Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Moral Repugnance: A Response to ‘Can’t Kill Enough to Win? Think Again’

There are multiple ways to describe retired Lt. Cols. David Bolgiano and John Taylor’s article in the December issue of Proceedings.

Edward III counting the dead after the battle of Crécy. (Wikimedia Commons)
Edward III counting the dead after the battle of Crécy. (Wikimedia Commons)


By Lt. Col. Dan Sukman, U.S. Army
Best Defense office of military ethics

There are multiple ways to describe retired Lt. Cols. David Bolgiano and John Taylor’s article in the December issue of Proceedings magazine. Rather than call a spade a spade in an ad hominem-type attack, it is worth the time to deconstruct their argument bit by bit, and then to offer an alternative position.


By Lt. Col. Dan Sukman, U.S. Army
Best Defense office of military ethics

There are multiple ways to describe retired Lt. Cols. David Bolgiano and John Taylor’s article in the December issue of Proceedings magazine. Rather than call a spade a spade in an ad hominem-type attack, it is worth the time to deconstruct their argument bit by bit, and then to offer an alternative position.

The first argument put forward is that operational commanders and their respective judge advocate general (JAG) advisors have hampered the fighting force with overly restrictive rules of engagement. Those interested in ROE development should look to the SROE (unclassified and publicly released, reprinted in pages 97-100 of the 2017 Operational Law Handbook.) Rules of engagement are the responsibility of commanders, and the staff leads are the J3 and J5. Staff judge advocates merely assist. If the JAG is tasked to do the operation’s officer’s job, then the onus falls on the commander. Indeed, the authors’ assertion that “many commanders and their ‘operational law’ judge advocates have neutered U.S. military forces with far too restrictive rules of engagement and investigations” is a strange one to make. This is directly at odds with the personal and professional interests of any commander, since he or she presumably desires to accomplish missions, protect subordinates, and yes, to earn a spot on a promotion list.

Generally, when a lawyer does not offer evidence, or details thereof, it is because of a privilege of confidentiality or, much more often, because it is not favorable to his or her argument. In their article, the retired judge advocates make many incendiary claims about the competence and motives of commanders and judge advocates, but offer almost nothing in the way of evidence. The authors take cheap shots at military lawyers, referring to an “overabundance of ill-trained lawyers.” This easily falls into the category of an ad hominem attack and wholesale slander of judge advocates, which naturally the authors provide no evidence for with the exception of a personal anecdote within one footnote.

The logical fallacy the authors fall into is the comparison of apples and oranges. When the authors point to historical examples, they use the U.S. Civil War, World War II, and the 1990 Gulf War as comparisons to fighting terrorists. It’s an awful comparison with the obvious problem of comparing conflicts where we fought organized nations’ militaries against the current conflict against nonstate actors. One would imagine that two retired lieutenant colonels would see this flaw in their thinking.

Further false comparisons continue throughout the article. Although the authors are correct in noting that the United States bombed civilians throughout World War II, they fail to mention the lack of precision-guided munitions available in the 1940s. The impacts of modern technology had changed the conduct (but not the nature) of war. The advent of precision-guided munitions allows the United States to minimize the risk to civilians and other collateral damage. The irony in their argument is that the strategic bombing of civilians in an attempt to destroy morale, whether it was the Germans over London, or allies over Japan and Germany (Tokyo, Dresden, etc.) had little effect, and in fact raised the morale of each respective nation.

The authors then attribute high rates of PTSD and suicide to a lack of victory parades. It is a bizarre claim with zero evidence. Had the authors provided an endnote or reference to a study backing this up, then there may have been some substance to the claim. The authors do not provide any evidence. Moreover, the substance of their endnotes are a series of personal war stories. How they come to attribute PTSD to a lack of victory parades is anyone’s guess; perhaps it was by clicking around on the internet until they found a link, any link that supported their theory. Perhaps an alien gave it them while they were riding in their spaceship. The latter seems to be just as likely as the former.

When the authors mention Edward Luttwak’s 1999 essay “Give War a Chance,” one senses that neither author took a moment to reflect on the implications of the essay. Luttwak offers a Hobbesian world where, taken to its logical conclusion, nations would be part of a never-ending global conflict lasting for centuries until one nation prevailed above all others.

The claims of the authors become more ridiculous as the article progresses. To back up the claim that the United States should kill more people to win the war on terrorism, Bolgiano and Taylor claim that the United States “maneuvered and exploited advantages until they beat the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact collapsed.” There are competing theories as to why the Soviet Union collapsed, from the flawed and unsustainable economic system to the unsupportable war in Afghanistan (where the Soviets killed Afghans by the thousands), to the enlightenment of Gorbachev. While U.S. policies may have expedited the fall of the Soviet empire, to simply credit maneuver and exploiting advantages is a unique position.

Another bizarre claim is the authors’ insistence that following the Cold War, the armed services began to look for new missions to justify force structure. They use examples such as foreign humanitarian assistance and domestic hurricane relief. Naturally, in complete contrast to Bolgiano and Taylor’s claims, these types of missions have been a staple of the U.S. military. One can look to the Berlin Airlift, and yes, Operation Hajji Baba, an airlift of stranded Hajj pilgrims in 1952. A simple look at what operations authorize the wearing of the Humanitarian Service Medal provides a starting point in developing knowledge on the history of U.S. military operations outside major combat.

The authors assert that the military spends more time fighting climate change and sexual harassment than training to fight and win wars. This is another garbage statement that one senses comes from the author’s political views rather than a view from reality. A simple check of any command’s training schedule, from the platoon to a combatant command would checkmate the authors’ position. Naturally, Bolgiano and Taylor provide no evidence, in the form of training schedules, policy letters, or institutional strategies to back up their claim. The contrary evidence lies in actual published guidance such as the Army chief of staff’s 2017 priorities, which places readiness at the top of the list, or the secretary of the Navy’s priorities, which emphasize readiness, lethality, and modernization.

The authors’ insistence that the way to win wars is through attrition lacks an intellectual foundation. It is understood that conflict is about achieving a political aim. The well-known strategic theorist Sun Tzu wrote that the ultimate skill for a general is to win without fighting. Moreover, another well-known theorist named Clausewitz wrote, “As War is no act of blind passion, but is dominated by the political object, therefore the value of that object determines the measure of the sacrifices by which it is to be purchased.” People who are serious about warfare understand that war, although characterized by violence, is about attaining a political objective. Nations can achieve this through ways and means other than attrition.

Killing the enemy is certainly a means to an end. However, America has seen the results of Bolgiano and Taylor’s worldview played out on the battlefields of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Names such as Calley, Green, and Bales represent the worst of what our nation stands for. Wanton killing of a perceived enemy only serves to weaken the strategic and operational position of the United States. It erodes the support of domestic and foreign populations and the governments that represent them.

Wars are not lost because a nation does not kill enough people, or kill enough of the enemy. Wars are lost when nations find themselves in strategic drift. Wars are lost when nations send men and women into combat without any clue to why they are sending them there. Without any clear strategic objectives or end state, nations will fight endless wars with nothing to show for it. Finally, we lose wars when we lose our moral compass. The instant we become a monster to slay a monster, war is lost. 

Lt. Col. Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army, and a member of the Military Writers Guild. Over the course of his career, he has served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), U.S. European Command, and the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC). He currently works for the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command in Norfolk, Virginia. His combat experience includes multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter: @dansukman. This article represents the author’s views, and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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