On War (remarks at Middlesex School September 2009)
I am privileged to be here today and share with you insights into that greatest and most costly of human endeavors – war.
As I look around at the names on the walls surrounding us this morning I am poignantly reminded that the best and brightest of Middlesex, and all of America, have held our freedoms so dear that they were willing to give the final measure of sacrifice – their very lives – in maintaining those freedoms for you and I. I dedicate this talk today to those brave men and women and call upon you to remember the proud heritage of unsurpassed commitment that goes before you. In their days they understood what General Douglas MacArthur meant when he said that there is no substitute for victory. As war and its causes have evolved over time since MacArthur uttered that phrase what it means to win may have changed, or at least the understanding of what victory is, may have changed.
Dynamics of War
In 1968, as a young Captain, just having returned from Vietnam, I studied the causes of war as a focus in my graduate studies at UCLA. Since then I have looked at not only the causes of war, but what it means to win a war. Why do we go to war and what constitutes victory? These are the two questions before us today.
Today I join you not only as a former warrior, but as the son of a warrior (LTC Arthur F. Gorham), who gave his life while leading his airborne soldiers in Sicily against a determined foe at the beginning of the effort to rid Italy and Europe of the scourge of Fascism’s two evil dictatorships. I am proud to be an American and proud to be an American with a military history of service, commitment and sacrifice.
Today I hope to put war not only into the perspective of a warrior, but also in the perspective of a student and a strategist. I also hope to define what the meaning of victory might be. Or at least to frame your future studies on this important question
Why do nations fight? Why do people fight? Many theories:
The history of war runs parallel with the history of mankind. As long as there have been urban populations of people those people have found cause to battle. Stones and arrows have been replaced by highly sophisticated weapons such as the precision munitions of today that can be guided from remote terminals and have a near 100% chance of hitting their targets, but the story is the same – conflict that cannot be resolved politically or socially becomes the rallying cry to don the armor of war.
Nobody likes war. Least of all the soldier – he is the one that gives and suffers the most. But war will always be with us and when we are called upon to defend ourselves, our freedom, our families, our way of life then we must be ready to take up the sword to protect the very things we hold dear.
There has always been much discussion on what comprises a ‘legitimate war’.
International law recognizes only two cases for a legitimate war:
- Wars of defense: when one nation is attacked by an aggressor, it is considered legitimate for a nation to defend itself against the aggressor.
- Wars sanctioned by the UN Security Council: when the United Nations as a whole acts as a body against a certain nation. Examples include various peacekeeping operations around the world. Actually, some believe that Operation Iraqi Freedom was also sanctioned by the UN—the present mandate for forces in Iraq runs out at the end of this year.
However, international law really only applies when the states choose to have it apply. And the above provisions say nothing about non-state actors as we see in Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Hezbollah.
The studies of what causes wars are extensive and I only hope to scratch the surface in bringing them into perspective.
Psychologists have argued that human beings are inherently violent. While this violence is repressed in normal society, it needs the occasional outlet provided by war. This combines with other notions such as displacement, where a person transfers his grievances into bias and hatred against other ethnic groups, racial groups, nations or ideologies. While these theories may have some explanatory value about why wars occur, they do not explain when or how they occur. Nor do they explain the existence of certain human cultures completely devoid of war.
John Stuart Mill a liberal English philosopher, when thinking about the American Revolutionary War, put this view into perspective when he wrote:
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
Sociology has divided into a number of schools. One is the Primacy of Domestic Politics School which sees war as the product of domestic conditions, with only the target of aggression being determined by international realities. The Spanish American War might be an example of this. Some have argued that jingoism (a national fervor over the sinking of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana) caused the US to invade Cuba. Others would apply some form of expansionism to explain that war.
This differs from the traditional primacy of foreign politics approach that argues it is the decisions of statesmen and the geopolitical situation between nation states that leads to war. There were not great tensions between Spain and the United States in 1898. And I am not sure that we really wanted to rule the Philippines.
Demographic theories can be grouped into two classes, Malthusian, which was a theory espoused by an English economist and geographer who lived in the period between 1766 and 1833, and youth bulge theories.
Malthusian theories see expanding population and scarce resources as a source of violent conflict. Nations must expand their resource base –the British Empire and the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere of the late 1930s are examples of this explanation. The Japanese felt that they needed to expand their control of natural resources in Asia. To do this they needed to keep the United States from denying this expansion. The way to buy time to consolidate the Co-Prosperity Sphere was to destroy the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor.
The youth bulge theory suggests that wars may break out when 30 to 40 percent of the males of a nation belong to the “fighting age” groups from 15 to 29 years of age. This theory argues that many “angry young men” find themselves in a situation that tends to escalate their adolescent anger into violence. They are:
- Being demographically superfluous,
- Being out of work or stuck in a menial job, and
- Having no access to a legal sex life before a career can earn them enough to provide for a family.
The combination of these stress factors, it is argued, usually leads to one of six different forms of behavior:
- Violent Crime
- Emigration (“non violent colonization”)
- Rebellion or putsch (?)
- Civil war and/or revolution
- Genocide (to take over the positions of the slaughtered)
- Conquest (violent colonization, frequently including genocide abroad)
Much of what is happening in Africa and parts of the middle-east might be said to fit into this model—sorta. I say sorta, because I am not sure that history will ever record a single cause of a war. However, for example, there is a body of literature that argues that the reason that Yasser Arafat wanted to keep the Palestinians in refugee camps was to create these angry young men.
Another school of thought argues that war can be seen as an outgrowth of economic competition in a chaotic and competitive international system. In this view wars begin as a pursuit of new markets, of natural resources, and of wealth. This theory is most often advocated by those to the left of the political spectrum, who argue such wars serve the interests of the wealthy but are fought by the poor.
Obviously Marxist theories fit perfectly here. And this school is very close to the Malthusian theory. Marx argued that elites bought off the workers with the gains from new markets, but that when these new markets were no longer enough that the workers would arise and overthrow the government.
Rationalist theories of war assume that both sides to a potential war are rational, which is to say that each side wants to get the best possible outcome for itself for the least possible loss of life and property to its own side. Wars happen when one group of people or organization perceives that the benefits that can be obtained are greater than the cost. This can happen for a variety of reasons:
- To protect national pride by preventing the loss of territory
- To protect livelihood by preventing the loss of resources or by declaring independence, or
- To inflict punishment on the “wrong” doer, especially when one country is perceived as stronger than the other and can effectively deal out the punishment.
- To prevent subsequent worst consequences – preemption—the so called Bush Doctrine of hitting an enemy before he can hit you. I have argued elsewhere that preemption will only be politically acceptable as long as there are no civilian casualties in a preemptive strike.
Baron Karl Von Clausewitz was a German strategist in the middle 1800s who wrote an extremely complex tome entitled “On War”. He wrote that:” War is a continuation of politics by other means.” He was trying to explain Napoleon’s success in war and to draw some general conclusions about war. His works were studied in the 19th century and then were out of vogue until after the Vietnam War.
Defeating the enemy is not an end in itself but a means to achieve political objectives. It is the political objectives of a war that determine the form of the war and its intensity. The political policy determines the nature of the war, and political circumstances accordingly shape strategy. Sun Tzu said that it is better to defeat the enemy’s strategy than his army.
It is this last approach that I find the most convincing, though each theory has something to contribute to understanding any given conflict. Or maybe better said it is the theory that I hope modern day strategists will adhere to. It is this theory that suggests that no strategist starts a war without a clear definition of what it means to win in political terms and these political terms can be translated into clear and obtainable military objectives. Obtainable of course means that we are willing to pay the estimated cost for the estimated return.
This is where the difficulty occurs—in execution. In the Gulf War of 1990-1991 President George H. W. Bush defined 4 clear objectives:
- Withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait
- Restoration of the government of Kuwait
- Security and stability in the gulf region, and
- Protection of American lives abroad
These were achieved! However, in selling the war to the Congress and the American people President Bush compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler. The result was an expectation that Saddam would suffer a fate similar to Hitler. When this didn’t happen, a majority of the American people did not feel that we had won the Gulf War.
Theories on war abound, the strategist, the historian, the soldier – they all will tell you why we go to war. The civilian who suffers in war will not care why there is a war – only that there IS one and the suffering is great. No matter what the cause, war is painful, expensive, and destructive. It changes a people and a nation. It changes the economy, the politics, the social order, and quite often will change the religion. War leaves behind hunger, disease and privation. War is change. Difficult change. Change is made more difficult when that war is lost because the victor may be forcing unacceptable changes on the vanquished as the Allies did at Versailles following World War I. The terms of the Versailles treaty are often called the roots for World War II.
You can understand why it is so very important to win. When the investment is a way of life then you must do everything in your capacity to ensure that you win. There isn’t a second chance in war.
Fighting and Winning
The politicians and grand strategists can have wonderful strategies and goals but it is the soldier, sailor, airman or marine, like those whose lives we commemorate today that must fight those wars and win them. What may seem easy at the grand level becomes the most difficult at the tactical level where men and women today fight and die.
In this day of TV warriors and instant strategists we tend to forget the men and women who are doing the fighting! I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that Clausewitz also had ideas about what he called the fog and friction of war. They help you understand why war is so difficult.
To Clausewitz, combat is a realm of fear, danger, physical exertion, uncertainty, and chance in which “the simplest thing is difficult.”
The fog of war: The term that he coined seeks to capture the uncertainty created by this fear and the element of chance regarding one’s own capability, adversary capability and an adversary’s intent during an engagement, operation or campaign. Clausewitz wrote: “The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently — like the effect of a fog or moonshine — gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance.”
And of course this is the business that I am in today—trying to design computer systems that will minimize this uncertainty—but can they?
During the battle of Khe Sanh that I describe in my book the fog of war was thick for several reasons:
- Intelligence information was not shared
- There was initially not one overall commander
- The different units involved had different perspectives on what their “raison d’etre” was”
I reported to a civilian boss 40 miles away who, because he worked with Vietnamese, was not advised of the threat for fear of compromising our intelligence collection capabilities.
In Clausewitz’s view, “Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.” In my case in Vietnam we had friction created by real fog—the fog on 21 January 1968 was so thick that one could only see several feet. This made understanding what was going on much more difficult. We were lucky, however, because the fog and obstacles created by a massive air attack the previous day slowed the enemy down so that his attack was not a surprise and was not synchronized.
In real war both material and psychological factors are important, and a true military genius must have both intellectual qualities and strength of character to deal with them. To this end I am reminded of a quote from Steven Vincent Benet’s book John Brown’s Body.
“If you take a flat map and move wooden blocks on it, they behave as they should. The science of war is moving live men like blocks. Getting wooden squares into position at the right time. But it takes time to mold men into blocks. Flat maps turn into rivers and gullies, and you can’t pick them up in your hand to move them.
It’s all so clear on the map: Blocks curling around other blocks and crunching them up…But men get tired and orders are slow. You move too slowly and take too long. It’s not like it was on the map. And soldiers die…..“
My own experience of over 40 years of studying and thinking about war tells me that this quote is as accurate today as it was in 1929 when Benet wrote it.
So what does it mean to win? What is victory in real terms today?
A year ago my book on my experiences in Vietnam was published. I wrote the book trying to set the historical record straight and to insure the stories of brave warriors—American, Vietnamese and Montgnard were saved for posterity.
Let my own experience and the conclusions in my book be used to the answer question of what it means to win.
From the Vietnam War experience we should learn the relationship between political and military objectives, if we learn nothing else. Sometimes those political and military goals can be at odds. In this process we should develop a sense of what it means to win. Winning is not necessarily the destruction of the enemy, though it is often a consequence/objective. The Vietnam War was a political war — not for the United States but for the North Vietnamese. They understood that the war would not be won on the battlefields of Vietnam. It would be won in the streets of the United States. In the United States of the 1960s and early 70s the anti-war demonstrations convinced the politicians that the effort was not worth the political cost—not the military cost, but the political cost.
The same thing happened in 1954 in France. In the French case the siege of remote airfield named Dien Bien Phu lasted for an extensive period and eventually fell to the Viet Minh. The French people were tired of war so soon after World War II and Korea. They wanted peace and after the battle of Dien Bien Phu brought this fatigue to the political front. The French people voted in the streets of Paris by their demonstrations and the French government then sought peace, resulting in the division of Viet Nam and planting the seeds for the next war.
The United States had not learned from the French experience this critical strategic lesson — the relationship between military operations and political objectives. We had stopped studying Clausewitz in our military and civilian schools.
Previously, traditional thought held that when diplomacy failed, things were turned over to the military. The linkage between the two was not apparent. This of course is the World War II model.
There was also prevalent in Washington a belief in gradual escalation/de-escalation, and the idea that you could vary the amount of force applied for signaling the opponent about your seriousness and intentions to convince him to quit. This is the rationalist argument pushed to the extreme and characterized Defense Secretary McNamara’s approach to conflict. He believed that you could calculate an enemy’s willingness to resist in terms such as body count. Unfortunately today’s media are trying to continue the relevancy of body count as a measure of success. It was not useful then and it totally fails in today’s conflicts. The North Vietnamese understood the relationship of political and military objectives.
The North Vietnamese attacked the U.S. strategy and our political center of gravity (public support) through a combination of actions on the battlefield that created casualties, media concern for our POWs, and a greater than expected devotion to their objective of conquest of the South. In other words McNamara’s rational calculation approach was incorrect. The North Vietnamese understood that they didn’t need to have a more capable army – they understood they needed to enflame the American public and provoke protests and dissension against the war. That’s how they would win. Their calculations were correct.
The North Vietnamese understood that if the American public stopped supporting a war that eventually the politicians would have to end it. They were right! We won the battle on the ground in Vietnam and lost it in the living rooms of America where war footage was shown on TV for the first time in history.
Tet is a Vietnamese holiday, the ‘high holy days’. Each year there was a cease fire agreed to by both sides so that they could celebrate Tet. However, in late January 1968 the North Vietnamese infiltrated large numbers of troops into South Vietnam and even attacked the US Embassy in Saigon The Tet offensive and “Agony of Khe Sanh” of early 1968 were designed with precise political objectives in mind. For two plus months the American people were confronted daily in the media by the possibility of a major battlefield defeat. This was the high point of the war. Following Tet the demonstrations in United States increased, which undermined the political support for President Johnson. During the Paris peace talks an American colonel said to his Vietnamese counterpart: “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield.” To which the Vietnamese colonel responded: “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”
There was a Wall Street Journal article several months ago that argued that the North Vietnamese had actually been badly defeated on the battlefields of January to April 1968.
The political loss of the war began when the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive. The American public was kept in the dark about the capabilities of the North Vietnamese to mount such an offensive in order to maintain the public perception that we were winning the war. The ability to launch such an attack so caught the public off guard that it GALVANIZED them and was the beginning of the end — the beginning of the political loss.
Politics is the diplomacy of national leaders as they deal with one another to manage the relationships of countries. It is a game of control and has always superceded the military in importance. Battlefield decisions are highly influenced by the political situation. This is not always a productive situation because the objectives may not always be the same.
The announcement of the bombing halt by President Johnson is a classic case in point. He announced a partial bombing halt of North Vietnam in an attempt to induce them to enter into negotiations. During March 1968, while preparing to conduct the relief of the Khe Sanh Combat Base, the 1st Cavalry Division was given its next mission — an attack into the A Shau Valley 50 miles south of Khe Sanh to destroy the North Vietnamese Army “remnants” from the occupation of Hue during the Tet offensive.
On April 1, 1968, the division plans officer and I prepared a concept brief for the attack to the division commanding general. The concept was to execute the planned attack to relieve Khe Sanh, but the attack would be continued past Khe Sanh into Laos and then leapfrog south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, while blocking and destroying the trail, and enter the A Shau Valley from the north — not the traditional attack route west from Hue. We would have achieved operational and tactical surprise at least and probably “won” the war.
The commanding general dismissed the concept quickly by asking whether we had heard the president’s speech the night before. He told us that President Johnson had announced a partial bombing halt. We answered that we had not. He said: “What you are proposing is not politically feasible.” He turned and left. Such a pursuit would have militarily destroyed the North Vietnamese forces in the northern part of South Vietnam and denied them their base areas and infiltration routes. Three years later the South Vietnamese were to try this with devastating losses.
This is a classic example of the political limitations on even the most elemental operational aspects of the war in Vietnam. It also highlights the need for clear, unwavering military and political objectives that are in consonance before a conflict begins.
It was the experience of this war with its constantly changing political objectives and limitations on military action and the constant interplay between the political and the military that gave birth to the doctrine of “overwhelming force” espoused by General Colin Powell and practiced during the Gulf War against Iraq. It had its roots in situations similar to the one described. Powell believed that in Vietnam we had never truly tried to win the war militarily because we always limited the area where we could fight and never committed enough troops to get the job done.
What Khe Sanh in particular and the Vietnam experience in general should teach us is not necessarily the criticality of overwhelming force.
They should teach us the importance of military objectives being a clear translation of the conditions that a politician seeks for the U.S. military to achieve at the end of the conflict — what it will mean to win. There are three critical pieces of guidance that need to be developed during the policymaking process, before hostilities begin:
A clear statement by the political authorities of the desired situation in the post-hostility and settlement phases of a dispute — what the area should “look like” following hostilities. President Bush 41’s 4 clear statements are a clear example of achievable political objectives.
A clear set of political objectives that when achieved will allow the above vision to become reality.
A set of military objectives that will, when achieved, allow and-or cause the above to happen. The stated political objectives continually changed in Vietnam in reaction to battlefield realities. They were not linked to achievable military objectives. Therefore, we may have won the battles, but did not win the war.
There is an argument to be made that the same was true of our initial thinking when we went to War with Iraq in 2002. We did not have a clear vision of the end state.
The final point is for the political leadership to have the courage to continue unwaveringly in the face of adversity. He who quits loses!
We should learn from Vietnam that winning is the achievement of political objectives by military means. As the political goals changed the military ones did not. When that occurs the conflict is over. This applies as much today in Iraq and Afghanistan as it did to Vietnam.
In the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848 the US captured Mexico City, which in those times meant that we had won. But, there was no one Mexican authority who would surrender and be politically liable for “losing” to the Americans so the process dragged on for several months.
As we think about the Vietnam War, and all wars, we should be asking ourselves “Have we learned the lessons of Vietnam?” Did we learn the lessons of the Gulf War? Are we ready to support the politics of winning?
Today the nature of warfare has changed. It is unclear what constitutes victory in the current political climate in the eyes of the media. What does it mean to win? We fight against terrorists who know no rules of war and who want to deny us our freedoms. Very pertinent to today is what Winston Churchill said in 1940, before the United States entered World War II “Victory at all cost. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory no matter how long and how hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.
As we contemplate the sacrifices made years ago by the men and women commemorated in this service today let us insure that these warriors’ lives continue to be relevant in our search for freedom from the tyranny that terrorists would impose on us. We as part of an international community must remember that without victory there is no survival. Those brave men and women of years gone by understood this—do you?
Let me close by reading “The Absent Legions” by – Edgar A. Guest, which reflects the gratitude of a nation for those who paid the ultimate price to insure victory.
Somewhere, far away, they heard us
When the word of Victory stirred us.
Safe within God’s Holy keeping,
Heard us cheer and saw us weeping;
Shared in all we did or said—
Freedom’s glorious, youngest dead.
Never doubt it, there was gladness
Where the dead are done with madness,
Hate and hurt, and need for dying.
As they saw our banners flying
On our day of joyous pride,
“ ‘Twas for this,” said they,
What if tears our eyes had blinded,
As of them we were reminded?
Never doubt it, they were voicing
Somewhere, songs of great rejoicing;
Glad to look on earth and see
Safe our country, still, and free.
I am an old war horse and it has been both my privilege and sacred duty to prepare the rising generations to be more prepared for the battlefields of tomorrow than all the generations before you. Upon graduation you will make decisions that may bring you to the brink of accepting that call to duty. I admonish you to be prepared, be diligent, and be firm in your calling to protect the freedoms of this great nation. And above all – understand how priceless victory is!