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The American Way of War: Engage, Escalate, Abandon

American Way of War
Image: Creative Commons.

Over the post-World War II period, the United States has fought three major wars that fall mainly in the category of counterinsurgency – Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Though each began in markedly different ways each traced a similar course. Under vastly different American administrations and against vastly different enemies, the United States decided it necessary to militarily support an indigenous government substantially of our creation. When faced with adverse circumstances on the battlefield and limited competence on the part of our preferred government and its armed forces, it was deemed necessary to escalate American involvement deploying U.S. ground forces in the hundred thousand plus range and such personnel as American and international civilian agencies could be coerced to muster. In each case, after substantial success in destroying enemy forces and sustaining a friendly and at least somewhat representative regime, the American political system turned against these wars. The United States then moved to abandon its erstwhile allies and their citizens to the depredations of a vicious enemy after the expenditure of much American blood and treasure.

The Vietnam Case

In the case of Vietnam, the abandonment was final. The trajectory from a modest advisory presence to a half million-man combat deployment to “Vietnamization” with American logistics and air support could have resulted in a sustainable country. Recall that Saigon fought off a conventional invasion by 13 North Vietnamese divisions in 1972 without American ground forces or substantial American casualties. By 1975, a resurgent Congress had forced a total aid cutoff and, despite courageous fighting by many South Vietnamese units, Hanoi prevailed in an armored assault, thanks in part to more reliable allies. The consequence was as many as 100,000 dead in Hanoi’s gulag and somewhere between a quarter and half a million drowned in the South China Sea. There was no American recognition of Hanoi’s ethnic cleansing of Montagnards, Chinese, Khmer, Hoa Hao, Catholics, and Cao Dai.

Iraq

In Iraq, after brilliant success in the major combat phase, the absence of post-war planning and critical mistakes in the occupation resulted in an insurgency by both Sunni and Iranian-backed Shia. This was only brought under control by the 2006 surge and after the U.S. Army reclaimed the expertise in counterinsurgency intentionally forgotten after Vietnam. Iraq was then abandoned in 2011 with the fig leaf of a robust embassy to secure American interests. It was, of course, necessary to re-engage with modest ground deployments and air support after the emergence of the Islamic State which seized some third of the country.  The eventual outcome in Iraq is highly uncertain – at best a semi-representative regime able to bridge deep sectarian differences and maintain independence from Iran, at worst a failed state torn into a Shiite Iranian satellite and a Sunni/jihadist rump.

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, initial success was allowed to deteriorate and a surge in 2009 – costly in American lives – was time-limited for domestic political reasons. The last three U.S. administrations have all sought to leave Afghanistan: the Obama administration lowered force levels to a modest support and counter – terrorism mission and the Trump administration negotiated a deeply flawed unilateral withdrawal without the participation of the Afghan government. The current administration threw away a deployment sustainable at minimal cost in the medium term and has overseen the greatest national security debacle and created perhaps the gravest avoidable humanitarian catastrophe since World War II. The failures have been at all levels and across all entities:  intelligence assessment, civil-military operational planning, and diplomatic coordination. The repercussions will haunt our interests and our consciences. The continuing human toll on Afghanis will be felt over decades.

The American Way of War: A Clear Pattern? 

What a difference a few thousand American troops and air support make.  All three of these wars stood a decent or better chance of being redeemed by enduring personnel deployments in the high four figures incurring annual casualties in the low dozens or fewer.  All three of these wars could have had a reasonably acceptable outcome with smarter decisions at a few key points.

There is obviously a pattern here. The initial phase of involvement may well be nearly invisible at the political level and be of low cost as was the case in Vietnam. Or it may be a vast and successful initial strike followed by ill – considered efforts to escape second-order consequences as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mission creep is a normal bureaucratic tendency. Gradual escalation can bring casualties and civilian disillusionment as the engagement drags on. Domestic economic considerations reassert primacy in the national polity.  One or at most two decades has become the usual limit of American political tolerance.

Nation-building is a multi-decade process if it is to succeed, and the United States is not very good at it.  It is not a core military capability, and the diplomatic and economic agencies have little interest or stomach to go in harm’s way.  But the idea of a short military intervention followed by a quick withdrawal is an illusion. Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule applies – you break, you own it.  In Libya where the international community barely tried to pick up the pieces after ousting Gaddafi, the immediate consequence was a failed state and jihadi haven.  Civilian agencies, Allies, and international organizations can only function – and usually rather badly – under the umbrella of U.S. security.

This recurring pattern of engagement, escalation, and abandonment creates additional uncertainty in American security policy at a time when it hardly needs more. It is perhaps inevitable that the U.S. operates with a time horizon for high-profile events limited by the next election. The radical swings in this century desperately call for a more centrist and bipartisan approach to global security.  The first three American administrations of this century swung from overly ambitious neo-conservatism to Wilsonian globalism and retrenchment to Jacksonian nationalism. The current administration demonstrates mere impulse and obstinacy in the face of failure and has no discernable strategic overview. The security policy “establishment”, military advice, or both have been marginalized by White House domination of policy and sometimes derided by its occupants during at least the last three administrations. Such of course is the consequences of democracy, but the force planner and strategy analyst must think decades out. The United States (and especially the U.S. Army) have repeatedly sworn off counterinsurgency/nation – building – the two are inseparable – and repeatedly been dragged back into just that kind of conflict. The civilian agencies should be the nation builders but they can’t and won’t. There is no reason to expect this to change.

Today American forces are deployed in at least 70 countries. At least a third are essentially train and equip missions directed against Islamist terrorism. All these partners – and a sordid lot many are – will no doubt attempt to assess the future value and reliability of U.S. support. Policymakers and planners are utterly unable to forecast the next war and have never gotten it right. The United States is now entering a period of soul searching and self-doubt amid gaping internal divisions that will impact national security. The United States should make every effort to sustain low-level engagement in the many countries threatened by Islamist terrorism and in failing states in our own hemisphere. But exceptional vigilance will be required not to escalate or raise the profile of these deployments as the armed forces reorient to counter China. Some –  the Sahel comes to mind – may not be worth the candle if very low levels of commitment are insufficient. The United States has already given up a presence in Yemen and Libya.

Afghanistan is not over however much the administration wishes it to be. The horrendous news stories will continue, and the human toll will climb. Neither is Iraq or Syria. And diplomacy will not deter Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons or stop the spread of its brand of terrorism. Islamist jihadism has received a massive boost and its war on the West will expand. Try as the last three administrations have to escape, the Middle East, it will drag us back. A partial way forward is to very carefully limit the ground military presence and establish firebreaks between low – risk train and equip and more hands-on advise and assist deployments. But it will take more competence and courage than American leaders have recently demonstrated to avoid a continuing slide into repeated catastrophe.

Finally, there has opened a dangerous gap between the senior leadership of the American armed forces and the American public. For decades the armed forces have been the most revered institution in American society and the individual trooper will remain so. Senior leadership needs to look deep within itself and thread the needle between the legitimate requirements of civilian supremacy and the go – along culture of too easy acquiescence resulting in complicity with a debacle.

Gordon Bare, COL, USAR (Ret) served on district and province advisory teams in Vietnam and as a State Department officer supported Iraq and Afghanistan on a Political-Military Task Force from Washington for 14 years after 9/11. 

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Gordon Bare, COL, USAR (Ret) served on district and province advisory teams in Vietnam and as a State Department officer supported Iraq and Afghanistan on a Political-Military Task Force from Washington for 14 years after 9/11. 

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Slack

    October 13, 2021 at 4:53 pm

    America has often been called Babylon of our times and for very good reasons. It is far from perfect, yet seduces and compels others to view it as their model to follow.

    America is a war nation that worships the way of the gunslinger or weaponeer, the genghis of our age. And wants its followers and minions to do likewise.

    The treatment meted out to haitian migrants under biden is little different from the treatment dished out to foreign civilians during truman’s time and LBJ’s time or bush’s and obama’s era. Harsh, violent, lawless, unilateral and inhumane.

    Goes to show America always makes or leaves behind a bloody mess in its wake, a sign that the caveman’s spirit is naturally designed into or incorporated in its DNA.

    America, despite its religious, technological and academic credentials, is nothing more than the genghis of our age.

  2. David Chang

    October 13, 2021 at 5:47 pm

    The war is not a war of counterinsurgency. World War 2, Korea War, Vietnam War, Afghan War, and Israel-Palestine War are parts of socialism war. Therefore, we should oppose the wrong Constitution thought which cause the war. God bless people in the world.

  3. Leonard Ganz

    October 14, 2021 at 6:40 pm

    Well written and on target

  4. Commentar

    October 14, 2021 at 8:26 pm

    Today, Biden energetically pushes efforts for a green planet, unknowingly, (or perhaps knowingly) that his military is the largest single polluter or carbon generator on Earth.

    Hard to reconcile something the president wants with the predatory nature of his military which is just the opposite of what he wants.

  5. Robert H. Stern

    October 14, 2021 at 9:04 pm

    I served with Gordon Bare for twelve years monitoring the Afghan, Iraq, and related events. I concur with much of his analysis. Where I disagree, however, is, to a degree, philosophical. I do not believe in “nation building” as, more often than not it really means rebuilding someone else’s culture to a facsimile of ours.

    I would also not lump Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq together. Korea was forced upon us, the others were wars of choice. Given the realities on the ground, Korea was a success in restoring the status quo ante without widening the conflict. South Korea was not abandoned and has prospered.

    Vietnam was a war that Eisenhower wisely kept out of; recognizing that it was a civil war and an anti colonial war. It was also a war on the mainland of Asia which would prove to be a logistical nightmare. H.R. McMasters, in his book DERELICTION OF DUTY castigates senior military and civilian advisors for misleading Johnson and Nixon, telling them what they wanted to hear as opposed to what they needed to hear. As has been said, Vietnam was the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The courage of the men at the pointy end of the spear cannot be denied, but to what end?

    Bare rightly notes the American public’s short attention span and demand for instant gratification; we are more of a nation of sprinters than marathoners. All the more reason for careful consideration before the fact as to our goals and endgame. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, an insidious combination of hubris and mission creep were and remain more destabilizing than the antebellum regimes.

    Where I part ways with the analysis is the idea that with a modest force, we could have continued to prop up our puppet proxies in Kabul and Baghdad. To what end? Continued unbridled corruption? Not all problems have American solutions. If things are to change in the benighted countries, that change must come from within.

  6. Ben d'Mydogtags

    October 14, 2021 at 11:45 pm

    The missing elements from your sequence in US failures was to: Engage, Escalate, Play-to-the-TV-cameras, Overpromise, Underprioritize and then Fail. The biggest three wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) all suffered this trajectory. They were big therefore they got TV attention, therefore political attention. That led to “spotlighting” and overpromising but did nothing to stop the ultimate under-prioritization. End result was failure. The US did/does have a good track record of success in small, low-profile counterinsurgencies. Chile, Columbia, El Salvador and multiple engagements in west and central Africa have delivered reasonable success. But all were small footprint and lower media profile. Once the senior mission commander’s face becomes familiar on TV news the campaign is as good as lost.

  7. Josh

    October 15, 2021 at 3:53 am

    @Slack, agree with much of your post, but can’t disagree more with some elements of it. Particularly “America is a war nation that worships the way of the gunslinger or weaponeer, the genghis of our age. And wants its followers and minions to do likewise.”

    Genghis Kahn was the last to conquer Afghanistan. Russia and GB both failed there before we did. Why was he successful while we failed? He just killed everyone who dared oppose him. War is terrible and ugly, no matter how you cut it. We try to make it neat and clean, over-relying on our over-hyped intelligence capabilities and precision targeting systems. Our enemies hide in mosques, schools, and hospitals and fight us with impunity. We go to such extremes to avoid collateral damage that we often apply US legal standards (innocent until proven guilty) before we’ll strike our enemies…until there’s a need for political points, then we lower our standards to fit the need of the time (see the failed strike to kill the supposed ISIS-K planner) at the end.

    That’s not to confuse accepting a level of collateral damage with indiscriminate killing, what I’m not advocating for at all. But we allow these things to draw out at great civilian sacrifice because we are risk adverse and always want to be the good guys. We didn’t win WWII by keeping the war pretty for the media and the public.

    There’s a big lesson learned that we have failed to observe. In Germany and Japan, we achieved the unconditional surrender of the two enemies before we started nation building. In Korea, we had a mutually agreed upon and (mostly) respected border achieved through an armistice before we started nation building. In Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, we never set conditions for nation building by achieving the unconditional surrender of our enemies, or an agreement to respect a border *before* we started nation building.

    We’re great at winning fights. We don’t know how to win wars. We seem to think that winning wars needs to involve recreating other countries into our image instead of just destroying our enemies. Ben Hodges wrote one of the few pieces of worthwhile introspection that I’ve seen any general officer from the last 20 years write, when he acknowledged that we failed by trying to build the Afghan Army and government to look like us and function like us, instead of respecting that they should function more like the tribal society that they really are. We sort of figured that out during the Anbar Awakening in 2007 when we started working with Sheiks instead of trying to force them into a democratic process before we would acknowledge them, and we let them build tribal militias to police their communities. Then, and only then, did we begin to route AQ in 2007. It was the change in tactics more than it was the surge that enabled success. But again…lesson we failed to learn and export to Afghanistan. Instead we hitched our wagon to a bunch of Aghans who most closely resembled American style politicians instead of making allies with most or all of the warlords and let them run the country as they saw fit then got the hell out of the way. Had we done that, we wouldn’t have the same concerns about a resurgence of AQ or ISIS over there, and the Taliban wouldn’t be thing anymore.

  8. Josh

    October 15, 2021 at 4:06 am

    Abandonment isn’t our problem. Abandonment happens as a natural conclusion to losing a war. The act of abandonment is the symptom, not the problem. It’s the inevitable result to losing a war. The following consequences are not the result of our abandonment, but rather our losing.

    We don’t know how to win a war. We don’t even know how to define what winning a war looks like anymore. We seem to think that involves recreating other countries governance and militaries in our image, and haven’t yet figured out how wrong that is. Then, when we fail to make that work, our public inevitably loses interest and support, the military wears thinner and thinner from the stupidity of our strategy, and we eventually give up when we finally realize the futility of what we’ve been doing. In Afghanistan, we refused to acknowledge their tribal nature and cultural lines, and instead hitched our wagon to building a western style democracy led by American-style politicians, with a western-style military organization, then we wondered in amazement why the house of cards came tumbling down the instant we announced that we weren’t going to hold it up any longer.

    In Iraq, we’ve got a little bit of a hybrid. You’ve got a western-style, democratically elected leaders at the federal level, but in 2007 we started recognizing the tribal leaders instead of undermining them in favor of democratically elected local leaders. That’s the only reason it’s lasted this long, and why their future is uncertain. It’s not the federal government holding that country together, it’s being held together at the tribal level because none of them are quite strong enough to project force and oppress their enemies. When one clearly rises above the others, that government will fall.

  9. Jimmy John Doe

    October 15, 2021 at 12:58 pm

    The US is the true and very most unique sole killer constrictor massacrer nation of the modern era of mankind.

    In south-east Asia, US altogether dropped nearly 2.5 million tons of bombs on Laos, or roughly one ton per person.

    US dropped ‘only’ 1.6 million tons of bombs in Europe but only half a million on Japan, about the same amount later dropped on Cambodia.

    No other nation or tribe or clan in civilised history has been able to achieve such a resounding record.

    Yet today, US is embarking on developing more efficient bombers, rockets and other super hi-tech weapons of mass destruction. And forward basing them on minion territory. Thus world can’t avoid WW3. Impossible for mankind to miss judgement day.

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