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Critical War Theory (A Review of "Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars", edited by Matthew Moten)

Ann Marlowe

Looking at war only from the soldier’s perspective, says Roger Spiller in the keynote essay in this collection, would be like a physician viewing an illness only from the patient’s point of view. Unpacking the metaphor leads in several interesting directions. There’s Plato’s propensity to have Socrates use the physician as an example. There’s the notion of war as an illness, soldiers as patients, and critics as doctors. And there is the direction Spiller takes the thought: to argue that war today is limited war, a kind the soldier does not like to fight, a kind that seems like “playing with his life.” But Spiller summarizes, “The soldier’s perspective might serve him well, but that is not to say it advances our knowledge of war equally well.”

It is rare — and somewhat perilous — in military circles for a theorist to say that the soldier’s viewpoint is not the one that counts. And Spiller — one of the founders of the Combat Studies Institute of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College — is writing here on behalf of the Army.

Between War and Peace is a project of TRADOC, the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, and was commissioned by then-TRADOC Chief General Martin E. Dempsey, and edited by a West Point professor, Colonel Matthew Moten. TRADOC recruits and trains American soldiers, so it is fair to infer that Between War and Peace, published January 2011 by the Free Press, represents at least a range of approved military opinion. And as Spiller’s essay suggests, the collection trembles most interestingly on the edge of the abyss of postmodernism. (First they came for the artists; then they came for the English professors, and now, they’ve come for military theorists.)

Each of the fifteen chapters here is worth reading, offering an unexpected light on wars we think we know. But many of the contributors — and especially Spiller and Andrew Bacevich, who wrote the final essay — go much further. They raise issues about the discipline of military history itself, and of military strategy, and what we can know as we practice these disciplines. None of the writers disappears down a conceptual rabbit hole (though I was worried for Bacevich sometimes) but each of the authors stirs up doubts and disturbing questions.

It should come as no surprise that there is ambiguity even in the aim of the collection. The ostensible topic is “war termination,” and you are forgiven for not knowing quite what that is. Spiller notes that in the last twenty years only two articles on “war termination” have been published in the professional military journals. The phrase itself appeared during the First World War — a conflict notable for feeling interminable to the combatants.

What is “war termination”? The study of how wars end, shorn of many of the assumptions of past generations, and even of their vocabulary:

“Today you will search in vain for any definition of victory in American military doctrine. Exactly when the classical ideal of victory disappeared from official doctrine is an open question, but its absence invites the thought that at some time in the recent past, victory, which so long dominated military thought and practice, lost some of its official appeal.”

Spiller argues that our wars have had more equivocal outcomes than most people realize. Or as one social networking site’s option for describing one’s personal life says, “it’s complicated.” And this, in a nutshell, is the message of Between War and Peace. This is not your father’s military history, even if the TRADOC website insists, “Victory Starts Here!”

Given the current state of affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan, a cynic might think it a very convenient message indeed. Publish a book that amplifies the ambivalence of former wars, so that today’s wars appear as part of a continuum rather than unpleasantly novel failures or quasi-failures. But Between War and Peace (which confusingly shares a title with an unrelated 2004 collection of essays by Victor Davis Hanson) didn’t come into being that way. When commissioned in the summer of 2009 it was intended as a successor to an influential 1986 collection called America’s First Battles, a fine but very straightforward book without a pomo bone in its body.

In the preface to First Battles, the editors — a lieutenant colonel and a brigadier general — explained that the book was designed to test “the assumption that it makes a great deal of difference how the U.S. Army prepares in peacetime, mobilizes for war, fights its first battle, and subsequently adapts to the exigencies of combat.” The editors found “significant patterns” in the ten first battles described. And perhaps the Army was prescient; the years after the book’s publication had first battles enough — Panama in 1989, the Gulf War, and American interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

But Between War and Peace has plunged into much deeper waters than First Battles. Indeed Colonel Moten’s preface never mentions the earlier book. He explained by email, “We started the project with AFB in mind, but I quickly decided to downplay the connection for a number of reasons. We don’t have an agreement with the AFB authors to make such a pairing. We didn’t want to be artificially bound by a certain format. Finally, we have produced a book that is quite different from AFB, and I felt that it should stand on its own.”

Between War and Peace stands on its own, and possibly alone. General Dempsey says in his foreword that the book is “ a wholly original and important contribution to military history and theory,” and he is correct. This might be the first official publication of the American Army where the chilly wind of postmodern uncertainty is not only acknowledged, but embraced. The cultural context is just a bit different. General Dempsey was interviewed on the marathon meetings held by TRADOC to write the Army’s new doctrine. He quoted Mark Twain rather than Lacan, but nevertheless sounded pretty literary: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

It’s easy to divine many of the Army’s preoccupations and its likely worries about the future from this volume. Many of the people involved with Between War and Peace are central to the Army’s intellectual life. Dempsey is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, a Ph.D. in history at tradoc, also involved with developing this volume, is working for his mentor General David Petraeus in Kabul. Contributor Con Crane, a West Point classmate of Petraeus, Director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute at the Army War College, was the lead author of the Army’s 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual, commonly known as Petraeus’s COIN manual.

There’s a uniformity of structure to most of the essays that suggests a strong editorial hand, and as we shall see, certain themes run through the collection. But there is by no means a uniformity of opinion. Like any wise old bureaucracy, the Army hedges its bets — or, perhaps, keeps its friends close and its enemies closer. Several of the essayists are known to be sharply critical of the way we have fought our recent wars. One of the most controversial contributors, Colonel Gian Gentile, writes here on the Vietnam War, but he has become famous even outside the military for his outspoken criticism of the Army’s embrace of counterinsurgency. Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel, is also known as a fierce opponent of our involvements in Iraq (where he lost an officer son) and Afghanistan.

Moten teasingly writes in his introduction that his team “agreed to try to avoid analyzing the problems of the past through the lens of current concerns,” but adds that the reader “is under no such obligation.” Many contributors offer surprisingly harsh and sometimes revisionist views of American strategies. Brian McAllister Linn suggestively describes American commanders in the Philippine War of 1898–1902 as “focusing on winning the battle and ignoring the consequences. Fixated on tactics and operations they gave little thought to how this might achieve the nation’s strategic objectives.”

One pervasive theme is the frequency with which American troops have undertaken occupation duties, including governance. When Joseph Dawson discusses General Winfield Scott’s administration of a prostrate Mexico in the fall of 1847, he mentions “the truism that there are seldom enough troops available during postwar occupations” and describes, without editorializing, Scott’s sensible and thorough efforts to keep order.

Theodore Wilson writes of the American occupation of Germany as poorly planned, attacking the “myth of Germany as the model for military occupations.” He states that a map of security incidents in January 1946 “could easily be confused with a U.S. Central Command map of Iraq in 2006.” German recidivist Werewolf insurgents killed “between 3,000 and 5,000” Allied and German citizens in the months following May 1945.

Several contributors find that what happens in an occupation, or afterwards, turns the war’s ostensible results on their head. The Seminole War’s hero turned out not to be the U.S. colonel who finished the war — but Seminole chief Osceola, whose fame lives on in many place names today. Joseph Glatthaar argues that “Southern whites lost the [Civil] war but won much of the peace.” Peter Maslowski takes the idea of a “300 Year War” against Native Americans from an unnamed Chinese general speaking at the Command and General Staff College. The War of 1812, says Wayne Lee, helped “cement the myth of American exceptionalism and . . . an imagined virtuous invincibility.” This although American efforts were often startlingly inept. And Spiller suggests that historians of the future will see World Wars I and II as a single conflict, inevitable because of the “less-than-complete victory sealed by the Treaty of Versailles.”

A second theme is the American Army’s curious reluctance to develop doctrine for irregular warfare. It was always supposed to be the exception, though it looks from this collection as though it were the rule. Two of the essays deal with the Indian wars, one with the Mexican War (in the aftermath of which General Scott governed Mexico), one with the Philippine War, one with Vietnam, and one with the aftermath of the first Gulf War. That’s five wars with considerable irregular or insurgent elements out of fourteen in all. We fought some of these irregular wars — in the Philippines in 1902, the Mexican War, some of the Indian wars — wisely, if not according to today’s laws of war. Yet no one thought to analyze our rather extensive experience for future use. And there’s hardly a greater intellectual sin among the military than failing to register “lessons learned.”

A third theme is the superiority of professional to amateur (in the time period of the book, mainly militia) soldiers and the gradual progress of the American Army from a barely unified group of militias under Washington to a fully professional, cohesive force. There’s rarely a good word to be found here about militias, which were favored by the Founding Fathers because of their fear of standing armies. We read how amateurs refuse battle, rape and plunder, and simply don’t fight well. On first glance, this isn’t a current issue. Maybe it’s ammunition stored for future disputes contrasting conscription versus today’s volunteer force. The Army’s preference for professionals — in my view, a mistake — has had far-reaching and sometimes debatable consequences. For instance, although Afghanistan had a tradition of military conscription, after 2001 the U.S. set up the Afghan Army as a volunteer force. Ever since, we’ve struggled against attrition, while American boys die doing a job that is arguably the task of Afghan boys.

Gentile told me that Spiller, the author of many books, has had a “huge influence on the Army’s intellectual life” since the early 1980s. So it is well worth looking at Spiller’s six “general propositions about the history of American war termination and its implications for the conduct of modern limited war”:

  1. Wars are defined by their limitations, with “absolute” and “total” war and “total” victory “theoretical abstractions”;
  2. Their original aims are constantly revised;
  3. The aims of all sides “gradually converge toward an agreement to stop fighting”;
  4. This convergence is not only the result of what happens on the battlefield;
  5. The conduct of war is increasingly public; and
  6. Rather than looking at “decisive” battles, we should look at “terminal” battles, those which influence how a war ends.

Spiller cautions that these propositions may seem counterintuitive to soldiers, who are trained to use overwhelming force to eliminate a threat. Perhaps numbers three and six are the most paradoxical.

The third proposition presents war as a conversation, like a symphony in which opposed themes are brought to resolution. (I also think of psychoanalysis, but that is probably a bridge too far.) Yet Spiller also harks back to the founder of Western military theory, quoting Clausewitz on war as “a continuous interaction of opposites.” It’s usually a good bet that no matter how paradoxical a proposition a military theorist raises, Clausewitz got to it first.

The sixth point is a bit confusing, but worth pursuing. “Any side can fight a decisive campaign or even a succession of them and still be defeated.”

By contrast a terminal campaign may exercise an influence over the outcome of a war neither side intends, not does it derive from military action alone. A terminal campaign is strategically important; it plays a role in educating both sides about how much — or how little — their efforts can accomplish.

For example, Spiller says Gettysburg was arguably a decisive battle, but the Civil War still continued for two years. The results “were not sufficient to convince hundreds of thousands of soldiers and the governments that commanded them to stop fighting.” The Tet Offensive, on the other hand, occurred seven years before the Vietnam War’s last battle, but “exercised the greatest influence over how the war would end.”

The “endings” discussed in the book are not just of particular wars but of what Spiller terms, quoting the late military historian Russell Weigley, “the history of usable combat.” Weigley wrote that back in 1973, but Spiller argues that “the age of modern limited war” began with the Korean War — which ended in an armistice, peace still not having been declared.

Today, Spiller argues, a war “must be more precisely attuned to the limited objectives for which it is being fought — limited objectives that must be precisely defined as well.” This gets at a paradox obvious not only to American war-fighters but to the Afghan villagers who are the supposed prize in our counterinsurgency. How can it be that the U.S. has such military might yet cannot defeat the ragtag insurgent bands? It’s a question of deciding what our objectives are — and that is something that grows harder and harder the more sophisticated a society is. As the philosopher Stanley Cavell has argued, one of the key problems of modern art is figuring out what satisfies us. It may be that the same is true of modern war.

Spiller writes, “The immense military power of the United States is no guarantee that it can seize and sustain the strategic and operational initiative, and steering a war toward a desirable end is no small task even in the most favorable circumstances.”

And so we come to Bacevich’s brilliant but maddening final essay, on the First and Second Gulf Wars. He sums up the problem as well as anyone: “The Anglo-American invasion of 2003 transformed Iraq from a crumbling dictatorship into a failed state.” Why, he asks, has our involvement in Iraq “proven to be so interminable?” Because our policymakers first “misconstrued the problem” and then “devised inappropriate solutions,” which in turn “exacerbated actual problems to which Washington has remained steadfastly oblivious.”

You don’t need to agree with Bacevich — I don’t follow him all the way — to admire the clarity of his vision and the logic of his reasoning. And you don’t have to disagree with Bacevich to be frustrated by the elliptical nature of his essay and his unwillingness to admit into his discourse the possibility that he could be wrong.

Bacevich argues that two assumptions have governed American policy in the Persian Gulf. The first is that stability consists in “fostering a balance of power congenial to the United States.” But the U.S. has tried to manage that balance, and to change the nature of Gulf states. Still, it has always assumed that the Middle East, like other parts of the world, “consists of a more or less fixed number of legitimate states governed by more or less legitimate governments.” The second assumption is that American activism reduces conflict and advances American interests. “Bluntly, the phrase balance of power was a code word for hegemony.”

These two assumptions are false, Bacevich argues. Our exertions “have served not to reduce but to enflame the sources of conflict.” The Islamic world is different, he says, in ways that made our application of methods that worked elsewhere “not only irrelevant but even counterproductive.” In words that could not be more relevant as I write, Bacevich notes the “refusal of the West to allow the people of the Islamic world to determine their own fate in their own way.”

I am less in accord with his next sentence: “And that refusal contributed mightily to the rise of violent anti-Western Islamism.” The “Arab awakening” taking place now suggests that many Muslims know that the conversation they need to have is among themselves, not with us. These countries too are crossing the divide into the dizzying postmodern world of uncertain, fractured perceptions, and unknown desires. The Islamism of twenty years from now is unlikely to look like today’s. For one thing, Islamists — and Muslims in general — are less likely to know what they want, what would satisfy them. Victory may prove as elusive a concept for them as for us.

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