So it’s the time of year again when the Naval War College classes start up, and I’m abusing myself this year with Strategy & War and Joint Maritime Operations. You lucky guys and gals get to be the recipients of some of the studies and writing I’m doing for class. Enjoy.
In 2007, Philip Meilinger, a retired US Air Force colonel, published an article in Joint Force Quarterly titled American Military Culture and Strategy that discusses some of the historical culture of the US military and the civil government as it relates to the execution of war. Although written nine years ago – not even halfway through the “War on Terror” – it still holds some discussion value for those in authority as the war continues, despite being declared finished on at least two occasions.
One of the most salient points that COL Meilinger brings up is a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville regarding democracies and war: “There are two things that a democratic people will always find very difficult, to begin a war and to end it.” Tocqueville also brought up the natural isolation of America; surrounded by friendly countries, separated from the majority of the world by water, the United States spent a large portion of its early years officially isolated in terms of military alliances, and with no appreciable standing military forces. The Founding Fathers were against a large standing army, fearing it as a vehicle of oppression, and no less a patriarch than George Washington warned against the idea of permanent international alliances in his Farewell Address: “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.” The state of mind during that period of time was that the United States would go to war only when absolutely necessary, that a military force would be raised to meet the need, that the war would be fought until the enemy surrendered, and that the military force would then be demobilized back into the population. This outlook persists and has shaped American conflicts throughout history.
COL Meilinger argues that this “short-term” view of war (he contends that culturally, America views war as an aberration in the normal flow of society and is slow to engage and quick to disengage) dovetails with Tocqueville’s views on democracies starting and ending wars, and has led to military leaders throughout American history focusing purely on the kinetic aspect of a war, and failing to consider the cultural and political implications of their actions, much less devoting time to adequate planning for peace after the war. With the exception of post-war Germany and Japan, history would certainly seem to support his hypothesis; recent history supports it even more so. It would be a safe argument to posit that we are where we are today due, in large part, to this cultural failure at both the military and civil government levels. The failure of the Bush administration to adequately plan for the aftermath of a successful invasion coupled with the failure of the Obama administration to recognize the consequences of an abrupt withdrawal have given us the media-savvy and stone-age-savage Daesh to contend with for the foreseeable future.
A counterpoint to the colonel’s argument that the military ignores political and cultural considerations would be the
war in Afghanistan, during which the commanders made a dramatic reactionary swing from full exercise of kinetic power to an extremely culturally sensitive (some would argue paranoid) multi-tiered system for requesting permission to engage possible hostiles, especially with higher-damage weaponry such as close air support and artillery. While designed to minimize civilian casualties in line with the “hearts and minds” theory, soldiers on the ground frequently complained that the rules tied their hands and exposed them to additional, unnecessary risk. Captain (now Major) William Swenson loudly criticized the military’s decision not to provide air support to his troops – due to this risk-adverseness – on the day of the battle for which he received the Medal of Honor. Many people familiar with his case believe (but cannot prove) that the mysterious loss of his MoH recommendation for two years was due to these criticisms. Five officers were eventually disciplined over the incident.
How much credence is given to political and cultural considerations is a necessary decision that must be made at the Presidential level, with full and open input from the military and other concerned agencies. In the end, the President and his advisers must choose the type of war they intend to wage, the level of casualties they are willing to accept, and the monetary cost of the conflict that they will accept. To say that political considerations such as the will of the people and the threat perception of the public can be ignored in favor of a definitive victory is tempting but unrealistic in today’s world. Soldiers on the ground may not like the final decision, but it is far removed from their hands.
A second counterpoint to COL Meilinger’s argument lies within the military’s own doctrine. Joint Publication 3-0 (published 4 years after the article) contains the doctrine of unified action, which is defined as “a comprehensive approach that synchronizes, coordinates, and when appropriate, integrates military operations with the activities of other governmental and non-governmental organizations to achieve unity of effort.” Arguably, this concept should wholly remove the issues of cultural conflicts and failure to plan for the peace, as various governmental and non-governmental agencies who specialize in bringing to bear the full spectrum of US power (diplomatic, information, military, and economic) to achieve the desired strategic end state and realize the pre-approved termination criteria – “specified conditions approved by the President or Secretary of Defense that must be met before a joint operation [including unified action] can be concluded.” Perhaps we’ve finally learned from our mistakes. Realistically, even with a section devoted to it in military doctrine, real unified action will only take place if emphasis is placed on it during the initial planning phase by the President and his various Secretaries. Otherwise, it remains a great idea in a neat book, and COL Meilinger’s points of the short-term aberration of war and all of its associated shortfalls remain the reality faced by the troops.
About the author
Joel is an 12 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He is the owner of Hybrid Defensive Strategies, LLC in Chesapeake, VA, and can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.