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The Shadow of Limited War

One of the biggest hot-button issues in strategy today is limited war. The degree of restraint and the amount of force that can be employed without jeopardizing the mission is both an ethical and operational controversy in counterinsurgency theory and practice. There’s also a growing frustration over the way that the West has been constrained in utilizing force against irregulars and rogue states that do not play by the rules. Shelby Steele’s June 21 op-ed, “The Surrender of the West” typifies a certain kind of reaction to this feeling of futility. The problem, however, is that we have been living in an era of what might broadly can be called “limited warfare” for over sixty years. And this limit may be structural.
      To be sure, talk of “limits” are relative. Clausewitz instructs us that the concept of “absolute war” exists mostly in theory. And even wars fought under limitations or limited political objectives can be horribly destructive. In 1991, we fought a (somewhat unsuccessful) battle of annihilation against the Iraqi Army that while failing to completely eliminate Saddam Hussein’s forces certainly devastated them and routed them. And the “clear” phase of the Surge was, by all accounts, rougher than many imagine. But there is a common thread going back from the beginning of the Cold War of steadily increasing limitations on action.
      In the 1930s, Basil Liddell-Hart moved from writing about infantry tactics and maneuver operational theory to strategy. The doctrine of “limited liability” and the idea of the offshore-based “British Way in Warfare,” coupled with Liddell-Hart’s endorsement of strategic bombing theory, created the prototypes for a number of contemporary doctrines–containment, today’s “over-the-horizon” strike, and the idea of “limited warfare.” They did not really catch on (with the notable exception of British intellectuals) and were followed by the most destructive conflict in human history. But Azar Gat argues (convincingly) that these doctrines really set the stage for how a certain faction of military and civilian intellectuals perceived the next stage of strategic history. Especially since nuclear weapons created an powerful set of external limitations.
      From the 1950s onwards, an entire science of “limited warfare” sprang up, devoted to figuring out how the West could accomplish its objectives short of general war with the Soviet Union and China. In short, squeezing the maximum of strategic effect from a calculated minimum of force. These questions were very serious. How does one calculate the relative value, say, of the defense of a small island chain off the coast of Taiwan in the 1950s, as Thomas Schelling did in Arms and Influence? How does one defend against a calculated campaign of state-supported terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and political subversion, as Western states did from the 1950s up to the late 80s? It is here that the whole concept of the “War of Ideas” originated, and the bare bones of modern irregular warfare theory sprung up.
      Limited warfare, from the beginning, frustrated the military. McArthur’s jeremiad against Truman was based on Truman’s refusal to let him expand the theater of war into China. The postwar military consensus critique of Vietnam, as embodied in the tremendously influential book On Strategy, argued that the United States erred in not taking the fight to Hanoi directly. And today, as Crispin Burke notes, there is a distinct body of military literature that seems to take a similar tack about the modern “Long War.” The main debate about strategy in Afghanistan is about different forms of limited warfare–a counterinsurgency campaign that does not cross over the border into the Pakistani sanctuary vs. a stripped down “limited liability” approach that Basil Liddell-Hart might have heartily approved of.
      That being said, limited warfare also not just structural–it is, to take a Constructivist approach, a way the West views the use of force. As I’ve noted in my last post, the embedded liberalism in how many intellectuals perceive international relations acts as a self-imposed set of limitations in the employment of force. Israel, for example, which tends to have a drastically different strategic culture than most in the West, does not play by these limitations and now finds itself somewhat isolated as a result. The fact these limitations–both structural and self-imposed– exist is a source of great consternation for many defense intellectuals, who rage over the existence of a situation in which terrorists and insurgents escape criticism while nation-states who fight them are put under a microscope. The problem, however, will not go away.
      For a variety of reasons (nuclear weapons, the economy, the UN, interdependence, etc), limited wars are likely to continue. This doesn’t mean that limited wars will not be harsh or intense–the 1973 Yom Kippur War featured some of the most intense tank warfare since Kursk, after all. But what could have been a ruinous defeat of the Egyptian-Syrian alliance was capped off by the intervention of the Soviet Union and a UN-imposed ceasefire. Moreover, the West has made a cultural choice that it wants to live in a world of “liberty under law.” In the long run, this may or may not be the correct grand strategy–the debate in international relations theory never ends. But this choice has been culturally made, and perhaps as early as 1919 with Wilson’s vision of a harmonious world.
      So strategists ought to start thinking, as their forefathers did, about how force might employed under these constraints to achieve our objectives. We can start by re-examining the canon of limited war theory and history, and extracting the nuggets while discarding the duds. We can also, in our taxonomy of future war debate, abandon the dichotomy between Soviet Operational Maneuver Groups (OMGs) streaming through the Fulda Gap and light infantry chasing bandits in the jungle. Limited wars range from counterterrorism actions to large-scale conventional wars like the Indian campaign in modern-day Bangladesh. We ought to study the Israelis’ great Sinai campaign in 1956 as intently as we study the British in Malaya or the French in Algeria.
      That being said, the time of limited war we are living in may be an epoch that is soon to pass, as Victor Davis Hanson suggests. We ought to carefully consider whether or not our assumptions about limited war are presentism projected into the future. Napoleonic warfare, for example, did not conform to the outlines of 18th century warfare, and we might be making the same mistake as those who predicted the political-military arrangements of that period would last into the future. But since no one has a crystal ball, the record of the last 60 years provides ample data for consideration about the future.