Gideon Rose. How Wars End. Simon and Schuster. 432 Pages. $27.00
In American Soldier, Centcom commander General Tommy Franks lays out his battle plan for Iraq: his campaign, he makes plain, is not going to be Desert Storm revisited. The Powell approach — with its slow buildup of some 560,000 troops, a month-long air campaign, followed by a massive ground invasion — Franks dismisses as old hat. This time around, things will be truly joint, with everything happening at once in the air and on the ground. And rather than going in “slow and heavy,” defeating the enemy in detail, he intends to hit “fast and hard,” following the old Patton formula from Bastogne: “haul ass and bypass.” Just as in physics, he writes, where the impact of mass increases with velocity, so in war; “speed kills,” making up for lack of numbers. And with such advanced firepower as the U.S. possesses, the old textbook rule requiring a three-to-one advantage in the attacker’s favor no longer applies.
As for the war’s aftermath, throughout the preparations Franks acts as if this is somebody else’s table entirely. In a revealing exchange, he growls at the deputy secretary of defense, “You pay attention to the day after, I’ll pay attention to the day of.”
The result is well-known: Franks turned out to be only half right. A vast ground force was indeed unnecessary to defeat the Iraqi army. But trouble started almost immediately afterwards, with anarchy developing and too few American troops to contain it. Much of the infrastructure, which Franks’s attack had so carefully left untouched, was carried away by hoodlums. What followed was four years of a steadily deteriorating situation before the problem was addressed by the surge, a new military doctrine focused on protecting civilians, and more modest ambitions for Iraqi democracy.
Indicative as it is of a disconnect between the different phases of a war and between the military and civilian side, Franks’s “day after, day of” quote stands out in Gideon Rose’s book How Wars End, which probes the final stages of America’s wars from World War I until today and the options that have faced U.S. administrations, demonstrating how they all too often end up fighting the last war.
As his epigraph, Rose has chosen Carl von Clausewitz’s classic statement from On War: “No one starts a war — or rather no one in his senses ought to do so without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” As the use of military force should always serve policy, Clausewitz insists, the overall aim must be borne in mind throughout a conflict.
Unfortunately, that is not always the case. “Time and again throughout history, politicians and military leaders have ignored the need for careful postwar planning or approach the task with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, and have been caught up short as a result,” Rose writes. Rose sees this unhappy situation as the result of an “artificial divide” between the military and the civilian side, “where by the start of the conflict, control is handed over to the generals and back to the civilians at the end.” Almost by definition, such a neat and tidy division is fraught with risk, he contends, as it ignores the fact that almost every aspect of war can take on a political dimension, even the most routine and seemingly straightforward task.
For a while, this split may be covered up in all the general activity. “But at some point, every war enters what might be called the end game, and then any political questions that may have been ignored come rushing back with a vengeance.” At which stage, leaders are left to “improvise furiously.”
Throughout the book, Rose carefully avoids sounding overbearing and know-it-all, a common affliction of scholars blessed with 20/20 hindsight, but calmly goes about his business, further exploring a theme previously struck in Eliot Cohen’s brilliant Supreme Command.
Proclaiming himself and his nation “too proud to fight,” Woodrow Wilson was an idealist who abhorred traditional power politics with its vulgar notions of spheres of influence. As a neutral during the first years of World War I, he sought to act as a go-between, promoting “peace without a victory,” but found no takers. United States entry into the war transformed the contest, but as a southerner keenly aware of the bitterness caused by Reconstruction, Wilson thought it essential for Europe’s future that the Germans not be humiliated, but given a generous peace. His famous Fourteen Points called for general disarmament, free trade, and self determination. Instead of alliances, a collective security would be provided by the League of Nations. The European Allies did not buy his dreams. To the Brits, for instance, the idea of freedom of the seas was anathema.
Considering himself too morally superior to be concerned with military matters, he was content to leave the drafting of the armistice to the generals, despite his fears that they might be too harsh: “It went without saying that the military commanders were alone competent to fix terms,” he proclaimed. And fix terms they certainly did, including the demand for stiff war reparations and the surrender of mountains of military materiel and of the German fleet. Rose quotes the French Marshall Foch: “[The armistice] might not bear the name of unconditional surrender, but virtually it would approximate to that.”
Thus, according to Rose, Wilson failed to fuse the war’s military and political side and to use his clout while he still had it to get his allies in line. Instead, he put great faith in his ability to sway public opinion in Europe, but ended up cutting an isolated figure at Versailles. He could not even convince the U.S. Senate about the need for his League of Nations, which doomed the enterprise from the start. As Rose notes, “Even though he did not consider himself of this world of power politics, he should have recognized that he was in it, and thus at the mercy of its unforgiving logic.”
In hindsight, rather than blaming it all on the Versailles treaty and on the failure of the U.S. to join the League of Nations, Rose rates the true failure of the victors their failure to work out a generous postwar financial settlement, plus the fact that America did not become part of a global institutional network. As it was, the Germans were left feeling betrayed by the sanctimonious Americans; worse, the myth grew that the German army had not been beaten on the battlefield, but had been stabbed in the back by treacherous politicians, a version eagerly peddled by German warlord Ludendorff, which made the rematch inevitable.
Accordingly, when World War II came along, the Germans had to be cured of their warlike inclinations once and for all. This time around, the victory needed to be total so that no such new myths could arise.
fdr was an infinitely more worldly and Machiavellian figure than the constipated Wilson and certainly felt comfortable intervening in military matters. Persuaded by the British arguments that an Allied landing in Normandy in 1943, let alone 1942, would be disastrous, he wisely overruled the advice of his own generals, who favored an early invasion, and opted for landings in North Africa instead. But fdr also had an idealistic side which, together with a privileged background, made him less clear-sighted than he should have been. Thus he combined the goal of total victory over the Germans with a vision of a postwar peace that was enshrined in the idea of the United Nations.
Unfortunately, as Rose notes, the two goals did not combine well. The price required to keep Stalin on board was at variance with fdr’s political postwar order, as the Russian did not share his vision at all. Stalin wanted his own empire and he wanted complete control. Thus on the ambiguity of the Yalta agreement, Rose cites historian Bruce Kuniholm:
At Yalta, because Roosevelt could neither concede portions of Eastern Europe to Stalin, nor deny them to him [he] in effect [ended up doing] both, the former through implicit understandings, the latter through the promulgation of principles that were interpreted differently by the Soviets and by the American people.
Roosevelt always grossly overestimated his ability to handle Stalin. Responding to a warning letter about Soviet objectives, he wrote, “I don’t dispute the logic of your reasoning. I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of a man. Harry [Hopkins] says he’s not and that he doesn’t want anything but the security for his country, and I think that if I give him everything that I possibly can and ask for nothing in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.” Seeing the notion of noblesse oblige in connection with Stalin’s name is of course hilarious.
Moreover, Rose notes, long-term planning was not fdr’s strong suit. He was prone to leaving things up in the air, trusting himself to be able to come up with a solution at the last moment. Almost to the very end, he toyed with the idea of reducing Germany to a permanent pastoral backwater, as urged by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. His preferred method of operating was pitting ministries and agencies against each other, leaving himself in control by keeping everybody in the dark, including his vice president, Harry Truman.
In Rose’s view, Roosevelt did not hand over Eastern Europe to the Soviets, as claimed by the right. The issue was decided by the military facts on the ground. What he does blame fdr for is for failing “to accept with open eyes the full consequences of partnering with one historical monster to destroy another,” and for not having any contingency plans. It was left to Truman to sort outfdr’s mess of contradiction and ambiguity, rescuing Western Europe from chaos and Soviet domination with Marshall Plan aid, the Truman Doctrine, and the creation nato, and thereby bringing the military and political aspects of U.S. policy into alignment and mutual support. As Rose points out, the Cold War was thus a continuation of unfinished World War II business, and therefore inevitable.
In June of 1950, North Korean forces struck in great strength across the 38th parallel; having recovered from the initial shock, General MacArthur’s triumph at Inchon, cutting across the enemy’s supply lines, and his drive beyond the 38th parallel raised hopes in Washington for a unified noncommunist Korea. These were rudely dashed when the Chinese attacked, forcing the un forces on a headlong retreat.
MacArthur’s ground commander, General Ridgway, stubbornly had to fight his way back to the 38th parallel, and the war settled into a stalemate. The goal of a unified Korea gone, the Truman administration now wanted to end the war on the old line, while still protecting a noncommunist South. MacArthur of course wanted to go nuclear, and was fired, with Ridgway taking over. The opinion of the Joint Chiefs was expressed in Omar Bradley’s assessment at the MacArthur hearings that further escalation might result in “the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy.” Negotiations for an armistice were initiated in July 1951, and after months of haggling, all important issues seemed resolved.
Except one: Prisoner repatriation. Ashamed that the U.S. had agreed to the forced repatriation of Soviet prisoners of war in World War II, Truman was adamant that prisoners be given a choice on whether to return to their own countries. “We will not buy an armistice by turning over human beings for slaughter or slavery,” he said. The military had reservations and feared that insisting on this point might derail the negotiations. The main issue, in Ridgway’s view, was getting the American prisoners back. Ridgway’s fears proved correct: The Chinese broke off the negotiations on May 7.
What caught the Truman administration by surprise were the sheer numbers of people who did not want to go back. Of the 132,000 North Koreans in un custody, only 70,000 wanted to return; and of the 25,000 Chinese, only 5,000. Humanitarian concerns are legitimate, Rose notes, but the issue was clouded by forceful methods of persuasion employed in the un pow camps by Korean and Chinese Nationalist prison trustees. The State Department did not want to give credence to Soviet propaganda, and Truman was not told.
Exit Truman, enter Eisenhower. Ike had run on a platform of ending the war quickly, and in the administration’s own version, the war ended because Ike had rushed the means for delivering atomic weapons to the theater and made certain Chinese intelligence would pick up on it. But according to Rose, when coming into office, Ike really did not have a secret plan: “He still faced the same three unappetizing options: escalate and risk global conflict, stay the course in a costly and frustrating limited war, or back off on American demands regarding prisoner repatriation.” So his first months in office were spent slogging it out in the old Truman fashion, while threatening escalation.
By May 1953, Rose writes, a frustrated Ike felt compelled to approve a policy change, encompassing “massive escalation up to and possibly including the use of atomic weapons against China.” But before he could make good on his threats, the Chinese backed down, whereupon the two sides concluded a settlement on July 1953 “practically identical to the position two years earlier.” According to Rose, it was as much Stalin’s death that brought this about: The new leaders in Moscow were less forthcoming in their support of the Chinese and North Koreans.
As Rose notes, as a result of the Truman’s administration’s failure to understand how its stand on repatriation was out of sync with its aim of ending the war, the issue prolonged the war for an extra one and a half years: Almost half of the un casualties occurred after the start of the peace negotiations in July 1951, and 124,000 occurred after repatriation was the only unresolved issue. Rose questions whether it was worth the price. But at least the war left a sustainable regime in place in the South, which was not the case with America’s next conflict.
Vietnam has traditionally been used as a cautionary tale of what happens when the civilian leadership starts interfering in military matters and micromanaging from the White House. Rather, as Eliot Cohen convincingly argued in Supreme Command, Vietnam was “a deadly combination of inept strategy and excessively weak civilian control,” a case of the Johnson administration failing to test the strategy by asking the right questions.
To Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Vietnam was another wrong war in another wrong place, too expensive in men and materiel for a nation in retrenchment. The question was again one of how to get out. Having committed 550,000 troops to the effort, just upping and leaving as many Democrats suggested was not an option. U.S. credibility and its commitments around the globe were at stake: As Kissinger argued, for a nation seeking to cut back on its engagements, retaining credibility on core commitments is extra important, so as not to turn retrenchment into a rout.
On entering office, both men, Rose says, looked to Korea for answers: Kissinger in his memoirs faults the Truman administration for having sharply reduced military operations in 1951 upon entering negotiations, “thereby removing the only Chinese incentive for a settlement, ” while for Richard Nixon, having served as Ike’s vice president, the lesson of Korea had been “credible threats of massive escalation.” Accordingly, they first tried escalation, widening the war by secretly bombing sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, with threats of more to come, while simultaneously appealing to Moscow to make its client see sense. But Vietnam and Korea were very different countries. In Korea, there was a well-defined border to defend between North and South, and Syngman Rhee had been able to eliminate domestic insurgents. Not so in Vietnam, which had long and very porous borders, making a lasting stalemate like that in Korea unattainable.
The administration combined escalation with training programs for the South Vietnamese and with cautious troop withdrawals they believed would give them some breathing space, and which Nixon regarded as a masterstroke. “We were wrong on both counts,” writes Kissinger. “We had crossed a fateful dividing line. The withdrawal increased the demoralization of these families whose sons remained at risk. And it brought no respite from the critics.” It only confirmed the North Vietnamese in their determination to wait the Americans out.
Forced to reconsider, the administration opted for stepped up “Vietnamization” — turning the war increasingly over to the South Vietnamese, while still providing crucial military muscle. A joint U.S.-South Vietnamese ground attack on bases in Cambodia only served to increase domestic furor. On the diplomatic front, Kissinger conducted intensive triangular diplomacy with the Soviet Union and China. To underscore their seriousness they bombed Hanoi and mined Haiphong harbor, culminating in the “Christmas bombing.”
Rose sums up the January 1973 Paris Accords as enabling the U.S. to get its troops out and its prisoners back “without directly betraying its client.” Whether Nixon and Kissinger themselves believed in South Vietnam’s survival is an interesting question, he notes, but at least the accords offered Thieu a tiny chance, which Congress would kill once and for all by cutting off all further aid. According to Rose, the Nixon administration had inherited a hopeless situation: This was the best that could be achieved under the circumstances. He simultaneously dismisses the right’s accusations that the Nixon administration sold out Saigon, and the left’s that the same agreement could have been had at a much earlier point. As to the latter argument, the North was only willing to sign the agreement once they were convinced that the U.S. had lost the stomach for further involvement.
Describing the ordeal of the Nixon administration, Rose does not foam at the mouth but is eminently sensible. He writes, “The great irony . . . is that for all the neuroses and procedural irregularities, the basis foreign policy it pursued was sane and moderate, a reasonable attempt to chart a path out of the wilderness. And it almost worked — until blowback from the administration’s own flaws brought everything down in flames.”
The carter doctrine, which in 1980 declared the Middle East an area of vital interest to the U.S., was the American response to the mullahs taking over Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. So when Saddam Hussein a decade later invaded Kuwait, the Bush administration could not ignore an act that would leave the Iraqi strongman with a stranglehold on the region and the world’s oil supply: Bush decided to expel the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. “The wonder is not that the United States chose to use its power to reverse the Iraqi invasion, but that the decision to do so was at all controversial.”
The war itself Rose characterizes as a textbook job of detailed planning and carefully lined-up allies. The same could not be said about its final phase, where Rose faults the administration for failing to link “its military operations directly to political objectives inside Iraq and not planning for a variety of postwar scenarios.” Throughout, Vietnam was very much on their minds — and counterproductively so — in what they saw as the need to avoid Third World nightmares and the need to avoid the kind of civilian interference Lyndon Johnson had engaged in from the Oval Office. “In practice, this meant . . . that politico military affairs were less well coordinated than they might have been, with consequences that became apparent only as the war was drawing to a close.”
For their part, the military brass — headed by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, who, as Rose reminds us, had not even wanted to fight over Kuwait in the first place — worried about being seen as butchers and wanted to wind down the war as fast as possible. As a result, they ended it too early, which permitted large formations of enemy troops to escape north. At the ceasefire talks in the border town of Safwan, Norman Schwarzkopf compounded the mistake by permitting the Iraqis to fly their helicopter gunships, which Saddam promptly used to quell the Shiite rebellion and against the Kurds in the north.
In Rose’s view, Schwarzkopf should never have been allowed to conduct the ceasefire negotiations in Safwan on his own. He quotes Horner, the air commander: “Quite frankly, I think we were preoccupied with planning the war, and we thought that somebody else was planning the peace. . . . I think we were all surprised that there wasn’t somebody ready to jump on a jet and fly over to do the negotiations with the Iraqis.” Again, the artificial divide assets itself.
Once the ceasefire had been proclaimed, the Bush administration’s leverage was gone for using the war to effect changes inside Iraq itself, as some civilians within the administration had wanted. Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that the principals “had decided that hope could indeed be a plan.” In a classic case of wishful thinking, Rose writes, they hoped — they even assumed — that some irate member of the Iraqi high command would pull a coup and kill off Saddam. “This magical Iraqi would act as a deus ex machina, miraculously appearing onstage at the end of the play and resolve everybody’s problem.”
With Saddam having quelled all attempts at rebellion, the administration found itself having to improvise, providing safe havens for the Kurds in the North and imposing a no-fly zone — in effect, settling for a containment policy that lasted more than a decade but became increasingly hard to uphold.
Cohen in Supreme Command spoke about “an abdication of authority by the civilian leadership in the post-Vietnam era.” Instead of ending the Vietnam syndrome, as the Bush crowd proudly bragged, Cohen argued, the Gulf War in fact strengthened it, by reinforcing the idea that the civilians should butt out of military matters, thus undercutting the principle of civilian control.
Which brings us to the two current wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. In his determination to modernize the U.S. military and scrap a variety of weapons systems, Donald Rumsfeld did not hesitate to take on the military establishment. No, his flaws lay elsewhere. Rose sees Afghanistan and Iraq as examples of Rumsfeld’s “new, more expeditionary approach” to warfare. A light U.S. presence in Afghanistan working in concert with local forces initially defeated the Taliban regime quite handily, whereupon attention switched to Iraq.
Here George W. Bush and his administration wanted to finish the job that had been left unfinished the first time around: getting rid of Saddam. Rumsfeld wanted a quick-in, quick-out operation, designed to avoid long status as an occupying power and anything that smacked of nation building. In yet another instance of wishful Washington thinking, it was assumed that with Saddam gone, the Iraqis would go merrily about the business of reconstruction and that Iraqi society would soon be up and running.
The administration’s model, Rose writes, was not postwar Germany or Japan but France in 1944, where the liberators quickly put De Gaulle and his Free French in charge. But just as Vietnam was not Korea, so Iraq was not 1944 France: As Rose notes, historical analogues are tricky things. Thus Rumsfeld chose to ignore expert advice, including a U.S. Army War College study, which warned of the country’s intricate ethnic and religious make-up and of how political stability, the key element in any exit strategy, would require large forces.
For all Rumsfeld’s contempt for nation-building, Rose notes, “clearing, holding and building ” has been the formula the U.S. has followed across the globe when successful: Success has depended on its ability to leave a structure in place, resting on indigenous forces. The surge of 2007 managed to stabilize Iraq; whether such a structure can be built in Afghanistan is the crucial point. The danger signs are obvious: a weak and corrupt government in Kabul and another porous border. But one cannot very well allow Afghanistan and Pakistan to slide into chaos.
Warplanners often divide war into four phases, working forward towards some vaguely defined “victory” in phase four — an approach that easily mires one’s thinking in purely military terms. Rose recommends going about it the other way around, first carefully defining what it is one actually wants to achieve politically and what the eventual security arrangements will involve, and then working backwards from there. That way, the larger purpose is constantly kept in mind. As Rose notes, this may just be common sense. “But in war, as in life more generally, common sense is actually quite uncommon.”