“War is politics by other means.” This is probably the most oft-quoted of Clausewitz’s writings. But politics can interfere with war far more than it informs it.
One of the most obvious examples would be President Obama’s address concerning the authorization of airstrikes in Iraq on August 7. “I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home,” the President said. This fact has colored his entire approach to Iraq, ultimately trumping whatever the situation on the ground is, up until a real threat to American personnel on the ground forced his hand. Even so, the desire to hold to his political stance has prevented any full-scale commitment that might see any sort of actual resolution to the war (i.e., the destruction of ISIS). The airstrikes against ISIS have continued to be limited to the areas around Erbil and Mosul Dam.
Of course, this is nothing new, nor is it confined to this administration. The idea that some sort of “limited military action” can be used to make it look like something’s been done, then victory declared and everybody brought home has been floating around for quite some time. It is telling that the United States has not won a war in a strategic sense since that mindset arose.
Trying to trace the origins of the present Western mindset, that wants nothing but short, clean, politically acceptable wars that don’t have to be finished with victory, just an announcement that it’s over (from only one side, notably), would take volumes. In general, however, it is possible to sum it up with a few factors.
The first would probably be the aftermath of the First and Second World Wars, made even more acute by the advent of nuclear weapons. After the massive bloodlettings between 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, and the promise of even worse as the Cold War got into full swing, the fear of ever-increasing mass destruction came to be nearly crippling. The fears of igniting full-scale war with the USSR and/or the PRC were what led to the cease-fire in Korea (which is still in effect; officially, the Korean War has been ongoing for the last 64 years) and the pull-out from Vietnam, which promptly fell to the Communists. While no such existential threat as Soviet nuclear missiles and Mutually Assured Destruction has hovered over military action since 1991, the mindset has not gone away. Instead, it has become rooted in the other factors we’re about to address: willful ignorance, hubris, and careerism.
Willful ignorance has colored every intervention the US has embarked upon since the Clinton years. (Arguably, it could well have applied in Vietnam, as well; there was a lot of boneheaded conventional thinking there that refused to see the war through any point of view other than a toe-to-toe slugging match, which the North Vietnamese generally avoided, but most of the following couple of decades did display some level of pragmatism.) The overwhelming point of view of the decision makers in Washington seems to be that everyone, everywhere, thinks just like Americans, that inside every tribesman is an American, just waiting to get out.
As Steven Pressfield’s protagonist/narrator in The Profession said, “We think everyone is the same as we are. We think they want the same things we want. They don’t. They’re not like us at all.” For all the success of the initial incursion into Afghanistan by the SF “Horse Soldiers,” subsequent operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the mindset of the locals. In their echo chambers, the decision makers made the rules and uttered platitudes about “hearts and minds,” and “You can’t kill your way out of an insurgency!”
Meanwhile, on the ground in Iraq, we saw first hand that the behavior we were ordered to maintain was only seen as weakness, especially by a people who didn’t believe they had really been beaten. The “Thunder Run” had been too quick, too much of the country left untouched. So certain was Washington that if Saddam was overthrown everything would just fall into our laps, that the 1st Marine Division was ordered to bypass enormous caches of munitions; caches that we would later see again, set into roadsides to blow up vehicles and patrols. The very people who preached incessantly about “respecting their culture” knew next to nothing about how that culture actually worked.
Not only were those calling the shots from DC ignorant about the local cultures that they were so worried about offending, but they have also been, in general, ignorant about war itself. Much of this can be traced back to the Kennedy administration, and the idea of the “best and brightest,” that young, inexperienced college grads can save the world through their sheer intelligence. For many such people, military service is viewed as beneath them, and studying war itself is not encouraged. But of course, they are so much smarter than anyone else that they will fix everything those military knuckle-draggers bungle.
That same sort of hubris and willful blindness has even infected the view of the enemy. ISIS was derided by the President as being “JV” eight months ago (though the admin is now trying to back off that assertion, for obvious reasons), and contempt for the enemy has become endemic, fueling the tactical sloppiness that has already become a problem thanks to the “technology and armor will solve everything” issues addressed before. When you don’t know anything about the enemy, but assume that he’s inferior to you anyway, you put him at an advantage. But when even thinking about such things is beneath you, then that thought shouldn’t even cross your mind.
To make matters worse, the ignorance of war in general has been fueled by an idealism that asserts that somehow we have “evolved” past the brutal realities of war. This idea can be seen everywhere, whenever a public figure says something along the lines of, “This shouldn’t be happening in the 21st Century.” The assertion, in the face of history and current events, is absurd. We haven’t evolved. We’ve gotten soft. There’s a difference.
Probably the most destructive factor, however, is careerism, on the part of both politicians and senior officers (though the two are increasingly intertwined). Anything that might stir up the voting public to see them in a negative light is to be avoided. The focus isn’t on the objective, but on getting reelected. While enemies (declared or otherwise, e.g., China) look at the long game, our decision makers are only concentrating on 2 to 4 years out. There is no strategy aside from staying in office. Similarly, the senior officer corps follows the same outlook, maintaining politically acceptable courses in order to hold on to their commissions. Short-sightedness rules the day.
Linked to careerism is factionalism. When one party is in power, the other attacks every move made, forcing decisions that affect battlefield movements for the purpose of political ass-covering. Once again, actually winning the war becomes secondary to winning votes and seats.
Finally, there seems to be a twisted sentimentality in our society that has more of a problem with death in war than with the loss of a war. It seems to be related to the lack of a long view, but the moral imperative to do everything necessary to win when armed force is resorted to has been forgotten. As long as the news doesn’t ruffle their feathers, Americans as a whole don’t seem to have a problem with the fact that committing young men to combat, then giving up without being defeated, means that the waste of the fallen’s lives lies on the one who sent them.