Shifting objectives shifts outcomes

I recently finished the first draft for my book on the nine principles of war, reformulated and recast as they should be applied to business. My friend Tom read the draft to provide some initial comments, and we ended up talking about whether to add a discussion on the seeming inapplication of strategy to the long-running wars against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then, as if on cue, an article by Mark Kukis appeared on whether wars can be “won” today at all.

The research is extremely helpful on this question, and there is no real arguing with the facts. But let’s take apart this paragraph:

In these internal, fragmented conflicts, victory is elusive for any party involved. From 1946 to 1989, for instance, there were 141 internal conflicts worldwide. Of those, 82 ended when one party achieved victory. From 1990 to 2005, there were 147 internal conflicts. Of those, only 20 ended with one faction legitimately claiming victory. Put another way, since 1990, less than 14 per cent of internal conflicts produced a clear winner. About 20 per cent produced a ceasefire. And about 50 per cent simply persisted. Statistically, the odds of the US coming up a winner in a modern war are perhaps as low as one in seven.

The last sentence, with US odds of “winning” as low as 1/7, is a great bit of writing, but entirely misleading. Yes, those are the numbers overall, but they aren’t the number of conflicts in which the US participated. So that’s issue number one.

But the real question is tied to the sotto voce thesis of the article: we can’t win wars the old way because we’ve chosen not to fight them the old way.

Here’s a later line that connects this “problem” with the principle of Objective:

No significant debate arose about what victory might mean.

Objective: direct all efforts towards a clearly defined, decisive, and obtainable goal.

As a former Army infantry officer, we prefer missions that meet this standard. What we knew then is something I practice daily as a lawyer: being forced to define success in a clear manner is valuable not just because of the outcome, but because the process requires someone to actually think about what success looks like. That Eisenhower-like approach leads to better outcomes.

The recent conflicts described in the article are different from the older wars for one basic reason: we decided not to conduct wars in the same way. We decided that killing vast numbers of otherwise innocent civilians was no longer acceptable to us. This theme is recognized briefly but then ignored for most of the article.

We made war harder because we imposed humanitarian or moral or practical limits on ourselves. No longer would we choose to engage in actions like the fire-bombing of Dresden, the aerial bombardment of London, or the bombing of Hanoi. We have chosen to try to conduct operations around civilians rather than against them.

Because we respect the fundamental human rights of the people who live in, under, and near the regimes or bad actors we are fighting (whether Saddam Hussein, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or ISIS), we have created a new set of rules. They make things much harder for us. Like a grandmaster who plays a novice and starts out by taking off two rooks and agreeing not to attack any pawns, the chances of “victory” go down.

Add to that the distinction between traditional military objectives: the destruction of people or materiel and the occupation of territory, and the nation’s goals in these new conflicts are certainly fuzzier than what might have guided us in the past.

To me, the notion of “no victory” is really about two things: (1) our decision not to kill seemingly innocent civilians and (2) goals for the end state of the conflict that do not match up with traditional military objectives. You want stuff blown up? The Air Force does that better than anyone on the planet. You want to go build a nation? You send the Special Forces, but it takes a really long time and there aren’t enough of those hard-charging heroes to remake a whole country. A village or tribe? Of course. A region? Probably. All of Afghanistan? Probably not.

And finally, a post-script: another thing that has changed about our approach from WWII is that we have greater respect for self-determination. We might be keen on an interim level of control to smooth over the transition, but we’d be loathe to instill the equivalent of a modern-day MacArthur to rule over post-Imperial Japan. Inherent in that value judgment is the recognition that some of those people will choose systems that are not only not controlled by us (cf. 1970s Philippines) but not necessarily even favorable toward us. That’s really okay though: “If you love something, set it free.”

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