What Size is My War? Examining the Concepts of Total and Limited War

In a recent article on limited war, Ian Bertram uses a definition that places wars onto a spectrum that has, at the extreme end, the notion of “total war,” a definition familiar to most uniformed and civilian participants in the national security game. Total wars, as Bertram describes them, are “…where a nation or society dedicates all of their resources to defeat an enemy.”[1] At first it may seem intuitive that wars are measured on a scale from something more limited in commitment to something that resembles “total” commitment from a society. However, reflecting on this idea brings up the very important question of what exactly is being measured when describing a war, by whom is it measured, and what are the criteria that take a war from limits to totality?

If describing wars objectively was a simple question of picking out a collection of attributes and then measuring their scales then we need only agree on what the attributes are. Is it to be casualties, national expenditures, size of fielded armies, proportion of armies fielded, size of the states involved, number of states involved, or populations of the states involved? But there is a very specific problem with answering these questions: relativity. A total war for one participant may be, by the same measures, a limited war for another. Thus, answering the question of measures is not simple. It is not easy to place any specific conflict definitively on this spectrum of war. Because of this problem, applying the limited/total dichotomy as an analytical, objective, statement about the nature of a war is a minefield and in the end doesn’t tell us much worth knowing. Indeed, until we settle the relativity issue it is dangerous to think of the future as one of “limited” wars for the U.S. and great powers, as Bertram’s argument would compel us to, since this may paint a deceptive picture of relative global tranquility.

Before we dive into the question how we measure war, we should pause to ask why it even matters how a war is described. What does asking “Is this a total or a limited war?” get us that is useful and to whom is it useful? To answer this we can first look at the political-stage kabuki dance that accompanies the lead up to a war.[2] At first glance, the complexity of wars makes a priori judgments about their totality (or lack thereof) almost comical. But the argument for a “limited engagement” is a political one, designed to gain political support, not a scientific one that statistically forecasts the probable outcome of a conflict based on a set group of variables.[3]

A Chinese gun nest in Shanghai, 1937. (Wikimedia)

If we dismiss, for a moment, the political value of predicting the scale of a war, we are left with the historical value. We can start to explore the historical value by looking at World War II, the quintessential total war, and comparing it to the major wars that followed. Epic in scale, World War II seared itself into cultural memories across four continents. The scale of the war was unequivocally unpredictable in September of 1939, when Nazi ambitions took them to Poland. Making such a prediction based on the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, which some consider the true start of the global conflict, is even more suspect. Thus, its totality only became known in retrospect.

Since the heart of this issue is measurement, let’s look at the numbers. At peak year, almost 36% of U.S. GDP was devoted to the war effort.[4] By contrast, the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq wars, which Bertram calls “limited wars,” consumed 4.2%, 2.3%, 1.0% of GDP at peak year, respectively. This is a stunning difference. Yet, 36% of GDP doesn’t quite “fit” with the intuitive idea of totality. Perhaps it is not just the socio-economic commitment which must be measured.

Consider the casualties then. World War II saw 15 million battle deaths, 45 million civilian deaths.[5] The U.S. share was 405,000 with about 290,000 occurring in all combat theaters. In Korea the total deaths were approximately 1.3 million combat deaths and 1.6 million civilian.[6] The U.S. casualty share was 33,000 battle deaths.[7] In Vietnam, total deaths were approximately 750,000 military and 625,000 civilian with a U.S. share of 57,000.[8]

By these counts, the global “standard bearer” for total war wound up consuming about a third of U.S. GDP with a share of 2% of combat casualties. Five years later, a limited war in Korea cost the U.S. 4% of GDP with a share of 2.5% of the casualties. There were wildly different economic commitments, yet the U.S. contributed about the same share of casualties. It is worth noting that in both of these wars, the U.S. held no distinct technological advantage in land combat. Troops and tanks on all sides were mostly comparable in terms of equipment. Low U.S. casualties were not a function of unusually high technological efficiency supplied by very expensive technology causing more casualties as much as the scale of commitment and tactical performance of the troops.

These numbers outline the specific problem of relativity with the idea of limits and totality in war. Consider that in Korea, 96% of combat casualties were suffered by other parties. Indeed, for the two Koreas, the war was about as apocalyptic as total war gets without nuclear weapons. Throughout the war, the entirety of the territory saw large scale combat. Civilian deaths accounted for close to 7% of the entire population on the Korean peninsula.

Soviet soldiers in Stalingrad, February 1943. (Wikimedia)

When it comes to scale, Korea was a total war for Koreans and limited war for the U.S. The same can be said of World War II, in fact. In Egypt, it was a limited war in that it was limited to a few months of combat operations in the extreme north west of the country. On the other hand, for Germany and the USSR, the war’s totality is undeniable. Even the 2003 Iraq War, consuming a mere 1% of U.S. GDP, over 7 years that included a global recession, was a total war for Iraq itself. The first few months the entire state was geared to resist the U.S. invasion. After that, the state ceased to exist functionally until reconstituted at the end of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Bertram’s thesis appears to be that limited wars are driven by costs.[9] Ostensibly, these costs are mostly in equipment replacement such as fifth generation fighters and modern ships. In the second quarter of 2016, U.S. GDP was approximately $18 trillion.[10] The scenario required for the U.S. to effectively commit greater than 30% of its GDP to war is extreme and would require nothing short of a global alliance against it. In all other scenarios, the  U.S. could easily engage in relative total wars where the wars are very limited to the U.S. while existential crises for its opponents and partners. In fact, relative total wars are our modus operandi. Iraq and Libya collapsed as States because of our military campaigns. Vietnam and Korea were defensive actions originally intended to prevent the collapse of states for whom the threat was existential.[11]

Bertram writes, “Limited wars have always existed and states have often applied a portion of their full effort to achieve a goal that was less important than the state’s survival.” By this logic, the list of truly limited wars the U.S. has fought is short. The Gulf War was probably the largest. Arguably, the war was limited on both sides as they fought over an objective that was not each other’s capital. Of course, by the same measures, for Kuwait it was a total war across the board. But this is as close as we have come to a truly limited war for all sides. The Kosovo Campaign would also certainly make the list. Even these wars were fairly expensive to the Iraqis and the Serbians. The objectives set these wars apart from others. Limited objectives such as “liberate Kuwait” and “protect Kosovo” are the distinguishing factors, not their costs. In Kuwait, the allies fielded the largest land force seen since World War II, but at a U.S. cost of only 0.3% of GDP. In Kosovo, most of the cost was in fuel and explosives. Finally, consider that all this only applies to the U.S. Total wars by smaller states are most certainly possible in the future according to the definition Bertram cites.

A view of Iraqi armored personnel carriers, tanks and trucks destroyed in a Coalition attack along a road in the Euphrates River Valley during Operation Desert Storm, 4 March 1991. (Wagner/DOD Photo)

Bertram concludes his argument by saying, “If the cost of losing a LCS or F-35 in a military adventure that is only tangential to the welfare of the U.S. is too high, maybe the U.S. will involve itself in fewer conflicts around the world.”[14] The cost of modern equipment may seem high in the context year to year expenditures absent a total war. Our political budgetary battles may make U.S. seem poor as a state. But the realities of how we have financed wars, what they have cost us in men and materiel, and what a war looks like to all parties, makes the notion of “limited war” only useful in the sense of describing objectives and political theater. It does not provide an analytical basis for evaluating potential conflicts in any objective sense or making predictions on the nature of future wars. Totality in war is relative.

Timur Nersesov is a  U.S. Army Reserve officer with combat deployment experience as a reconnaissance platoon leader in OIF and HA/DR deployment experience. He is currently a Senior Defense Research Analyst at Booz Allen Hamilton supporting the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), specializing in stability operations and counterterrorism. The views expressed in this article are the authors and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc.

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[1] Bertram, Ian. “The Return of Limited War,” The Strategy Bridge, 13 September 2016, http://www.thestrategybridge.com/the-bridge/2016/9/13/the-return-of-limited-war

[2] Shanker, Thom. “New Strategy Vindicates Ex-Army Chief Shinseki,” New York Times, 12 January 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/12/washington/12shinseki.html?_r=0

[3] Even if such a forecast was possible under all circumstances, the chances of success would be painfully low. See Gilpin, Dawn, Murphy, Priscilla. Crisis Management in a Complex World, Chapters 3 & 4, September 2008, Oxford Scholarship Online http://10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195328721.001.0001

[4] Cordesman, Anthony. “OCO Spending and the Uncertain Cost of America’s Wars”, Slide 12, Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), 09 May 2016 https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160510_OCO_US_Wars2.pdf

[5] “By the Numbers: World-Wide Deaths,” The National World War 2 Museum, New Orleans, http://www.nationalww2museum.org/learn/education/for-students/ww2-history/ww2-by-the-numbers/world-wide-deaths.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/

[6] “America’s Wars: U.S. Casualties and Veterans,” http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0004615.html

[7] “Korean War Fast Facts,” CNN, 21 June 2016 http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/28/world/asia/korean-war-fast-facts/

[8] “Vietnam War Casualties,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War_casualties

[9] Bertram.

[10]  U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, http://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/national/gdp/gdpnewsrelease.htm

[11] By this measure, Vietnam was truly a defeat as we did not, in fact, prevent South Vietnam’s collapse. Arguably, we merely postponed it. Likewise, in the case of South Korea it was not a stalemate as much as a victory, given the limited objective of preventing its collapse.

[12] Bertram.

[13] ibid., Cordesman

[14] ibid, Bertram