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.