When a War Is Not a War – April 10, 2011

Okay, how many wars is this? I have trouble keeping up. After World War II, we had Korea, then Vietnam, Granada, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya.

World War II had objectives I can understand—at least in retrospect, as I wasn’t born until three years later. The Germans and the Japanese were marching across their respective parts of the world, gobbling up countries, closing down legally established authorities, and enslaving or destroying populations. The Allied objective was to countermarch, defeat the aggressor armies, and defang the fascist governments that had launched them.

After we accomplished that, we did something new. Rather than sign another harsh Versailles-style treaty with the defeated governments, imposing burdens of shame and impoverishment through reparations, we instead enacted benevolent occupation regimes: the Four Powers in Germany, MacArthur in Japan. These regimes wielded generous investments in resources with the intention of rebuilding strong economies and erecting democratic institutions.1

But World War II was simple. The enemy had raised a flag and strutted under it. The enemy was brazen and obvious. We knew who to shoot on sight as we stormed their strongholds. That was the last simple war. The only similar conflict in the past sixty years has been Kuwait, where the Iraqis marched in and began looting the country, and a coalition led by the United States landed to oppose and drive them out again.

Korea and Vietnam were proxy wars. Yes, within these two countries the established governments and populations were under attack, but the attackers were segments of their own people fighting under Marxist ideology for a different form of government and economy. These were civil wars where each side was funded, armed, supplied, advised, and ultimately joined in battle by a much stronger outside ally—China for the North Koreans, Soviets for the North Vietnamese, and the U.S. and its allies for the South in both cases. The invasion of Granada was a bit more straightforward, but Grenada was still a tiny island population beset by a lot of international meddling.

Iraq and Afghanistan are also proxy wars, with the exception that the U.S. and its allies first toppled the government in place—Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since then we have tried to rebuild against the pressure of civil strife led by native pressure groups fighting under religious ideology and supported by outside help. Libya is shaping up to be a replay of this scenario.

In short, from Korea to the present, we haven’t so much been fighting foreign invaders—men wearing feldgrau and speaking German while overrunning Poland and France, or apple green and speaking Japanese while capturing China and the Philippines—but natives dressing and speaking like their compatriots while coercing and killing them. It was in these conflicts that the phrase “hearts and minds” was born.

Though I never was a soldier, I understand a bit about the business. As I understand it, there are only two military objectives: take ground, and hold ground. That’s what guns and bombs are for—to drive off the people who currently hold a patch of ground, or keep away the people trying to take the ground from you. These are the only tactical objectives—to deny the enemy a place on the field.

Killing people is not a tactical objective. Killing and wounding soldiers may be an effective way to break a military force at the point of conflict over a piece of ground, but so is inducing them to drop their weapons and run away through fear.2 Beyond the point of conflict, the enemy can always recruit more soldiers.

There are also strategic objectives, aimed at breaking a military force: eliminate the enemy’s supplies, limit his options, cripple his capability. You manage this behind the point of conflict by cutting routes of supply and retreat, bombing factories at home, and discouraging potential allies.

These objectives are pretty much all that you can accomplish with guns and bombs.3 Although it’s been tried repeatedly since World War II, there is not much evidence that bombing a population works to change its mind. People who think they are right, or think they have no other choice but to act as they do, will dig in and endure. “Hearts and minds” is not a military objective.

In Vietnam we tried to conduct large segments of the war from the air and from fixed bases. We bombed supply routes and bridges without putting personnel on the ground to enforce the interdiction. We flew troops into landing zones around the country to attack the enemy, count bodies, and fly out again. We sortied from our barbed-wire enclosures, fulfilled missions, then returned for a shower, steak, and cold beer. We were taking ground without holding ground, and we wonder why it didn’t work.

Once again, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are trying to “pacify” the countryside. Within a matter of weeks we had whipped the standing army, broken the enemy’s centers of command and control, and defanged the existing government. The task since then has not been so much military (take ground, hold ground) as police work: keep the roads open, protect the population, prevent bad things from happening, chase the bad guys. There’s not much a soldier with a rifle can do when the enemy dresses and speaks like everyone else and his tactics are aimed at terrorizing the local people. Military action is ineffective against secret plans to mine a road, pack a car with explosives and park it, or stick explosives under a suicide’s jacket and send him into a market or a mosque. These aren’t battles, they’re ambushes.

This isn’t war. We send out people in uniform with rifles, armored vehicles, air support, command and control. It certainly looks like war. But it’s not.

This is occupation. The Germans faced the same problem in France, the Netherlands, the Balkans, and other parts of their conquered European empire. The Japanese faced it in China and the Philippines. For as much as you have taken over the country and control the government, there still remains a large segment of the population that resists. You don’t have their hearts and minds, and someone else is giving them rifles, explosives, and tactical advice. As the force operating in uniform with known, fixed headquarters, supply routes, patrol areas, and mission profiles, you make a lovely target. But the firefights are generally short, and there’s no ground to take and hold.

Unless a standup army invades against the army of occupation—as the Allies invaded countries that Germany and Japan held in World War II—the occupation can last a long time. Practically forever, if the will is there. But the experience is not war, and the result is not a peace you can walk away from.

The occupation experience is military limbo: costly in lives and treasure, debilitating to the spirit, and demeaning to everyone involved.

1. Except, alas, for the Soviets in East Germany, where they removed the factories to the Russian motherland and left the rubble to stand for decades as punishment.

2. That’s why earlier armies painted their faces, adorned their helmets with horsetails and plumes, stamped their feet and chanted, or played the bagpipes. It’s far more civilized to frighten your enemy into running than to kill him outright. The machine gun was the invention of pure savages.

3. Of course, with enough nuclear weapons, you can destroy the enemy and his generations and turn his cities into lakes of radioactive glass. But that’s not war.