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Understanding War

December 25, 2008

Search with Google for "understanding war" and you will get more than 76,000 links, including a link to Kimberly Kagan's new website and her Institute for the Study of War. She is a military historian who has taught at West Point and Yale. Her academic credentials are marvelous, as are her husband's, Frederick Kagan, and her father-in-law, Donald Kagan. Kimberly Kagan and the other Kagan's are hawks regarding Iraq, Kimberly having supported that war from the beginning and the surge. She is bright and charming. But we should realize the ease with which a bright academic or general can get it wrong.

An inadequate understanding of war has produced a lot of failures, from the ancient Athenians (especially after the death of Pericles) to Napoleon, from the offensives by generals of various countries early during World War I to MacArthur at the beginning of the war in the Philippines. Then there were the learned people helping President Johnson during the war in Vietnam: Walt Rostow, Robert McNamara, the Bundy brothers, General Westmoreland and various people in the CIA.

It is possible to win a war without understanding it well: the side that wins being the side that makes the least egregious mistakes.

One important part of understanding war is the question whether one should initiate it. War has unintended consequences, and it is possible to go to war without understanding what can be accomplished. The ancient Athenians were enthusiastic about going to war, but they didn't realize what they were getting themselves into and would have been better off doing everything they could to prevent it.

Why is understanding war so difficult? Because warfare is more than bang bang, boom boom, the advantage of range in weaponry and various other operational details. As von Clausewitz tells us, understanding war requires a knowledge of political circumstances. (A Google search of Clausewitz will get you 793,000 links.) These political circumstances include the mentality of the participants and potential participants – not studied enough by the CIA and those military professionals who supported sending troops to Vietnam. Understanding war is like men understanding women or women understanding men: you have to know the specific individual. Generals have been described as often fighting the last war. If they make this mistake it is because they have inadequately gathered the requisite background specifics of contemporary social and political conditions.

World War II and the Korean War were easier to understand than the kind of war that developed in Iraq after the conquest of Baghdad in 2003. During World War II success and failure were measured by ground gained or lost. Where ground was gained the politics changed immediately, and for the Allies that was what the war was about: changing politics – the politics of Hitler's Germany and imperialist Japan.

At the conclusion of World War II we occupied Germany and Japan but did not fight the kind of war of occupation now being fought in Iraq – for a variety of reasons. To understand the war in Iraq we need to focus on the specifics of that war rather than try analogies with World War II.

Regarding Iraq we have to keep in mind the goals there -- the war in Iraq for Americans supposedly more than a sporting contest to be cheered at some imagined victory. For the Bush administration the goal in Iraq is to liberate the Iraqis and the creation of democracy there. The goal for Iraqi insurgents – apart from al-Qaeda – is to rid their country of foreign troops and foreign attempts at control.

To understand our involvement in Iraq we need to understand the people there. As of today, December 25, 2007, we can appreciate that violence in Iraq has subsided and that there is an increase in a sense of security among Iraqis. Some Iraqis are unhappy about our presence in their country but have turned to us for help against al-Qaeda (the product of al-Qaeda not understanding war). To some extent what is happening in Iraq comes out of the heads of the Iraqis themselves. People grow tired of war. Lately, Sunni and Shia leaders have been trying to end the bloody hatred that has developed between them since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The question of when we should leave Iraq has everything to do with what is in the heads of the Iraqi people. Kimberly Kagan's website focuses on maps, battle statistics and such but in my opinion, is adequately sociological.

Copyright © 2007-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.