Something Lost And Something Gained

During my time in graduate school as a student in military history, one of the courses I took challenged us to comment at some length about our views on a supposed American Way of War.  My own paper, which is included as part of my volume Time Well Wasted, argued that the United States has two ways of war, a preferred style of war that favors wars of maneuver according to the classical Western tradition with a high emphasis on logistics and attrition as well, and a less favored style of war against inferior opponents that involves small wars of guerrilla fighting and immense destructiveness of the civilian bases of inferior opponents.  It should be noted that the choice of war that the United States has fought as a nation has generally been chosen by its opponents.  Today I would like to discuss some of the reasons for this as part of a general understanding of warfare and competition and how it operates.

It is perhaps unusual to note that the weaker party governs the type of warfare that is engaged.  In most cases, the stronger party chooses to be the aggressor of a conflict, and it is the weaker party that chooses how the conflict is to go.  This pattern, at least in Western countries, matches the structure of the code duello, which is how duels have generally been practiced.  The structure of warfare, in other words, follows ritualized patterns of violence.  The aggressor is generally more powerful, or views themselves as more powerful at least at the present moment, because there is a bias in favor of the defense in battles between equals.  In order for the aggressor to win there must be some superiority on their part, be it morale, training, logistics, generalship, and so on, in order to break the impasse and provide victory to the party seeking to disrupt the status quo.  An aggressor must win, a defender must only avoid losing.  With that in mind, if a defender sees themselves in a hopeless situation, they can choose to change the way the war is being fought by going to ground and taking advantage of the asymmetry of unconventional warfare, if they are willing to allow their people to bear the brunt of hostility in the face of occupying forces.  Alternatively, they may call on other, stronger nations to help defend them against force that would be too much for themselves to handle alone.  At times they may even switch between the two depending on circumstances, with a goal of ending the war with a conventional victory.

In the American Revolution, one of the decisive elements in favor of the United States, despite its immense weaknesses, was the ability of the nascent nation to construct, with help from talented Europeans, a Western-style army that was able to win conventional victories against the British forces while also having more irregular forces that were able to fight at an advantage and the diplomatic savvy to attract allies from abroad in the French, Spanish, and Dutch [1].  This flexibility of approach between straight-ahead fighting in places like Boston and Princeton, ambush victories in places like King’s Mountain and Saratoga, and even coalition efforts like Newport and (more successfully) Yorktown allowed the weaker American forces to overcome the British and their own Hessian allies and their own vulnerable train of supplies and manpower reinforcements going back to Europe.  Having a Western-style army and being at least a peripheral member of Western civilization was important in gaining independence as a Europeanish nation and eventually gaining the respect of other European nations as a great power in its own right.  This took some time, but it would have been a much more difficult task had the United States not put at least one face towards the European culture that it brought with it across the Atlantic.  Success in conventional warfare is of vital importance in terms of one’s ability to stand as a military power alongside others, but sometimes this can be achieved by changing the battleground in order to suit one’s own specific strengths rather than accepting blindly the approach of aggressors.  After the draw of the War of 1812, few nations have been foolish enough to aggressively attack the United States, and most of those efforts have ended poorly for the aggressors or the nations that hosted them.

In our day and age there are few nations—China being among the rare ones—among our potential enemies that would be able to fare well in a straight-ahead stand-up fight against the United States.  Most nations tend to crumble fairly quickly and resort to asymmetrical warfare, as was the case in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  We are therefore prone to thinking that there is a fundamental advantage in asymmetrical warfare and lament that we do not win such battles easier.  We should note, though, that something is lost and something is gained with every approach to war.  We should not expect those militaries that are hopelessly outclassed to remain fighting in a style which will only bring them ruin and destruction, but we should rather expect them to fight in the way that gives them the best possible change of success.  Where the United States, for example, is an aggressor, as is often the case, other nations try to take advantage both of our relative mildness of approach in winning hearts and minds as well as the lack of stamina of the American people in supporting long and bloody wars to engage in wars of psychological attrition, where they have the advantage in seeking to maintain rule over their homelands against the alien rule of Americans or puppet rulers who lack legitimacy.  Why stand and die to tanks and automatic weapons wielded by night vision-goggle and immensely technologically proficient American forces when one can improvise death from the shadows and make an uneven fight far more even or even advantageous?  Yet there is something lost in this approach, in that asymmetric fighting leads to a great deal of destruction of civilian infrastructure and the bonds of trust that help make a society great, to say nothing of the use of natural resources and one’s ability to engage in diplomacy.

Ultimately, the end of every asymmetrically fighting opponent is to win its warfare symmetrically at the end in order to gain the benefits and fruits of victory in the international community.  The United States and its French allies won a siege at Yorktown, which effectively ended the American Revolution.  Sieges, like that of Dien Bien Phu, are conventional sorts of battles of a classically attritional nature.  After years of unconventional warfare fought against the American forces allied with South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese won their war in 1975 with a conventional offensive that ended up taking Saigon and ending the South Vietnamese regime after the United States had withdrawn from the conflict.  The same can be said about the Chinese Civil War, which had asymmetric elements but which ended in massive conventional battles fought between immense armies, and the Civil War, which likewise had unconventional warfare in some areas but was largely decided by the fate of armies engaged in conventional warfare.  The ways that nations can develop the capacity to win in conventional warfare vary.  Some nations are able to capitalize on the traditions or heritage of the past that can be used as a model for the present.  Other nations are able to imitate those around them successfully or use skills in diplomacy in order to obtain foreign aid as well as training and education in the methods of contemporary warfare.  One cannot ultimately win a war unless one can win a peace through the possession of a political infrastructure that can gain respect on the international stage as an actor, which is why militaries cannot simply fight asymmetrically without any concern for conventional warfare, even if they are engaged against superior foes.  We must recognize that something is lost as well as gained by the weaker going to ground against the stronger, and that even weaker states are aware of the need to show their strength in conventional warfare once it is favorable to them to do so.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, International Relations, Military History, Musings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Something Lost And Something Gained

  1. Pingback: Book Review: War Made New | Edge Induced Cohesion

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