Carl von Clausewitz defined war as: An act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will. He goes on to say, “Violence, that is to say, physical force (for there is no moral force without the conception of States and Law), is therefore the means; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate object.” Most telling for the purpose of this essay, he goes on to point out that, “…for in such dangerous things as War, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst.”
The United States, and the West as a whole, finds itself in an age where the “errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence” have overtaken every facet of our warfighting capability. Commanders are not making battlefield decisions based on combat necessity, they are making them based on the instructions of lawyers who endeavor to make war more ‘humane.’
War is, by its very nature, inhumane. War is violence, death and horror. It is serious business. Unfortunately, we have not engaged in it seriously for a very long time, and the costs of that fact have been largely glossed over.
The obsession with ‘limited war’ began during the Cold War. The fear of nuclear annihilation (often overstated for propaganda purposes) led to a series of proxy wars across Africa, South America and Southeast Asia in lieu of a direct confrontation with the Communist Bloc. Due to the fears of those in power, and the even less informed fears of many of their constituents, the goals of war, most evidently in Vietnam, began to change from victory to… something else. Murky, limited and ultimately indecisive objectives have been cited, ultimately boiling down to a stalemate at best, defeat at worst.
Aristotle wrote that the purpose of war and strategy is defined as victory. Going back to Clausewitz again, victory should be defined as the complete submission of the enemy. However, starting with Vietnam, victory began to be re-defined. (Korea is borderline, but since it was fought by the old rules under which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had been brought to their knees, until the cease-fire was signed, it isn’t exactly emblematic of the problems here.) The complete submission of North Vietnam was taken off the table. Considering that the North was the primary belligerent, victory was therefore taken off the table. It has stayed off the table.
Since then, it’s only gotten worse. A misguided interpretation of a ‘Just War’ has taken over American warfighting, substituting a war for a just cause and decisive victory with a ‘limited war.’ From the belief that by simply decapitating the Baathist regime in Iraq (which failed) we could win the war in one fell swoop, to increasingly restrictive ROEs in Afghanistan, which have cost American lives when air support is denied because a bomb might hit a civilian building, this belief that war can be fought with a minimum of suffering and bloodshed, making it more palatable for the humanitarians, has cost us dearly, and not only in blood and treasure.
A just war is one that, in addition to having a just cause (retaliation for an attack on one’s country and/or countrymen is a just cause), is over quickly. While this has been attempted, primarily with the aforementioned decapitation of the Iraqi leadership, it has been endeavored using shortcuts. There are no shortcuts in war. It is done right, wrong, or not at all. And the right way involves bloodshed and destruction…total annihilation being the price of resistance.
What we found in Iraq, over two years after ‘major combat’ had been declared to an end, was a people who did not believe they had been beaten. Wishful thinking about all Iraqis wanting to be Americans aside, submission had not been achieved, regardless of the ‘shock and awe’ campaign which had been lots of flash and noise but not enough destruction. A people who had lived with Saddam’s murderous regime for that long weren’t going to be impressed with a fireworks show. So the war continued, year after bloody year, and still continues even after we decided to take our ball and go home.
If you are going to start a war, assuming you are doing so for a just cause in the first place, you have a moral obligation to bring it to a decisive end as quickly as possible. To allow a war to go on and on, without the will or desire to win it, is merely pointless bloodletting. If you send your men to war without the will to see it through to victory, you are sending them to their deaths for nothing. That is murder, not war.
There is another facet to the problem of ‘limited war.’ Ask just about anyone if war should be a last resort and most of them—especially politicians—will say “of course.” Yet when war is stripped of its horror, of its sheer destruction and is made a “police action,” regardless of the small-scale daily death and destruction, it becomes less of a last resort. Even now, politicians of both parties are beginning to call for our intervention in Syria, a war between two international sectarian and political movements, both of which are our enemies. Do you think that if we still viewed war as an all-or-nothing massively destructive last resort, that they would be so quick to call for it? If the destruction and death of WWII was what we faced every time we went to war, it would make people more cautious about sending our warriors overseas for every cause du jour that gets academics’ and politicians’ hearts in a flutter.
Furthermore, if when we do go to war, we go to war to win, with all the ruthlessness and destruction that total victory entails, perhaps our enemies would also begin to consider war a last resort. Good luck getting anyone in a leadership position these days to think of that though.
The current Rules of Engagement, which are so restrictive as to be nearly suicidal, are one of the most egregious examples of “the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence.” In attempting to sanitize how we fight wars, we have enforced on our troops laws which our enemies not only do not follow, they actively exploit to our detriment, often at the cost of our men’s lives. When we took war seriously, these sort of actions could and should be dealt with through retaliation. The Lieber Code, the general order regulating the behavior of the Union Armies during the Civil War, contains the following:
The law of war can no more wholly dispense with retaliation than can the law of nations, of which it is a branch. Yet civilized nations acknowledge retaliation as the sternest feature of war. A reckless enemy often leaves to his opponent no other means of securing himself against the repetition of barbarous outrage.
Retaliation will, therefore, never be resorted to as a measure of mere revenge, but only as a means of protective retribution, and moreover, cautiously and unavoidably; that is to say, retaliation shall only be resorted to after careful inquiry into the real occurrence, and the character of the misdeeds that may demand retribution.
Unjust or inconsiderate retaliation removes the belligerents farther and farther from the mitigating rules of regular war, and by rapid steps leads them nearer to the internecine wars of savages.”
In other words, when an enemy unit violates the laws of war, it is lawful, according to those laws (at least the last set that worked) to grant that unit no quarter. Everyone dies. This presents the enemy with an incentive to fight within the laws of war. But we are too over-civilized to employ retaliation anymore. So the enemy flaunts their disregard for law in warfare. They hide among civilian populations, cut the heads off of prisoners and desecrate the bodies of our fallen. They play dead or call for medical help, then detonate grenades or IEDs to kill those who come to their aid or come too close.
Once the rules of war become laughable, there will no longer be any rules. From Countdown: H-Hour, by Tom Kratman:
“The point man passed a thin line of scattered Harrikat bodies, not far from where the front line had been. Pointing at one, he snapped his fingers. Transferring his rifle to his left and hand drawing a knife, one of the men in the team trotted out, took one knee, bent the Moro’s head to expose his throat, and slashed it.
That was a war crime. Everyone knew it. No one cared. Nobody paid attention to the law of war anymore, at least when fighting those who themselves didn’t. The idea that one shouldn’t finish off terrorist prisoners—at least after interrogating them, if that seemed worth doing—had become as laughable as the notion that a twelve-year-old should never pick up a rifle to defend his mother and sisters from rape and enslavement, or that a group of them couldn’t join under an elder who know what he was doing to provide a common defense for each boy’s mother and sisters. It had become as laughable as the idea that a man, or a village, couldn’t put out mines to provide early warning and defense.
So the notion that one should spare the lives of those who feigned, or even might be feigning, death or incapacitating wounds—itself a war crime—had died. It had been laughed to death.
There was just enough light filtering through for Warrington to see the killing. He mentally shrugged. Go ahead, indulge your intellectual fantasies without paying the slightest attention to the final result. Stretch the law of war past the breaking point, and that’s what you get; no respect for it, no respect for a law that only runs one way.”
Those who wish to make war more humane and less violent should fully consider the unintended consequences of their actions. Their spirit of benevolence is well on its way to leading us into a world of war without end and bloodshed without respite. As many Americans have suggested, our foreign policy approach must change. More importantly however, it becomes clear that our approach to war needs a serious overhaul as well.