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What the War Classics Teach Us about Fighting Terrorists

Clausewitz has taken a beating in the War on Terror. His theories on warfare initially came about coincident with the development of the modern idea of the nation state. Clausewitz regarded war as being between nations. Asymmetric warfare between transnational entities, such as Al Qaeda, has not lent itself to this analysis. Sun Tzu has been the winner as he largely thinks about battles and tactics and is not devoted to strategy.

Clausewitz has been the major shaper of the American military mind since WWII. If he were alive today and expressed himself in a tweet, it would be, “War is the extension of diplomacy by the use of violence to achieve goals of the state.”  Thirteen years after 9/11, we can now see the involvement of nation states in these events and their aftermath, though they are often portrayed as solely the work of non-state actors.

The majority of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudis. Saudi Arabia has funded the extremist Salafist madrasas in Pakistan. The Saudis deal with their Wahhabist base is NIMBY—not in my backyard. They have given them freedom to operate everywhere in the Islamic world—except Saudi Arabia.  There is a strong case that some states Washington calls friends are actually enemies. Saudi Arabia, which runs the “oil brothel” most world leaders frequent, is one of them. The recent preference for Sun Tzu ends up being a “win the battle, lose the war” blueprint. One of Osama bin Laden’s goals in drawing the United States into a war was to eventually topple the Saudi government he loathed. It was the allowance of infidel troops on holy Saudi soil in 1991 that bin Laden claimed was the sin that begat al Qaeda.

No failure goes unrewarded. We have an entire general staff of leaders who have lost two wars and were clueless on the way to defeat.

Now, thirteen years later, ISIS is furthering bin Laden’s strategy by pulling reluctant America into another war and growing the radical Islamist movement like fertilizer to a weed. Both al Qaeda and ISIS have been masterful at pushing the U.S. into a reactionary mode, first through the 9/11 attacks and now with the beheading of Western captives. The medieval nature of the beheadings elicits more response than if ISIS had just shot their prisoners. ISIS has the U.S. just where they want it— responding militarily without any foreign policy or defined national interest. Our reactionary policy looks like the game “Whack-a-mole.”

 

The Land of the Blind

Lack of a coherent U.S. foreign policy is nothing new. During the Iraq War, consider the development of counterinsurgency warfare policy proposed by Gen. David Petraeus. The Sicilian saying, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” played out with Petraeus capturing military and civilian leaders who were desperate for a blueprint for increasingly frustrating wars, putting him on a pedestal as a “celebrity general.”

A close reading of the David Petraeus-John Nagl writings in The US Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual develops a roadmap for endless war based upon information operations propaganda and a closer reading of their references actually takes us to David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare, which serves as the basis for Petraeus-Nagl thinking. Unfortunately, Galula’s masterful and beautifully written manual is based upon a response to Communism, particularly of the Chinese Communist ”threat” of the middle part of the last century. The extrapolation of Galula to modernday Islamic terrorists is a sleight-of-hand act of intellectual dishonesty by Petraeus, who must know better from his academic training at Princeton. However, we were operating in the “land of the blind.”

The Petraeus COIN fiasco reinforces the value and importance of returning to Clausewitz today. If the State Department is incapable of developing a foreign policy, the Defense Department will fill the void. And this is just what happened. The war makers became the policymakers, and it has not been pretty. John Nagl also wrote Eating Soup with a Knife, named after T.E. Lawrence’s appraisal of the futility of traditional forces against his guerrilla Arab troops. Ironically, while stationed in Tikrit, Iraq, a translator helped me eat as the locals did—a bowl of lentils mixed with a bowl of rice. Here was a soup I could have eaten with chopsticks.

If Sun Tzu were to tweet today, he’d say, “Know thyself, know thy enemy—fight a hundred battles, win a hundred victories.” Sun would be disappointed in America’s efforts. The lack of knowledge of the Islamic world is well known. Certainly the general surprise by the U.S. government and military about the rise of ISIS should raise suspicions. The lack of knowledge has confined the U.S. to a reactionary role. A principle of its military power has been “audacity,” and without knowledge of the enemy, this attribute becomes nonexistent on the modern battlefield.

The tiny Guide for US servicemen in Iraq during WWII had more pertinent information about the culture and tribalism in Iraq than modern military guides. And there remains the comment to Emma Sky, a British anthropologist assigned to Gen. Raymond Odierno, by the general along the lines of “gosh, we didn’t know anything about the people or the culture we were involved with.” Of course today Gen. Odierno is the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. His colleagues occupy all the high offices in the  military. No failure goes unrewarded. We have an entire general staff of leaders who have lost two wars and were clueless on the way to defeat.

Then-CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abizaid referred to the military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan as “a long war.” This was not a popular phrase with President George W Bush, and shortly thereon, we had a new CENTCOM Commander. General Abizaid, of Lebanese descent, was our last best wartime leader, combining war fighting with knowledge of the enemy and the culture we were involved in. So much for Sun Tzu’s exhortation to “know thy enemy.”

 

The Classics on Small Wars

Thucydides writes in his introduction to The Peloponnesian War that he wanted to document a great war upon his country, greater than the wars before and of greater importance. The war between Athens and Sparta, which polarized the rest of the Greeks, became a long war. It may be hard to understand why the 26-year war began or which side won. But it is easy to discern the great leadership of Pericles, who kept his force in Athens for two years until he could train and equip them properly. Or just contrast Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s comments about “going to war with the army you have” with Franklin Roosevelt using lend-lease as a multi-year shield until he could field the military he needed.

A significant part of Thucydides’ account deals with shifting alliances during the war. Today, the U.S. is more involved in ideological warfare, as opposed to Realpolitik, and is unable to benefit from changing alliances. The cliché, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend,” is no less true today than it was during the Peloponnesian War. However, we have not been able to ally with Iran against ISIS. Its unclear what our relationship with Assad or the opposition in Syria is. Part of this failure is the U.S. commitment to ideology and part due to lack of knowledge, or intelligence, as to who we are dealing with. And of course, we don’t have a Pericles for a leader.

Herodotus’ The History is a travelogue of the Middle East which rivals any source of information about the people of the region we have today. Herodotus also described the two Persian invasions of Greece. Herodotus details how a superior military force, both ground and sea, stretched their supply lines into alien territory and eventually were routed by a minuscule force of Greeks who employed audacity, zealousness, and home field advantage to destroy two successive Persian invading forces. This is how empires find their end, in the folly of waging and losing unwinnable military campaigns.

Ironically, as Herodotus and Thucydides describe, the later war, which, though won by Sparta, so depleted both sides that shortly thereafter Alexander the Great conquered all of Greece and then “the world, turning them both into Pyrrhic victories. In our world today, there are others who could play the role of Alexander against the United States.

 

Big Democracies and Small Wars

I was deployed to Landstuhl, Germany in support of the 2003 Iraq invasion. I had occasion to meet the last remaining American historian of the U.S. Army in Germany. He walked in the footsteps of the 5,000 historians General George Patton assembled to write the history of the Second World War. We discussed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He looked up over his glasses and answered my questions about how he saw these current wars with a single word: “Algeria.”

He instructed me that I had to read Alistair Horne’s A Savage War for Peace.  Horne covers the entire war for France to hold Algeria. This was also a long war. France had full support of the French population early on. The French were not encumbered by restrictive rules of engagement. Eventually the French had won the war. The mission was supposedly accomplished. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, there was a general uprising against French colonial rule by Algerians a couple years after France “won the war.” France left as soon as it could, much as the US did from Iraq. Algeria became independent and France embarked upon a miraculous economic recovery.

Gil Merom further analyzed the French loss in his monograph How Democracies Lose Small Wars. He describes how large countries get involved in small wars, like the United States in Vietnam, France in Algeria, and Israel in Lebanon. They have early success, but then meet the insurgency. War drags on, the populace grows war weary. Insurgents escalate focused violence. The democracy has to escalate to meet the violence, but the democratic populace opposes this. The military turns to covert action in escalating the violence. The populace is divided by the non-democratic, covert activities and eventually withdraws its approval. The Democratic leaders give up. The war is lost. History repeats.

This is history repeating, as the course of the literature shows. The mistakes of the Persians, Greeks, and French are being repeated by Americans. America is even repeating its own mistakes in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. George Santayana says, “Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.” But those not ignorant of history are also condemned to witness it being repeated. It is indeed time to set aside Sun Tzu and his tactics and pick up Clausewitz and his strategy.

 

[Photo: Flickr CC: Kainet]

 

Colonel Philip Lisagor, US Army (Retired) served 3 tours in Iraq and was part of Charlie Wilson’s war in the mid-eighties, training Mujahedeen in Peshawar, Pakistan. He lives in northern Nevada where he trains horses and skis when there is snow. He was an Ally Fellow at the Harvard-Kennedy School of Government and recently completed an MFA in writing at Brian Turner’s program at Sierra Nevada College thanks to his GI Bill benefits.

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9 comments

  1. Patrick Shrier 18 November, 2014 at 08:49 Reply

    If any of us expect Clausewitz to make a comeback, we will be waiting a long time. The central dictum of Clausewitz is not war as an extension of politics but that the objective of war is to dominate your enemy and break their will to fight. That is not something the modern West is willing to do as achieving that domination requires a brutality in the waging of war the modern West no longer possesses.
    I fear that the West is at the beginning of our long decline into irrelevance and eventual submission because the people of the West are no longer willing to defend what they believe in, if they really believe in anything anymore.

  2. Paul Darling 18 November, 2014 at 12:12 Reply

    To Mr. Shrier, your analysis of Clausewitz is lacking. He clearly states that wars of limited policy objectives should be fought with limited means. However, the passions of the populace often lead even small, concrete and logical conflicts to existential conflagarations. Ultimately, in the Westphalian model, the easiest mechanism is meet your objective is to completely disarm your opponent, at which point you may dictate to him any and all ultimatums. But he would be the first to admit that this THEORETICAL optimum is not achievable in most instances. Clausewitz spends a great deal of time discussing limited warfare and is supremely applicable in our current conflicts. The Maudi of Mass is an epithet of the ignorant. While we may ignore Clausewitz, it would appear our enemies have not. I will leave you with a quote. “Three methods of causing increased expenditure to make the cost disproportionate to the gain. Laying waste to enemy territory. Cause general suffering. Increase the duration of the war to bring about a gradual exhaustion of his physical and moral resistance.”

    • Karlos the Bear Whisperer 18 November, 2014 at 20:41 Reply

      “Three methods of causing increased expenditure to make the cost disproportionate to the gain. Laying waste to enemy territory. Cause general suffering. Increase the duration of the war to bring about a gradual exhaustion of his physical and moral resistance.”

      Is this what the Russian miltary is doing in the Borderlands ? Oh, yes. I did NOT specify Putin: rumors among Polish expats here in LA CA that were in the Solidarnosc resistance – read imprisoned – report that Putin is on the way out as President.

      The IS debacle and the very conflicted actors in the Middle East are small potatoes compared to the threat Russia endures from China. Russian military have moved in the summer 60,000+ troops to their Far East. Search for the PDF white paper to the DoD 2008 “The Great Siberian War of 2030.” If you accept that author’s premises then is it possible that showing China that the Russ military are quite willing to see not just the current tally of 4,000+ dead in the Donbass but upwards of 20,000, – as a WARNING to China that if they invade Siberia for all those precocious metals, forest products and seas of hydro-carbons will result in the loss of most of their population?

      How is that for a Clausewitz scenario?

    • Karlos the Bear Whisperer 18 November, 2014 at 20:44 Reply

      “Three methods of causing increased expenditure to make the cost disproportionate to the gain. Laying waste to enemy territory. Cause general suffering. Increase the duration of the war to bring about a gradual exhaustion of his physical and moral resistance.”

      Is this what the Russian miltary is doing in the Borderlands ? Oh, yes. I did NOT specify Putin: rumors among Polish expats here in LA CA that were in the Solidarnosc resistance – read imprisoned – report that Putin is on the way out as President.

      The IS debacle and the very conflicted actors in the Middle East are small potatoes compared to the threat Russia endures from China. Russian military have moved in the summer 60,000+ troops to their Far East. Search for the PDF white paper to the DoD 2008 “The Great Siberian War of 2030.” If you accept that author’s premises then is it possible that showing China that the Russ military are quite willing to see not just the current tally of 4,000+ dead in the Donbass but upwards of 20,000, – as a WARNING to China that if they invade Siberia for all those precious metals, forest products and seas of hydro-carbons will result in the loss of most of their population?

      How is that for a Clausewitz scenario?

  3. Mike M. 18 November, 2014 at 14:31 Reply

    I think it’s time we ignore Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz and Warden and everyone else that writers like to pontificate on, without actually offering up any new ideas to FIX THE PROBLEM.

    First we have to acknowledge that we (The US, our Allies or anyone else) can defeat terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic that has been used since the beginning of warfare and will continue to be used long after we’re dead and gone from the pages of history. Saying we can defeat terrorism is like saying we can eliminate crime or have a war on drugs. That’s some Utopian ideal that can never be achieved.

    We can eliminate individual terrorists and groups, however more are just going to pop up to replace them, so again that’s another bridge to nowhere.

    Now if you want to discuss how to we stop the violence in the middle east, the acts of terrorist, the civil war, etc, then let’s do that, but going back to Clausewitz isn’t going to bring us to any solutions to that problem.

    Step 1. Acknowledge the west created the problems in the Middle East, with our post WWI and WWII alliances and changing borders to what we believed should be nation states
    Step 2. Acknowledge that our so called Allies like the Royal Family in Saudi Arabia ARE THE PROBLEM
    Step 3. Acknowledge that Iraq and Syria can no longer exist in their current forms. It’s time to consider a split , The Kurds need their own country, Iraq maybe need to be divided in two and Syria might need to be split as well

    If we can get the people there to help themselves, nothing we do is going to matter, we’re just going to keep wasting trillions of dollars on military operations and then rebuilding and it’s going to be a never ending cycle.

  4. T. Greer 3 December, 2014 at 06:12 Reply

    “If Sun Tzu were to tweet today, he’d say, “Know thyself, know thy enemy—fight a hundred battles, win a hundred victories.””

    No, I don’t think he would. Here is what he did say:

    “To win a hundred victories in hundred battles is not highest excellence; the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all.”

    —Sunzi Bingfa, chap. 3, trans. Roger T. Ames, Sun Tzu: The Art of Warfare (New York: Ballentine Books, 1993), p. 111.

    • Chris Miller 3 December, 2014 at 14:26 Reply

      But the goal is still to subdue the enemy. The ‘without fighting at all’ part tends to throw people off when they take as a call for peace. It is not. Sun Tzu was a consummate warrior. If you can win without fighting, do it. But it is often unavoidable. Sun was not saying we should avoid fighting; he was saying if you can achieve victory without meeting in combat, then do it. The goal is still victory, not peace.

  5. Gary Bradshaw 8 December, 2014 at 14:32 Reply

    I Beleive Kitson got it right ,Fight fire with fire, Poloticians and the Media have no place on the Battlefield ,if we are to ever win ,We must fight fire with fire. They will never abide the laws of the Geneva convention and will show us no quarter,,Before I got out of the military back in the mid 80s I met a man who was involved with the Phoenix Program in Vietnam ,I really never understood what this was until Internet came along ,We have to shut our Enemies down with any and all means neccesary or it will come back to bite us.Let our soldiers do what we are trained to do Defend & Destroy our enemies .

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