outdated & counterproductive
THE FUTILE GOAL OF 'WINNING' WARS
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science
and International Law (Purdue University). He is author of many
books and articles dealing with international politics. His
columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington
Post, The Jerusalem Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press).
Donald Trump, who during the US presidential campaign accused
previous administrations of grievous error, and claimed to have
a far better personal understanding of how to defeat the Islamic
State than the nation’s generals, has just pronounced
the core mission for America's military: to "win"
in war, any war. Such dangerously simplistic pronouncements
need not come from a US president, who, after all, would normally
have unhindered access to astute counsel from senior military
professionals and national security experts.
now, it should be readily apparent that the traditional criteria
of winning and losing in war have generally become outdated
and counterproductive. More precisely, whether the United States
might “win” or “lose” in most ongoing
or still-expected theaters of military operation, the basic
vulnerability of American cities to mass-destruction terrorism
or ballistic missile attack could remain largely unaffected.
In other words, seeking "victory" per se
would make no operational sense.
ahead, the overriding point of US military involvements must
be to blunt or prevent infliction of substantial military harms
upon the population, not to flaunt any viscerally satisfying
exclamations of machismo.
has proposed bumping up the military budget by $54 billion.
To begin, however, he should promptly recognize that any increase
in military spending oriented primarily toward "winning"
would be sorely misguided. Such recognition is especially urgent
in any expressly planned expenditures for nuclear weapons, as
the sole legitimate purpose of any such WMD ordnance must be
deterrence, not actual war-fighting. He should understand that
nuclear weapons must be reserved for deterrence ex ante,
not revenge ex post.
are relevant particulars. To meet the specific requirements
of adequate deterrence, US nuclear weapons need to be conspicuously
secure from first-strike attacks and also "penetration-capable"
with regard to enemy missile defenses. Today, the capacity to
deter need not necessarily display a capacity to win. Indeed,
contrary to Trump's assessment, US nuclear weapons need not
be numerically or destructively "superior." In fact,
any deliberate US search for superiority as an objective would
be fiscally excessive and also plausibly self-destructive.
doubt, times have changed with regard to the core security implications
of any still-conceivable military victory. Here, we can learn
from historian Herodotus, who describes the Greeks’ stunning
defeat at Thermopylae in 480 BCE.
the Persian King Xerxes could not contemplate the conquest of
Athens until first securing a decisive victory. The Athenians
could be forced to abandon Attica only after the defeat of Spartan
King Leonidas. The Greeks chose Thermopylae for their final
defense because of a narrow pass between cliffs and the sea,
a geographically reassuring place where relatively small numbers
of resolute troops could presumably hold back a larger army.
Leonidas defended the pass for a time with about 7000 men, but
finally the Persians emerged as victors and the Greeks could
only passively witness the burning of their houses and temples.
there is presently no real need to worry about suffering a contemporary
Thermopylae, this ancient Greek tragedy remains meaningful for
the United States and other countries in the crosshairs of a
determined jihad. Modern targets do not enjoy absolute freedom
from worry. After all, preventing any form of classical military
defeat no longer assures safety from mega-aggression or terrorism.
until the onset of the nuclear era, states and empires were
essentially safe from homeland destruction unless their armies
had first been defeated.
1945, the capacity to destroy had required an antecedent capacity
to win. But by August of that year, the United States could
inflict nuclear destruction upon civilians in Hiroshima and
Nagasaki without first having to defeat Japanese armed forces.
Producing a final defeat was the actual rationale of the two
atomic strikes. Then, in a notably stark inversion of what had
been sought much earlier at Thermopylae, the principal American
goal had been to kill large numbers of enemy noncombatants in
order to prod Japan’s surrender.
from the standpoint of ensuring any one state’s national
survival, the "classical" objective of defeating an
enemy army and preventing military defeat is now a distinctly
secondary goal. There is no cumulative benefit to waging a "winning"
war if a determined enemy still maintains an undiminished capacity
to bring massive civilian harm. A daunting enemy today can be
another state, a sub-state terror group, or even myriad forms
of a "hybrid" coalition.
strategic implications here are exceedingly complex and far-reaching;
the analytic task for the US national security team is to consider
and answer key questions, continuously, unhesitatingly, through
orchestrated oppositions of thesis and antithesis, aiming for
indispensable goals – thus calling to mind the prophetic
counsel of Carl von Clausewitz in On War: "The
subordination of the political point of view to the military
must always be unreasonable, for politics had created the war.
Policy is the intelligent faculty, war is only the instrument."
Trump, no particular military wisdom could be so plainly vital.
many disparate enemies could inflict severe harm without first
weakening armies and navies, and so for the most focused enemies,
US generals have little reason to work out extensive calculations
on force correlations or "order of battle."
is not due to error on the part of the United States and other
major powers, and the new vulnerabilities generally represent
a byproduct of evolving technologies. The US defense community
must pursue all available technological breakthroughs –
including attack drones and enhanced surveillance capabilities
– to best ensure protection from both irregular army attacks
"in theater" and plausible terrorist proxy aggressions
at home. Above all, this means staying focused on specific operational
threats and opportunities, and not on any abstract notions of
such recommended efforts carry no ironclad guarantees of success,
and rapid technological evolution in warfare cannot be reversed.
On the contrary, all current vulnerabilities must be acknowledged
and then suitably countered.
counter these vulnerabilities, the United States must soon refine
combat orthodoxies involving an advanced integration of deterrence,
preemption and war-fighting options and also strive for more
productive international alignments. This includes examining
arrangements for both active and passive defenses as well as
cyber-defense. During his speech to the Congress on February
28th, Trump made a special point of praising NATO capabilities
alone is no longer an option and, further, nothing is more practical
than a coherent strategic doctrine, nuanced and well thought
must quickly understand that even the most advanced civilization
can be made to suffer without enduring national defeat. This
counterintuitive conclusion is a difficult lesson to accept,
but the alternative could cause the United States to misallocate
limited military resources toward sorely misconceived objectives.
pertinent threats to the United States are shared by others
including the nation’s major enemies. In essence, all
states must prepare to confront consequential vulnerabilities
in the absence of suffering any prior military defeats.
the final analysis, the United States should prepare to exploit
these common vulnerabilities systematically, not by seeking
to "win" – an illusory goal – but rather
by shaping realistic, precise, and operationally specific strategies
for both offense and defense. Nowadays, when formal peace treaties
and war-terminating agreements are the exception, and not the
rule, neither the United States nor its enemies can ever know
for certain whether a particular conflict has actually been
won or lost. To be sure, Trump cannot hope to authenticate any
presumed "win," especially over terrorism, with the
formality of signed agreements or publically reassuring parades
along Fifth Avenue and Main Street. It follows that US military
and defense planning should increasingly be based upon specifically
identifiable national security hazards, including terrorist
surrogates, and not upon outdated and abstract notions of victory