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In Search of the ‘Short, Serious War’ Unicorn

Military intellectuals—that ever-endangered species, barely surviving in the perennial “yes-man” Pentagon culture—tend to fixate on the “trinity” strategy.

There’s even a formula [1]: Ways + Means = Ends.

Essentially, the military’s (or the nation’s) desired objectives (ends) can only be achieved if sufficient resources (means) are coupled with effectual methods (ways). Any significant shortfall in ways or means translates into increasing risk. Sensible enough, right?

In a recent article [2] at Small Wars Journal, titled “America’s Unimportant, Unserious Wars,” John Bolton, one of these rare and talented military thinkers (no, he’s not that [3] John Bolton, but an active duty Army major), argues that the U.S. strategic trinity is way out of whack. And you know what, this Bolton isn’t wrong.


He describes a professional military, uncoupled from the populace it protects, spending decades waging forever wars. Though his piece is full of sage nuggets, the key conclusions are what resonated for me. “America must make a choice between pursuing interests in full or redefining national priorities,” he writes. Of late, he contends, U.S. wars have been “small and permanent” rather than “serious and short.” Given the choice, Bolton, understandably, appears to prefer the latter.

Still, the piece, which I read half a dozen times, got me thinking about the very concept of “short, serious wars.” Sure, military men tend to prefer them—it’s what they’re “trained for” after all—but isn’t the short, serious war really just a unicorn of sorts?      

How many short, serious wars has the U.S. actually fought? It depends how you define “short,” and how big a commitment is required for a war to be considered “serious.” There was the War of 1812, but that took three years and was an embarrassing draw at best. Perhaps the Spanish-American conflict—that “splendid little war”—is a candidate, but even there, initial triumph led only to decades of counterinsurgency quagmire [4] in the newly acquired Philippines.

No, I think the favorite example, at least among contemporary military men, is the First Persian Gulf War of 1991. After an extended air campaign softened up Iraq’s army, U.S. and Allied ground forces launched a lightning 100-hour assault and decisively expelled the Iraqis from Kuwait. This, to be sure, was the perfect war.

The Gulf War, though, was itself the product of the U.S. military’s painful reaction to defeat in Vietnam, which used to be America’s longest war. After Vietnam, so the triumphalist and self-congratulatory narrative [5] goes, sensible military men disgusted by the political restrictions on counterinsurgency in Vietnam vowed to professionalize and reorganize the new all-volunteer force (AVF) to win the “big” war with Russia in Europe. And it worked, we’re told. Equipped with new tanks, choppers, and infantry assault vehicles, President Reagan’s newly proud and cash-infused military was ready when duty called and his successor, Bush the Elder, whipped Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Kuwait. Hoo-rah!

Here’s the problem: what if Gulf War ’91 was actually the anomaly, and “small, permanent” wars and big, cataclysmic wars (Civil War, both World Wars, etc.) are the norm in U.S. military history? If that’s true, and the evidence suggests that it is, then learning from or pining for the anomaly seems a dangerous game.

Look again, closely now, at the Persian Gulf triumph—which, incidentally, the current national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, heroically [6] served in. U.S. commanders couldn’t have written a more one-sided scenario. It was short and serious (and successful) because it played to all our strengths. Sure, we could do it again, but only if a poorly trained Arab conscript army equipped with generation-old Soviet equipment decided to duke it out with Uncle Sam in conventional combat in an open desert without air support. Come on, how likely is that? The enemy gets a vote, and you can bet America’s adversaries and competitors were watching back in ’91. No one is likely to make that mistake again.

So maybe the problem isn’t that the U.S. is fighting the wrong kinds of wars, but rather that it’s using the military in matters truly disconnected from national defense. On this, I don’t think Major Bolton would disagree.

The real problem, unfortunately, is in the ends themselves. Washington, despite its staggering $716 billion military budget, has spent decades on a quixotic quest for unreachable ends. “Defeating terror” and “spreading democracy” throughout the greater Middle East were never remotely achievable. Terrorism is a tactic, not a tangible foe, and democracy tends to take hold thanks to local actors and conditions, not [7] foreign interventionism.

On the campaign trail, President Trump’s foreign policy “instincts [8]” were occasionally sound: the Middle East was a mess, the Iraq War was stupid, and maybe war with Russia was a bad idea. Unfortunately, after one disappointing year in office and his secretary of defense’s recently released National Defense Strategy [9], it appears Trump, too, has set out exorbitant objectives for a military nearing its breaking point [10] after 16-plus years of continuous war.

The NDS lists 11 “defense objectives” (even the Lord kept it to 10). Notable is number five: “Maintaining favorable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere.” Wait, isn’t that everywhere? The NDS asserts the need for favorable “balances of power” on just about every continent. That’s not defense, it’s hegemony.

So if George W. Bush’s end were the spread of democracy, and both his and Barack Obama’s end was the “defeat” of terror, then it appears Trump’s Pentagon has added another: let’s call it “indefinite global hegemony.” Step back a second and imagine the ways and means necessary to balance that strategic checkbook, even if, as it seems, Trump has wisely jettisoned the original Bush democracy agenda. Global hegemony in an increasingly multipolar world, combined with the “defeat” of terrorism the tactic, is a tall order indeed.

There’s no “short, serious” war available that can secure those mammoth—and fanciful—objectives. At the very least, massive, simultaneous deterrence forces will have to forward deploy to Europe, the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea, and South Korea, indefinitely. For a country with a $20 trillion [11] debt and an exhausted military, a new, even more massive cold war (plus ongoing hot wars in the greater Middle East), serves no one—except, of course, the military-industrial complex.

Maybe that’s the point.

Major Danny Sjursen, a regular TAC contributor, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge [12]. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet [13] and check out his new podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” [14] co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "In Search of the ‘Short, Serious War’ Unicorn"

#1 Comment By kazukli bey On February 21, 2018 @ 10:30 pm

Well, at least NDS 11 isn’t worried about the strategic balance in Antarctica. I guess the Dresden Accords still hold.

Operation Desert Storm, the splendid little war that DID work, however did awaken a sleeping giant and fill it with a terrible resolve. The Chinese army at that time the Iraqi army writ large. The generals watched in shock and awe as the Iraqi’s radar and radios were destroyed the minute they were turned on. The Air Force sensibly fled, to fight another day which never came. The army blind, deaf, and mute became a non factor. Not that China’s modernization began in serious at that time. From a relic that could be slapped around by Vietnam, it is truly a near peer that can easily defend the homeland and credibly project power in the Pacific.

#2 Comment By spite On February 22, 2018 @ 4:35 am

If things keep going as they are now they may just get their short war, but not exactly the one they wanted. If these lunatics (there is no other way to describe these people anymore) carry on this path then they will get their short war in form of a full scale 100 minute nuclear missile exchange.

For those that think this is hyperbole, compare the Syrian situation with the Balkans before WW2 (especially the foreign entanglements), show me where the voices of reasons are because I see none, show me how the MIC can reverse course on this self created beast that must have conflict at all costs.

#3 Comment By Kent On February 22, 2018 @ 6:20 am

I never allowed any of my children to join the military. The organization is marginally competent at best. I always imagined some nitwit president sending my boys to hit the beach in southern China with 50,000 other Americans only to be met by 100,000,000 Chinese boy defending their nation and families. Send yours if you must. I won’t call them heroes when they return in caskets.

#4 Comment By ray farrell On February 22, 2018 @ 8:34 am

I would interpret Maj Bolton’s short serious wars to include the War of 1812, the Civil War, the World Wars and Korea. 4 or 5 years is short, for a war.

Non-sequiter: I never bought ends ways and means as a sound basis for strategy. Ends are a good way of thinking about tactical or operational objectives, but not about strategic ones – which are really too open-ended for the concept. And they never do ‘end’ for one thing. Strategy does not have goals that can be checked off as accomplished. It aims to work towards or maintain or avoid situations. Endlessly.

#5 Comment By Ronald Sevenster On February 22, 2018 @ 10:22 am

The main problem of modern warfare is that it isn’t really warfare. A war should be short, as the author says, but other elements are also necessary: it must be cruel and devastating for the enemy. And American warfare lacks these two thingsm because of humanitarian considerations.

To win a war you to set aside all humanitarian concerns. You have to do a lot of killing — without excluding civilians — so much in fact that enemy’s morale collapses. And you have destroy all the enemy’s infrastructure, not just military infrastructure.

Moreoever, what is needed most is excessive violence. Violence must never be “proportionate”. Instead, you should use as much violence as is possible. For this will deter third parties who are always lurking to engage in the conflict, and other possible enemies, of which there are always a lot.

In short, warfare can only be successful by returning to the classic manuals of military science, and by rejecting all the humanitarian
demands that have emerged over the years.

#6 Comment By Ray Farrell On February 22, 2018 @ 11:15 am

It seems to me that since those thousands of American soldiers are still somebody’s children, the more important problem is ensuring that some nitwit president (or congress) never sends them at all – or at least only at greatest need.

I would further suggest that the distance between most Americans and their military in terms of personal or close experience enables the easy, endless wars that you regret. If more Americans did have a son or daughter in the service they would probably be less keen to vote for hawks.

#7 Comment By Fred Bowman On February 22, 2018 @ 11:56 am

Major Bolton “Hit the Note” with his closing comment about the Military-Industrial Complex. Indeed the MIC needs continuing wars and the prospects of wars to justify it gluttonous appitude and to prop-up the American Empire. Unfortunately the Republic from which this Empire emerged is being “hollowed out” and being driven into bankruptcy in the process. And at some point this “House of Cards” will fall. Indeed in many ways it’s already teetering on the edge of collapse. And when that day comes, as Bob Dylan once sang “A hard rain going to fall”.

#8 Comment By b. On February 22, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

“serves no one—except, of course, the military-industrial complex. Maybe that’s the point.”

Pretext exegesis, even as valuable as this, will always fall short.

Follow the money. Who benefits?

Here is my Grand Unified Theory of the American Con. Use

Ways + Means = Ends


“Funding-controlled elections”
“Inherited, incorporated Wealth”
“Private profit extracted from government spending financed by tax revenue-backed debt.”

Neither general staff nor elected representatives nor corporate executives and majority shareholders – not even unions and pension funds – that are part of the – in the original translation – congressional-military-industrial complex are in any way concerned about any of the pretexts presented in the endlessly mutating variants of our “national securities” con. “Defense” has been left behind a long time ago, long before containment, rollback and dominoes.

The disconnect and the dysfunction of these “war-related program activities” are the direct result of this – these wares are unwinnable because winnable campaigns are less suited for maximization of profit extraction.

We have become a nation of war profiteers. From school shootings to illegal invasion and occupation of no-longer-sovereign nations, we accept anything and will let our elites pursue anything that perpetuates and extends this scam. To discuss which kind of war would be more “sensible” to prepare for is simply to add another vector that will allow the disease to spread.

This debate has to start with the profits and the profiteers. Just debating costs, risks, or the preponderance of – for us – undesirable outcomes is sustaining a complete misunderstanding of the incentive structures and the motivations of the perpetrators.

War Profiteers “R” US.

#9 Comment By b. On February 22, 2018 @ 2:01 pm

“Of late, he contends, U.S. wars have been ‘small and permanent’ rather than ‘serious and short.’ Given the choice, Bolton, understandably, appears to prefer the latter.”

Given how strenuously he argues that “domestic strife” and “culture wars” and a by-and-large non-existent “isolationism” among Trump (and Sanders) supporters effectively and tragically sidelined by the bipartisan war profiteering consensus, once has to ask whether Bolton’s critique extends no further than to indeed find those elusive “winnable” wars.

“American can achieve its ends through domestic tranquility, financial solvency, and increasing economic power. That Americans are turning their back on free trade and the internal institutions that secured and sustained the peace for three generations – NATO, the UN, and the World Bank – should give us pause.”

Given the role of NATO in the current confrontation with Russia, or the failure of the UN in preventing e.g. the illegal invasion of Iraq or the annexation of Palestinian territory, or the collective punishment of Yemeni civilians, it should give us pause that Bolton appears to be fully committed to the purpose and performance of these institutions. As for domestic tranquility, let me maliciously present a pun:

“Ironically, our adversaries trust their own despotic regimes more than we trust our own.”

It is a pervasive affliction, especially among authoritarians. With respect to Bolton’s attitudes towards hegemony:

“The emerging global paradigm is less Cold War great power standoff than it is 19th Century Rush for Africa.”

I am sure we could use another King Leopold or II for profitable public-private partnerships.

Bolton is blaming Trump for a neo-con-lib bipartisan consensus that is virtually unopposed by the US elites and the US voting and non-voting adult public. In fact, the only meaningful opposition to it comes from the – since 2009 –
vanishing minority of principled “social justice” anti-war protesters and the out-of-turn primary declarations of Trump (and the muted, but persistent criticism made by Sanders, who is, unfortunately, not doing enough to be accused of isolationism).

Without the domestic strife in the 60’s, how long would the US have continued to produce failed or despotic states in Vietnam, Cambodia and beyond?

“American can achieve its ends through domestic tranquility..”

America needs the exact opposite of our suffocating domestic tranquility so that we finally redefine an end to the Clintonian hegemony that Bolton has such difficulties letting go. There has been way to little noise in the abbatoirs and ossuaries of our many profitable wars.

#10 Comment By b. On February 22, 2018 @ 2:13 pm

“American can achieve its ends through domestic tranquility, financial solvency, and increasing economic power.”

Both alleged financial solvency – the continued ability to borrow for unproductive ways and ends –
and that “exceptional” economic power were produced and upheld by

a) an enormous fossil fuel subsidy (even beyond the 1970’s, but in passing again by a fracking bubble resulting from a low interest debt-driven Ponzi scheme)


b) a global military hegemony backed up by proxies like “NATO, the UN, or the World Bank”, as well as arms exports.

Bolton confuses the “ends” with the “means”. The US cannot maintain its current standard of living without coercion and repression. To quote George Kennan:

“Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of the its population…. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”

Militarized wealth makes for a powerful feedback loop, but it is not a perpetual device – without an external subsidy – such as fossil fuels – it cannot produce more wealth than it consumes. Bolton wants the outputs without accounting for the feed.

But I am sure domestic realignment and consensus will fix us right up…. Never before have I heard accountability, checks and balances described as “tranquility”.

#11 Comment By fabian On February 22, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

You have all the military academies amongst the best 10 colleges regularly. Then you’d better keep these geniuses busy or they may turn inward…

#12 Comment By Light Horse Harry On February 22, 2018 @ 2:40 pm

Major Bolton’s comrades need more than short, serious war unicorns capable of clearing battlefieds by lifting barbed wire with their horns. We must not allow the unicorn gap to widen.

CRISPR technology could provide a unicornicopiaof advances in the operational art, molecular genetics could help wean our armored divisions of fossil fuel dependence, with Cyldesdale sized field artillery monocerids, and horsefly-sized stealth nanocorns may soon power drones on multi-furlong missions with unobservable electronic & thermal signatures, and only a murmur of whinnying.

#13 Comment By Michael Fumento On February 22, 2018 @ 4:44 pm

Interesting article. It’s hard to be ready to fight a major conventional war and still have the capacity to engage in lower-intensity wars. That was part of the idea of creating the US Army Special Forces. To leverage teams of usually 12 men with the local population. But in Vietnam that fell apart when the North began sending down masses of conventional forces with tanks. Tit-for-tat required US conventional forces.

This isn’t to say conventional forces aren’t useful in guerrilla conflicts; I witnessed and wrote about how they helped win the Battle of Ramadi But the single individual most responsible for that was a Green Beret, Travis Patriquin, who used his expertise to win over local tribes.

Of course, you have to have something serious to offer those natives. And in Iraq against ISIS we certainly do. We also do in Afghanistan. But the Taliban are native Afghans and a brave and intelligent foe. We lost our chance to secure the country by diverting men, materiel, and money to Iraq. The Taliban took advantage of that and I’m afraid at this point the best we can do is go back to pre-9/11 Afghanistan with the Taliban controlling most of the country.

BUT fact is, the Taliban shouldn’t want international terrorists in their territory. That may be a wedge we can exploit.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 22, 2018 @ 8:22 pm

this has been a tough article to respond to because it’s import is really to insiders in strategic an tactical thinking. It’s an essential discussion to the unfinished work of restructuring the US military to operate in a post cold war environment.

It does not really address the initial problem of legitimate causes to go to war in the first place. It doesn’t examine the first order — the political ends. The purpose of the military is ultimately to exercise force to a political end, not one that is military.

What determine a short war from a long war — the ability to bring to immediacy and end to the opposition is tactical, strategies and resource driven. When examining the first Gulf effort, I think it would be remiss to ignore that our efforts had enormous international support and participation, including from Muslims. Iraq really stood alone. The political interests were fundamentally clear to most participants and supporters.

In the second conflict, we were scraping and pressuring support, much-more participation. If the political objective is either in correct, nebulous, fragmented or simply unjustified short or long war — the very purpose of the engagement is going to suffer adjudication.

I appreciate the example of the Taliban because it highlights the problem.

Incorrect assessment — the Taliban were not
fighting to protect
terrorists, they were
fighting a US invasion.

The failure to distinguish the Taliban defending their country was further muddied by calling any loyal Taliban defender as akin with the terrorists involved in 9/11.

Our failure to treat the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan ignored a standard practice among nations – seeking extradition of wanted suspects is outlined in treaty process or common understandings negotiated by relevant parties. Ignoring the realities of the loose confederation constituting the government in essence dismissed a required step when seeking extradition of wanted parties. Was a political and strategic mistake because obtaining custody would require the assistance of the Taliban or other associated parties. Instead of a criminal process that could be accomplished via FBI, and special opts, large scale invasion exploded and already complex set of parameters that would inevitably lead us to where we are now.

so despite the prevalence of COIN processes as utilized by Travis Patriquin, to gain trust and cooperation our choice to invade subverted the objectives of arresting and or killing the 9/11 conspirators as well as encouraging democracy – or self determination

I think it’s important to get the strategic and tactical parameters needed to said conflicts correct.

But before we put men at risk, I would like a better political assessment(s).

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 22, 2018 @ 8:24 pm

Laughing . . .

of course in addressing strategic and tactical issues, restarting a “cold war” might be one way to go.

#16 Comment By Scott Kuli On February 23, 2018 @ 10:42 am

Truthful and correct on all counts, and I love the “isn’t that everywhere?” comment.

The author will no doubt be demoted in rank for this. You don’t go telling the truth without permission in today’s military.

#17 Comment By Fred On February 24, 2018 @ 8:47 am

Right Ronald Sevenster, just don’t cry when they target your civilians. But then that may be exactly what you hope for, what better way to rally the people for the next bit of neocon stupidity.

#18 Comment By Ronald Sevenster On February 24, 2018 @ 6:55 pm

To Fred: This isn’t neocon stupidity. An additional aspect of it is that one should only go to war in order to preserve one’s vital interests, not to correct injustice or to “make the world a better place”.

And, yes, our enemies will target our civilians. But that’s what they are now already trying, so that won’t change much. There’s only one way to survive, and that’s to kill them before they kill us. Just as there is only one way to prevent genocide: Make sure it won’t happen to yourself. I know that this sounds cruel. It is cruel. But it is the reality we live in. I don’t glorify it, I just take it into account.

#19 Comment By paradoctor On February 26, 2018 @ 5:36 pm

Means become ends in themselves.

#20 Comment By GR On February 26, 2018 @ 6:13 pm

there’s only one way to survive, and that’s to kill them before they kill us. Just as there is only one way to prevent genocide: Make sure it won’t happen to yourself. I know that this sounds cruel. It is cruel. But it is the reality we live in. I don’t glorify it, I just take it into account.

That isn’t a blueprint for preventing genocide. That’s a blueprint for COMMITTING it.