#Reviewing Success and Failure in Limited War

Spencer Bakich’s book Success and Failure in Limited War proposes a new international relations (IR) theoretical approach to describe what happens when countries engage in limited war and why. He offers his theoretical approach, the Information Institution Approach, as a more suitable one to explain success or failures in limited wars as opposed to other IR theories–specifically Organizational Culture Theory and the Democratic Civil-Military Relations Theory.

The Information Institution Approach, defined as simply as one can boil down a well-researched book into a single sentence, is this: “How a state performs strategically [in limited war] is determined by its specific capabilities to collect, analyze, and coordinate external and internal information.”[1] Bakich defines limited war as a one undertaken for objectives that are “vital but not existential.”[2] Further, he describes a limited war as one where there is essentially no question about who would be the victor in a total war. That is, for a war to be limited, the initial belligerents must have an obvious power disparity in favor of one side.

The idea of initial belligerents is key, because as Bakich points out, one of the major risks of limited war is that the war will expand in scope, either horizontally by involving new belligerents or durationally by dragging on and costing more in blood and treasure than a state was initially willing to commit. For Bakich, there are four possible outcomes in limited war.  First is a diplomatic and military success (double success in Bakich’s terms), second is diplomatic and military failure (double failure), third is diplomatic failure but military success (“win the battle, lose the war”), and fourth is diplomatic success with military failure (“little consolation”).

Having defined limited warfare and its possible outcomes, Bakich gets to the meat of his theoretical approach, where he discusses the various ways a state’s information institutions play into strategic risk assessments at the start and during the war as well as how information flows between diplomatic and military institutions. In the Information Institution Approach, Bakich gives critical importance to whether or not key decision makers have access to multi-sourced information and whether the information institutions themselves have the ability to communicate laterally. When information is multi-sourced and there is good coordination across the diplomatic and military lines of effort, Bakich predicts success. When information is stove piped and there is poor coordination, he predicts failure. Where the systems are moderately truncated, Bakich expects various degrees of failure depending on the scope and location within the state’s information institutions.[3]

To test this, Bakich examines four U.S. limited wars, each of which provides an example of one of the four possible outcomes of limited war and each of which illustrates either success or failures in a state’s information institutions.

United Nations troops fighting in the streets of Seoul, Korea, Sept. 20, 1950. (Korean War Signal Corps Photograph Collection)

First, Bakich tackles the Korean War that he terms a double failure–a failure both militarily and diplomatically, because the U.S. and its allies were beaten back below the 38th parallel and because the Chinese entered the war, and preserved the North Korean state. Bakich notes that while the initial U.N. mandate only called for the preservation of South Korea and not the destruction of North Korea, by early October in 1950, the Truman Administration had already given MacArthur approval to cross the 38th parallel and destroy North Korea in its entirety. By 24 October, MacArthur had removed restrictions on U.N. forces in Korea and authorized them to “use any and all ground forces… as necessary to secure all of North Korea.”[4]

Bakich analyzes how the flow of information led to both decisions and comes to the conclusion that the single-sourced, stove piped information from MacArthur’s headquarters led policymakers to the false belief that the Chinese would take no action. Furthermore, a deliberate breakdown of information between military and civilian intelligence agencies ensured critical pieces of information suggesting the Chinese felt both threatened by the U.N. actions in excess of its original mandate and obligated to intervene on behalf of North Korea never reached key decision makers. The diplomatic attempt to keep China from intervening was hamstrung by a lack of coordination with the military, which led to failure across the board. Bakich proves U.S. information institutions in Korea meet his criteria for single sourced, disjointed information institutions and his theory predicts the war’s result to be a diplomatic and military double failure. The Korean War’s result clearly validates Bakich’s theory.

From Korea, Bakich moves on to Vietnam. Bakich, interestingly, holds up Vietnam as an example of diplomatic success and military failure.[5] He does this by defining victory post-1968 as “achievement of a ‘decent interval’ whereby American forces could be withdrawn from the conflict.”[6] He faults the United States’ information institution for relying too heavily on a single source–General Westmoreland’s Military Assistance Command, Vietnam–and losing the ground war, but gives credit to diplomatic and military coordination regarding the strategic bombing campaign for keeping the Chinese from entering the war as they did in Korea.

With their shipping plugs replaced by fuses, these bombs are ready to load onto a B-52 at Andersen AFB, Guam, for Operation Linebacker II. (U.S. Air Force photo)

It is in this chapter that the first issues with Bakich’s theoretical approach begin to surface. In defining success as preventing Chinese intervention, he overlooks the entire objective of the Vietnam War in the first place, which was to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam. In this, the United States failed by every appreciable measure. Redefining the war as a diplomatic success when its result led to the destruction of the very state the U.S. aspired to protect requires mental jujitsu of the most amazing kind.

Defining “victory” as avoiding Chinese involvement ignores the fact that the U.S. could have just as simply done this by not intervening in Vietnam at all. Further, while Bakich points out that the U.S. air campaign did not cause the Chinese to intervene in Vietnam–one of the campaigns stated goals–the air campaign still did not lead to success at the negotiating table. Bakich does an admirable job of making his definition of success and failure in Vietnam fit his model, but the more critical reader will likely find his conclusions hard to concede.

Gulf War photo collage (Wikimedia Commons)

From there, Bakich moves on to the Persian Gulf War. The U.S. accomplished its military goals of liberating Kuwait and removing Saddam as a threat to the region and its diplomatic goals of keeping a grand coalition together and ensuring that Iraq did not slide into post-war chaos and destabilize the entire region. Bakich performs a thorough analysis of the robust information institutions in the run up to the war. The National Security Council and its various subgroups functioned smoothly and effectively, information was vetted through multiple sources, the Bush White House allowed for dissenting points of view, and there was coordination between military and diplomatic institutions at very low levels. The result, Bakich says, was brilliant double success.[7] Bakich is right that the Persian Gulf War was about as perfect a war as the U.S. could hope for, and he paints an excellent contrast between the smooth workings of the national security apparatus under Bush, Scowcroft, and Cheney than in previous wars.

However, there are other dimensions of the war that call into question whether information institutions are the only factors in play in the U.S. victory. For instance, the Persian Gulf War was an ideal matchup for the U.S. in terms of both terrain and enemy composition. The U.S. had practiced a mechanized desert war of maneuver and overwhelming firepower against Soviet-organized forces thousands of times during the Cold War, and it would be hard to conceive of another war that matched the type the U.S. military wanted to fight in 1991 than the Persian Gulf War. Iraq’s army was poorly suited for the war it chose to fight and, even worse for them, it chose to fight the war in the open desert, far away from civilian population centers that would mitigate U.S. firepower advantages and divide world opinion over a decade later. Bakich, in his haste to make the war all about information institutions, failed to consider the other major relevant factors that led to success. To borrow from Sun Tzu, Bakich “sees himself” but neither the enemy nor the terrain.

Marines organize transfer of detainees as a part of Operation Steel Curtain in 2005. (Jehad Nga/Corbis)

Bakich then moves to Operation Iraqi Freedom, which he considers a military victory and a diplomatic failure[8]–because while the initial battle to destroy Saddam’s Army and remove him from power was successful, our diplomatic efforts to create stability failed miserably and led to the war’s ever expanding scope, which likely continues to this day. Bakich does an excellent job detailing the frustrating tale of single sourced information in the second Bush White House leading up to the war in which alternative explanations and competing views never reached the president and an appalling intentional lack of coordination at every level between the State Department and the Defense Department. Bakich proposes that military success occurred because the Defense Department was well integrated into the administration's information institutions. Conversely, because the State Department was cut out of critical decision making at almost every level, it could not plan for post-war contingencies in any meaningful fashion. 

Bakich’s analysis of the dysfunctional Bush National Security Council is not incorrect, nor is his analysis of the Vice President’s love for highly placed, single-source Iraqi defectors. Again, though, in an effort to make the war fit his theory however, he misses the point that military “success” in the form of destroying Saddam’s army was probably inevitable whether coordination between top policy makers and the Pentagon was good or bad, due to the relative weakness of the Iraqi Army and the same unfavorable terrain conditions Iraq faced in the previous war.

In fact, it is a very real possibility that without so much input from both the Secretary of Defense and the Vice President, the military force would likely have been much larger and abler to overcome other shortcomings caused by faulty information institutions. He mentions the large differences between the first war plan’s force size, GENERATED START, and the final plan’s, COBRA II, but fails understand that in this case, the relative weaknesses of the plan lay not in too little “coordination” between the military and their civilian masters, but too much.[9] To put it more precisely, the level of coordination matters not so much as the quality of advice provided in the coordination.

Overall, where does that leave Bakich’s Information Institution Approach?

His theoretical approach proves to be a useful tool in discovering some of the causes for success or failure and lays out very clearly how flaws in a state’s information institutions can have disastrous consequences in limited war. Bakich gives policy makers and thinkers places to look to find hidden dysfunctions and provides a very convincing case against stove piping and relying too much on a sole institution for analysis.

But ultimately Bakich’s attempts to relegate success or failure in limited warfare to one variable–the performance of a state’s information institutions–fail for two reasons. First, because in instances such as Vietnam, he overreaches when he fails to test the theory against the war and instead tries to make the war fit his theory. Secondly, in the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War examples, he discounts other major variables such as terrain and enemy action that played a huge role in the success or failure because they lay outside the scope of information institutions. He overlooks the massive differences between the rice paddies of Vietnam, the desert of southern Iraq, and the population centers of Baghdad and Mosul.

All theories and models of human behavior must leave out certain complexities to make the model workable, but even then, the model does not have to be “maximally simple.”[10] In Success and Failure in Limited War, Bakich reduces limited warfare down to actions of one side–the superior power–and omits many other relevant factors. In doing so, he makes the theoretical approach too simple for the question it strives to answer: what determines success or failure in limited war?

David Dixon is a former active duty Armor officer who now serves in the South Carolina Army National Guard. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Army National Guard, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Infantrymen of the 27th Infantry Regiment near Heartbreak Ridge take advantage of cover and concealment in tunnel positions, 40 yards from the communists, on Aug. 10, 1952. (U.S. Army photo)


[1] Spencer D. Bakich, Success and Failure in Limited War: Information and Strategy in the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 28.

[2] Bakich, 21.

[3] Bakich, 40.

[4] Bakich, 61. 

[5] Bakich, 97.

[6] Bakich, 97.

[7] Bakich, 144.

[8] Bakich, 186.

[9] Bakich, 210.

[10] Kieran Healy, “Fuck Nuance” Sociological Theory, forthcoming January 2016. http://kieranhealy.org/files/papers/fuck-nuance.pdf