Saturday, March 18, 2006

Gambling on War

It has become very clear that the war in Iraq has not, to put it mildly, turned out as anticipated, any more than the Vietnam War did 40 years ago. And gradually we are learning more and more about the particular miscalculations that have led to this growing catastrophe: the slanting of intelligence, the insane trust in a few Iraqi émigrés of questionable reputation, and the repeated refusal by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to listen to the professional diplomats, military officers, and intelligence analysts who had spent their lives trying to understand the key issues involved. They deserve to be held accountable, but we should not be too facile in our criticisms—least of all those that suggest that a better outcome was readily available. Even in today’s faith-based age, we cherish the illusion that enough information and enough planning can bring any enterprise to a successful conclusion; but no outcome is harder to predict in advance than the outcome of a war. That, indeed, was one of the most important but most often neglected insights of the great Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who surely ranks with Tocqueville (and, in my opinion, above Karl Marx) as one of the greatest thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century. Like Tocqueville, who saw democracy as the wave of the future but realized that it could not guarantee healthy or virtuous societies, Clausewitz understood that he could only lay out possibilities, not certainties, because wars were far too complex both militarily and politically to count upon any outcome. That in itself is a tremendously powerful lesson, but unfortunately, it has proven almost impossible for American political leaders to assimilate for very long.

Clausewitz’s classic On War is long and difficult, and it truly requires many years of study to assimilate, but the reader gradually realizes that certain fundamental principles, as well as a few specific questions, pervade it. Many people know his concept of “friction” and the “fog of war,” which makes battles so devilishly hard to understand and requires extraordinary qualities of mind and spirit for generals on the scene to unravel. This is an insight that has survived modern technology, as the repeated attempts to kill Saddam Hussein with air strikes—none of which, we now know, actually aimed at one of his many real hiding places—recently proved. A battle is like a football game, and just as difficult to predict. Generations of military historians—most notably those unhappy partisans of the Confederate States of America—have tried to stand this principle on its head by rewriting the outcome of every critical battle of the civil war to show how it could (or should) have turned out differently. Gettysburg would have been a Confederate victory and perhaps a war-winner as well, if Jeb Stuart hadn’t deserted Lee on the eve of the battle, or if Lee had ordered a further attack on the night of July 1, or if Longstreet had attacked earlier on July 2nd, or. . . But such analyses pretend that all the luck could, in fact, be on one side—something that seems to have happened perhaps once in modern military history, when the Germans attacked the French and British on May 10, 1940. Every side in every campaign and every battle makes mistakes, and battles are usually decided either by a vast preponderance of forces (the way in which the Allies won the Second World War), or by luck.

Certainly in Iraq the United States enjoyed a vast preponderance of firepower, if not of actual numerical forces; but here we came across another of Clausewitz’s basic principles—really the idea of friction raised to the strategic and political level. War, he wrote famously, is an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will—but that means, as he obviously understood better than anyone, that we must count upon the enemy, not ourselves, to acknowledge our victory. Victory has only been secured when the enemy gives up and makes peace. Even then, he wrote, the result is almost never final—the defeated state often looks forward to resuming the conflict in more favorable circumstances. But even leaving that inescapable conclusion aside, the political aspect of war, as the United States has now found yet again, makes it too chancy a business to undertake, really, except in the most exceptional of circumstances.

Again and again in On War Clausewitz analyzes the various campaigns of Napoleon, whom he fought against in Prussia in 1806, in Russia in 1812 and in Germany and France in 1813-4. Napoleon, he noted, compelled the Austrians to make peace twice, in 1805 and in 1809, by winning great battles (Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805, Wagram in 1809) and occupying Vienna, their capital. In 1807 he compelled peace with Prussia and Russia in much the same way. In 1808 he moved into Spain and easily deposed the Bourbon monarchy, but the Spaniards began a national uprising—what we would call today a war of national liberation—that he could not subdue. And most importantly of all, Napoleon in 1812 led his largest army into Russia in another attempt to subdue a hostile power. Aiming as he did at Russia’s complete submission, Clausewitz argues repeatedly, Napoleon carried out the campaign correctly, seeking battle with the Russian Army, defeating (though not destroying) it, and occupying the capital, Moscow. But the Russian Tsar refused to make peace and the Russian people refused to abandon him—and Napoleon had no choice but to retreat in the middle of winter, his flanks threatened at every turn, finally emerging with only a small fraction of his army intact. What did this prove? Clausewitz obviously wrestled with this question for years, and his conclusion emerges after several readings of On War: nothing. One could not, in advance, predict that the Austrians would tamely give way in 1805 and 1809, while the Russians in 1812 would not. Only by running the experiment could one find the answer—and Napoleon’s failure in 1812 left him vulnerable, for the first time, to complete defeat.

History, of course, is riddled with such examples. One of the closest parallels to our recent Iraq war occurred in 1914, when the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, provoked by a spectacular act of state-sponsored terrorism—the assassination of its heir apparent by Serbian military intelligence—decided that Serbia had to be crushed once and for all. The initial Austrian attack on Serbia in 1914 failed dismally, but German troops successfully conquered the country in 1915. Meanwhile, however, Vienna had triggered a European and world War, and in 1918 Austria-Hungary collapsed completely as a result. Hitler in 1940 managed to break the French Republic with an extraordinarily swift campaign—really a case of “shock and awe”—but in the following year, when he attempted to repeat the same triumph against the Soviet Union, the Soviet people stood solidly behind Stalin, and within six months Germany was locked in a death struggle against a much larger and better-armed foe. Japan, having begun war with Russia in 1904 with a surprise attack on a Russian fleet and concluded it successfully a year and a half later with the help of U.S. mediation, intended in 1941 to turn essentially the same trick in reverse. It didn’t work.

In retrospect it has been very easy to suggest that the United States never had much chance in Vietnam, and I myself have argued in American Tragedy that we had ample evidence that the political basis for what we wanted to achieve did not exist. Yet surely no one could have foreseen with certainty that North Vietnam could endure such massive firepower and take such enormous losses without ever seriously considering giving in. North Korea apparently had wearied of the war it had begun by early 1951, but China, backed by Stalin, insisted on continuing the conflict until mid-1953. In Vietnam the Soviets would have far preferred that the war would never have taken place and the Chinese—fervent supporters at the outset—eventually wearied of it, but North Vietnam never wavered.

In retrospect we can see numerous danger signs in Iraq—indeed, their presence in 1991 persuaded the more cautious Administration of Bush I to confine its aims to liberating Kuwait. The Kurds and Shi’ites had clearly suffered heavily under Saddam’s rule and would expect to prosper from his fall. The well-organized Ba’ath party could easily provide the nucleus for resistance. Yet no one could be sure, until the invasion took place, how the Iraqis would react—and indeed, for the first few months, things looked fairly promising. Unfortunately, the Sunnis staged their own version of a national uprising, one with which we lacked the forces to cope, and the Shi’ites have become more and more militant themselves. Both sides are receiving important help from allies like Saudi Arabia and Iran—another development which, Clausewitz noted, could easily alter the outcome of a war that already seemed to be over.

To wise leaders, the inescapable uncertainty of war should militate against embarking upon it unless it is absolutely necessary—which neither Vietnam nor Iraq in 2003 was. Reinforcing this point, Clausewitz also argued repeatedly that defense was the stronger form of warfare, both tactically (since the defender need not move and fire at the same time), and strategically, since the attacked party was more likely to secure the help of allies who recognized a common interest in the survival of sovereign states. The United States implicitly recognized that principle after defeating Axis aggression in the Second World War and wrote it into the UN Charter, which authorized war only in self-defense. It enjoyed considerable allied assistance in the Korean War—another clear case of enemy aggression. But Vietnam never seemed like such a clear-cut case of aggression because South Vietnam was always so fragile, and most of the world rejected the “preventive war” argument over Iraq—in large part because other nations understood that the idea of national sovereignty simply cannot be reconciled with the concept of preventive war. By going on the offense, the United States forfeited a huge strategic advantage. It should not be too late to regain it, but the genie is out of the bottle in Iraq, and more damage, apparently, will be done.


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