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Rational Security

The Case for Slow War

History shows that wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am rarely works out for the best.


Military maxims often emphasize the need to seize fleeting opportunities swiftly and maintain momentum, but there can also be great value in studied slowness. In major military campaigns, however, the primary focus has almost always been and remains aimed at having a capacity for extremely fast-paced maneuvers, like the armored "thunder run" to Baghdad 10 years ago — itself a distant echo of Hitler’s blitzkrieg. Yet, in this case, the effects of the speedy advance soon faded in the face of a nettlesome Iraqi insurgency that was only countered, after years of hard going, by the patient, thoughtful creation of a network of small outposts and an information strategy designed to convince insurgents to switch sides. In many respects, the "outpost and outreach" approach that turned the tide in Iraq resembled the most effective aspects of some British counterinsurgent campaigns of the past half-century — most notably in Northern Ireland, where an outpost network (with some positions sited atop high-rise buildings) along with skillful negotiations brought a peaceful, equitable end to the decades-long "Troubles."

Beyond the challenge posed by many of Britain’s irregular conflicts in the modern era, it is notable that a tendency to conduct conventional campaigns at a moderate tempo has been a consistent feature of British strategic culture for centuries. Perhaps the most deliberate, unhurried campaigner of them all was Jeffrey Amherst — for whom the American college is named — who brought an end to the French empire in North America with his three-pronged march on Montreal in 1760. Yes, James Wolfe had won the battle for Quebec the previous year, but that hardly ended the war. The odds were still fairly even when Amherst set out and, as historian Lynn Montross put it in his classic book, War Through the Ages, "an offensive distinguished more for precision than thrills…laid the cornerstone of the world’s greatest empire since the fall of Rome."

And when, half a century later, this great empire found itself engaged against swift-moving French forces in Iberia — early on led in the field by Napoleon, later by some of his best marshals — the answer once again was to operate with great deliberation, at a pace that was, most of the time, achingly slow. This time, it was the Duke of Wellington who operated with the same kind of stately precision that had been Amherst’s hallmark. Wellington’s special talent was to march his army to a threatening position that forced a French response, then stand on the tactical defensive so as to decimate the attackers. He won victory after victory in this way, even occasionally following up his successes with retreats. The French, shackled to their doctrine of mounting rapid pursuits, exhausted themselves and were harried by Spanish partisans. Wellington followed this pattern for a few years, eventually going over to a sustained, war-winning offensive that took him all the way across Spain and into France.

Fast-forward 125 years, and history repeats itself. The most famous British soldier of World War II was Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, a man almost never to be hurried. His forte was the set-piece battle in which, after much lengthy preparation, he regularly inflicted far greater damage on enemy forces than were suffered by his own troops. Much fun was made of him in the great war film, Patton, but the fact remains that he used his meticulous methods to rout one of the very best German generals, Erwin Rommel, at El Alamein in North Africa, then inflicted mortal damage a second time against forces "the Desert Fox" led in Normandy. Montgomery’s only stumble came as his troops neared Germany, when he, uncharacteristically, drafted a bold, swift plan to use airborne troops and an armored blitz to seize a series of bridges leading to and over the Rhine. He lost this "bridge too far" battle, then reverted to his slow, steady style — which was emulated by Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower — and the war was won. More slowly, but also more surely.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given America’s strategic culture, this "English patience" at war got only brief traction with the U.S. military. Just five years after the end of World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur tried to win a quick knockout on the Korean Peninsula with a bold amphibious left hook followed by rapid armored advances. He ended up being swamped by a Chinese counteroffensive, and the war ground on to an indecisive truce in 1953. A few years later, when nuclear weapons were becoming more plentiful, a so-called New Look — championed by then-President Eisenhower — enticed the Army to think in terms of swift victory with fast-moving tanks backed by atom bombs. The idea collapsed of its own weight, as Gen. Maxwell Taylor predicted it would in his critique, The Uncertain Trumpet — when the Russians made it known that they could irradiate battlefields, too. And when the helicopter came into its own the following decade, the big idea of the day was to use it to "vertically envelop" Vietnamese insurgents from the air — the brainchild of Gen. William Westmoreland, what historian Michael Maclear called "Westy’s way of war." Needless to say, thousands of Bell-Hueys didn’t garner a swift victory; indeed, thousands were shot down. U.S. leaders grew weary of the long slog that ensued and simply abandoned the war.

It is this sort of aversion to protracted conflicts that bedevils American military strategy today. It is a turn of mind clearly seen in the willingness to leave Iraq to its fate, despite the massive investment in blood and treasure made there. Antipathy toward long, slow warfighting has also put the pressure on to leave Afghanistan. But in this case, it seems that at least some senior military leaders like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno see the virtue of "slow persistence," which is manifesting itself in the call to keep a small, highly-skilled force in place for an indefinite period.

Thus the plan for the emerging Afghan endgame emanating from the White House, which calls for about 10,000 troops to remain indefinitely, appears a bit like the patient approach the British have employed in Northern Ireland. As to Britain’s own experience in Afghanistan, it should be noted that Englishmen fought long and hard there during the 19th century, eventually reversing the effects of terrible early defeats with deliberate, ever more skillful tactics. A bit of this sort of English patience would go a long way today, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the long twilight struggle now unfolding around the world against networks affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda.

Proceeding slowly, mind you, is not always preferable to rapid, decisive operations — but history shows that this method’s overall track record is far better than that of flashy, fast-paced blitzkriegs. This should be kept in mind as the international community considers deeper involvement in the Syrian civil war. We live in a new age of conflict, where technology and firepower allow for quick, stealthy, and relatively bloodless incursions. But, likewise, our adversaries expect and are prepared to counter rapid, decisive operations, perhaps even to "pull a Wellington" of their own, attacking briefly, then retreating time and again. Defeating them will require a willingness and an ability to fight slowly, skillfully, and for the duration.

Louisa May Alcott may have said it best when she noted that, to achieve a worthy goal, "it takes a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together before some of us even get our feet set in the right way."

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