Hoover Daily Report

A Distinctly American Approach to War

Monday, June 9, 2003

You can tell a lot about a country by its art, by its literature, and, for good or bad, by how it wages war. Let us look back, then, on how the United States has fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflicts since the end of the cold war.

What we see is the development of an "American style of war," reflecting both our capabilities and our values, with at least three distinct features:

The first is a reluctance to take casualties. During the 1970s and 1980s pundits often talked about a "Vietnam syndrome"—a fear of any operation that might cost American lives, subsequently disproved by Desert Storm. But the reluctance to suffer casualties was more than just a reaction to Vietnam.

Democracies run on public support; politicians who send soldiers to long, costly wars lose support—and lose office. So far, this has not been a problem. Casualties in the two gulf wars, for example, were light. But it makes one wonder whether we could attempt a more costly operation, such as a defense of South Korea.

The second feature is a reluctance to inflict casualties. There is always controversy whenever U.S. forces inadvertently hit noncombatants. But Americans have little taste even for inflicting enemy military casualties. Recall the "Highway of Death" during the first gulf war, when U.S. air attacks on fleeing Iraqi forces turned into a turkey shoot. U.S. leaders feared the public reaction and cut the operation short—leaving Saddam Hussein a threat.

Today the United States has a defense policy that aims to minimize the death and destruction of warfare—the very qualities that define war. Few countries have held themselves to this standard. Just look at the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Russia's war in Chechnya, or the various wars between India and Pakistan.

The third feature is sensitivity to international opinion. Unlike France (which regularly intervenes in its former colonies without consulting anyone), American leaders try to show that the United States has support abroad. Even so, U.S. leaders do not equate the "United Nations" with "world opinion." Operation Iraqi Freedom (like operations in Panama, Haiti, and Kosovo) showed that U.S. leaders reject the idea that the UN has special moral authority.

One can argue whether this approach makes sense from a military point of view, but we need to prepare accordingly. The Defense Department should spend more on weapons that minimize collateral damage and create larger stockpiles to conduct the kinds of operations we plan today. We also need more networked communications and databases, rapid response capabilities, and the ability to provide better covert logistic support.

If Americans have a phobia about enemy casualties, we need to invest more in nonlethal weapons, such as stun guns and immobilizing devices, especially if we hope to defeat rogue states and terrorists, both of which are capable of using civilians as human shields.

This approach to war may not be easy, but it reflects values we can be proud of. So we need to prepare to win wars "in the American style"—and be aware of the risks we run in doing so.