Private Detective Philip Marlowe in the movie The Big Sleep (1946)
Firepower is tactically effective, but at the cost of strategic weakness. Officers in our armed forces require attorneys to advise them, and often force them to take actions prosecutable by a strict application of both American and international laws. Outside reviews of our actions consistently worry that our efforts create more new enemies than we kill. Worse, our enemies can exploit this divergence between our principles and our actions. Fortunately our current foes have not exploited this, unlike North Vietnam’s leadership – which used this lever to convert a military defeat into total victory.
This results from a distinction between civilian and military targets that does not even make sense. How can we fight under such rules against opponents who exploit them by hiding among civilians and operate without uniforms? Such rules work only when fighting enemies nice enough to follow our rules. Our thinking on these matters is irrational, like police who must rely on crooks to turn themselves in.
A logical response: assassination
Against such enemies we have only one legitimate target: the enemy’s leaders. Since they are well-guarded against conventional attack, that leaves only assassination. The nature of our dilemma is so great that reasonable people consider it, breaking with all western tradition.
- “The Political Consequences of Assassination“, ZARYAB IQBAL (University of South Carolina) and CHRISTOPHER J. ZORN (Pennsylvania State University), 8 November 2007
- “Hit or Miss? The Effect of Assassinations on Institutions and War“, Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken, National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2007
These authors do not recommend assassination, but this sort of utilitarian analysis has long been the first step in war — blurring the line from unthinkable, to reasonable, to routine. Chemical weapons, strategic bombing, and (but for the grace of God) atomic warfare. This kind of thinking is evidence of a dead policy, not least because it is unrealistic. Our leaders know what will happen if they authorize assassination of other leaders (as Castro may have demonstrated to Kennedy). The role of national leaders killed in the 20th century proves the inability of the finest security to defeat a determined assassin. Fortunately there are solutions.
Force does not help unless we can justify its use. To find a new moral authority for our actions we could look into our past. Let’s enter our WayBack machine and go back to Greece in the first century AD, where a tent maker named Paul was writing an Epistle to the Romans. In chapter 13 he wrote:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. T he authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. F or rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.
Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
This gives a clear justification for obeying even the most evil and tyrannical governments. Unless authority comes only with consent of the governed. As moral agents responsible to God, we cannot be justly compelled to commit evil. Hence we the people are collectively responsible for the government and its acts, much as in the Old Testament God held the people of Israel collectively responsible for their impiety — and for which they were collectively punished.
Consent of the governed is a foundational concept for the American Constitution, usually attributed to John Locke. However it has far deeper roots in western civilization. For example, from Wikipedia (paraphrased):
The Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 was a declaration of Scottish independence … in the form of a letter submitted to Pope John XXII … It states that lord Robert, because of “Divine Providence” along with “the due consent and assent of us all, have made him our prince and king.”
This does not imply that only democracy is legitimate. Consent of the governed can just as easily result in tyranny. A people might not overthrow an evil ruler, like Hitler, or be so ovine that they tolerate oppression. Either way the people make a collective moral choice to follow their national leaders.
Collective responsibility is foreign to the thinking of many American’s, but nicely explains the realities of world history. People must hang together or hang separately. Alternatively, if the people are not responsible, then who is? Stripping a people of their responsibility for the state is to see them as sub-humans, merely sheep.
A new world order
In this vision, people are responsible for their government — and held responsible for their government’s actions (including us). Wars are waged between peoples, as they have always been in the modern era. This justifies everything from “collateral damage” to strategic bombing, even winning hearts and minds with artillery fire (see here and here) — our way of war since 1941. It is a harsh doctrine, as is any based on reality instead of fantasy.
What changes under the new rules? We use force much the same as we do today.
- Our carriers still rule the seas, ready to rain death on our enemies.
- Our atomic candles remain buried in the Dakota plains, ready for instant use.
This doctrine does not justify the use of force in excess to the expected gains, or to the danger prevented, or for illegitimate goals. It does bring our actions and professed beliefs into closer agreement. We no longer need lie to others about what we do — or to ourselves.
Other posts about grand strategy
Does America need a grand strategy? If so, what should it be? Answers to these questions illuminate many of the questions hotly debated about foreign policy and national security. Here are some posts on this subject.
- The Myth of Grand Strategy (31 January 2006).
- America’s Most Dangerous Enemy (1 March 2006).
- Why We Lose at 4GW (4 January 2007).
- America takes another step towards the “Long War” (24 July 2007).
- One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? (28 October 2007).
- How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I (19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008).
- How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II (14 June 2008).
- America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past (30 June 2008).
- President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris (1 July 2008).
- America’s grand strategy, now in shambles (2 July 2008).
Click here to see a list of all posts about strategy and military theory.