A Return to the Democratic Way of War

By: Joe Donato, Columnist

Photo Credit: Ms. History Now

In April 1975, millions watched as the last American helicopter lifted off from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon, the dramatic final act of a national tragedy broadcast across the globe. Ten years earlier, the United States had confidently entered Vietnam to crusade against Communism and erect a bulwark of democracy in a troubled region. After more than a decade of war and the loss of nearly 60,000 soldiers, the American giant was going home, wounded and without victory.[i] In the years that followed the withdrawal from Southeast Asia, millions of Americans pondered how it had gone so wrong. How could the most powerful nation in history have failed to achieve victory in an isolated and impoverished corner of the globe?

Today, more than forty years since the fall of Saigon, another generation of Americans must grapple with this same question. After almost two decades of war, trillions of dollars, and nearly 60,000 American casualties, we again confront the specter of strategic failure.[ii] Despite our vast national wealth and the doggedness of our troops, we have been unable to translate operational superiority into strategic success. What can explain this stark divergence between effort and outcome? Simply stated, the United States has pursued strategic objectives for which its democratic system is structurally maladapted. The lack of appreciation for how the structure and character of American democracy limits its martial capacity is principally responsible for the painful failures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

A large population, plentiful natural resources, and a powerful economy have given the United States a powerful capacity to wage war. Ironically, the very institutions that have forged the American sword have made it cumbersome to wield. In wartime, democracies are strengthened by their inherent dynamism, capacity for innovation, and resourcefulness. Historically, this has given democratic states significant advantages over their non-democratic adversaries. Despite these strengths, however, the structure of democracies can make them indecisive and prone to faction. The theorist Edward S. Corwin famously noted that the US constitutional system is “an invitation to struggle” between three co-equal branches of government.[iii] Moreover, regular elections, shifting national priorities and a partisan electorate make strategic continuity difficult to achieve.

The American people, like the citizens of many prosperous democracies, can be fickle and restive. Owing largely to forces of history and their unique civic culture, Americans are disposed toward suspicion of centralized authority and government secrecy. Moreover, despite what General Patton may have told the soldiers of the Third Army, they are not particularly fond of war. Shielded from invasion by two oceans and with no military threat in their own hemisphere, Americans have been historically reluctant to get entangled in foreign wars. Indeed, with the exception of the Second World War, nearly every US conflict since the Revolution has been divisive at home.

Even in times of national emergency, American leaders must act within the limits of the constitutional system. They cannot rule by decree; they must painstakingly build a national consensus across partisan divides and diverse constituencies. And while social and political diversity may strengthen a democracy in peacetime, it can be a serious encumbrance in war. Achieving national unity, therefore, is difficult; sustaining it through the vicissitudes of a long war is something very few presidents have achieved. Throughout the Revolution, General Washington struggled to keep his citizen army in the field, often forced to appeal directly to his men to remain in the Army. In the midst of civil war, President Lincoln struggled to maintain a fragile war coalition in the face of mounting casualties and resistance from state governors, members of Congress, and a hostile press. Even with victory in sight, war weariness nearly cost Lincoln a second term in November 1864.

These challenges of democratic leadership were closely studied and internalized by American soldiers and statesmen during the early 20th century. Many came to realize that the unique development and civic structure of the United States necessitated a particularly discerning judgment about when and why to fight. Of particular note is General Fox Connor, one of the most influential soldiers and theorists of his generation. As the operations officer of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), he served in France during World War I and earned a brilliant reputation for his operational abilities. It was in the realm of strategy, however, that Connor would have the most lasting influence. His personal experience and a lifetime of study had led him to certain conclusions about how democracies should fight, which he codified in a three-part axiom:

Never fight unless you have to.
Never fight alone.
And never fight for long. [iv]

Connor preached these principles to his protégés during the inter-war years and a review of American strategy during the Second World War shows the influence this theory had.

In early 1942, despite enjoying almost unanimous public support, American leaders pressed their allies to move as quickly as possible. They had come of age during the First World War and knew how quickly the public and political mood could shift. Reflecting on those critical months in 1942, General George Marshall remembered, “We had to go ahead brutally fast in Europe…We could not indulge in a Seven Years War. A king can perhaps do that, but you cannot have such a protracted struggle in a democracy in the face of mounting casualties. Speed was essential.”[v] This statement highlights the foresight that made Marshall so effective. He knew that while America’s enemies could ruthlessly crush dissent, conceal losses, and rule by decree; the United States could not. He knew that as the war dragged on and the human and financial cost grew, Americans would begin to question the merits of continued involvement.

One may correctly note that America’s role in the world has changed dramatically since 1942 and the United States cannot always choose when or where to fight. Nevertheless, although America’s role in the world has changed dramatically, its institutions have not. The verdict of history is clear; the United States has been most successful when seeking decisive victory, for a compelling cause and in the company of steadfast allies. If America’s allies are reluctant or unwilling to fight, as they were in 1965 and 2003, the United States should take notice. Furthermore, American leaders must finally abandon the illusion that wars can be fought and won on the cheap. As Winston Churchill presciently warned, “The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”[vi]

The United States has not failed to achieve victory in Iraq or Afghanistan for want of military might; these wars are not lost on the battlefield. It has failed because its democratic system is not well structured to sustain long, protracted, and costly struggles. Foreign counterinsurgencies are by their very nature long, protracted, and costly. Under the right conditions they can be waged successfully but history has demonstrated that they require more time, strategic continuity, and sacrifice than democratic societies are capable of. For the time being, we remain committed to achieving an acceptable strategic outcome in the Middle East. Nevertheless, as Americans, when we look forward to the security challenges of the twenty-first century, we should, in the spirit of Major General Connor, commit to a more judicious reflection on who we are and why we fight. Let us return to the democratic way of war.

[i] “Statistical information about casualties of the Vietnam War.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed February 20, 2017. https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html.

[ii] Catherine Lutz. “US and Coalition Casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University. February 21, 2013. Accessed February 17, 2017. http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2013/USandCoalition.pdf.

[iii] Roger H. Davidson, Congress and Its Members, Fifteenth Edition (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2015), 425

[iv] Robert Gates, “Reflections on Leadership,” Parameters 38, no.2 (2008): Accessed February 17, 2017, 5, http://strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/parameters/articles/08summer/gates.pdf.

[v] Perry, Mark. Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace. (New York: Penguin, 2008), 249

[vi] Robert Gates, “Reflections on Leadership,” Parameters 38, no.2 (2008): Accessed February 17, 2017, 5; Allan Reed Millett, Peter Maslowski, and William B. Feis, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America from 1607 to 2012, (New York: Free, 2012); Mark A Stoler, and George Catlett. Marshall. George C. Marshall: Soldier-Statesman of the American Century (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1989)

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