A U.S. soldier standing night guard as oil wells burn in the distance in Kuwait, just south of the Iraqi border, on the last night of the Gulf War, February 1991.
ANDY CLARK / reuters

THE OBSOLESCENCE OF TOTAL WAR

Only one thing could possibly link the protracted warfare in the former Yugoslavia, the destruction of Grozny, and the recent border fighting between Ecuador and Peru. Once more, as in centuries past, wars are rather easily started and then fought without perceptible restraint. When belligerents see that no particular penalty is paid for opening fire first or using any and all means of warfare -- even the wholesale destruction of cities by aerial or artillery bombardment -- self-imposed restraints on the use of force are everywhere eroded. The border fighting between Ecuador and Peru had only just begun when tactical bombing was employed, as if it were no more consequential than one more infantry skirmish.

This new season of war is upon us as one more consequence of the passing of the Cold War. The latter induced or intensified a number of hot wars in the contested zones between each camp as each superpower provided allies and clients with weapons and expertise far beyond their own capacities. Thus the Middle East especially became something of a preferred battleground by proxy.

At the same time, however, the fear that escalation could eventually reach the nuclear level inhibited any direct combat whatsoever by the superpowers themselves in Europe or anywhere else, even on the smallest scale. Above all, the Cold War suppressed many potential shooting wars in a great part of the world because neither superpower would tolerate them within its own camp. Both, moreover, were notably vigilant in controlling the form and geographic scope of the wars they fought in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, and also the wars their allies and clients fought, again for fear of an escalation to direct clash and nuclear war.

The concept of war governing those encounters has long been so strongly entrenched that it is not even commonly recognized as particular, but rather is seen as the only possible concept for now and always. It envisages only wars fought for great national purposes that can evoke public fervor, by armed forces that represent the aroused nation rather than merely a body of professionals going about their business. Yet that is only one concept of war, as even casual readers of military history well know. Far from an eternal verity, the concept is a rather modern innovation, associated with a particular phase of fairly recent history. Before the French Revolution, most wars were fought for much less than imperative purposes that rarely evoked popular enthusiasm, with prudent strategies and tactics to conserve expensive professional forces. While no great purposes at hand could motivate the entire nation in war, there is much justification for some eighteenth-century warfare of our own, with modest purposes and casualty avoidance as the controlling norm.

THE NEW CULTURE OF WAR

The Cold War culture of intense but controlled tension, which required disciplined constraints on the use of force, seems to have influenced even nonaligned nations such as India and Pakistan. To use force at all during the Cold War came to be seen almost everywhere as a very grave decision indeed, to be made only after the fullest deliberation, usually after all other means had been exhausted. Further decisions to escalate to regular infantry combat rather than deniable guerrilla operations, armored warfare and artillery support rather than infantry, aerial bombing rather than ground warfare were deemed worthy of distinct political decisions at the highest levels instead of being left, as in the past, to the discretion of military commanders. The latter complained, sometimes loudly, but they obeyed, thus affirming the new culture of restraint.

Restraint did not prevent 138 wars between 1945 and 1989, by the most expansive count, which killed as many as 23 million people. But in the previous 44 years, which included two world wars, many more were killed. In the absence of any restraint arising from strategic prudence, internal repression killed many more people over the years 1945-89 than all 138 wars combined.

Now that the Cold War no longer suppresses hot wars, the entire culture of disciplined restraint in the use of force is in dissolution. Except for Iraq's wars, the consequences have chiefly been manifest within the territories that had been Soviet, as well as Yugoslav. The protracted warfare, catastrophic destruction, and profuse atrocities of eastern Moldavia, the three Caucasian republics, parts of Central Asia, and lately Chechnya, Croatia, and Bosnia have certainly horrified and moved many Americans. But this diverse violence derives from the same postimperial devolution of epic, unprecedented scale or from purely localized sources. Hence one could still hope that the new readiness to start unrestrained wars would at least be geographically confined, if only within an area already vast.

The fighting between Ecuador and Peru, the mounting recklessness manifest between Greece and Turkey, and also perhaps Pakistan's increasing boldness over Kashmir suggest the more sinister possibility that a new, much less restrained culture of war is emerging and spreading far and wide. Nothing is now countering a number of perverse precedents. Aggression and willful escalation alike remain unpunished; victors remain in possession of their gains; the defeated are abandoned to their own devices. It was not so during the Cold War, when most antagonists had a superpower patron with its own reasons to control them, victors had their gains whittled down by superpower compacts, and the defeated were often assisted by whichever superpower was not aligned with the victor.

One may wonder what precedents the Ecuador-Peru fighting will set. Without knowing its map-changing results, one cannot assert that other dormant Latin American border disputes will be revived. But it would be most surprising if those disputes were not now undergoing some reappraisal, if only by politicians interested in defining ultranationalist stances for themselves. Moreover, some deceleration, if not an outright reversal, is certain to occur in the downward trend in military spending by many Latin American countries. That most positive development of recent years, which yielded important political and economic benefits, is now endangered. The Ecuador-Peru war could turn out far more costly for Latin America as a whole and indirectly for the United States too than its limited dimensions might suggest.

THE MEANING OF "WAR"

Can the United States counter perverse precedents and the new culture of wars easily started and fought without restraint? Beyond diplomacy is the controversial remedy of armed intervention, with or without a multilateral framework, with or without foreign auxiliaries. But aside from its suitability in any particular setting (in some it is unimaginable), military force collides with the general refusal of the American public to sanction interventions in place after place without end.

That political given must be accepted, but it is contingent upon the cost in U.S. casualties of a particular concept of war and particular methods of intervention -- the only concepts and methods the U.S. military establishment now offers. If these could be changed drastically to minimize the exposure of U.S. military personnel to the risks of combat, the response of public opinion to proposed military interventions should also change. The United States might then do more to dissuade aggression and escalation.

Much is implicit in American political discourse, the official manuals of the U.S. military services, and the popular understanding of the very word "war" when the United States is a protagonist. Quite naturally, the various Weinberger-Powell-Cheney doctrines, which set out to define several preconditions for any decision to send U.S. military forces into combat, are based squarely, tacitly, and without discussion on the same concept of war. While the three sets of preconditions differ in detail, they all require vital, fervor-arousing U.S. national interests to be clearly threatened, and that the United States employ forces powerful enough to win not only decisively but also quickly, before the fervor abates and the nation is no longer aroused.

War fought for grand purposes is yet another product of the French and American revolutions. With some chronological laxity, however, I here label it "Napoleonic" because grand purposes often imply the decisive employment of large forces in large operations, in true Napoleonic fashion. The concept originally emerged in reaction to the typical warfare of eighteenth-century Europe, ridiculed by Napoleon and systematically criticized by Carl von Clausewitz.

While fully recognizing that the cautious methods of the prior age of warfare were congruent with their times and the habitually modest aims of what were called "cabinet wars," Clausewitz was scathing in his descriptions. Demonstrative maneuvers meant to induce enemy withdrawals without firing a shot were readily called off if serious fighting ensued. Superior forces avoided battle if there was a risk of heavy casualties even in victory. Prolonged sieges were preferred to determined assaults and circumspect pursuits to all-out exploitation in the wake of battle victories. At the strategic level, elaborately prepared offensives had unambitious objectives, promising campaigns were interrupted by early retreats into winter quarters merely to avoid further losses, and offensive performance was routinely sacrificed to the overriding priority of avoiding casualties and conserving forces for another day, with much effort expended to build and garrison linear defenses and fortifications.

Napoleon triumphed over such cautious military practices with bold strategic offensives powered by the mass and momentum of rapidly concentrated forces, and that was the kind of warfare that Clausewitz advocated. Envisaging only wars fought for great national purposes, and with the unification of Germany in mind, Clausewitz exposed the logical error of half-hearted, risk-avoiding methods likely in the long run to be more costly. To be sure, Clausewitz concurrently derived the strongest argument for strategic prudence from his insistence on the primacy of political considerations, but that did not affect his demonstration of the economy of tactical and operational boldness, a formula for efficacy that can easily become detached from its justifying context of correspondingly ambitious goals.

Complete with profound insights into the eternal mechanics and psychology of war, the teachings of Clausewitz remain unsurpassed. Along with parallel examples of the merits of risk-taking drawn from the successes of the great captains of history (a highly selective list that omits prudent victors, favoring Patton and Hannibal, for example, over Bradley or Fabius Cunctator), they pervade the professional discourse of U.S. service academies and war colleges and can easily be recognized in current field manuals and official doctrinal statements. Many such documents are prefaced by restatements of the principles of "war" (concentration, mass, momentum, etc.) that are actually in large part the Clausewitzian principles of Napoleonic war.

Both were fully appropriate to the circumstances of the two world wars and also of the Cold War as far as the planning of nonnuclear operations was concerned. Neither fits present circumstances, domestic or international. There are no threatening great powers on the current world scene, only a handful of quiescent rogue states, and many lesser wars and internal disorders that cannot arouse the nation, for none of them directly threatens the United States or its compelling interests. The preconditions of Napoleonic war-making, or for that matter of military interventions as specified in the Weinberger-Powell-Cheney doctrines, are therefore absent.

Yet its moral economy is damaged as the United States remains the attentive yet passive witness of aggressions replete with atrocities on the largest scale. Moreover, there is no doubt that the diffusion of the new culture of wars easily started and quickly escalated is damaging U.S. material interests. Commercial opportunities, not all of them small, are being lost every day wherever guns are firing, and many more could be lost in the future.

Given the performance of certain modern weapons, if military planning is appropriately modified to fully exploit their technical potential, it may be possible to emulate the casualty-avoiding methods of eighteenth-century warfare and thus conduct armed yet virtually bloodless interventions. To be sure, U.S. aims would have to be correspondingly modest and remain so, resisting all temptations to achieve more than partial, circumscribed, and often slow results as firmly as any good eighteenth-century general.

At present, by contrast, there is a profound contradiction between the prevailing military mentality, formed by the Napoleonic concept of war with its Clausewitzian adjuncts, and current exigencies. The Somalia intervention came to a sudden end after the bloody failure of a daring helicopter raid in true commando style -- a normal occupational hazard of high-risk, high-payoff commando operations. But given the context at hand -- a highly discretionary intervention in a country of the most marginal significance for American interests -- any high-risk methods at all were completely inappropriate in principle. Nor was what happened the result of an error of judgment, still less of malfeasance. In accordance with the prevailing mentality, the senior military planners allowed a role in the Somalia undertaking to U.S. Special Operations Command, which naturally mounted its own kind of operations, which in turn inherently entail the risk of casualties.

The casualties of war were not a decisive consideration, within reasonable limits, so long as the Napoleonic concept still applied. War fought for great purposes implies a willingness to accept casualties even in large numbers. Moreover, a certain tolerance for casualties was congruent with the demography of preindustrial and early-industrial societies, whereby families had many children and losing some to disease was entirely normal. The loss of a youngster in combat, however tragic, was therefore fundamentally less unacceptable than for today's families, with their one, two, or at most three children. Each child is expected to survive into adulthood and embodies a great part of the family's emotional economy. Even in the past, the United States never had the supply of expendable soldiers that was the fuel of discretionary great power wars fought for colonial aggrandizement or yet more recondite motives. Still less is there such a supply of expendable lives at present, when all other low-birthrate, postindustrial societies refuse to sanction the casualties of any avoidable combat.

How, therefore, can armed forces, staffed by professional, salaried, pensioned, and career-minded military personnel who belong to a nation intolerant of casualties, cope with aggressors inflamed by nationalism or religious fanaticism? Yet to avoid combat and do nothing allows not only aggressive small powers such as Serbia, but even mere armed bands such as those of Somalia, to rampage or impose their victories at will.

Some view the dilemma as unprecedented and irresolvable. Actually it is neither. If we free ourselves from the Napoleonic concept to recognize the historical normality of eighteenth-century warfare, we can find many situations in which the same dilemma arose and was successfully overcome. As far back as two millennia, the professional, salaried, pensioned, and career-minded citizen-soldiers of the Roman legions routinely had to fight against warriors eager to die gloriously for tribe or religion. Already then, their superiors were far from indifferent to the casualties of combat, if only because trained troops were very costly and citizen manpower was very scarce. Augustus, famously, went to his grave still bitterly mourning the three legions Varus lost in Germany years before.

THE ROMAN SIEGE

The Romans relied on several remedies to minimize their troop losses while overcoming enemies from Britain to Mesopotamia. In the first place, it was their standard practice to avoid open-field combat, especially spontaneous engagements, if at all possible, even if their forces were clearly superior. Rather than face the uncertainties of time and place, which could result in an equally unpredictable casualty toll, the Romans routinely allowed their enemies to withdraw to positions of their own choosing, even if well fortified or naturally strong. Having thus turned a fluid situation into a far more controllable set-piece encounter, the Romans would gather forces and assemble equipment and supplies to commence systematic siege operations. Even then their first priority was not to breach enemy defenses but rather to build fairly elaborate fortifications to protect their besieging units, to minimize whatever casualties enemy sallies could inflict. Overall, the siege was the medium in which the Romans could best exploit both their technological superiority in siege craft and their logistic advantage, which normally enabled them patiently to outlast the food supplies of the besieged. A purposeful, calculated patience was a signal military virtue.

Trade embargoes and armed blockades, the modern equivalents of the Roman siege, are not tactical but strategic. But so long as the Napoleonic concept prevails, it is impossible to exploit their full capacity to achieve warlike results without the casualties of war. For the presumption of an aroused nation greatly discounts any results not rapidly achieved, while the effects of embargoes and blockades are cumulative rather than immediate and may be long delayed. Moreover, the Napoleonic concept only recognizes decisive results, while the effects of embargoes and blockades are usually partial rather than complete, even if very much worth having. For example, since 1990 those means have controlled the military resurgence of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Its armed forces have not been allowed to recover from the equipment losses of 1991 and have instead been steadily weakened as imported weapons destroyed or worn out are not replaced. True, only direct oil exports by tanker or pipeline have been denied, but the lesser quantities Iraq has been able to send out overland have not been enough for rearmament. Nor does the imminent possibility that the United Nations will lift its prohibition on Iraqi oil exports alter the effective containment, without a more active use of force, of a serious threat. Incidentally (in this case), the decisive result that only an all-out war could have achieved would have been even more temporary and indecisive, for the complete destruction of Iraq's military strength would immediately have made containing Iran's threat that much harder.

Likewise, in the former Yugoslavia, amid the utter failure of every other diplomatic or military initiative of the United Nations, European Community, or NATO, only the denial of Serbian and Montenegrin imports and exports -- notoriously incomplete though it has been -- has had positive effects. In addition to the certain if unmeasurable impact on Serbian and Montenegrin war capabilities, the trade embargo has moderated the conduct of Belgrade's most immoderate leadership. The embargo dissuaded at least the more blatant forms of combat and logistic support for the Serb militias of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slavonia, and Krajina and also induced whatever slight propensity has been shown to negotiate, if only in the hope of securing the lifting of the arms embargo. The prospect of perpetuating the embargo has almost certainly helped to avert an invasion of Macedonia, still now precariously vulnerable to Serb expansion aided and abetted by Greek malevolence.

Even by the most optimistic reckoning, those results are sadly inadequate. Nevertheless, without any cost in blood or treasure, the trade embargo has achieved much more than the expensive and ineffectual U.N. armed intervention or the tens of thousands of yet more expensive NATO air patrols over Bosnia, flown by heavily armed fighter-bombers that hardly ever fight or bomb, even as the carnage below them continues.

Against those two instances of at least partial success, in the entire record of blockades and embargoes, many outright failures can be cited. But quite a few of them only came to be considered failures because of the premise that results must be rapid to be at all worthwhile. It would take a new (or rather renewed) concept of war that esteems a calculated, purposeful patience to allow the full exploitation of embargoes and blockades, or of any slow and cumulative form of combat. As it is, the Napoleonic and Clausewitzian emphasis on sheer tempo and momentum unconsciously induces an almost compulsive sense of urgency, even when there are no truly imperative reasons to act quickly. British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery was not the first nor the last general to achieve success where others had failed simply by insisting on thorough preparations where others had hurriedly improvised.

A compulsive sense of urgency was much in evidence during the first weeks of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the systematic air attack of strategic targets in Iraq was viewed with unconcealed impatience by many of the subordinate military commanders on the scene. News accounts duly conveyed their skepticism about the value of strategic bombing and their corresponding eagerness to see the air attack diverted to Iraqi army units and other tactical targets to open the way for a ground offensive as soon as possible.

The most senior officers resisted this upward pressure on the chain of command, which reflected no objective imperatives but only deeply rooted instinct as well as more obvious bureaucratic urges. But the pressure could not be completely denied. Well before strategic bombing was virtually stopped to provide air support for the ground campaign, which began on the 39th day of the war, many of the aircraft best suited to continue the methodical destruction of Iraqi research, development, production, and storage facilities for conventional and nonconventional weapons were instead diverted to attack some 4,000 individual armored vehicles.

The diversion of the air effort from strategic to tactical targets was to have unhappy consequences. In the aftermath, many important nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare installations remained undestroyed. For in spite of the great abundance of U.S. combat aircraft, less than 200 were fully equipped to attack strategic targets with precision weapons. That number, as it turned out, was simply too small to exhaust in less than 39 days a long list of targets, which included command and control, electrical supply, telecommunication, air defense, and oil refining and storage facilities, as well as air and naval bases, rail and road bridges, and any number of supply depots.

The same compulsive urgency almost certainly played some role in shaping the decision to launch the ground offensive on the 39th day of the war instead of, say, the 49th. By the former date the air campaign had thoroughly hollowed out Iraq's military strength, not least by cutting off most supplies to frontline units. Hence it cannot be argued that the decision to start the ground offensive sooner rather than later caused any more U.S. and allied casualties than the incidentals of war would in any case have claimed, the total number being so very small. But had the air campaign been prolonged just ten more days, 2,000 more sorties could have been flown against strategic targets. The novel instrument of precision air attack on a strategic scale, so slow in its methodical sequence but so effective in its cumulative results, so costly to acquire but so exceedingly economical in U.S. lives, was simply not allowed enough time to realize its full potential.

The central importance attributed in the immediate aftermath of the war to the swiftly victorious ground offensive was also suggestive of the dominant influence of the Napoleonic concept on civilian opinion. Though little more than a mopping-up operation, it resonated with the prevailing mentality much more than the air campaign because it was both rapidly executed and visibly decisive.

PATIENT AIR POWER

The key professional argument advanced by the most senior U.S. military chiefs to reject all proposals to employ U.S. offensive air power in Bosnia rested on the implicit assumption that only rapid results are of value. After first noting that anything resembling area bombing would inevitably kill many civilians, the chiefs argued that the potential targets were simply too elusive, or too easily camouflaged in the rugged Bosnian terrain, to allow effective precision attacks. They took it for granted that any air operation would have to be swiftly concluded, or even amount to no more than a one-time attack. Any one precision air strike certainly can easily fail because the assigned targets are concealed by bad weather, are no longer where last spotted, or are successfully camouflaged. There is no doubt that weapons such as the 120-millimeter mortars much used by Serb militias to bombard Sarajevo can be quickly moved and readily camouflaged; even much more elaborate howitzers and field guns can be elusive targets.

But this argument utterly obscured the drastic difference between a one-time strike, or any brief operation for that matter, and a patiently sustained air campaign with sorties flown day after day, week after week. If one sortie fails because of dense clouds, the next one, or the one after that, will have clear visibility. If one sortie misses a howitzer just moved under cover, the next might spot another actually firing. If one sortie is called off because the target is too close to civilians, another can proceed to completion. What was the great hurry to finish an air operation quickly? The fighting in Bosnia continues even now, years after the use of U.S. air power was originally rejected on the grounds that nothing much could be achieved in a few days.

But of course the other presumption of the Napoleonic concept of war -- that only decisive results are worth having -- was even more consequential. As the most senior U.S. military chiefs correctly pointed out, air strikes alone could not end the war in the former Yugoslavia, nor save the Bosnian state from its enemies, nor safeguard civilians from rape, murder, or forcible deportation. Therefore, it was argued by implication, air power alone was useless. Actually it would be much worse than that because the Serb militias would immediately retaliate against U.N. troops, thereby causing the withdrawal of U.N. contingents from Bosnia, which might in turn force the United States to send its own troops.

Given the dubious assumption that U.N. troops were in fact usefully protecting vulnerable civilians, and the prior assessment that air attacks alone would be useless, the conclusion was inevitable. True, air attacks alone could not possibly end the war nor save Bosnia. But a sustained air campaign could most certainly have reduced the use of artillery against cities, a particularly devastating form of warfare. That would have sufficed to ameliorate a tragic situation and demonstrate the active concern of the United States -- much less than a total remedy, but much more than nothing.

CASUALTY-FREE WARFARE

A further aspect of Roman military practice is relevant for current acquisition policies as well as tactical doctrines. It is enough to recall images of legionary troops to see how far offensive performance was deliberately sacrificed to reduce casualties. The large rectangular shield, sturdy metal helmet, full breastplate, shoulder guard, and foot grieves were so heavy that they greatly restricted agility. Legionnaires were extremely well protected but could hardly chase enemies who ran away, nor even pursue them for long if they merely retreated at a quick pace. Moreover, to offset the great weight of armor, only a short stabbing sword was issued. The Romans evidently thought it much more important to minimize their own casualties than to maximize those of the enemy.

Much better materials than iron and leather are available today, but it is symptomatic of an entirely different order of priorities that till now very little research and development funding has been allocated to advanced body armor. In fact the best such items now available have been privately developed for sale to law enforcement agencies.

The modern equivalent of Roman fortifications is not to build walls or forts with modern techniques, but rather to emulate the underlying Roman priorities. That applies to weapons as much as tactics. Most notably, current cost-effectiveness criteria do not yet reflect the current sensitivity to casualties. In setting overall budget priorities, alternative force categories -- ground, maritime, and air -- are still evaluated by cost and combat performance, without treating casualty exposure as a coequal consideration. Yet the risk of suffering casualties is routinely the decisive constraint, while the exposure to casualties for different kinds of forces varies quite drastically, from the minimum of offensive air power to the maximum of army and marine infantry. Also revealing is the entire debate on stealth aircraft, which are specifically designed to evade radar and infrared detection. When judged very expensive, stealth planes are implicitly compared to non-stealth aircraft of equivalent range and payload, not always including the escorts the latter also require, which increase greatly the number of fliers at risk. Missing from such calculations is any measure of the overall foreign policy value of acquiring a means of casualty-free warfare by unescorted bomber, a weapon of circumscribed application but global reach. Casualty avoidance is not yet valued at current market prices.

Present circumstances call for even more than a new concept of war, but for a new mentality that would inject unheroic realism into military endeavor precisely to overcome excessive timidity in employing military means. A new post-Napoleonic and post-Clausewitzian concept of war would require not only a patient disposition, but also a modest one, so as to admit the desirability of partial results when doing more would be too costly in U.S. lives, and doing nothing is too damaging to world order and U.S. self-respect.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now