Buddhika Jayamaha and Jahara Matisek
Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.
Now, we are pleased to present an selected for an Honorable Mention submitted by Buddhika Jayamaha and Jahara Matisek of Northwestern University.
The United States, now stands as the greatest military power in the history of humanity. However, despite the U.S. possessing an immense operational military architecture that spans the globe—an empire of logistical infrastructure that would have been the envy of the likes of Qin Shi Huang, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and so forth—American strategy is stuck in the doldrums. The U.S. is directly engaged in the active battlespaces of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and is indirectly engaged in many more across Africa, the broader Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. Worse yet, various strains of hybrid warfare are now occurring on the American homeland as well.
In 2018, at any given time, the U.S. had at least 250,000 military personnel deployed and maintained over 700 military bases in 63 countries. And yet, since the successful end of World War II, the U.S. military has not been able to win a war outright, despite its preponderance of military and economic power. In 1973, Russ Weigley identified this new paradoxical trend in American power. Reflecting on several decades of conflict in the middle of the Vietnam War, Weigley mused “At no point on the spectrum of violence does the use of combat offer much promise for the United States today.” He penned this in his final paragraph of The American Way of War as the U.S. military was pulling its forces out of South Vietnam.
Weigley correctly identified the strategic conundrum in the 1970s, which has persisted as the American military has continued to stumble from one tactical victory to another in Afghanistan, Iraq, against the Islamic State in Syria, and with indirect successes in parts of Africa. Max Boot, writing in 2003, was perhaps the first to gleefully (and unluckily) identify that there was a New American Way of War. Boot noticed that technology had transformed American military operations, resulting in updated strategies that avoided wars of attrition in the 21st century. The U.S. could now wage—as evidenced by rapid victories in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003)—a new style of war that blended precise firepower with limited numbers of ground troops to overwhelm a quantitatively larger foe. This quality-over-quantity approach was not new per se. At the conclusion of the Cold War, the U.S. and her allies began shifting toward an emphasis on technology that provided more firepower, while shrinking the size of their armies. Nonetheless, Boot’s exuberance in the midst of rapid American military victories was merely an exposé in presentism. His optimism (to include many others) was short-lived as there was an unexpected dark-side to this style of war. The limited number of U.S. and allied troops on the ground meant they were unable to assert control or keep the peace, leading to numerous externalities (e.g., insurgency) due to the emergence of irregular warfare.
Andrew Bacevich was right to take Boot (and similar bellicose experts) to task in 2005 for their idealistic views on American military power solving almost any problem in the world. To Bacevich, these perverse views on war were peddled by buccaneering foreign policy elites that came inculcated with the idea that American military technology could overcome 21st century problems of insurgency and asymmetric conflict, all without deploying hundreds of thousands of troops under the pretenses of a long-term commitment. They did this without reading their own history books; the same problems faced in Afghanistan and Iraq were similar to those that arose during the Vietnam War, and the American solution was the same in all three cases: more firepower. Worse yet, the same structural conditions and similar assumptions and mistakes encountered by the Americans, were also made by the British when they attempted to militarily assert control over the territories of Afghanistan and Iraq in the 19th and 20th century. Oddly, almost two decades into the 21st century, the American political establishment still believes that the U.S. military is the only institution capable of solving problems around the globe, but without committing the troops and resources needed to achieve victory in the pre-World War II era.
…why has the U.S. failed to see any conclusive strategic victories in any of its recent conflicts?
In a cruel twist of fate, the American military, birthed from its successful rebellion and insurgency in the 18th century against England—the most powerful Empire in the world at that time—has ascended to a 21st century empire. The world now views the U.S. armed forces as modern day Redcoats: a lumbering army unable to adapt to emerging warfare methods. The bigger problem is that as America’s power slowly dwindles in the 21st century, due to the structural forces of decreasing economic preponderance and diffusion of technology, the U.S. will likely be unable to peacefully pass hegemonic power onto the next rising power, as Great Britain had done with the U.S. through the late 19th and early 20th century.
These fundamental problems raise the question of two strategic puzzles. First, why has the U.S. failed to see any conclusive strategic victories in any of its recent conflicts? Second, within the context of a changed global post-cold-war strategic order and a massive American globalized infrastructure in place to support military operations, is the inability of the U.S. to be successful a failure of the American way of war or a failure in strategy as it relates to the American way of war? Instead of trying to answer each puzzle, we seek to define the contours of it. We argue American strategy has become increasingly incoherent. This is the product of a stagnant American political system that led to an incredibly effective military, but one that is strategically incapable due to it being a global discount security shop.
An American Way of War: A Strategic Orientation Before the Cold War
The American way of war, as originally conceived, was predicated on the duality of industrial-age ideas of combat and maneuver warfare. This way of warfare emerged during the American Civil War, continued to inform strategic thought up to and through World War II, influenced Westmoreland in Vietnam, and shaped the Powell Doctrine during the Gulf War. For example, General Sherman and General Grant turned maneuver warfare into their trademark when Sherman cut Southern supply lines and decided not to stop until he burned Charleston and Atlanta to the ground. From Tennessee to Atlanta, Sherman repeatedly outflanked Joseph Johnston, who waited for a set-piece battle that never occurred. Sherman and Grant transcended the strategic paradigm. If General Robert E. Lee was the last warrior of the Napoleonic era, then General Grant and General Sherman became the first of the industrial-age warriors, relying on maneuver warfare. Many of the German Generals captured during World War II would point out to their American interrogators how much inspiration the writings of Sherman and Grant papers gave them in developing Blitzkrieg. Consequently, the conclusion of World War II was part maneuver warfare and part massive battle of industrial organizations the likes of which the world had never witnessed.
Allied victory in World War II was a function of organizational management, especially General Marshall’s, described by Winston Churchill as the architect of victory. General Knudson, head of war production, pointed to the strategic and tactical brilliance that was combined with American national industrial mobilization. Knudson would later tell media outlets, “We [the United States] won because we smothered the enemy in an avalanche of production, the like of which he had never seen nor dreamed possible.” This was best illustrated by the U.S. providing more military vehicles to the Soviet Union during World War II through the lend-lease than were produced by Germany during their entire war effort. This was the high point of industrial warfare.
America emerged at the end of the war with over sixty percent of the world’s gold reserves, a gross domestic product constituting almost a third of the world economy, and a staggeringly potent military. The U.S. became a global hegemon in military and economic terms, while the Soviet Union emerged as a counter-hegemon, acting as a political and ideological counter to the U.S. The advent of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II, changed the strategic calculus among the great powers. Moreover, the rise of the Soviet Union as an expanding empire (at a time when empires were winding down), its imposition of puppet regimes in Eastern Europe, reneging on the Tehran agreement, and brazen active measures by Soviet agents to undermine western liberal democracies subsequently shaped American strategic posture and the way of war.
A New American Way of War During the Cold War?
Taking a long view, the U.S. had both victories and losses during the Cold War, and both were consistent with the broad strategic posture. At one level, atomic weapons made conventional warfare between great powers less likely. The possibility of total annihilation became a great deterrence, leading the great powers into a strategic stalemate.
After World War II, the U.S. was the preeminent power in the Atlantic and Pacific. The U.S. intentionally chose to play the hegemonic role to provide a security umbrella to Atlantic allies within the rubrics of NATO and provided a similar security umbrella, predicated on bilateral alliances, to Pacific allies (Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines). The U.S. also began advancing a global free trade regime under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. These actions and agreements, did the heavy-lifting—albeit in fits and starts—in creating a rules-based liberal international order fundamentally advantageous to the United States and her closest allies. Many that fell within close economic alliances under the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, indirectly became benefactors (or, in technical parlance, free-riders) of American defense and security. Those U.S. allies who used the strategic partnerships astutely, with clever domestic and regional policies, also managed to advance their own national interests within the American-led international system. It provided a sense of overall strategic clarity that made it possible for allies of the U.S. to calculate regional losses and victories in terms of the broad Cold War clarity.
It is important to remember that in the immediate aftermath of World War II the U.S. military demobilized and the American public had little interest in retaining an expensive permanent war footing. It was not until the Soviet Union intervened in Eastern Europe and began indirectly supporting militant and political groups in Greece, Turkey, and Italy (and to a lesser degree in France) that the U.S. felt compelled to make a grand commitment to Europe and other regions being subverted by the Soviet Union. The Marshall Plan, Truman Doctrine, and NATO were conceived as countermeasures and provided strategic clarity to both the U.S. and her allies within the broad cold-war containment strategy. Simultaneously, in contrast to the Soviets in Eastern Europe, the U.S. bound its hegemonic capacities into an institutional architecture with the appearance of benevolence. Tactical victories and losses were seen within this broad strategic frame.
While Vietnam was a strategic blunder in hindsight, at the time it seemed a necessity. Incremental mission creep by the U.S. in Vietnam was perceived as an obligation within this strategic frame. Many in the foreign policy elite categorized the events in Indochina as similar to those that occurred on the Korean Peninsula in 1950, requiring a robust response. While the Americans lost the Vietnam War, and the war is still seen as a great national tragedy in American and Vietnamese history books, the view of its strategic relevance remains at variance in the Pacific. Countries in the Pacific that allied themselves with the U.S. were fighting their own externally supported communist threats. They found then, and still find, that the Vietnam War, while tragic to both the Vietnamese and the Americans, fundamentally changed their own national trajectories. The strategic implications are not without irony as Vietnam seeks American assistance from the U.S. to counter Chinese threats today.
Many of these countries credit American involvement in the Pacific as the crucial ingredient that kept communist agitators supported or inspired by China and Russia in check. After the Sino-Soviet communist split in the 1960s, each proceeded with their own sense of historical inevitability. Both took an active role in supporting or out-supporting their branded versions of communism in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. America was the bulwark. Incidentally, many of these Pacific countries credited American war spending in Vietnam for their own economic foundation, which helped them rise as the East Asian Tigers. As an added bonus, allies in the Pacific got access to the American market, facilitating their economic growth models dependent on exports.
Though the Vietnam War was lost by the U.S., the comparative questions posed by those in the Pacific is framed differently from American debates. Many elites in Asia wonder why the U.S. succeeded in South Korea and not in Vietnam. How was the Vietcong successful in Vietnam, while the communist Workers Party of Korea (North Korean Juche) was unable to infiltrate South Korea? Put differently, the actions of third party interveners, domestic governments, and adversaries all played a significant role. Between the numerous strategic and tactical victories and losses, there was a sense of American strategic clarity when it came to making overt and covert military engagements during the Cold War. These ranged from disasters in Zaire, Namibia, Guatemala, Congo, and Vietnam to successes in Chile, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and all of Western Europe. Now, in this post-Cold War context, a strategic crisis in the American way of war is emerging with a vengeance, adrift without direction. Tactical victories no longer translate into strategic advantages. Industrial age forms of warfare no longer work, nor does maneuver warfare. Instead warfare is becoming intangible—a social construct that requires little (if any) kinetic firepower—at least in terms of strategic terms of securing long-term power and security.
Strategic Reorientation in a post-Cold War Interregnum: The Three Iterations
Every interregnum is fraught with risks and uncertainties, just like the current post-Cold War interregnum. The current crisis in the American way of war appears to be the culmination of series of U.S. strategic reorientations in which the U.S. military has gone from being the bulwark and guardian of a benevolent superpower to a global discount security shop in the contemporary world. Broadly, the strategic reorientation has gone through three iterations, and along the way, the U.S. appears to have lost a center of gravity.
The first iteration was the pragmatist understanding of a world transformed typified by the Bush presidency (1989-1993). Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and her European allies spoke of a world transformed, but there was a sense of pragmatism and caution in their optimism. George H.W. Bush, who was present at the creation of a world order with America no longer having a near-peer adversary, was explicit in articulating the importance of not claiming victory and not rubbing America’s triumph in the nose of the now-fallen Soviet Union. Bush believed it necessary to be graceful and magnanimous to all, especially if the U.S. was to maintain its military preponderance of power and be capable of shaping global events with allied support in the future. Though seen as strategic blips, both the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991) and the humanitarian intervention in Somalia (1992-1995) were strategically significant.
Each of these American-led military interventions were sanctioned by the United Nations. In the case of Iraq, it was to stop the illegal annexation of Kuwait, a specific triumph of the order the U.S. has had a hand in shaping. In the case of Somalia, it was an attempt by the U.S. to build a legacy of preventing human suffering in a failed state. Each intervention was informed by a broad consensus and a legacy that emerged in a post-World War II order. This order was founded on the attempt to alleviate the scourge of Europe, and create an international system in which interstate war was no longer an acceptable form of altering international boundaries. Territorial integrity and sovereignty triumphed.
Indeed, the notion of respecting legalistic interpretations of international boundaries has since held, with the exception of Crimea. This makes the 2014 Crimean annexation by Russia not an exception, but a systemic issue within a broader framework of international law and adherents to varying interpretations. If the Persian Gulf War was an affirmation of a pragmatist world order grounded in realism, then the U.S. military intervention in Somalia was a moment of optimism, grounded in liberal internationalism. Though the mission in Somalia ended in failure, it reaffirmed the rule-based strategic vision, and in the U.S. and U.N. eventually withdrawing, pragmatic national interests also prevailed. These events also highlighted how the sovereignty of one nation, lacking a government, could have its territorial sovereignty violated because there was no Somali central government remaining with a capability to protest.
The second iteration was a period defined by the era of reluctant liberal interventionists during the Clinton presidency (1993-2001). The Balkan interventions were symptomatic of this reluctant interventionist trend, but they were also conducted with a sense of realist pragmatism. The calculation of preventing Balkan state failure from spilling over to Europe and directly impacting core European allies at a time of transition was a major factor that drove the interventions. They were reluctant interveners in that without a strategic gain, in-spite of criticism, there were no direct interventions in the many West African wars, genocides, and sundry other tragic circumstances that warranted interventions on humanitarian grounds.
But the tragic events of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent series of American responses, had systemic implications, to include how the American way of war was waged. This post-9/11 world brought forth the third iteration, in which American foreign policy elites created a paradoxical marriage between liberal intervention and neo-conservatives based on their first-hand experiences working through the first (Bush) and second (Clinton) iterations. This marriage still impacts the contemporary strategic dimensions in the American way of war. Neo-conservatives, a group intellectually raised as Cold War warriors, believed in American power and primacy in a unipolar world and attempted to reshape the international order based on their new vision of a post-9/11 world. In that attempt, the neo-conservative movement was willing to use the U.S. military to ignore foundational norms and principles that had undergirded the international system—sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the veneer of legitimacy of multilateral institutions that provided some semblance of order in the international system.
Liberal internationalists supported the neo-conservatives, since they were also hoping to reshape the world in their image, where humanitarian interventions could become an acceptable way of conducting diplomacy and warfare. The direct military outcome of this unusual marriage between neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists, was to effectively turn the U.S. military into a discount security shop spanning the globe—with direct U.S. engagements throughout Asia, the greater Middle East region, the Horn of Africa, and increasingly the entire Sahel region. Turning the military into a global discount security shop also appears to have voided the strategic center of gravity, which is vital for turning tactical victories across the globe into a coherent whole, much less strategic gains.
This American global discount security shop problem is exacerbated by four significant forces: domestic political polarization, political dysfunction, democratic deficits, and the great disconnect between the armed forces and the society.
A Broken American Political System Equals Broken Strategy
Political polarization and political dysfunction directly bears on military strategy in a democracy. Ideational and political consensus undergirds the formulation of military strategy and its execution in a democracy. However, public trust in the American government is at an all-time low since the National Election Study started polling decades ago. While trust varies depending on partisan positions, the overall trend and trends across generations have all maintained a consistent downward trajectory, down to 18 percent by December 2017 from 75 percent of Americans trusting the government to do the right thing in 1958. Increased congressional dysfunction that engenders public distrust has both systemic and political origins. It also dovetails with the reality of the ever-expanding democratic deficit—the gap between the political will of the public and the actions of the government—that characterizes the American republic at the moment. Such political dysfunction bleeds into the strategic center of gravity, affecting how the American military broadly fights, but without a foresight for grand strategy and long-term implications.
Political gridlock is a cumulative outcome of the nature of the political system, the democratic deficit, and popular political forces. The American political system, by design, has built-in dysfunctions in the form of checks and balances. These are intended to avoid factionalism and tyranny of the majority and force cooperation in the legislative chamber. Over the last generation, the distribution of voters has become steadily more bi-modal; the center—and thus common ground between the parties—scarcely exists. Under these circumstances, the usual give and take that makes the U.S. constitutional system function becomes all but impossible. To be a pragmatic centrist in a hyper-partisan atmosphere is to lose votes. To be obstructionist may be to win them. Consequently, finding a strategic center is to incur political costs, thereby making the American way of war more dependent on rent-seeking for voters, rather than the pursuit of long-term American strength and vitality in the international system.
Consider something as basic as the budget. Congress has never agreed to a capital budget, so something like the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) headquarters in southeast Washington sits half-done, hostage to yearly budgets and pork barrel politicking. To make matters worse, because Congress is unable to agree on a budget, it has increasingly relied on continuing resolutions (CRs), employing them 36 times since 2009. Such dithering in budgeting is indicative of a political system in disarray that puts more credence in political survival of individually elected leaders than the long-term prosperity of the U.S. writ-large in the international system. Many, if not all, find it politically expedient to avoid the tough discussions and budget proposals necessary to constrain the government spending in conjunction with raising enough revenue through taxation.
Another striking example of dysfunction is in defense and national security, because in public discourse the Department of Defense (DoD) is sometimes seen and deliberately portrayed as less hurt by political dysfunction. Yet the official news site for the Department of Defense highlighted the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul Selva’s, public airing of his concerns: “There ought to be more than just a little bit of irony in your mind that we are trying to deliver a proposed budget on time to the Hill, when we don’t actually know what we are going to get for ’18,” he said. “This is called gambling.” Selva further pointed out that “When the department is under a continuing resolution, it cannot start any new programs or any new spending streams.” Similarly put, the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Mark Milley, said, “Candidly, the failure to pass a budget, in my view as both an American citizen and the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, constitutes professional malpractice.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned that “no new military construction projects can begin, which will have an inevitable delay in project schedules and potential increased costs…that includes 37 Navy projects, 16 Air Force projects, and 38 Army projects.” Similar impacts are felt across agencies, in the research and development community, as well as in the federal contracting community, with much less publicity. The direct consequence of this lopsided political incentive structure couples with increased ideological polarization, all of which deepens political gridlock. This means continuing without a strategic center of gravity, which contributes to the de facto American way of war: winning without a purpose.
The military’s transformation into a global discount security shop, a one-stop shop for all problems, even issues it is not capable of solving, as Rosa Brooks points out, is further exacerbated by the disconnect between the armed forces and the society it exists to protect. Less than one percent of the American population serves in the military; out of that, over eighty percent join because it is a family tradition, effectively creating a military caste system. Making matters worse, the U.S. has sent the military off to war on a national credit card where the wider public feels no pain, sees little cost, and does not understand the long-term implications to the American way of life.
Despite being a nation at war for seventeen continuous years, there is a substantial disconnect between the American citizenry and the function and role of the U.S. military, because the American military and warfare have become abstractions in public discourse and in media accounts. This division between those who have served and those who have not has become an accepted fact of life. High ranking officers now tout the one percent as the most important part of the American public, widening the gap further, without discussing the democratic implications of this gulf between soldiers and citizens. Worse yet, most undergraduates at elite universities in the U.S. no longer know why the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, nor do they know the difference between an officer and enlisted member in the U.S. military. The sort of dystopian society and the civil-military relations being created in the American 21st century look increasingly like the world that Robert A. Heinlein envisioned in his 1959 novel Starship Troopers, where military service guarantees an individual full citizenship in the society.
The discount security shop that is now the American way of war can function in perpetuity when the notion of citizen-soldier is replaced with the notion of a professional soldier. The democratic implications are understudied, as is the lack of a strategic center of gravity. Moreover, there is a crisis in the American way of war as politicians engage in strategic dithering, not committing enough resources to win. The problem is that America is on a permanent war footing across the globe, directly and indirectly, without explicit discussion of what precisely are the strategic gains from each engagement.
After the Interregnum: Renewal of History and the End of Last Man
The post-Cold War optimistic interregnum has been replaced with a complex global strategic environment. While most scholars, practitioners, and strategists will wax iconoclastically about getting American strategy back on track, their suggestions do not scratch the surface of systemic issues. The foundational problem lies with American society and how the political system has pursued short-term gains and shortened time horizons of political survival, making the American preponderance of power in the long-term look increasingly inverted and defunct.
As the U.S. continues functioning without a strategic center of gravity, political dysfunction, the growing civilian-military divide, and a complex global strategic environment necessitate comprehensive reform and reorientation toward maintaining an international system dependent upon an American government that is credible and resilient (and that follows through in the long-term). The U.S. is facing a world of revisionist powers, regional powers that play into revisionist powers to alter the existing global order that favors liberal democracies and trade, in addition to threats of hybrid warfare, gray zone warfare, 4th-and-5th generation warfare, Gerasimov’s non-linear warfare, measures short of war, and unrestricted warfare, etc. This new period of uncertainty is similar to the one E.H. Carr described in the interwar period of the 1930s, where rising powers challenged the status quo, and the status quo powers of the time were unable and unwilling to commit resources and mobilize raw military power to keep rising powers in check.
Unfortunately, with many of the ills seen operating in America from 1991 until the early 2010s, it might be as good as it will ever get in the 21st century. As Thomas Wright points out, the world is moving back to its natural state of great power competition and zero-sum conflict. Paradoxically, globalization appears to be weakening the U.S., whereas various ethnic groups and nationalism have been encouraged and strengthened by technologies of connectivity. Even though Francis Fukuyama celebrated the end of human history with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Western ideas of governance and capitalism did not win the war of ideas. Instead, the rest of the world adapted its institutions to exploit the emergence of democracy and capitalism and further strengthen political and societal elites, using global trade networks to transform their economies into internationally integrated patronage networks. This is the fundamental problem American strategy needs to adapt to, and American society and its political system must be reformed so that the U.S. military does not continue without a center of gravity. Nor should the American military be treated like a global discount security shop where U.S. strategy is nothing more than a rudderless ship.
Buddhika Jayamaha completed his Ph.D. in Political Science in the Spring of 2018 at Northwestern University, focusing on dynamics of violence in civil wars. He is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and a former Airborne Infantryman in the U.S. Army. He authored Nightcap at Dawn: American Soldiers' Counterinsurgency in Iraq.
Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek completed his Ph.D. in Political Science in the Spring of 2018 at Northwestern University, on the topic of creating strong African armies and how weak states redefine military effectiveness. He is an officer in the U.S. Air Force, an assistant professor in the Military and Strategic Studies department at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point.
The views expressed are those of the authors’ and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the United States Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Landing ships putting cargo ashore on Omaha Beach, at low tide during the first days of the operation. (Wikimedia)
 Buddhika Jayamaha and Jahara Matisek, “Hybrid War: Attacking the ‘Civil’ in Civil Society,” U.S. Army War College: WAR ROOM, April 13, 2018, https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/hybrid-war-attacking-the-civil-in-civil-society/
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