The subject of this essay is an unpopular one: not winning. This is not the same as losing. It means fighting a limited war to a draw. In limited war circumstances, victory can no longer be cast in the traditional mold. We cannot aspire to “win” in the historical sense of annihilating the enemy.
This subject is important because Americans are not ready psychologically to wage limited war.
This subject is also important because the possibility of limited war challenges grows larger all the time. Nearly all of the responsible leaders in American life—political, military and academic—have expressed the view that limited military action, cleverly designed to be obscure and ambiguous, is the most likely form of military challenge to be expected from the Communist bloc in the future. With the development and deployment of relatively invulnerable nuclear retaliatory forces, and with the fuller realization throughout the world of the awful penalties to be suffered by all in the event of all-out war, general war becomes less likely; limited war becomes more probable.
In the light of this situation, many have examined the readiness of the United States to meet limited war challenges. Their examination has been framed largely in terms of military capability to wage limited war.
Capability, however, is only part of the picture. Readiness consists of two factors: capability and willingness. Important as an actual capacity to act may be, it is essentially meaningless unless we also have the will to act.
Just how ready are we in this sense? Can we discern correctly those limited war challenges that may be presented to us? Do we have the will and the wisdom to respond quickly and in a manner appropriate to the challenge and our interests in the matter?
Before attempting to answer these questions, it is necessary that we understand clearly the meaning of the term “limited war” as used in our discussion.
Definitions of limited war are almost as numerous as writers on the subject. One school, for example, holds that limited war is all warfare except general war itself, which in turn is characterized as any conflict in which Soviet and American forces directly oppose one another. Bernard Brodie, on the other hand, broadens the term limited war to include wars in which the United States on the one side and the Soviet Union on the other side may be directly involved, but concedes that wars by proxy are more likely. The distinguishing feature, in his view, is the exercise of deliberate restraint in the employment of one’s available military power, particularly strategic air attacks.
Several authors, among them Robert Osgood, Dean Acheson, Oskar Morgenstern, and Henry A. Kissinger, have stressed that limited war is fought for specific political goals and does not put the very existence of the opposing states at issue. It seeks to affect the opponent’s will, not to crush it. The fundamental feature of limited war, according to Morgenstern, is “the limitation of aims to something radically below the threat to the enemy’s very existence.” Military actions are thus contained within politically set bounds and are deprived of the full play of alternatives which military considerations alone might allow.
Although he recognizes the necessary relationship between limited war and limited objectives, Brodie focuses attention on “the crucial fact that the restraint that is necessary to keep wars limited is primarily a restraint on means, not ends.” His point is in essence that it is possible to have a war for limited objectives without imposing restraints on the means employed. In this case, the almost inevitable consequence is a build-up to all-out war. Limited war, in Brodie’s view, connotes a deliberate hobbling of tremendous military power that is already in being and that must in any case be maintained at a very high state of effectiveness, for the sake only of inducing the enemy to hobble himself to like degree.
Such deliberate restraint is an extremely hard prescription for a nation to follow.
In practical terms, it can mean fighting to a draw. It can mean fighting with one hand tied behind our back. It implies indecisive fighting, sparring, uneasy truces with the issues still unresolved.
Limited war can mean safe havens, where an enemy can fall back and regroup behind a convenient Yalu River. Perhaps it will be characterized by shadowy, undefined enemies —volunteers or guerrillas. Maybe our enemy will receive aid and comfort from an ostensible neutral, important help in the form of intelligence, material support, and professional leadership. And this assistance will be given almost openly, with our tacit acceptance because the political stakes do not warrant a direct challenge to the neutral who is providing the aid and comfort.
It is also possible to visualize a situation where limited war is not dignified by a formal declaration of war, or even by a general recognition by the people that they are engaged in military conflict. Consequently, the military forces of the opposing sides may discover themselves involved in small-scale internecine slug-fests, perhaps along the lines of the Russo-Japanese battles in Manchuria just prior to World War II. More likely, perhaps, are hit-and-run engagements, what might be called “fights of opportunity.”
These might appear in the form of chance encounters, or as deliberate probing actions. Perhaps they would attempt to take limited advantage of a momentarily favorable situation. The fighting can very well be intense, insofar as the engaged forces are concerned. But, the controlling element will be restraint insofar as national actions and reactions are concerned. There would be little or no military follow-up, either to press an advantage or to recoup a setback.
From the above, we can synthesize the basic characteristics of limited war to guide us in the discussion which follows. These characteristics have a direct bearing on the psychological readiness of the American people to wage this kind of warfare.
(a) The challenges may very well be ill- defined and ambiguous, with the enemy hard to identify clearly. It may not even be possible to persuade the bulk of the people that war exists.
(b) Intentional restraints on military means will be accepted. This will generate significant self-imposed restrictions on the area and scope of conflict, the weapons and strategy to be employed and the forces to be committed.
(c) The political objectives will be limited. National survival of the opponents will not be directly at stake.
(d) Direct encounters between Soviet and American forces are possible, but war by proxy is more likely.
With these in mind, let us examine some of the attributes of the American people which affect our psychological readiness to fight limited wars.
Our historical experience tends to make timely recognition of obscure and ambiguous challenges difficult or impossible. As a nation we have been slow to wrath. Our historic concept of aggression has been so purist and absolute that our statesmen have almost been absolved from the need to make decisions in ambiguous situations. In both World Wars I and II, our direct involvement was withheld until the threat had become clear-cut. Aggression was so blatant in Korea in 1950 that the challenge should have been unmistakable, but even in this situation, there was considerable confusion in the public mind as to the validity and seriousness of threat. In his excellent analysis of American public opinion, The American People and Foreign Policy, Gabriel A. Almond concludes that so long as there is no immediate, sharply defined threat, the American attitude is vague and indefinite, characterized by apathy, mild apprehension, and skepticism.
But, as Dr. Kissinger has pointed out, by the time the threat has become unambiguous it may be too late to resist it. Hence, our inability to recognize an obscure challenge may seriously inhibit our psychological readiness to wage limited war.
Another factor which adversely affects our willingness is public complacency. This is highlighted in a joint statement by the Association of the U. S. Army, the Air Force Association, and the Navy League, issued on 24 September 1960, which states that “national complacency concerning the Communist threat and our ability to counter it is an internal enemy that deserves the full attention of all areas of our leadership.” Dr. James B. Conant, former President of Harvard University and former U. S. Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, reports that during his travels around the country in the past two years, he sensed almost no awareness of the nature of our peril. For the most part, he encountered little but complacency. A people which is unconcerned and complacent is not prepared psychologically to react quickly and effectively to limited war challenges.
This lack of will to act is aggravated by our national proclivity to view war and peace as distinctly separate phenomena. As a result of our tendency to shuttle from all-out peace to all-out war, both in our actions and in our point of view, we have been notoriously slow to anticipate conflict or to prepare for it physically or psychologically. Western democratic tradition tends to regard war as a departure from the normal pattern of international life resulting from a breakdown of orthodox diplomacy. We have traditionally taken a very narrow and stylized view of conflict. Consequently, we are ill-prepared to appreciate the larger dimensions of protracted conflict as practiced by the Communists. This may lead us to attempt to handle many conflict situations, including obscure limited war challenges, by the conventional procedures of peacetime diplomacy in the Western tradition.
The natural American abhorrence of the use of force also undercuts our psychological readiness to respond to limited war threats. Ours is a society based on law and order; we have a strong moral aversion to violence in our personal affairs and in our national life, which translates itself into a reluctance to use power, particularly military power, in international relations. For more than a century, the United States has not been able to come to terms with the concept of using selective force. Beginning as early as 1840, there were organized expressions of public feeling proclaiming a deep-seated suspicion of an approach to our problems by force. Paradoxically, the abhorrence of the use of military power does not lead to absolute pacifism. “It does not prevent participation—in fact, enthusiastic participation—in war when war cannot honorably be avoided,” writes Robert Osgood. “However, it does inhibit indulgence in the enormous evil of war for limited, prosaic ends of national policy.”
This points up another aspect of the American character which interferes with our ability to wage limited war. Reluctant though we may be to resort to force in international affairs, when we have finally been goaded into using it, we tend to convert war into a crusade. As George Kennan has noted: “Democracy fights in anger—it fights for the very reason that it was forced to go to war. It fights to punish the power that was rash enough and hostile enough to provoke it—to teach that power a lesson it will not forget, to prevent the thing from happening again.” The almost inevitable result of such an emotional binge is total war. The only effective way of preventing the thing from happening again is to crush the enemy’s capacity to fight, to place his very survival at issue. This is all-out war, not limited war. There is, in other words, a built-in trend to leap from inaction to the application of overwhelming force, which in itself militates against the likelihood of being able to employ selective force in a limited war context.
This built-in tendency is aggravated by the viewpoint expressed in some circles that possession of a military capability to handle all-out war automatically endows a nation with the ability to deal with all lesser threats. Rightly or wrongly, the public mind tends to interpret this viewpoint as a military conviction that our nuclear striking forces, such as the Strategic Air Command and the Polaris system, are the logical and the only forces needed to cope with limited war challenges.
All of these factors, and some others, such as our reliance on empirical solutions, our lack of experience in tragedy, and our difficulty in adjusting our tactics to new situations, affect adversely the American psychological readiness to wage limited war, both insofar as general public opinion is concerned and as pertains to our national political and military leadership. There are several additional ones which have a particular impact on our professional military approach to limited war. For example, there is the fortunately vanishing tendency to plan from the “purely military point of view.”
As one statesman has pointed out, this phrase is not synonymous with the best military opinion. It usually means a viewpoint which automatically assumes the willingness and ability of a population to fight, and to be prepared to fight, without concern for any consequences except those which it hoped to inflict upon the enemy. Planning from the “purely military point of view” in essence excludes from consideration the very political and psychological factors which are crucial to the issue. Hence, plans drafted in this atmosphere can be so unrealistic as to be rejected out of hand when the occasion arises for their application in limited war circumstances.
This aptly pinpoints the planning difficulties which face the military in attempting to cope with limited war. An overriding characteristic of this type of conflict is the existence of restrictive ground rules which define the relationship of military activities to political objectives. Its distinguishing feature is that it has no “purely” military solution. Military planning becomes very conjectural, very subtle, and very indeterminate under these circumstances, since the limits are not set by military considerations or military capacity. The framework within which military plans are to be developed and military operations to be conducted is defined by the political purposes for which limited war is being fought. The delineation of these parameters is a responsibility of our political leadership. Since it is quite possible that our national leaders will lack the foresight or initiative to set out in advance the political planning guidelines to cover all limited war contingencies, strategic planners in military headquarters may be forced under some conditions to plan in a policy vacuum.
Even when policy guidance is forthcoming, the military cannot be complacent. Consider, for example, the generally accepted proposition that we would be able to use nuclear weapons in limited war. The strategic planner or the operational commander who relies implicitly on the inviolability of such a policy statement may be in for a rude shock when political and moral considerations in the context of a particular limited war challenge induce our national leaders to conclude that we cannot use our atomic capability after all.
Another factor which acts as a restraint on the psychological readiness of the military planner to respond to limited war situations is in essence a reflection of the broader American viewpoint which tends to compartmentalize peace and war in distinctly separate entities. The statesman handles the former, the military man takes care of the latter. The warrior thinks and acts in terms of violence and war, and is followed by the diplomat who wages global peace. Consequently, the military man is prone to consider his task discharged if he gains a crushing victory on the battlefield. In the absence of formal war, he tends to blink at the existence of conflict situations, or to consider them solely the concern of the diplomat.
Our national attitude toward peace and war is also reflected in the American military tradition of victory. This has perhaps the most significant inhibiting influence on the professional military approach to limited war.
There is no intention here to deprecate the priceless heritage embodied in such stirring battle cries as John Paul Jones’s “I have not yet begun to fight” or Perry’s “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” But we must in all honesty recognize that this tradition of victory makes it more difficult for our military leaders, from the high command to the small unit commander, to forego quick, decisive victory in the usual sense for what in reality is a draw. This dilemma is well reflected in comments of General Douglas MacArthur shortly after his return from Korea in 1951: “Recent events point to a startling and dangerous shift in our basic military concept,” he said in a speech to the American Legion Convention. “After Communist China committed itself to war against our forces in Korea, our political and military leaders set aside our traditional military policy calling for the employment of all available power and means to achieve a prompt and decisive victory and adopted instead the doctrine of defense. Every distinguished military leader of the past and all military experience from the beginning of time warns this but invites failure. Under this new conception, novel indeed to American military character, we are required in the midst of deadly war to soften our blows and to send men into battle with neither promise nor hope of victory.”
Frustration over the need to shape military means to political ends is not confined to the military alone. The late Senator Robert A. Taft complained at about the same time that “ . . . We are to continue to conduct a war with our hands tied behind our backs. We are to refuse all assistance from the Chinese Nationalists. It is like a football game in which our team, when it reaches the 50-yard line, is always instructed to kick. Our team can never score, and sooner or later somebody on the other side will catch the ball and make a touchdown.”
Yet, as we have seen, restraints placed on military strategy and operations in limited war circumstances make it highly unlikely that we will be able to employ “all available power and means” and “achieve a prompt and decisive victory” in the traditional sense. Furthermore, potent factors in our historical background and in the American national character place many impediments in the way of admitting this unpalatable truth.
One must perforce conclude that much has to be done to insure that the American people in general, and professional military men in particular, will be ready psychologically to face up to the challenges of limited war.
This task places stern demands on our national leaders. The heaviest burden rests upon the President, to whom the American people look for sound, selfless leadership in times of national peril. Without losing their confidence, he must temper those aspects of the American character which inhibit our psychological readiness to wage limited war.
He must nurture public awareness of the complex and ambiguous nature of limited war. He must take the lead in creating a wider appreciation of its varied forms of challenge, as well as a better understanding of the ways in which to cope with it. When ambiguous challenges arise, presidential leadership becomes the major vehicle by which the American people can be persuaded to recognize the threat for what it is.
Above all, presidential leadership is the most effective means of inducing the American people to respond quickly but rationally to limited war. The President is in the best position to formulate and crystallize the issue so that it will not be couched in terms of national survival—for us or for our opponent. His is the primary responsibility to give expression to the limited political objectives for which we are fighting.
Although the President carries the heaviest burden in this regard, other national leaders —military as well as political—share in the task. All must understand that readiness to wage limited war is more than military capability; an equally essential part is the will to act. All share in the responsibility to create the climate in which our military capability can function effectively.
In this respect, there are several specific measures which we in the military services should take. We must condition ourselves and our men to endure the frustrations and sacrifices of indecisive fighting. We must never allow ourselves to lose sight of the finite political objectives for which our country may be striving, lest by some unthinking action in the heat of battle we defeat our national purpose. We must discipline ourselves to observe the foresight and the restraint that gives rational direction to military power and makes it serve the national interest.