Don’t listen to the calls for more killing in the WOT

Summary: As Trump and his general-dominated foreign policy team expand and intensify our wars, the calls for more killing rise again. As in an article in the respected journal of the Navy Institute. We should just say no.

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”
— No said by Einstein but by Alcoholics Anonymous, people who know everything about dysfunctionality.

River of blood

Can’t Kill Enough to Win? Think Again

In Proceedings of the US Naval Institute, December 2017.

  • By Lieutenant Colonel David G. Bolgiano — a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division who served in Operation Desert Storm and as Command Judge Advocate for Special Operations Command Central in Iraq and Afghanistan, and
  • Lieutenant Colonel John Taylor — a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division who served as Command Judge Advocate for 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment–Delta (Delta Force) and Task Force Bowie in Afghanistan.

“Those given the awful task of combat must be able to act with the necessary savagery and purposefulness to destroy those acting as, or in direct support of, Islamic terrorists worldwide. In 2008, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Admiral Michael Mullen said, “We can’t kill our way to victory.” Ever since, many have parroted his words. But what if Admiral Mullen was wrong? The United States has been at war with radical Islamists four times longer than it was with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II. And those previous enemies were far more competent and aggressive than the terrorists. It is time to kill a lot more of them. …”

The rest of this continues in the same vein. This song has been sung many times during the war on terror, as it has been in most counter-insurgency operations by foreign armies. It is a song luring us to do evil — and lose. Both history and theory show why we should not listen.

Fake Churchill about success
Among the dumbest advice ever. Churchill didn’t say it.

This is wrong in many ways. First, American has never been reluctant in inflict civilian casualties. Since WWII, America has relied on the Trinity of modern warfare, one of which is “massive firepower on civilians.” It has a steady drumbeat of news, usually buried in the upbeat stories planted by DoD (like this one). We bombarded villages in Iraq with artillery (not exactly “winning hearts and minds“). Now we’re bombing Afghanistan with B-52s, part of another cycle of increased killing — producing another round of civilian casualties and protests about them. Because “there’s no such thing as precise air strikes in modern warfare.”

“I think the American people certainly could summon the will to defeat ISIS, to destroy ISIS, if properly led. …I don’t know if our military leaders have the character, the wherewithal to do what it takes to defeat ISIS. It’s not about winning hearts and minds, it’s about splashing their hearts and brains all over the landscape.”
— Ralph Peters (Lt. Colonel, US Army, retired) on Fox News, 22 March 2016. He said much the same thing in 2014.

Even for Fox News, this is an amazingly ignorant statement to hear in the 15th year of our post-9/11 wars. This advocacy for more killing shows that we have learned nothing from our experience, going back to the Vietnam War. It was a policy decided upon in early days of our war there. We killed countless numbers and lost anyway.

Best and the Brightest
Available at Amazon.

At an early intergovernmental meeting {1962} on the importance of psychological warfare, one of {General} Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong. But the French, responded a political officer named Donald Pike, had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won.

“Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,” answered Kelleher.

— From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972).

We tried to “kill enough”. The US dropped 1,613,000 tons of bombs in Europe during WWII — and almost five times that on Southeast Asia ( 7,662,000). That’s almost 500 pounds of explosive per person, not including the massive use of artillery and napalm {for more information see this study) — and the more retail-level killing (as at Mai Lai, a sadly common event). Nick Turse documented the result in Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.

Advice from the past

“Kill them all; let God sort them out.”
— Loose translation of phrase attributed to Papal legate Arnaud Amalric before the Massacre at Béziers, in France at the start of the Albigensian Crusade. Not a bright moment in the Church’s history.

Transformation of War
Avilable at Amazon.

Most of the West’s wars since WWII have been fight insurgencies in foreign lands. Although an ancient form of conflict, the odds shifted when Mao brought insurgency war to maturity after WWII. It took decades for the West to understand. In October 1989, five experts wrote a seminal article in the Marine Corps Gazette explaining about the new era: “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”. In 1990 Martin van Creveld explained with more detail in The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz. If we paid attention to this we might have won the WOT.

“One would expect forces on which so many resources have been lavished to represent fearsome warfighting machines capable of quickly overcoming any opposition. Nothing, however, is farther from the truth. For all the countless billions that have been and are still being expended on them, the plain fact is that conventional military organizations of the principal powers are hardly even relevant to the predominant form of contemporary war. …

“Without a single conventional war being waged, colonial empires that between them used to control approximately one half of the globe were sent down to defeat through LIC’s …In the process, some of the strongest military powers on earth have suffered humiliation…

“…how well have the world’s most important armed forces fared in this type of war? For some two decades after 1945 the principal colonial powers fought very hard to maintain the far-flung empires which they had created for themselves during the past four centuries. They expended tremendous economic resources, both in absolute terms and relative to those of the insurgents who, in many cases, literally went barefoot. They employed the best available troops, from the Foreign Legion to the Special Air Service and from the Green Berets to the Spetznatz and the Israeli Sayarot. They fielded every kind of sophisticated military technology in their arsenals, nuclear weapons only excepted.

“They were also, to put it bluntly, utterly ruthless. Entire populations were driven from their homes, decimated, shut in concentration camps or else turned into refugees. As Ho Chi Minh foresaw when he raised the banner of revolt against France in 1945, in every colonial-type war ever fought the number of casualties on the side of the insurgents exceeded those of the ‘forces of order’ by at least an order of magnitude. This is true even if civilian casualties among the colonists are included, which often is not the case.

“Notwithstanding this ruthlessness and these military advantages, the “counterinsurgency” forces failed in every case.”

Van Creveld gave a briefer version in Chapter 6.2 of The Changing Face of War (2006).

“What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Eritrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. …Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

“Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.”

Why we lose: the two kinds of insurgencies

In January 2007 I gave a more detailed explanation of van Creveld’s conclusion. We can sort insurgencies by the degree of involvement of outside armed forces.

  1. Violence between two or more local groups, who can form from any combination of clans, governments, ethnicities, religions, gangs, and tribes.
  2. Violence between two or more sides, where at least one is led by foreigners – comprising, as above, any imaginable combination of factions.

Local governments often win conflicts of the first kind, often with valuable foreign assistance — so long as the locals control political strategy, tactics, and the major combat forces. For example, see David Kilcullen’s insightful analysis of the Indonesian government’s defeat of insurgencies in West Java and East Timor. These conflicts are often conflated with those of the second kind, as if victories by the local governments are similar to the defeats by foreign armies.

An intermediate kind of conflict occurs when a colonial power grants independence to the local elites through whom it has ruled, winning by trading away sovereignty for an influence with the newly independent State. Examples are the British wars in Malaysia (1948 – 1960) and Kenya (1952-1960) (of course the British took full credit in the histories they wrote).

Foreign forces almost always lose when they take the lead because the locals have two great advantages. First, they have the home court advantage. Second, as Clausewitz said in Book 1, Chapter 1 of On War …

“As we shall show, defense is a stronger form of fighting than attack. …I am convinced that the superiority of the defensive (if rightly understood) is very great, far greater than appears at first sight.”

Others have seen this and warned us

“We could knock off all of ISIL and Boko Haram this afternoon, but by the end of the week, those ranks would be filled. Many people, especially those in uniform, have said we can’t kill our way to victory here.”
— General Thomas D. Waldhauser (USMC Commander, U.S. Africa Command) in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 9 March 2017.

Time made this clear to a widening circle of observers. Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) expanded this insight in his 2008 magnum opus If We Can Keep It: A National Security Manifesto for the Next Administration. In 2008 RAND also came to the similar conclusions in “Eighty-Nine Insurgencies: Outcomes and Endings” by Martin C. Libicki, appendix A of “War by Other Means – Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency“ by David Gompert and John Gordon et al. Here is a summary.

Some with experience on the front lines tried to warn us, as in this from Doug Sanders’ “Afghanistan: colonialism or counterinsurgency? Americans bring Afghans their new 60-year plan” (Globe and Mail, 31 May 2008).

One thing this cloak is hiding is the likelihood that once a nation finds itself relying on counterinsurgency for military success in a foreign setting it has already lost. … The insurmountable problem that the COIN Team faces is that expressed by a senior French commander who told journalist Eric Walberg that: “We do not believe in counterinsurgency” because “if you find yourself needing to use counterinsurgency, it means the entire population has become the subject of your war, and you either will have to stay there forever or you have lost”.

In 2010 Andrew Exum referred us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard: “The Perils of Third-Party Counterinsurgency Campaigns” (17 June 2010; available through Proquest). Her conclusion was expressed in a DoD-sympathetic fashion…

Ultimately, I argue that third parties {foreign armies} win when they’re able to overcome these intelligence challenges before public support runs out. This typically requires rather substantial military reforms and complex deal-making with local leaders. Unfortunately, the nature of selection effects in these cases gives rise to a population of insurgencies whereby these conditions are very unlikely to be met.


The problem with our foreign wars is not that we don’t kill enough. History decisively shows that more killing will not help. The people urging this are the people who got us into these wars and guided it through 16 years of failure. We feel big and strong by our killing, and ignore the cost we pay in money and blood.

Eventually somebody will strike back at us. Perhaps harder than on 9/11. Let’s get smart soon.

War on Terror

For More Information

If you found this post of use, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see all posts about Afghanistan and Iraqabout COIN, and especially these about our Long War…

  1. Why a decade of assassinations hasn’t helped America.
  2. A lesson about counterinsurgency that could change America’s future.
  3. Does America have the best military in the world?
  4. Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?
  5. RecommendedWhy we lose so many wars, and how we can win.
  6. A powerful new article shows why we lose so many wars: FAILure to learn.
  7. Can we defeat ISIS by “killing them all”? We’ve learned nothing since 9/11.
  8. RecommendedPerhaps we are bad guys in the Middle East’s wars.
  9. On the 16th anniversary of Afghanistan, see why we lost.
The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts
Available at Amazon.

A great book about our long war.

The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts by Dominic Tierney (2015). From the publisher…

“For nearly a century, up until the end of World War II in 1945, America enjoyed a Golden Age of decisive military triumphs. And then suddenly, we stopped winning wars. The decades since have been a Dark Age of failures and stalemates-in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan-exposing our inability to change course after battlefield setbacks.

“In this provocative book, award-winning scholar Dominic Tierney reveals how the United States has struggled to adapt to the new era of intractable guerrilla conflicts. As a result, most major American wars have turned into military fiascos. And when battlefield disaster strikes, Washington is unable to disengage from the quagmire, with grave consequences for thousands of U.S. troops and our allies.

“But there is a better way. Drawing on interviews with dozens of top generals and policymakers, Tierney shows how we can use three key steps-surge, talk, and leave-to stem the tide of losses and withdraw from unsuccessful campaigns without compromising our core values and interests.

“Weaving together compelling stories of military catastrophe and heroism, this is an unprecedented, timely, and essential guidebook for our new era of unwinnable conflicts. The Right Way to Lose a War illuminates not only how Washington can handle the toughest crisis of all-battlefield failure-but also how America can once again return to the path of victory.”

9 thoughts on “Don’t listen to the calls for more killing in the WOT

  1. Things like this convince me that Osama bin Laden won his war; he struck just the right blow and has probably done more for his cause than we readily imagine. Let us hope there are not many more such men out there.

    1. Parker,

      That is a great question. We are so far down the Rabbit hole we need a program, like AA’s to get back on our feet.

      First, stop listening to people whose advice has been so wrong. As Martin van Creveld’s said in “On Counterinsurgency: How to triumph in the age of asymmetric warfare“, a speech given at the Henry Jackson Society (26 February 2008).

      So when people ask about how we should study counterinsurgency, the first step should be to gather 95% of all the literature on the subject, put it aboard the Titanic and sink it. In fact, there is so much of it that if you put it aboard the Titanic the iceberg becomes unnecessary!

      The logical answer for why the materials on counterinsurgency are so inferior is that most of them were written by people who failed to achieve victory. Ninety-five percent of the literature is written by the losers, who in trying to justify their own actions, put the blame for their failure on others. Therefore there is little reason to expect the literature to be any good. Indeed, the best thing to do with it is to put it away.

      Second, stop “repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results” (that’s insanity per an ancient insight of Alcoholics Anonymous, who know all about dysfunctionality). Eventually this will go badly for us.

      Third, admit that we do not have the best military in the world at fighting these “unconventional wars” (i.e., most wars of the post-WWII era). Our arrorgance encourages us to intervene in fights that are none of our business.

      Fourth, reform the military to remove the financial incentives that drive our endless wars (brief here).

      Fifth, fight only where the stakes are high and we have reason to believe we can win (see this post for details).

      Sixth, rely on methods that have worked for America in our past. Let’s try a defensive strategy in America’s wars, and win.

      Last, and most important, understand the war.  We are the attackers. Bet on us to win big, without fighting. Details here.

  2. What has worked for the U.S and by extension London since World War II has been domination of the global financial system, global communication networks and much of world trade. Supporting this has been a powerful diplomatic and intelligence network working behind the scenes to support American economic power. One consequence or corollary of that has been that the US has become home to the best and brightest the Indian subcontinent (and other regions), who have help us build much of our national technological power. If the press is to be believed, we appear to be rapidly disbanding this support infrastructure.

    Most likely we will learn soon where the essence of American power has been centered and what happens when we abandon support for our global economic hegemony.

  3. There is a “battle for hearts and minds” to be fought here at home. Spreading the metaphor of “killing as addiction” seems like a good first step.

    Heh, just realized what I wrote above. While I’m not that impressed with the AA model for most people with drug problems , we could probably use 12 steps to return to being a country at peace. I think the “admitting we are powerless” step will only come after a few other steps.

    Thanks for another well written article.

  4. “As Trump and his general-dominated foreign policy team expand and intensify our wars, the calls for more killing rise again”

    As opposed to all the killing that took place with civilian-dominated foreign policy teams.

    We can kill our way out if this, but I’m reality we don’t have the stomach for it. IMO it is really quite that simply.

    1. Gute,

      “We can kill our way out if this”

      The entire point of this post is to show that we cannot kill “our way out if this.” That has repeatedly been tried by foreign armies, with an almost uniform lack of success.

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