Small Wars

This Week at War: The Long Shadow of Battles Past

What lessons can we learn from the way the U.S. ends its wars?

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

After a long and risky advance far from their supply base, U.S. Army and Marine Corps units smash through the last enemy defenses and advance into the enemy’s capital. The opposing president flees and his government collapses. The relatively small U.S. force now finds itself responsible for running the city, while an insurgency that threatens the army’s supply line begins to boil. Meanwhile, as the U.S. president attempts to rein in an envoy who is disregarding his orders, he must also figure out how to convert an apparent battlefield triumph into the strategic goals he established at the beginning of the war.

Scenes from Baghdad in 2003? Perhaps, but these could be flashes of Mexico City in September 1847 where Gen. Winfield Scott’s army had just arrived after a seven-month march from Veracruz. Like George W. Bush, President James K. Polk found himself in possession of the enemy’s capital, but without a counterpart with whom to negotiate a final peace. The war had lasted longer and was more costly than Polk had anticipated. His army — tiny and inexperienced before the war — had pulled off daring feats spanning the continent. But now as a result of the unexpected collapse of the Mexican government, Polk risked getting bogged down with "nation-building" and battling insurgents determined to gain control of the road between Mexico City and his army’s supplies in Veracruz. Polk kept his focus on his original war aims, the direct westward expansion of the United States to the Pacific Ocean. His envoy negotiated a peace treaty with one of Mexico’s Supreme Court justices and Polk withdrew his army from Mexico a few months later.

Needless to say, very few of America’s wars have ended so cleanly or delivered so completely on their prewar expectations. To help figure out why, Gen. Martin Dempsey, in 2009 the commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and soon to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commissioned some of the country’s leading military historians to examine how the United States has concluded its wars. Col. Matthew Moten, head of West Point’s history department, recruited 15 distinguished military historians to each write one chapter of Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars. Beginning with Yorktown and the negotiations that ended the Revolutionary War to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Between War and Peace brings many perspectives to the long-neglected subject of how America’s generals and top policymakers have struggled with war’s messy "endgame."

In Between War and Peace Moten and his historians explore how these American military engagements reached their culminating points, how each war’s ending differed from the goals at the beginning of the conflict, and how the war’s end would shape the future peace. Moten’s aim, in the end, was no less than hoping, "that some future president, confronted with threats to American national interests and needing some time to think, will tuck this volume under his arm as he departs for a weekend of reading and reflection at Camp David."

Readers looking for a quick survey of American military history from 1775 to 1991 will find much to enjoy. Moten’s historians are deeply knowledgeable experts who bring interesting insights to all of the conflicts, even the Civil War and World War II — where one could scarcely expect to read something new. Between War and Peace is most valuable for its chapters on episodes such as the Second Seminole War and the Batangas campaign in the Philippines in 1901, wars that shed light on today’s counterinsurgency struggles. Those chapters and others about America’s "small wars" remind us that the big, largely conventional wars such as the Civil War and the World Wars are the odd exceptions in American history. Between War and Peace also reminds us that the low-intensity irregular campaigns against the Seminole and Filipino insurgents were just as frustrating to soldiers and policymakers as are those in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

In spite of these strengths, Between War and Peace suffers from the anthology’s multi-author format. Although Moten aspired to produce a book that would inform policymakers and strategists, some of the historians could have provided a deeper analysis of the alternatives available to policymakers at critical points and a discussion of the risks and consequences of those options. Particularly disappointing were the chapters on the World Wars, which repeated well-worn battle narratives while largely neglecting discussions of the strategic choices and consequences faced by the combatants. Showing the variation that comes with an anthology, Conrad Crane’s superb chapter on the Korean War focuses on the United Nation command’s attempts to compel an end to the fighting through adjustments to its aerial bombardment tactics. Col. Gian Gentile followed his incisive summary of the Vietnam War with a scathing indictment of a generation’s worth of U.S. policymakers and a call for better strategic thinking. And Andrew Bacevich’s dissection of the endgame of Operation Desert Storm explained why even the most ferocious military bombardment may accomplish much less than it appears and why some conflicts go on for decades before they resolve the underlying issues.

For policymakers wanting a deeper analysis of choices, risks, and consequences, Gideon Rose’s How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle should be at the top of the pile on their nightstand. Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs and a former National Security Council staffer, approaches his task from the perspective of a policymaker rather than a historian and it shows. From Woodrow Wilson’s floundering at Versailles to President Obama’s decision to "surge" 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, Rose shows how the "lessons" of the previous war, no matter how inapplicable, seem destined to overwhelm the judgment of even the smartest presidents. Rich in primary sources, How Wars End shows how a century’s worth of U.S. presidents, many with deep experience and historical knowledge, were unable to escape the shadow of the last war as they fashioned their war aims and struggled through the endgame. The results have invariably been flawed wartime strategies and unstable and costly post-war circumstances.

Both Rose and many of the historians represented in Between War and Peace repeatedly emphasize the need for policymakers to begin war planning at the end, that is, to describe the stable and self-sustaining endstate the conflict should achieve. Failure to properly perform that first step almost guarantees a bitter experience. In addition, policymakers would do well to make honest and informed appraisals of their adversary, his strengths and likely reactions, and the tools and resources available to the policymaker. Both Rose and Moten’s historians reprise the serial failures committed by U.S. policymakers on these assessments. For example, in their chapters on the Vietnam War, both Col. Gentile and Rose describe with bewilderment how Washington’s "best and brightest" statesmen achieved only the most shallow understanding of Vietnam and, even worse, their own country’s strategic strengths and weaknesses.

As Rose explains, the "last war" casts a long shadow, and it is that lingering imprint that explains why successive generations of U.S. presidents and their advisors have invariably been unable to perform rudimentary strategic analysis. Over the last century, presidents strived to either not repeat the mistakes made in the last war or to replicate, typically in wildly different circumstances, whatever went right the last time. Why has this pattern recurred for so long? Foreign crises generate debate in and out of government. From these debates, presidents formulate war policies which they must explain and defend to the Congress and the public. But memories seem to be short — both the public and policymakers very often retain the last war as their only reference point for "good" and "bad" strategy. It is this, more than any other argument, that best offers an explanation for why presidents have been drawn into mistakenly defining their war in the last war’s terms. Getting better outcomes from war will require better strategic analysis. And that will require both the public and policymakers to know more than just the last war.

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