Since Pakistan is now attempting to get it’s victory over the United States in Afghanistan formally ratified, now seemed to be a good time to reflect on the performance of American statesmen, politicians and senior generals.
It has occurred to me that we have many books and papers outlining how to win wars. Certainly the great classics of The Art of War, The History of the Peloponnesian War and On War are the foremost examples, but there are also other useful classics in the strategic canon, whole libraries of military histories, memoirs of great commanders and an infinite number of PDFs and powerpoint briefs from think tanks and consultants. Strangely, none of these have helped us much. Perhaps it is because before running this war so few of this generation’s “deciders” read them en route to their law degrees and MBAs
We should engage in some counterintuitive thinking: for our next war, instead of trying to win, let’s try to openly seek defeat. At a minimum, we will be no worse off with that policy than we are now and if we happen to fail, we will actually be moving closer to victory.
HOW TO LOSE A WAR
While one of these principles may not be sufficient cause for losing an armed conflict, following all of them is the surest road to defeat.
1. War is the Continuation of Domestic Politics:
The point of politics is to acquire, hold and enjoy using power. When we lose sight of this fact due to romantic notions of “national interest” or “duty” and spend too much attention prosecuting a war against foreign armies then our real enemies – the political opposition – can take advantage. What good is overseeing a global victory over an epochal tyranny if the result is you get immediately voted out of office like some hapless loser? While on the surface, it might seem wise during a war to staff a government with able statesmen, experienced generals, capable diplomats and other experts, the truth is that if you do so you will have very few plum jobs left with which to reward the cronies, ideologues, campaign consultants, activists, wealthy grafters and partisan hacks who got you into power in the first place. Without their continued support, you will not be long for political office.
The fact is that the nation can survive many lost wars far longer than your career will survive lost elections. Once you view the war solely through the prism of how any action might impact your fortune in domestic politics, you will have a marvelous clarity that the war is the best pretext upon which to expand your power at the expense of the opposition and the people.
2. Policy is the True Fog of War:
Having a clearly defined, coherently articulated policy based upon vital interests and empirical facts that sets a few realistic objectives in a way that makes possible shared understanding and broad political support is no way to go about losing wars.
Keeping in mind #1, the point of war policy is to generate a set of politically compelling slogans that remain ill-defined enough to serve as an umbrella under which many contradictory and competing agendas can cohabit until some of them can be opportunistically realized. These agendas may not be realistic – in fact, it is easier to put them forward as attractive fantasies for the public if your administration is unburdened with officials with genuine expertise in warfare, economics, foreign cultures, history and other inconvenient information that the media and the political opposition will only be too happy to seize upon. The more abstractly and arcanely expressed the policy the harder it is for critics to demolish and the better it is for losing wars. “Unconditional surrender” for example, is bad because it is too concrete and easily evaluated – either an enemy is totally defeated and in your power or he is not. “Make the world safe for Democracy” by contrast, is better as it is more ill-defined and subjective, permitting a larger range of politically tolerable bad outcomes. ”Responsibility to Protect” and “War on Terror” are even more abstract, being essentially unlimited, open-ended, process goals that do not have any point of “victory” whatsoever and can thus not only potentially bring about not only losing wars but very long ones.
3. Strategy is a Constraint to be Avoided:
Strategy is about lining up Ends-Ways-Means to construct a theory of victory. While that might give us hope of prevailing over an enemy in an armed conflict, forging a strategy – any strategy -comes with a severe cost: namely the discipline of the government adhering to a strategy requires choices be made about the use of limited resources rather than keeping “all options open” to react to transient and trivial political concerns on a moment’s notice. Strategy for the nation equates with diminished political flexibility and mobility for the politician.
In other words, having a strategy might require elected officials expend their precious political capital in order to pursue it without getting anything in return that might expand their powers or further their personal careers. Doing strategy would mean prioritizing winning the war over other possible objectives and putting key decision-makers in the uncomfortable position of having to say “No” or “Not now” to powerful and influential people or factions. Worse, having a strategy also implies that the results can be quantified and evaluated for success, costs, failure and ultimately, personal accountability for leaders.
Obviously locking ourselves into a strategy is something to be avoided if we wish to stay in power, so “strategy” is only invoked rhetorically to mean a wide and confusing array of other non-strategy things – tactics, goals, operational art, planning, public relations, nation-building, diplomacy, policy, routine procedures, withdrawal dates, theories, fantastical pipe dreams and so on. When “strategy” means anything and everything it ultimately means nothing.