Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars

On rare occasions we are blessed with essays both brilliant and timely, words that meet our immediate needs.  Here we have one such by a veteran and military expert.  Here is a brief excerpt from the current issue of Armed Forces Journal — given only to illustrate as an sample of the author’s thinking, to encourage you to read in full this important article.

At the end are references to other valuable articles about our foreign wars.  Plus other posts from on the FM site discussing why a defensive strategy will work best for America in an age when 4GW has become the dominant form of warfare — and the home court advantage often becomes decisive.

Refusing battle – The alternative to persistent warfare“, Douglas MacGregor (Colonel, US Army, retired), Armed Forces Journal , April 2009 — Excerpt:

In this volatile setting {of today’s world}, direct American military involvement in conflicts where the U.S. itself is not attacked and its national prosperity is not at risk should be avoided. Otherwise, American military involvement could cause 21st century conflicts to spin out of control and confront Americans with regional alliances designed to contain American military power; alliances that but for American military intervention would not exist. It is vital the U.S. not repeat the mistakes of the British Empire in 1914: overestimate its national power by involving itself in a self-defeating regional war it does not need to fight and precipitate its own economic and military decline.

Avoiding this outcome demands new goals for American military power and a strategic framework that routinely answers the questions of purpose, method and end-state; a strategy in which American military action is short, sharp, decisive and rare. Such a strategy involves knowing when to fight and when to refuse battle.

… The lesson is a straightforward one: When national military strategy fails to answer the questions of purpose, method and end-state, military power becomes an engine of destruction not just for its intended enemies, but for its supporting society and economy, too. Regardless of how great or how small the military commitment, if the price of victory is potentially excessive, then the use of force should be avoided. After all, the object in conflict and crisis is the same as in wrestling: to throw the opponent by weakening his foothold and upsetting his balance without risking self-exhaustion. …

America’s experience since 2001 teaches the strategic lesson that in the 21st century, the use of American military power, even against Arab and Afghan opponents with no navies, no armies, no air forces and no air defenses, can have costly, unintended strategic consequences. Put in the language of tennis, the use of American military power since the early 1960s has resulted in a host of “unforced errors.” Far too often, national decision-making has been shaped primarily by the military capability to act, not by a rigorous application of the purpose/method/end-state strategic framework.

Decision-making of this kind explains why Operation Iraqi Freedom never had a coherent strategic design. The capability to remove Saddam Hussein was enough to justify action in the minds of American leaders who assumed that whatever happened after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces, American military and civilian contractor strength would muddle through and prevail. It’s also why U.S. forces were kept in Iraq long past the point when it was clear that the American military and contractor presence in Iraq was a needless drain on American military and economic resources.

The superficial thinking informed by a fanciful view of American history and international relations that gave birth to the occupation of Iraq is not a prescription for American prosperity and security in the 21st century. The recently annunciated military doctrine known as “persistent warfare” is a case in point.

Persistent warfare advocates the use of military power to change other peoples’ societies through American military occupation. It’s a dangerous reformulation of Thomas Jefferson’s advocacy for the bloody excesses of the French Revolution summed up in his slogan, “Until all men are free, no man is free.” Fortunately for the American people, President George Washington rejected Jefferson’s enthusiasm for an American alliance with Revolutionary France, an alliance that would have invited the destruction of the new U.S. “Twenty years’ peace, combined with our remote situation would enable us in a just cause to bid defiance to any power on earth,” Washington argued in 1796.

Washington understood the importance of making prudent choices in national military strategy at a time when the economic and political development of the United States was extremely fragile. Today, America’s economic woes along with the larger world’s unrelenting drive for prosperity creates the need for new choices in national military strategy. The most important choice Obama must make is to reject future, unnecessary, large-scale, overt military interventions in favor of conflict avoidance; a strategy of refusing battle that advances democratic principles through shared prosperity — not unwanted military occupation.

… Treating conflict avoidance as a declared strategic goal should give pause to those in Washington who think counterinsurgency is something American military forces should seek to conduct. For outside powers intervening in other peoples’ countries as we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, so-called counterinsurgency has not been the success story presented to the American people. Making cash payments to buy cooperation from insurgent groups to conceal a failed policy of occupation is a temporary expedient to reduce U.S. casualties, not a permanent solution for stability.

Lord Salisbury, one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers, told his colleagues in the House of Commons “the commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.” Salisbury’s words should resonate strongly with Americans today. America’s scientific-industrial base and the military power it supports give American policies and interests global influence, but the deliberate use of American military power to bring democracy to others in the world under conditions that never favored its success has actually weakened, not strengthened, American influence and economic power.

It is crucial that choices among competing resource allocations in defense be illuminated by a much clearer perception of their likely strategic impact. Strategy and geopolitics always trump ideology, and military action is not merely a feature of geopolitics and statecraft, it’s the employment of it.

The choices the new president makes among various military missions will ultimately decide what national military strategy America’s military executes. Of the many missions he must consider, open-ended missions to install democracy at gunpoint inside failed or backward societies along with unrealistic security guarantees to states and peoples of marginal strategic interest to the U.S. are missions America’s military establishment cannot and should not be asked to perform.

Today, America’s share of the total world gross national product is roughly 32 percent, substantially less than its 49 percent share of 40 years ago. Yet the U.S., like the British Empire 100 years ago, continues to lead the world in the creation of wealth, technology and military power. And, thanks to American naval and aerospace supremacy, America retains the strategic advantage of striking when and where its government dictates, much as Britain did before World War I.

But like Britain’s resources in 1914, American resources today are not unlimited. Years of easy tactical military victories over weak and incapable nation-state opponents in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq have created the illusion of limitless American military power. This illusion assisted the Bush administration and its generals in frustrating demands from Congress for accountability; allowing politicians and generals to define failure as success and to spend money without any enduring strategic framework relating military power to attainable strategic goals.

The result is an unnecessarily large defense budget of more than $700 billion and military thinking that seeks to reinvigorate the economically disastrous policies of territorial imperialism. Unchecked, the combination of these misguided policies will increase the likelihood the U.S. follows the path of Britain’s decline in the 20th century. Though Britain was not defeated militarily in World War I, it squandered its blood and treasure on a self-defeating war with Germany in 1914 along with a host of imperial experiments in the aftermath of World War I, all of which were political, military and economic disasters for the British people. A strategy of refusing battle that routinely answers the questions of purpose, method and end-state in the conduct of military operations is the best way for the U.S. to avoid following in the footsteps of the British Empire into ruin.

About the author

From his Wikipedia entry:

Colonel Douglas A. Macgregor PhD. is a retired American senior military officer and author. He is widely recognized as one of the most influential military thinkers of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.  

… Macgregor’s seminal work, Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century (Praeger, 1997) was the first book by an Active Duty military author since Brigadier General William Mitchell, U.S. Army Air Corps, to challenge the status quo and set forth detailed proposals for the radical reform and reorganization of U.S. Army ground forces. His follow-on work, Transformation under Fire: Revolutionizing How America Fights( Praeger, 2003) expands on the concepts and ideas for reform and includes a foreword by a former British four-star general, Sir Rupert Smith.

… Macgregor is now the lead partner with Potomac League, LLC, an intellectual capital brokerage and consulting firm based in Reston, Virginia.

… Macgregor’s newest book: Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting; will be due out the Fall of 2009. In it Macgregor explains how the failure to finish the battle with the Republican Guard in 1991 led to Iraq’s second major confrontation with the United States in 2003 resulting in two hollow military “victories” and the tragic blood-letting that continues today in Iraq.

Other valuable perspectives on our foreign wars

Each of these deserves a detailed discussion.  Unfortunately lack of time makes that impossible.  All I can do is recommend that you read these.

  1. Let’s Win the Wars We’re In“, John A. Nagl (Lieutenant Colonel, US Army, retired), Joint Force Quarterly, 1st Quarter 2009
  2. Let’s Build an Army to Win All Wars“, Gian P. Gentile, (Colonel, US Army), Joint Force Quarterly, 1st Quarter 2009
  3. The damage done – The Bush administration discredited crucial strategic concepts“, Ralph Peters, Armed Forces Journal, March 2009 
  4. America’s economic decline“, Loren Thompson, Armed Forces Journal, March 2009 

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Some posts about the need for America to adopt a defensive strategy:

  1. Thoughts on FMFM 1-A, an important tool for survival in the 21st century, 6 July 2005
  2. Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq, 29 December 2005
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW, 4 July 2007
  4. A solution to 4GW – the introduction, 12 March 2008
  5. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I, 7 June 2008
  6. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II, 14 June 2008

42 thoughts on “Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars”

  1. Major Scarlet

    FM: re potsdam.. my point wasn’t the one reference but that the soviets didn’t live up their their end of the bargain. there was supposed to be free and fair elections for one korea.. not a divided two koreas. you have to read a little further down in the book. the 38th parallel was a temporary measure.

    re: the military sets the conditions.. you said “not in america”. that isn’t what they teach us in service schools. i’d be interested in why you believe that.
    Fabius Maximus: OK, let’s replay the tapes.

    (1) Comment #40: “as for potsdam – you obviously don’t know anything about the agreement and how it related to korea — The Korean Conflict by Burton Ira Kaufman (1999) ”

    I do not see the basis for your harsh reply to Rune. I repeated what Rune said, giving evidence that
    (a) Rune was correct, and
    (b) the book you cited said almost nothing about Potsdam.

    (2) Comment #36: “i’m not an expert on the potsdam accord but i’m fairly certain that at some point if you break a treaty it becomes null and void.”

    There was no agreement at Potsdam about free elections in Korea. I do not believe there was a treaty signed about Korea at any time during this period, so none was broken. There was a deal struck between the US and USSR at the December 1945 Moscow meeting (see page 6 in Kaufman’s book), which collapsed as the Cold War heated up. I doubt anyone took it seriously.

    (2) “military sets the conditions for political victory.”

    I don’t know what you mean by “political victory.” The best analysis I’ve seen of the difference between military and political victory is “Political victory” by Brian Crozier (2005). In the context of your comment, I assume you mean the “political terms for victory”. In many American wars these have been set by the President, often without significant input from military — the major examples being Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR. From what I’ve read, most of the senior US military officers disagreed with “unconditional victory” as the terms for victory in WWII.

  2. Major Scarlet

    FM: Re potsdam.. rune was not correct. in fact he was completely wrong. again, read further down in the book to get the details of the agreement. if you want me to, i’ll cut and paste the relevant text here later.

    Re comment 36.. again, read further down in the book. just do a text search for elections or to get a better context read down from the first mention of potsdam to the end of that section.

    Re military sets the conditions.. the united states military overdoses on dead white european military theorist. as i mentioned before, clausewitz, not brian crozier, is the theorist i referenced. what we call the clausewitz trinity. his most famous quote that “war is simply politics by other means” is a good example of his thoughts on the subject. keep in mind that clausewitz was writing at a time when rulers and generals were usually one and the same. i’m well aware of presidents that refuse the advise of their generals. there is a long history in modern america of it, mostly with problematic results (iraq 2003-2007 is a great example).
    Fabius Maximus replies: I think I’ve been a good sport about this, providing a range of very detailed rebuttals — including historical examples and quotations from releveant texts. I’ve seen nothing of substance in reply. We’re done here unless you can provide something specific as evidence.

    (1) Re: Rune’s comment about Potsdam I have quoted from 2 books that support Rune, Kaufman (your citation) and Young Whan Kihl (a major academic analysis of the Korean conflict). To repeat, Kaufman provides no support for your comment. The only relevant mention of elections is one sentence on page 6, discussing the the US-USSR Commission set up at the Dec 1945 Moscow meeting:

    “But although the commission met several times, all-Korean elections for the establishment of a provisional government were never held.”

    (2) Re: victory conditions. I gave specific examples from US history. You come back with vague stuff from Clausewitz.

    (3) “clausewitz was writing at a time when rulers and generals were usually one and the same”

    Not so. When Clausewitz wrote On War (1816-1830), most national rulers had not been battlefield generals for two centuries. Of the major rulers during the Napoleonic Wars, only Napoleon led on the battlefield. As explained by Marin van Creveld on page 120 of “The Rise and Decline of the State”:

    By contrast, Charles’ V prudent son Philip II {of Spain, 1556-1598} preferred to direct his far-flung campaigns by bureaucratic methods, relying on field commanders … By the time of the Thirty Years War his approach had come to be shared by most of the principal monarchs involved … During the eighteenth century, the decline in the number of royal field commanders continued. The only important exceptions were Gustavus Adolphus’ descendent Gustavus Adolphus’ descendant, Charles XII, and Prussia’s Frederick II. …

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