In his review of David Halberstam’s book The Best and Brightest, Col. Tom Snodgrass, writing in the January 2007 issue of American Thinker reviews in exhaustive detail how, in 1961, President Kennedy and his cadre of social theorists including Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, George Ball and others ignored the historical lessons of war strategy. In so doing, they set the course for an American military doctrine that had no precedent in history and that subsequently laid the foundations for American military defeats from Vietnam to Iraq.
Historically, the term “total (or general) war” – examples of which include the American Civil War and World War II – was based on the assumption that there were only two options in existential wars – total victory or total defeat (hence the term ‘unconditional surrender’). For the victor, it meant the achievement of most or all its strategic objectives and the collapse of the enemy. For the defeated, it meant the end of its ability to wage war, the futility of continuing the conflict and, as in the case of the Nazis, the end of their dream of a thousand year Reich. Nazi Germany was not merely defeated, it was psychologically vanquished.
With the advent of nuclear weapons, warfare theorists came to believe that a total war between the two superpowers could lead to mutual annihilation. It was this determination that led American strategists in the post-World War II period to modify the historical rules of war by creating a new, seemingly more logical and humane concept of warfare that came to be known as “limited war.” The concept of “limited war” assumes that our enemies will pursue their war objectives in much the same manner and according to the same rules in which we pursue ours. It assumes that all war objectives are subject, at some point, to compromise. But strategists of “limited war” failed to consider the consequences of what happens when we confront ideologically committed enemies who refuse to play by “limited war rules” and who seek nothing less than our destruction. In modern terms, how can we possibly win a “limited war” in Iraq when our enemies in Iran, Syria and their terrorist proxies (al Qaeda and Hezbollah) are committed to undermining our efforts there and continue to pursue “total war” against us with the sole intention of driving us from the region and establishing a global Islamic Caliphate?
The fallacy of fighting a “limited war” in an existential conflict first surfaced during the Truman administration in its confrontation with communist North Korea. When Mao Zedong informed Joseph Stalin that he was ordering Chinese troops into Korea in October 1950 he was concerned that the U.S. would bomb China’s major cities and industrial centers and use its navy to assault China’s coastal regions. In the aftermath of World War II, the perception of our enemies was that American military strategy was still based on ‘total war’ against an enemy. But when the Chinese drove the UN army out of North Korea, Truman failed to escalate. Instead, he adopted the limited objective of fighting the war in South Korea rather than destroying the enemy in the north. As a result, American forces quickly became bogged down with no clear end to the war in sight.
When Eisenhower became President, he recognized that the North Koreans were committed to the conquest of the South. He therefore communicated to the North Koreans his intention to escalate the war by using nuclear weapons if they persisted in their aggressive (total war) objectives, and he meant it, and they knew it. Eisenhower was convinced that a limited war was useless against an ideological adversary committed to the conquest of South Korea. From his perspective and based on his experiences in World War II, he understood that the challenge of the North Korean Communists had to be met just as America had met the challenge of an expansionist Nazi Germany bent on conquest. Eisenhower believed that the only response to total war was total war – or at least the enemy’s realistic expectation of it. As a warrior, he opted for the historically-based defense doctrine of “massive retaliation” which promised an all-out nuclear attack on the North Koreans if their aggression continued. That same policy during the 1950’s insured that there would be no superpower confrontation since both understood the meaning of ‘mutually assured destruction.’
The policy of ‘total war’ changed with the advent of the Kennedy administration. President Kennedy and his social science war strategists decided to rewrite the rules of war by dispensing with the doctrine of ‘massive retaliation’ and replacing it with another strategy they termed “flexible response.” In so doing, Kennedy completely departed from the strategic thinking that had led to victory in World War II.
The change in mindset was profound. American political and military strategists determined that their new approach to foreign aggression would be to use limited force that would be proportional to the threat. The concept of “flexible response” assumed that the enemy (and the surrogates of that enemy) would “get the message” through gradual escalation.
Unfortunately, the “flexible response” doctrine did not take into consideration that the North Vietnamese (like al Qaeda and Iran today) were ideologically committed to victory and were prepared to spend whatever blood and treasure were necessary to achieve it over South Vietnam. While Ho Chi Minh set out to conquer South Vietnam, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson treated the conflict not as existential (which it really was for South Vietnam) but as limited. As a result, five hundred thousand American troops were confined to a strategically defensive stance in South Vietnam with no thought of marching on Hanoi. Ho correctly interpreted the limited American response as the sign of a lack of will on the part of American leadership to sustain casualties in pursuit of its strategic national interests.
Once it became evident to him that America would not use its massive military strength to destroy North Vietnam and the Communist regime that ruled it, the North Vietnamese began targeting America’s will to fight and pursued the war with a vengeance. By failing to threaten the continued existence of the North Vietnamese Communist government, North Vietnamese leaders were able to drag out the war until America’s will to fight and its spirit were broken. As Snodgrass aptly notes: “In truth, it was not the media or the political opposition that “lost the (Vietnam) war,” as is sometimes alleged. It was a U.S. political and military leadership that was both too timid (a polite word for cowardly) to be successful wartime leaders and too blinded by their own hubris to understand that the impossible asymmetry in the objectives of the warring parties (i.e.: one fighting a limited war while the other was dedicated to a war of conquest) guaranteed that America’s limited war was a sure strategy for defeat in Vietnam.”
America’s will to wage war was gradually decimated because of the anti-war propaganda which capitalized on our bad military strategy. The U.S. had replaced the historically-sound military strategy of massive retaliation with a military strategy that was defensive in nature and could not possibly have led to victory in Vietnam. A strategy based on limited war can never defeat an ideological enemy determined to wage a war of conquest.
This failed limited war strategy has dogged American strategic war doctrine ever since. During the Iranian embassy crisis, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini disclosed that he had no fear of an American army marching on Tehran or bombing Iranian oil installations. “Our youth should be confident that America cannot do a damn thing,” Khomeini told his followers three days after the embassy takeover. “America is far too impotent to interfere in a military way here. If they could have interfered, they would have saved the Shah.” The ayatollah was right. Carter contented himself with imposing ineffectual diplomatic and economic sanctions that included an embargo on Iranian oil and a break in diplomatic relations. He rejected suggestions to invade Iran or bomb Iran’s major military assets or its main government buildings or even capture its oil facilities. His dithering would result in the deaths of thousands of Americans in the coming decades.
President Clinton also followed the ‘limited war’ doctrine even as Americans were being harvested by terrorists from New York to Saudi Arabia to Kenya. He sent cruise missiles to blow up empty tents in the Afghan desert and pharmaceutical factories in the Sudan, signed agreements with dictators based on the belief that America would somehow be “safe”, hamstrung our intelligence services in the name of civil liberties, shrunk the American military in the name of economy, and chose to use the courts as the battleground, rather than engaging with the terrorists and taking the war to them and their sponsors.
This same failed doctrine reigns today in Iraq which has wrongfully become defined as the battleground for our ‘global war on terrorism.’ Despite the rhetoric, our military strategy is not geared to defeating our enemies (Iran, Syria and their terror surrogates around the world) who are committed to the conquest of Iraq and the spread of radical Islamic dawa throughout the Middle East. Iraqi terrorism is funded and supported by Iran and Syria who have engaged us in a conflict of global proportions, but unlike the time-tested strategy that led to victory in World War II, we have limited our war objectives to stabilizing, democratizing and reconstructing Iraq before we have vanquished those who are determined to see us fail there. In failing to recognize the necessity of defeating our enemies first, we have guaranteed our own defeat in Iraq and no number of ‘surge’ troops in Iraq will alter that.
Today, we are battling the foot soldiers of Islamic fascism in Iraq – foot soldiers who are funded and trained by Iran and Syria. Yet, we choose to limit our goals to securing Iraq without regard to defeating our greater enemies in Tehran and Damascus. If the American people have grown weary of the Iraqi war, it is because the average American cannot accept a national debate on how to fight a limited, futile war. Americans want victory and like it or not, the road to that victory leads through Tehran and Damascus. The American public will never support a war predicated upon a limited, drawn out and failed war strategy.*
So long as we continue to define our war against Islamic fascism as success or failure in Iraq and so long as we continue to prosecute this war in limited territorial terms without recognizing that we are engaged in an existential conflict with an enemy dedicated to total war, we are destined to lose. The good news is that the Treasury Department has begun applying intensified pressure on Tehran (and their proxies in Damascus) by discouraging foreign banks and governments from extending financing to the Iranian regime. The bad news is that the President remains committed to limited war. In his recent address to the nation, he effectively restated the failed limited war strategy in terms of Iraq alone: We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We’ll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria.
And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.” What he failed to state was the intention of this country to take the war to our enemies’ capitals. Destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities and regime change are absolutely critical if the war against Islamic fascism is to be won. America’s enemies must be convinced that the price of pursuing global conquest is simply too high a price for them to pay.
Islamic fascism cannot be contained unless the purveyors of terror are held to account. According to the latest CIA report: “Forty to seventy foreign fighters enter Iraq each month through Syria and some, if not most are suicide bombers.” Iran continues to provide money, support, and deadly munitions to Shiite groups throughout the Middle East. Its growing regional power is threatening regional stability. It is training thousands of “volunteers for martyrdom” in Iran, Lebanon, and Syria to spread Islamic fascism across the globe, and its success is based upon the belief that the ‘Great Satan’ is in strategic retreat. Unfortunately, the manner in which we have prosecuted our wars for the past five decades has led to that conclusion.
If the United States sends a message that it thinks victory is too costly to pursue, can an enemy be blamed for concluding that Washington may be unwilling to pay the costs of avoiding defeat? During World War II, it would have been unthinkable to stop at the German border after the liberation of France, leaving Adolf Hitler in Berlin. In the final result, we must take this war to Iran and Syria if we are to end the threat they and their proxies represent. Iraq can and will never be stabilized so long as these nations are free to pursue their global war against it… and us.
*On the other hand, in an environment where every comment, every errant bomb and every casualty is subject to international scrutiny, talking heads and national opinion polls, it is decidedly more difficult for us to wage total (existential) wars even against existential threats like religiously and ideologically-inspired adversaries. While the contemporary wisdom is that the greater the reach of democracy the better, this has never been proven as a fact nor proven to be a viable military strategy.