Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What Does it Mean to "Win" a War

Master Sgt. Sean Lulofs, USAF (Ret.) argues,
Our nation has not won a war since World War II. I think America is unwilling to win a war.

The United States has won battles and conflicts, but it has not truly won a war which could clearly demonstrate victory as the defeat of the Axis Powers did. The enemy leadership was removed and new types of democratic governments put in place. Their militaries were disassembled and rebuilt so as to no longer pose a threat to other nations. It was clearly defined who won, who lost, and how. Our nation has maintained a presence in those countries since 1945.

Unfortunately, that was the last time when America believed in true victory, as demonstrated by the lack of willpower in wars since.
If the measure of victory is whether the nation you conquer subsequently bends to your will and allows your troops to remain indefinitely on its soil, the logical extension of that argument is that we lost World War I. Some people have tried to distinguish winning a war from winning the subsequent peace, and that interpretation could be applied to World War I, but if we are to apply that definition of victory then the U.S. did win the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, decisively toppling their governments, but got lost in the aftermath. Lufos also shows no understanding of the institutions of government and the predicates of democracy, and how they played a role in the establishment of democratic governments in Germany and Japan. You can't simply imagine them into existence.

The author's understanding of more recent history, unfortunately, is also weak:
The Vietnam War was lost even though we were winning it. We had pushed our enemies back and they were on the verge of defeat. However, due to lack of support for the mission (a.k.a. the troops), the national leaders fled not only the battlefield but their commitment and responsibility to our military. The communists fully took the nation and their evil spread to other countries which fertilized the killing fields due to the vacuum created by the hasty withdrawal.
In fact, Cambodia and Vietnam had centuries of conflict between them, conflict that started long before the region was colonized. The Cambodian government under Lon Nol engaged in ethnic cleansing against ethnic Vietnamese, killing thousands. Subsequent to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, his government fell to the Khmer Rouge, an organization that was communist, tied to China, and spawned by the People's Army of Vietnam, but which was actively hostile toward Vietnam. The Cambodian genocide was an internal phenomenon, not something inspired by the Vietnamese government. The Khmer Rouge was toppled after they attempted to invade Vietnam and capture the Mekong Delta, a region that Cambodia claimed as its own. While Vietnamese occupation followed, the Vietnamese set out to extirpate the Khmer Rouge. The U.S. government response to the toppling of the genocidal Khmer Rouge by Vietnam, under Ronald Reagan, was to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia in exile.

One might also ask, why did communism manage to get such a strong foothold in Southeast Asia? One would then look at the history of colonialism in that region. The Vietnamese refer to the Vietnam War as the American War, not so much to identify the principal opponent, but to distinguish it from the first and second French Wars. We have a tendency to view ourselves as the "good guys" and to be perplexed when those in other nations don't share that perspective, but if you're trying to escape from France's brutal colonialism, the response of the West is perceived as taking France's side, and the only powers willing to help you are communist, guess whose money, arms and support you're going to accept, and guess what impact that has on the leadership and goals of your movement?

Let's posit an alternative end to the war, one in which the U.S. takes the military action necessary to win the war in Vietnam. I'm not sure what Master Sgt. Lulofs believes that would be, perhaps bombing the Red River dams and starving the North into surrender. Does he believe that the conflict would have ended, throughout the region, with no further conflict? Cambodia would have swiftly evolved into a stable democracy under leadership better than Lon Nol, somebody who could not have held onto power as long as he did without U.S. backing? Those who had spent a lifetime fighting for freedom against the French and then the Americans would have emerged, put down their arms, and embraced a new, national government led by Duong Van Minh? To me, it seems pie-in-the-sky. It seems more likely that skepticism of U.S. goals would have persisted, and that we would have seen a subsequent level of conflict that Lufos suggests is evidence of our lack of will to "win".

In terms of the first Gulf War,
The Gulf War was never truly won because, although Saddam Hussein was turned out of Kuwait, his army scorched the earth and left mostly intact. Iraq would remain a threat to coalition forces patrolling the skies over the northern and southern no-fly zones by repeatedly firing upon aircraft. Iraq would also remain a constant threat to its neighbors for the next 12 years through the threat of launching SCUD missiles armed with chemical and biological weapons.
The alternative to the outcome chosen for the first Gulf War, though, is the outcome of the second Gulf War. You either leave the regime intact with enough military strength to perpetuate itself and defend its borders, or you don't and you face the consequences of taking down a government led by an ethnic minority in a region rife with religious, factional and tribal conflicts. The author falls into the same trap, imagining that we can show enough will and resolve to make opposition to occupation, to subjugation, simply fade away. There's no reason to believe that to be realistic.

On Afghanistan, we get myth-making:
Initially, the United States demonstrated the will to win and win decisively. This nation, with a multinational force, exacted a swift and violent response. The enemy and all sympathizers were terrified. Terrorist-supporting nations around the region began to disarm their nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs because of the resolve shown to win the war and win decisively. It is a region of the world that only understands strength and force, which is what we showed them.
Okay... so initially the Taliban was terrified. So terrified that they refused to surrender and refused to turn over bin Laden. And "Terrorist-supporting nations around the region began to disarm", by which the author apparently means Libya. And boy, didn't that turn out well. And yes, there's more than a slight undercurrent of bigotry in declaring, in relation to the people of the Middle East and North Africa, "It is a region of the world that only understands strength and force".

The author really likes to blame the U.S. public, particularly those opposed to certain of its wars, as somehow being responsible for the lack of will that prevents the U.S. military from achieving the fantasy victories he believes would otherwise apparently result from every U.S.-led war. Beyond the tired myth of people spitting on military veterans returning from Vietnam, Lufos complains that just when we were on the verge of victory,
However, our country again entered into a campaign to appease the minority of loud and aggressive pacifists. The cowardice of our nation's politicians prevented them from making clearly defined rules of engagement.
I suspect Lufos believes what he is saying, but it's difficult to see how he reconciles his positions with the facts. The anti-war movement was marginalized and ridiculed during the period leading into the war, and predictably public sentiment was firmly behind the war once it began. To the extent that the problems that arose in Iraq can be attributed to the rules of engagement, it seems fair to ask Lufos to explain what new rules of engagement would have created his fantasy victory? Does he imagine an unconstrained military, so free to stack up Iraqi bodies that the opposition simply wilts? Perhaps he does, given his prior suggestion that all the people of the Middle East understand is "strength and force." But that's a recipe for a fragile peace that ends the moment the occupying power lets down its guard, which is pretty much what happened (but with less bloodshed). The author continues,
Years of weak leadership and poor tactical execution created the powder keg in Fallujah in 2004. Because the fools of politics are never students of history, it was doomed to be repeated by another hasty withdrawal of forces from the country. Again, another vacuum was created and it allowed the very same terrorists which were turned from Fallujah to return.
Wait - I thought it was the anti-war movement that caused the problems after the invasion. Now it turns out that it was "weak leadership" and "poor tactical execution"? More than that, we're back to Lufos' odd notion of what it means to win a war. Apparently it means having a host government that is happy to have the U.S. military remain on its soil in perpetuity, and a U.S. military that is willing to police and hold together that state in perpetuity, because otherwise how would it be a failure of the war effort that the Iraqi government wanted us out, and how would it be the job of the U.S. military to hold or re-conquer (and re-conquer, and re-conquer) various regions of Iraq if the Iraqi government and military was not up to the job?

More than that, if all it takes is a government that is willing to be ruthless in its military operations to cow a population into throwing down its arms and acceding to whatever puppet government the occupying power chooses to impose, why did the Soviet Union fail to permanently pacify Afghanistan? Surely Lufos isn't going to blame that, as well, on anti-war sentiments held by the people of Russia.

The author then explains that it's not so much the enemy, but is in fact himself who only respects "strength and force":
If our nation understood enemies in combat can only be defeated with violence of action, we wouldn't still be in Afghanistan and black flags wouldn't be flying over Fallujah. Our nation has fought the Taliban and al Qaeda as if they were sparring in the debate team.
This takes us back to the author's earlier confusion about what victory means in a war against a nation state, and how by his definitions the U.S. "lost" World War I. How does the author believe that we can military compel people to change their minds about what tribe or faction should run their country, about what God wants them to do, about why they should agree to being ruled by a faction that they expect to subjugate their rights and interests instead of supporting a rival faction that they intend to champion those interests? "Kill them all and let God sort them out"?

The author complains also that the people have not acted sufficiently to hold elected leaders responsible for their actions. To the contrary, a strong case can be made that the elections in 2006 and 2008 were heavily influenced by the belief of the American people that the Bush Administration had been misguided to lose track of the war in Afghanistan in order to start a war of choice in Iraq. The consequences of the Bush Administration's (to use Lufos's words) "Years of weak leadership and poor tactical execution" have served to erode the Republican Party's prior status as the party that was stronger on issues of national security. Perhaps Lufos prefers to think of that as the anti-war movement somehow cowing politicians into ending wars that he imagines could somehow be "won", but perhaps the truth is something else: That, even with loosened rules of engagement, greater commitment of resources, and a longer time for military operations, people with eyes considerably clearer than his own don't see they type of victories for which he pines as plausible outcomes.
If Americans truly did "support the troops," they would not only shake our hands as we walked through the airport, they would demand their politicians commit to a swift victory.
Or perhaps they would take the position that if politicians and officers cannot achieve what Lufos and his peers would regard as a victory, they bring them home. It's really easy to play "Woulda, coulda, shoulda" games with military history, but at the end of the day you have to be able to distinguish fantasies of flowers, candy and democracy breaking out all over with the reality that more commonly flows from military intervention. The first Gulf War might not have been the fantasy victory Lufos desires, but it in fact achieved its stated military objectives. When you can't even articulate what a victory would look like, let alone become so nebulous in your conception of a war (e.g., a "Global War on Terror") that you can't even define your enemy, how can you know when you've won?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Soldiers Dying in Vain

Commenting on the story, "Lone Survivor," Jim Gourley takes on the conventional wisdom, that it should never be suggested that a soldier died in vain:
Yes, Marcus. Your friends died in vain. They went selflessly. They fought bravely. They sacrificed nobly. They lived in the best traditions of duty, honor, and country -- hallowed words which dictate what every American can and ought to be. But they died in vain for the exact reason that they went where their country sent them and did what their country told them to do. America failed you because it failed its obligation to those principles. It gives me no pleasure to write these words, because it applies as much to the friends I lost as it does to yours. But it needs to be said, because the sooner we acknowledge it as a country, the more lives we might save....

[General George Casey] excused himself from proposing a time in the future when that might hold true. And just last year Adm. Mike Mullen expressed the idea in the most definitive of terms: "How could it be that in a democracy -- a free society -- men and women may risk their lives to defend that freedom and lose those lives in vain? It cannot be so."

That was a bastardization of the Gettysburg address. His thesis ran contrary to Lincoln's original remarks. In Lincoln's view, the fallen "consecrated [the field of battle] far above our poor power to add or detract," but the domain of their honor went no further than the burial ground. The president stated explicitly that the cause for which they died could only be made worthy by the citizens who survived them. "It is rather for us here to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us ... that these dead shall not have died in vain...."

Throughout history, our nation's greatest leaders have understood on a deeply personal level that however honorably a soldier acquits himself, he can die in vain, and that it is the responsibility of the leaders and citizenry to see to it that they don't. Our country has lost its sense of that responsibility to a horrifying extent. Our generals have lost the capability to succeed and the integrity to admit failure. Our society has lost the courage and energy to hold them accountable. Over the last decade, our top leaders have wasted the lives of our sons, daughters, and comrades with their incompetence and hubris. After each failure, our citizens have failed to hold them accountable, instead underwriting new failed strategies as quickly as their predecessors with our apathy and sense of detachment. And then we use the tired paeans of "never forget" and "honor the fallen" to distract ourselves from our guilt in the affair. When we blithely declare that they did not die in vain, we deface their honor by using it to wipe the blood from our hands.
I can't help but sympathize with Gourley's observation that politicians now employ the notion that it is a terrible thing to suggest that a soldier could die in vain as a shield against valid criticism of their own decision-making, and also of the popular outcry that enables that conduct rather than requiring accountability.