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In Search of the ‘Short, Serious War’ Unicorn

The military prefers to plan for the conflict it wants, one that may never happen again.

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: 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 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 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 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 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 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 foreign interventionism.

On the campaign trail, President Trump’s foreign policy “instincts” 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, it appears Trump, too, has set out exorbitant objectives for a military nearing its breaking point 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 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. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” 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.]



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