Ten Easy Steps to Lose a War

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Blood n' Guts Obama

Many volumes have been written on how to win wars.  Zenpundit at the Chicago Boyz blog gives us ten steps to lose a war:

1. War is the Continuation of Domestic Politics:

The point of politics is to acquire, hold and enjoy using power. When we lose sight of this fact due to romantic notions of “national interest” or “duty” and spend too much attention prosecuting a war against foreign armies then our real enemies – the political opposition – can take advantage. What good is overseeing a global victory over an epochal tyranny if the result is you get immediately voted out of office like some hapless loser? While on the surface, it might seem wise during a war to staff a government with able statesmen, experienced generals, capable diplomats and other experts, the truth is that if you do so you will have very few plum jobs left with which to reward the cronies, ideologues, campaign consultants, activists, wealthy grafters and partisan hacks who got you into power in the first place. Without their continued support, you will not be long for political office.

The fact is that the nation can survive many lost wars far longer than your career will survive lost elections.  Once you view the war solely through the prism of how any action might impact your fortune in domestic politics, you will have a marvelous clarity that the war is the best pretext upon which to expand your power at the expense of the opposition and the people.

2. Policy is the True Fog of War:

Having a clearly defined, coherently articulated policy based upon vital interests and empirical facts that sets a few realistic objectives in a way that makes possible shared understanding and broad political support is no way to go about losing wars.

Keeping in mind #1, the point of war policy is to generate a set of politically compelling slogans that remain ill-defined enough to serve as an umbrella  under which many contradictory and competing agendas can cohabit until some of them can be opportunistically realized. These agendas may not be realistic – in fact, it is easier to put them forward as attractive fantasies for the public if your administration is unburdened with officials with genuine expertise in warfare, economics, foreign cultures, history and other inconvenient information that the media and the political opposition will only be too happy to seize upon. The more abstractly and arcanely expressed the policy the harder it is for critics to demolish and the  better it is for losing wars. “Unconditional surrender” for example, is bad because it is too concrete and easily evaluated – either an enemy is totally defeated and in your power or he is not. “Make the world safe for Democracy” by contrast,  is better as it is more ill-defined and subjective, permitting a larger range of politically tolerable bad outcomes.  ”Responsibility to Protect” and “War on Terror” are even more abstract, being essentially unlimited, open-ended, process goals that do not have any point of “victory” whatsoever and can thus not only potentially bring about not only losing wars but very long ones.

3.  Strategy is a Constraint to be Avoided:

Strategy is about lining up Ends-Ways-Means to construct a theory of victory. While that might give us hope of prevailing over an enemy in an armed conflict, forging a strategy – any strategy -comes with a severe cost: namely the discipline of the government adhering to a strategy requires choices be made about the use of limited resources rather than keeping “all options open” to react  to transient and trivial political concerns on a moment’s notice. Strategy for the nation equates with diminished political flexibility and mobility for the politician.

In other words, having a strategy might require elected officials expend their precious political capital in order to pursue it without getting anything in return that might expand their powers or further their personal careers.  Doing strategy would mean prioritizing winning the war over other possible objectives and putting key decision-makers in the uncomfortable position of having to say “No” or “Not now” to powerful and influential people or factions. Worse, having a strategy also implies that the results can be quantified and evaluated for success, costs, failure and ultimately, personal accountability for leaders.

Obviously locking ourselves into a strategy is something to be avoided if we wish to stay in power, so “strategy” is only invoked rhetorically to mean a wide and confusing array of other non-strategy things – tactics, goals, operational art, planning,  public relations, nation-building,  diplomacy, policy, routine procedures, withdrawal dates, theories, fantastical pipe dreams and so on.  When “strategy” means anything and everything it ultimately means nothing.

4. All Lost Wars are based on Self-Deception: 

It is not enough to avoid strategy, there must also be a collective political determination to avoid reality enforced from the inception until the bitter end.

Wars have real and physically destructive consequences for the people who fight them, but unless you are engaged in a desperate struggle to repel a foreign invader, chances are the battlefield is far away from your home territory. This gives political leaders wiggle room to manipulate perceptions – most importantly their own – to political advantage by controlling information about the war and shaping the ideological boundaries of acceptable public discourse. This will eventually lead to a vicious cycle of bad decisions as misinformation and deceit corrupts the OODA Loop, but political leaders will maintain their political advantage over their critics, at least until the day of reckoning arrives.

Here we must begin with an insistence of a position of firmly held ignorance regarding the prospective enemy, their military capabilities, economic resources, the geographic characteristics, their cultural attitudes toward conflict and their history as a people. Should such information become widely known, it might result in popular skepticism about the wisdom of the entire enterprise, the difficulties that might be encountered and the prospects for success. If you wish to lose a war ignominiously, the less you know the better.

Likewise, once war has begun, the initial jingoistic overconfidence that greeted the war will quickly fade unless actively sustained by preventing an honest analysis of  events and providing a steady stream of rationalizations for the gullible public. It would be a good idea to ban discussion that accurately characterizes the form of warfare  or the nature of the enemy, though these things alone will not be sufficient. The intelligence process itself should be corrupted when possible to provide the “right” answers and censored or circumvented when it is not; while public assessments should use irrelevant metrics divorced from their  context so that they will not have to be gamed later.  Critics, truth-tellers, whistleblowers and those not towing the party-line should be retired, fired, demonized and punished.

5. Isolate the War and those Fighting it from the People: 

A war forgotten by the folks at home is a war that is much easier to quietly lose.

At the outset of the war, ask no sacrifice of the people because that will give them too much of a stake in a victorious outcome and raise expectations about your own leadership. Neither raise their taxes (at least not for the war at any rate) nor conscript their sons. Do not even issue a national call to the colors for volunteers, instead encourage people to be at ease and go about their business. Supplement your small regular army that increasingly feels itself a caste apart with highly paid mercenaries and foreign paramilitaries while neglecting the needs of your own troops. Speaking of the troops, always lavish the soldiers with superficial public pieties about service, sacrifice and heroism, but cynically break faith when it comes to your obligations to look after their interests.

Go here to read the brilliant rest.  Here are my ten steps necessary for America to lose a war based  upon our history:


1.  Three years-Like clockwork Americans tire of war at the three year mark.  If you haven’t won your war by then you are on a path to defeat unless you can wrap it up quickly.  The one notable exception to this rule is the American Revolution, and Washington after 1778 had great difficulty in keeping even small armies in the field.

2.  National Interest-Unless why the war must be fought and won is easy to understand, an anti-war movement will develop.  Most American wars have had an anti-war movement and the movements have been stronger the more divorced from vital national interest the wars have been.

3.  Progress- Americans have never been a patient people.  They like to see progress in their wars.  If they can’t see that the war is being won, support will decline fast.

4.  Micromanaging the Military- Johnson choosing bombing targets in the White House is a key example of this.  When the civilian leadership is doing this, it is a sure sign that the politicians lack the will to do what is necessary to win the war.

5.  Half measures- Few things madden most Americans more than being involved in a war and having the civilian leadership imposing limits that make certain that the war cannot be won.  Vietnam was a classic example of this.

6.  Hearts and Minds– A war is a war and it must be won on the battlefield.  Assuming that a war can be won by convincing the enemy through non-military civil programs to lay down their arms is delusional.  After a war is won, such measures can be undertaken but not before.

7.  Quick Wars and Honest Politicians- There are quick wars, the Spanish-American War comes to mind, but they are as rare as honest politicians.  Americans usually greatly underestimate the probable duration of a war at the outset.  The great example of this is the Civil War.  Davis and Lincoln, along with Lee and Sherman, thought the War would be long and bloody.  Almost everyone else thought their side would win one big battle and the War would be over by Christmas.  The longer the war the greater the chance it will be lost:  see number one.

8.  Warriors Not Bureaucrats- In the military you have officers who can work wonders in war.  Unfortunately too often they do not come to the top.  Instead military bureaucrats who have spent their careers punching their tickets and building up brilliant resumes do.  On paper they look grand, but only on paper.  The problem has gotten worse of late.  I can’t imagine Patton rising to high rank in today’s Army.

9.  Technology Won’t Save Us- Americans have a touching faith in superior technology.  It is never a good thing to have inferior technology, but superior technology will never compensate for a lack of a coherent strategy to win a war.

10.  The Side of the Angels- Americans like their wars to be clearly in their national interest and also to be on the side of the angels.  This can be a hard combination to produce.  For example:  Vietnam probably wasn’t in our national interest, but we were clearly on the side of the Angels as compared to the government of North Vietnam.  Opponents of the war spent quite a bit of time blackening Americans and their South Vietnamese allies while pretending, hilariously, that Ho Chi Minh was a Jeffersonian Democrat.   I suspect this wasn’t an effective technique as a more forthright:  “it just isn’t worth it” would have had a wider appeal, but you can see an understanding of the fact that Americans like to perceive themselves as the good guys, and if they begin to doubt that, support for a war will wane.

War, in this vale of tears, always brings in its wake a train of evils.  Some wars are necessary and have to be fought.  They should be entered into without illusions and a determination to win them.  Anything else is a betrayal of the troops we send to do battle for us.


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  1. Frederick the Great once remarked that “Ideally my people should not even know that I am at war.”

    Britain’s wars of the 18th & 19th centuries had little impact at home. Even the Press gangs tended to operate at sea, in the thames and Severn estuaries, taking men from homeward-bound merchant ships and many of the volunteers and Yeomanry regiments, even in the Napoleonic Wars were fencibles, bound only to serve at home.

    The same was true of Italy under the Julian Emperors.

    Louis XIV’s armies never exceeded 150,000. It was the levee en masse, especially under Carnot, that increased the French army to 700,000

  2. “Frederick the Great once remarked that “Ideally my people should not even know that I am at war.””

    Considering the devastation wreaked on Prussia during the Seven Years War, I’d say that Old Fritz failed in that ambition!

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