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On War—It's Not Just a Military Affair Anymore

By Commander Charles W. Laingen, U.S. Navy

First, naval officers are making decisions anchored in an understanding of theories of war that do not adequately match the complex international political arena and its inherent conflict—its causes, conduct, and post-conflict management. This is an era when going to war likely will not include a declaration of war, and when a clear definition of objectives generally will not be forthcoming from the political leadership. Second, the Navy and Marine Corps are using precision weapons whose wondrous capabilities now present moral and ethical dilemmas to those who will use them—dilemmas with which we have not fully come to terms.

What Happened to the Classics?

In R.O.T.C. and at the U.S. Naval Academy, and later at the Naval War College and Postgraduate School, naval officers learn the "classics" of war—Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hart, Sun Tzu, Clausewitz. They learn that we must attack the enemy's centers of gravity, avoid complicated alliances, use deception, conduct war only in the national interest, and avoid protracted and limited engagements. There are differences among the various schools of thought, and they certainly are not presented as absolutes, but naval officers are taught these representative models to understand conflict and engineer successful outcomes.

In recent conflicts, however, we consistently have acted in ways contrary to much of the advice of the classics—and given the political-military environment of the new millennium, we will continue to do so. In Kosovo, we did anything but avoid complicated alliances; instead, we crafted a self-limiting military strategy that took into account the political sensibilities of 19 nations. We did not attack the enemy's center of gravity, which clearly was the political leadership itself. Instead, we sought to reduce the Serbs' capacity to wage war, through a slow attrition of their ground forces. And although there undoubtedly were deception operations during that conflict, the daily showcasing of our sorties and tactics on Cable News Network (CNN) demonstrated a conviction that deception was hardly necessary.

In Iraq, we have not avoided a protracted conflict; we have, off and on for almost nine years, engaged in a low-grade skirmish with cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions. That makes it the longest sustained military operation since Vietnam.

This is not to suggest that the decisions in Kosovo or in Iraq were wrong because they ignored classical military strategy. Given that Iraq and Kosovo represent, arguably, U.S. military victories, it may be more appropriate to suggest that our definition of success in modern conflicts needs an evolved set of classical thought to help inform our conduct of future conflicts.

In this, the naval establishment faces a choice: Should we modify what we teach and reinforce in our officer corps? Do officers need to hear that the classics had their time, but apply less and less in this complex world? That those theorists did not fully understand what we would face today—a host of non-nation-state actors, including terrorists and international criminal organizations; global economic interconnectedness that has made limited war more prudent; the need for military forces to engage more in the management of peace; the "CNN factor" that puts the reality of war in a theater-in-the-round, for all to witness its horrors.

The new realities of conflict include more than the realities of combat. Naval officers increasingly must engage on the political level, to understand and to manage the outcomes of their military actions. One way to be more effective in that endeavor, in part, would be to search for a new set of classics to supplement the old, to help explain and theorize a radically changed world.

Alternatively, we might hold on to the classics, believing that the nature of war will not change at its core; that long-term success for any military venture lies in adherence to the classics; and that our duty is to point this out to our political masters. There is, after all, much to be found among them that does fit today's realities—Liddell Hart's emphasis on the management of peace, and Thucydides' encouragement to search for and uphold universal values in the conduct of war, to name just two.

The answer clearly is a balance between these two alternatives. To continue to reinforce the accepted classics without a more complete study of modern political realities is limiting at best. At worst, it makes naval officers less able to give the best military advice to our political leadership in time of conflict. The conduct of war will be radically different in the next century. Desert Storm, Bosnia, and Kosovo are our reality, and we can expect even more asymmetric and unexpected threats to follow. On their own, the classics are not adequate to explain how those events can be conceived in their conduct or in their outcomes.

Perhaps in a nod to the shifting responsibilities of the naval officer in the political-military arena, there is evidence of a politicization of the officer corps in this country. A recent study on the growing gap between the military and civilian society found that during the past 25 years, there has been a "blurring of roles by the most senior military, who become policy advocates and decision makers, rather than solely advisers," and "believe that it is their role to insist and advocate rather than merely advise on key elements of decisions concerning the use of force."

Far from being a threat to democracy, as some would infer, this politicization makes sense, given the complexity of conflict we engage in today, as much as it makes sense that we increasingly have looked to specialize the officer corps across professional military fields. Far from signaling the emergence of a Soviet-style Zampolit (Red Army political officers), it is, instead, the beginning of an officer corps that more deeply appreciates the limitations a politically complex world has dealt its naval doctrine and the classics of war that have informed it.

Precision Weapons and Their Challenge

A second and related challenge for naval officers in the new millennium lies in the wonders of our technology. We now have weapons with the ability to be profoundly discriminate, fired from remote and relatively safe outposts by men and women who often do not see what they are discriminating against. This technology has operational and ethical implications for U.S. naval officers involved with target selection on the battlefield—officers who, despite the increasing diversity of their targets, from nation-states to less traditionally defined aggressors, will continue to rely on conventional, normative principles of war and "just war" conduct ( jus in bello ), even as our future enemies may not.

In the progression of firepower—from flash powder to a fissionable nuclear warhead—where each development historically has led to a bigger "bang," a reversal of sorts has occurred. In many of the tactical weapons that the United States increasingly is prone to field in combat, as guidance systems have become increasingly accurate and reliable, warhead size has decreased. This has occurred for two reasons. First, a higher proportion of their bulk has been dedicated to guidance systems and fuel to increase range, leaving less room for the warhead. Second, weapon designers have responded to the need for more discriminate weapons, the result of a reluctance by the polity to engage in warfare that produces "collateral" damage.

The existence of these weapons raises a central question: Because there exists an ability to be discriminate, does this obligate one to be more so now than previously? What if a missile must strike a target, for reasons of weather, launch criteria, or another military requirement, at a time when intelligence also reports the likely presence of noncombatants? In World War II, when entire cities were firebombed, such distinctions were not made. Only a third of the bombs dropped on German cities in 1941 came within five miles of their intended targets, and "if any sort of strategic bombing offensive was to be maintained, one would have to plan for the destruction that one could and did cause."

In today's more politically limited engagements, distinctions often are made—and data generally are available to show that such distinctions at the target site exist. One event during Desert Storm highlights the paradox that "smart" weapons present. A Tomahawk was used against a military command-and-control facility in Baghdad. Working as designed, the weapon struck only the structure it was programmed to hit, and nearby housing was undamaged. But civilians were killed inside the structure, which had dual use as an air raid shelter. Later evidence confirmed that the U.S. military targeting cell, responsible for selection and review of potential targets, knew of the dual use of the structure and the potential presence of noncombatants. Indeed, Iraq had made a practice of such collocation as a conscious tactical choice, being well aware of the U.S. concern with collateral damage.

Should the attack have been avoided, or conducted only when intelligence could predict that no civilians were present? The international criticism that ensued, fueled by the unprecedented and intense media coverage of the event, suggested the latter, and the United States did in fact suspend most air strikes in Baghdad for several days, to review the practices of its bombing campaign.

Interestingly, in the soul searching that followed the attack on the air raid shelter in Baghdad, the laws of war and accepted notions of jus in bello had not changed. During this same period, days of carpet bombing of relatively defenseless Iraqi Republican Guard units by B-52s with iron bombs and fuel-air explosives caused thousands of deaths, a fact that aroused far less concern within the international community. But the combination of limited war, the much-heralded "smart" weapons, and virtually unlimited media access and coverage allowed the single hit on the air raid shelter to be a virtual showstopper for the allied assault.

Eight years later, knowing that our aim points can be measured in feet, that same enemy has caused us to further refine our precision weapons in an almost comical way. In the steady bombing of Northern Iraq, militarily valuable targets often are located in populated civilian areas, and even the small warheads of precision-guided munitions might cause collateral damage. To combat this, the U.S. Air Force has begun filling 2,000-pound bombs with concrete instead of explosives. A White House official attributed this to keeping "within the parameters of political acceptability."

For the naval officer who makes decisions about targets, or advises in that process, the environment is becoming increasingly complex. Faced with often stifling rules of engagement, limited or unclear political goals, and a mindset of crisis response, modern limited warfare presents situations that call for decisions that can have far-reaching political effects. In addition, naval officers must carefully examine outcomes from a moral and ethical frame—if only because the outcomes of their actions are watched by a relentless media and judged by a scrutinizing international public.

The ability of the military to stand off and launch precision strikes has built up expectations about limiting American casualties as well. Our intervention in Haiti provides a cogent example: "President Clinton was said to ask before the Haiti adventure what the casualty figures were for recent U.S. military operations in Panama, Grenada and the Gulf, stating that he thought the public would tolerate the average."

William F. Buckley has noted, "The sine qua non of popular support is success. But if the mission is indeed vital, then it has to be carried out, even at the risk of failure." But Buckley's assertion assumes a political-military policy that may be more and more illusory, and naval officers increasingly must understand the political realities of conflict in this frame of reference.

There exists, then, a cultural phenomenon that has grown with the remarkable developments in military technology, and that is a belief that war can be bloodless, or nearly so. The U.S. military's effective use of smart weapons, though glamorized and exaggerated, has raised expectations that the United States will take the lead in bringing this belief to fruition: "Surely a defense establishment that has mastered the capabilities to which the American military presently aspires—the ability to 'see' everything throughout the battlefield, to target with precision, to strike with unprecedented accuracy, great lethality, and minimal collateral damage—is especially well-positioned to adhere to just-war principles such as proportionality and discrimination."

Accepting this, there still is more to debate: Should intelligence be increased to match the needs of smart weapons? (The accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade would affirm this.) Should all weapons have to meet the tests of proportionality and discrimination that the best weapons now do? Is the United States obligated to spend money to meet these new criteria, because it desires to conduct limited, high-tech conflicts to achieve its national interests?

The decisions made with smart weapons in current conflicts will set the precedent for the high-tech generation of warfare that is only now beginning. For example, the decision to attack the Iraqi command-and-control center/ air raid shelter may have been wrong, given the politically negative outcome it produced. Whatever the military value of the target, the costs to the United States in terms of damage to its reputation probably outweighed any gains militarily.

Of course, the outcome—the civilian deaths, the intense media coverage, the world condemnation—could not have been predicted easily. This example is meant only to highlight the unpredictability of the environment in which military planners work. International relations are replete with misperceptions, unknowns, and misgivings—which all become magnified in the precarious situation of modern limited warfare, using incredibly sophisticated weapons. War planners therefore must have a heightened sense of the potential outcomes of their decisions.

"On War" in the Time Ahead

There is a danger that hypersensitivity to political-military issues will breed weakness in strictly military affairs. War, after all, will remain far from bloodless, and we do not want to handicap our warriors psychologically or intellectually. But there is no denying that more and more, modern combat will present situations that cannot be answered in strictly military terms. A heightened sensibility to the political realities of a smaller, globalized world, and the smart weapons we use within it, is increasingly important.

The formal and informal education modern naval officers receive, and their experiences throughout their careers, already involve considerably more than military and technical matters. The scope of that education needs to expand even further, to include a better understanding of the classics of war—where they apply, where they don't, and where we need to look for a more relevant explanation of the wars we will fight and the ways to best wage them.

Commander Laingen , a naval aviator, is a special assistant for the Secretary of the Navy and is the prospective executive officer of Helicopter Training Squadron Eight in Pensacola, Florida.



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