Monday, January 9, 2012

Redefining victory doesn't mean not winning

It appears that I may have made a bit of a bloomer with my last post on how DoD's coming age of austerity will redefine how we think about "victory". The catalyst of that post was an article by Anne-Marie Slaughter from this fall - and this is where I went off the rails a bit - that I complimented. I was and am aware that her piece was actually an argument for more military interventions for R2P or other such operations and that warfare as we've known it is dead based on the lessons observed since 2001. I could not disagree more and we'll talk about that in a just a minute. I approved of the piece because of the idea that we'll be looking to influence others with our military force, not decisively defeat and occupy other nations - I thought the idea of influence vice victory interesting and that we should expect to use limited means towards limited ends in the near future, but not for her reasons and not the interventions she suggests. Anyone who has read my writing here for the past two plus years should know I never buy into the "War and warfare have fundamentally changed!" bunk. The reality is that Dr. Slaughter's piece suggests just that, so I admit I oversold it. There are some good ideas in it though, that I don't think Dr. Slaughter necessarily intended, that lay the foundation for what I see as a flawed thesis. But we shouldn't throw out the good ideas because of the rest.

So what did I mean in my post? Sometimes others say what you mean better than yourself, so please go read Adam Elkus on There is No Substitute for Victory and Part II to that post as well as Dan Trombly at Slouching Towards Columbia. These are excellent posts on what victory actually means and contribute significantly towards this conversation. When I talked about redefining victory, I didn't intend to suggest that we will no longer look to decisively win whatever engagements we embark upon. That would be stupid - as Adam asks correctly, why use force if you don't intend to win? I intended this redefinition, in the next 10 to 15 years marked by limited resources, to show that we will most likely strive towards more limited military goals than we have in the past 10 years. That we'll have to move away from "winning" as a goal in itself and instead need to define what winning means very specifically in each operation or campaign. The former use of the term, such as a candidate or politician saying "We should give the generals what they need to win in Afghanistan" having no idea what the generals' concept of winning in Afghanistan actually is, is vapid and useless and all too prevalent.

This is what needs to stop - winning is not a political or policy objective in itself nor is it a military objective. Winning is what happens when the military succeeds in its operational objectives such as: destroy or defeat this force, protect these people, defend this place, whatever. Winning or victory is simply the military achieving its ends and we need to stop using these terms in lieu of describing what the hell we actually mean - at both the political, policy, strategic and tactical levels. So yes, our military should look to win whenever it's put on the field, no doubts about that but we should instead say what winning means.

The other side to my post was that we need to examine limited objectives for the limited use of military force in the next decade and a half (or so) based on scarce resources. We'll need the type of constrained ends exhibited during the Gulf War, not the ones used during the Iraq War. Scarcity should always drive the focused application of resources. We'll have to narrow the scope of our national security interests. We should hedge our expectations on what we can and want to achieve with military force. Where we may have once put lots of troops on the ground to achieve rather nebulous objectives we should look more to strategic raids and precision strikes for very specific results. We shouldn't be looking to fight and win wars, we should be looking to influence our adversaries with more moderated means. That will mean we need to really specify what our objectives are - what it means to win. I should stress that I foresee this being for a limited time only. The three major reasons we'll return to less limited ends:
  1. A better economy means we have more revenue to spend on defense resources;
  2. We become engaged in an existential conflict or limited conflict with a near-peer competitor; or
  3. Some other conflict pops up that we can't possibly fathom at the moment during which we can't achieve or don't want to use limited objectives and need to escalate.
While we should see a change in what winning means (limited objectives), that change will be short-lived in the grand scheme of history. This does not mean a fundamental change to war - this will be a temporary blip in how we do business. This is where Slaughter and I disagree. At some point in the future we'll engage in a large-scale ground war and probably with convoluted and poorly expressed objectives; to think otherwise is pure fantasy. Until then we should think of (decisively!) influencing those we need to and not defeating them in the sense we've been thinking of these past 10 years. If you're reading this and thinking to yourself "no shit we're going to have less resources and will rely on more limited objectives," I urge you to think about the implications of this as we look to extricate ourselves out of Afghanistan and what "winning" is going to look like there in the midst of a U.S. defense drawdown. Winning there in 2014 is going to require some hyper-contortionism to ISAF's mission statement between now and then. So yeah, we're going to have to redefine victory.


  1. 1. Four years ago in a war game exercise, we forecasted in the next big war, China would be our partner. I think that still holds true.

    2. A lot of the "shift" for the military will be driven by organizational reforms. One way ahead (most likely I hope), will be a. smaller Divs and Corps and bigger BCTs b. ending RSTAs and returning to 3 INF BNs, BRTs, DIV CAVs, and ACRs, and c. integration of small wars into our basic education and normalized training (back to the 1960s educational system and ending task, condition, and standards). Much of this will be discussed this week at Unified Quest.

    3. For policy matters, the issue with R2P is much like the issue with modern COIN- trying to "fix" or "control" the world. If we can change our mindset to one of influence (walk softly and carry a big stick?), then we can be much better off.

  2. Jason,

    I'd encourage you to go back and read Washington's farewell address while you're trying to sort all this out.

    "Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it - It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it ? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue ? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?

    In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim."

  3. @ MikeF: On the Washginton quote:

    One of my favorites but our own emotional nature as Americans seems to cast the world into black and white - both interventionists and non-interventionists. So too, our idea of alliances based on a mixture of pragmatism and ideological compatibility all as we use a grand rhetoric of democracy.

    I don't know where I am going with this. A bit non-plussed that the same old DC ideas about "Asia" keep rearing their heads without learning a think over two decades, really, of "afpak".

  4. Madhu,

    My question of the day is will we finally see the decline of both the neo-conservative and neo-liberal thinking and get back toward a balanced, in the middle realist approach?

    That said, the middle is often hard to determine as one has to sort out if it is the median or the mean, but anything is better than the extremes :).

  5. The middle IS hard to determine. Good policies and good strategy ARE hard to discern and implement. We live in a tough world and real time decision making is not easy. I hope we as a people are in a period of national reflection and hard thinking about our future as a nation. I think that is happening. I choose to remain hopeful and I want to honor that hope by continuing to read, to write, and to stay involved in all of this in some way.

    (I am tired of being such a negative person all the time around here....)