An Unlimited Attack on Limited War Draws a Counterattack on Theory

June 20, 2020
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A limited or small war, one Iraq War veteran quipped, “is one in which you’re getting shot at, but no one cares."  Since colonial days, Americans have fought small wars, but only after World War II, have they called them limited. Donald Stoker, in Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and U.S. Strategy from the Korean War to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2019), tells us that America loses wars because many tenets of limited war are wrong.  His book has drawn favorable reviews, with a particularly perceptive one by Adam Wunische; and scattered criticism, with some calling it too theoretical to influence leaders, a put-down that seems at odds with the considerable sway that limited-war theory itself has long held over those same leaders. 

Seven Decades of Limited War with Limited Results

Ideas of limited war evolved during the Cold War, as a constrained but ill-defined form of armed conflict meant to avoid triggering a nuclear conflagration.  In the global context, the United States defended South Korea and South Vietnam to deter Communist aggression elsewhere. Yet the Cold War setting led the United States to restrain how it fought, lest China or the Soviet Union intervene, as China did in Korea and could have again in Vietnam

To avoid alarming China and the Soviet Union, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration carefully calibrated its airstrikes against the North Vietnamese, under concepts developed by Thomas Schelling, an economist who compared “the management of war” to “the management of markets.” The measured bombing campaign was meant more to signal and bargain than to destroy, and a rational opponent would then negotiate.  But with seemingly irrational determination, North Vietnam read gradual escalation as a sign of infirm purpose, and it fought on. “Experience,” Kori Schake reminds us, “has not been particularly kind to those ideas” of rational signaling, ideas not shared by the North Vietnamese. 

Stoker’s Theory: What Should Be Done

Various theories of limited war have persisted to the present.  In two decades of teaching strategy at the Naval Postgraduate School, Stoker recalls, he found that “Limited war literature is a wreck—to be generous,” and he grew frustrated with “the way we were teaching” it. In Why America Loses Wars, he points out the wreckage left in the wake of what has passed for limited war and points the way toward a better approach, making his case with apt examples from Korea and Vietnam through Iraq and Afghanistan.

Instead of defining limited wars by limited means or force, Stoker defines them by limited political objectives, one of the two categories framed by the Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz: 1) wars with an unlimited political objective (regime change or overthrow of the enemy); and 2) those with a limited political objective (less than regime change).

Identifying the political objective is only the first step, with other pivotal inquiries to follow.  How highly do the leaders and people value that objective?  The higher they value it, the more blood and treasure they should be willing to sacrifice for it.  What strategy is best suited to reach the objective? Political and military leaders should come to grips with these and other questions, a “colossal task” in Clausewitz’s words, before a decision for or against war. Stoker advocates analysis along these lines, instead of along the tangled trails of limited war that leaders have traversed for decades.

A Counterattack on Theory

 Some reviewers object not to the retail specifics of Stoker's theory but dismiss it on the wholesale ground that leaders who set strategy scarcely take this sort of thing seriously. Lawrence Freedman, for example, closes a short review: “Stoker’s analysis of the United States’ failures is convincing, but his argument that better thinking would enable political leaders to set clear objectives and pursue them to victory is less so.” And Heather Venable believes that Stoker’s work is “too theoretical” because “real-world strategy is made in” Washington, “where the books get thrown out in bureaucratic infighting and messy compromise…” But strategic theory and bureaucratic infighting are different subjects for different books, and strategic theory should not be shrugged off merely because some bureaucrats and politicians might ignore it. If politicians do not study strategy, some of their advisors do. French philosopher Jean Rostand once remarked that the “biologist passes, the frog remains,” sometimes translated as “Theories pass. The frog remains.” Do strategic theories pass while bureaucrats and politicians remain?

Kori Schake has stressed the primacy of politics in her 2017 reconsideration of H.R. McMaster’s 1997 Dereliction of Duty, a book that probed some of the limited-war issues now examined by Stoker.  McMaster faulted the Joint Chiefs of Staff for failing to go public over President Johnson's unsound Vietnam strategy, who viewed the war abroad as secondary to his Great Society at home. But an innocent and inexperienced McMaster, said Schake, was trying “to leach the politics out of policy…a common attitude among military strategists.” Schake invoked the view that in a democracy, “civilians have a right to be wrong.”

Wrong or right, however, civilians are still subject to scrutiny.  Though the Joint Chiefs criticized by McMaster are subject to civilian control of the military, most strategists, including Stoker and Antulio Echevarria, are not.  If civilians have a right to be wrong, Echevarria reasons, “they should get the wars they ask for, even if they are not the ones they really want.”  And they may well get the wars they deserve, even if not the wars those who fight them deserve.  If civilians have a right to be wrong, then strategists have a right to say they are wrong, and such criticism should not be written off as a naive effort to leach politics out of policy.  Though Clausewitz said that “we can only treat policy as representative of all interests of the community,” he recognized that politics “can err, subserv[ing] the ambitions, private interests, and vanity of those in power.”  By implication, we can criticize an errant or bad policy that serves the interests not of the community but of those in power.  If Clausewitz’s theories as a strategist left any uncertainty, his actions as a Prussian officer left no doubt that he would repudiate bad policy when he saw it.  After French forces defeated and occupied Prussia, its King sent German troops to join Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.  Clausewitz resigned his Prussian commission and served with the tsar’s forces opposing the invasion, earning himself a cameo in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, where a Russian prince scoffed at Clausewitz and a fellow Prussian who “have nothing in their German heads but theories not worth an empty egg-shell.”

Buzzwords and Attitudes

The collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War eased fears of a nuclear Armageddon, but limited-war thinking outlived its Cold War origins and found its voice in what Stoker calls “weird terms and weird buzzwords,” some old, some new: spectrum of conflict, peacekeeping or stabilization operations, preventive or preemptive wars, wars of choice (as opposed to necessity), asymmetrical wars, new wars, and hybrid wars. Stoker demystifies this argot, deflating war of choice, for example, as a pejorative “used to oppose a war that one doesn’t believe should be fought.” Many of these terms blur the boundary between peace and war, cautions Stoker, who insists that you either are or are not at war; war is “the use of militarized violence…for a political aim,” and peace is not, a binary outlook labeled “incredibly naïve” in a Zachery Tyson tweet.   To Stoker, many of these buzzwords suggest that some wars are less real than others, and if some wars are not real, then they hardly call for urgency or victory; leaders might as well support them only “enough to keep from losing face with their allies while avoiding potential domestic criticism.”

Even war for a limited political objective, Stoker argues, should aim at victory, a prospect that can itself motivate soldiers: who in Korea wanted to “die for a tie”? Stoker contends that “post-modern self-loathing” in the “liberal world” has discredited the very idea of victory.  These are fighting words, and your opinion of limited war, with its buzzwords and its seeming aversion to victory, is as much a matter of attitude as of theory.

In Stoker’s summary, American leaders have been fighting wars without calling them wars, without understanding them, and without planning how to win or even end them. Repeated entry into such ill-considered conflicts, Stoker chalks up to “short-sightedness,” “incompetence,” “ignorance,” “dishonesty,” and “short-term political purposes.” More fighting words.

Stoker figures that he has “gored seventy years of intellectual and political oxen.”  His gored oxen have long been sacred cows, and more than 100,000 Americans have died in wars entered and fought under the prevailing influence of limited-war theory, a theory that had consequences in wars that had unsatisfactory results. Stoker is trying to build a better theory, and it is a tautology to dismiss his effort as too theoretical.  If you disagree with him or think him naïve, go right ahead but give me some reasons.  Just don’t tell me that theory does not count.


Patrick Brady’s articles and reviews have appeared in The Journal of Southern History, The Journal of Military History, Civil War History, The V V A Veteran, law journals, and other publications.  A retired attorney, he taught United States History at the University of California, Riverside, and served as an Army Civil Affairs officer in Vietnam.



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