There’s a line you may have heard quoted, originally attributed to Lloyd George, that war is far too important to be left to the generals. He was, on one hand, entirely correct. War is a tool, one of many, used by the nation-state in its quest for survival and dominance; wars are (or should be) fought with a clear goal in mind. But on the other hand, he was entirely wrong. Politicians - both uniformed and not - have very little understanding of the nature of war. Taking the decisions out of the hands of the professional military and attempting to micromanage a war from long distance is a recipe for eventual - certain - disaster.
And yet, the tendency to micromanage has only grown stronger in this, the second decade of a dark new century. Worrying signs of this were evident as far back as 1914, of course, when the British Admiralty harassed the naval officers commanding the pursuit of two German ships in the Mediterranean. (Those ships eventually made it to Turkey, bringing the Ottoman Empire into the war.) The Royal Navy’s commanders were used to holding sweeping authority to take whatever measures they deemed fit, as they were often out of contact with London, but the development of radio made it suddenly possible for London to peer over their shoulders and demand updates. This was also true of British officials in India and other British possessions. Once, the man on the spot could make decisions without reference to London, because it could take weeks (at least) to get a response. Now, he was really nothing more than a mouthpiece for his superiors in Whitehall.
This problem has only grown worse as technology advances. Even during the later years of the Cold War - and the Falklands War - the officers on the spot had some freedom, but it was often very limited. I cannot imagine a competent naval officer being particularly pleased with orders not to touch enemy ships that posed a very real threat to the task force, yet British submarines in the Falklands were forbidden to go after enemy vessels for political reasons (and, when the heavy cruiser was finally sunk, it turned into a political headache in Whitehall.) Now, in the second decade of the War on Terror, micromanaging politicians in Washington DC and London have made achieving ultimate victory considerably harder.
Consider this: enemy targets move, particularly when the ‘target’ is nothing more than a person on foot or a small convoy. In the time it takes for a sniper, a drone or even a jet aircraft to receive permission to engage, the target may move or do something like move close to innocent civilians. (Terrorists are fond of human shields because they can rely on the media to give anyone who accidentally kills a civilian a very hard time.) Even with the best will in the world (which is often lacking) the time it takes to get authorisation to engage can prove fatal.
But it gets worse. Politicians are often under the delusion that they, operating with the benefit of hindsight, are more capable of making decisions than the person on the spot, at the time. That person, of course, is operating from incomplete knowledge. The politicians, therefore, second-guess the man on the spot (particularly when his actions cause political problems) and often hold him to a standard that is not only unfair, but impossible to meet.
Imagine yourself a soldier on guard duty, somewhere in the middle east. You know the enemy doesn't play by the rules. The veiled woman walking nearby might be a man concealing a submachine gun, the child running past might be raised to kill infidel soldiers, the local soldier next to you might be an insurgent, ready to stick a knife in your back the moment you turn away. You know that the terrorist shitheads have no qualms about killing their own people to get at you.
You’re on edge, of course. Soldiers who aren't on edge die. And then a car comes screaming around the corner and drives straight at your checkpoint. The driver ignores warning signs and shouted orders.
What do you do? If the car is carrying a bomb, the closer it gets, the greater the chance of being killed or maimed. You need to stop it as quickly as possible. But if the car is driven by a lunatic and carrying his family, you’re about to kill a number of innocent civilians. The driver may be a madman, but his family doesn’t deserve to die. So what do you do?
And you have bare seconds to decide.
The safe choice is to open fire, to try to disable the vehicle or kill the driver. This isn't as easy as the movies make it look. But maybe you succeed. The bomb detonates at a safe distance or is simply never detonated. Or maybe you inspect the wreckage and discover, to your horror, that a civilian has been killed. The reporters descend so rapidly you become convinced the whole affair was a put-up job. Before your superiors can begin to investigate what happened, the media back home is already screaming about atrocities.
And then the politicians throw you to the wolves.
This is not an idle scenario. It has happened, time and time again. War is messy; accidents happen, yet politicians simply do not begin to understand it. And when something goes wrong, as it always will, politicians will start looking for scapegoats.
Earlier, I called war a tool and that’s exactly what it is. Wars are not fought for fun and games, certainly not these days. War has the sole purpose of imposing one nation-state’s will on another, regardless of the stated goal. One may go to war to obtain natural resources or remove a dictator, but the overall purpose is still the same. A country fights to get something it wants, be it conquests or independence from another country.
War, for the purpose of this essay, has four aspects; geopolitical, strategic, tactical and operational. Operational can be defined as small-unit manoeuvres; this is how we’re going to take this house. Tactical scales it up a little; this is how we’re going to capture this city or defeat this army. Strategic operates on a much bigger scale; this is how we’re going to conquer and pacify this country. Geopolitical operates on a global scale; this is how we’re going to accomplish our overall objectives.
It should be noted that the four aspects tend to be a little more expansive than you may think, from my very brief description. Tactical may be concerned with winning battles and taking territory, but it also touches upon logistics and other related issues. They also tend to have complications when they interact. A nation may successfully occupy another nation, but in doing so bring itself into conflict with a third nation - a strategic success but a geopolitical failure. For example, Adolf Hitler’s pact with Stalin in 1939 was a strategic masterstroke - it ensured that Poland didn't have a hope of resisting the invasion - and yet it also opened his back for Stalin’s knife. He could (and did) go east, but Stalin could have gone west. Indeed, there are people who believe that Stalin did have a plan to strike westwards first.
In order to plan military operations, one must have a realistic understanding of the physical and political terrain, a realistic understanding of the forces involved, a set of loose contingency plans for any eventualities and a willingness to pay the cost of war. This is a complex topic, but one that has to be comprehended by anyone considering a war. Hitler’s failure to do any comprehensive strategic evaluation of his targets eventually doomed Nazi Germany to defeat. What had worked - sometimes more by luck than judgement - against small targets like Poland and France failed spectacularly against Soviet Russia. As a warlord, Hitler was more interested in the daring masterstroke than solid planning.
First, however, one must consider the goal. Evicting Iraqi forces from Kuwait or Argentinean forces from the Falklands were both relatively simple goals, with clearly-defended end conditions. Liberating Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya from their governments and then building a set of secure and peaceful democratic states were far more complex. There was no reason to believe that the mere act of removing the odious governments would automatically result in a better nation. Instead, destroying the governments (and not taking control from the start) led to social collapse and civil war.
It is politicians who must define the goals of a war. This is their job. It does not matter if they’re democratically-elected leaders or dictators who seized power by force. They are the ones who must define the goals of the war. Once the war is underway, the politicians must grit their teeth and ignore setbacks, keeping their eye on the ultimate goal. Losing a battle is hardly disastrous; abandoning the war midway through is.
It is the senior military leadership who must figure out how to fight the war, then carry it out. They must consider the objective and calculate how best to accomplish it. Once they have a realistic appreciation of just what will be required, they must explain to the politicians just what will be required in terms of commitment. Destroying a Third World army, on one hand, can be accomplished in weeks; occupying and fundamentally transforming its country is a task that will require decades. And once the war is underway, the senior leadership must run interference between the politicians and the officers on the spot, the ones actually commanding the war.
It is the junior military leadership that actually has to lead troops into battle. They are focused on small objectives, instead of being aware of the greater objective. Their task is to take and hold territory - a bridge, for example - without needing to know how it fits into the overall plan. In order to do this, to take advantage of fleeting opportunities, they have to have considerable freedom of action.
This is an idealised view, but it is not what happens.
The speed with which messages can be flashed around the globe, these days, have resulted in a mangling of the abovementioned separation of responsibilities. Politicians lose sight of the greater picture as they grow more and more involved with tactical or operational decisions; because they lose sight of the overall picture, they see relatively small setbacks as utterly disastrous. (The Tet Offensive is a good example; the US won everywhere, save in the sphere of public relations. Unfortunately, that was the decisive sphere.) Where politicians such as Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt (or Stalin, for that matter) gritted their teeth at failures and setbacks, while keeping their eyes on the prize, modern-day politicians have become risk-averse. They want to accomplish complex and difficult tasks without a single major setback or even a comparatively minor one.
They also waste their time meddling in the military sphere. Politicians back home have often interfered in military operations, both before and after the war. Donald Rumsfeld, for example, had a nasty habit of dictating which army units were permitted to embark for Iraq and Afghanistan, playing merry hell with the TOE. Indeed, I believe that one of the reasons for the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq was that dedicated units were not permitted to enter the conflict zone. Putting a cap on the number of deployable soldiers in both countries limited the kind of operations that could be undertaken, forcing the US to rely on air power to make its opinion felt. And consulting lawyers during combat operations (themselves a risk-averse breed) only caused more and more delays. I recall a report in which a prominent Taliban commander, targeted by a drone, was allowed to escape because the lawyers thought engaging him would not be legal.
But a more dangerous aspect of the changing face of war is the rise of hindsight-driven prosecutions. A soldier who makes the wrong decision (as in the example above) can now be charged in a civilian court, even though he took precisely the right course of action based on what he knew at the time. There is a difference - a strong difference - between an accident, however tragic, and a deliberate atrocity. Soldiers understand the difference. I doubt you’ll find many American soldiers willing to defend the conduct of Steven Green and his comrades. But watching a soldier get hounded through the courts because of a genuine mistake - one blown out of all proportion by the media - is destructive for one’s morale.
These are not the days when warfare had to be left in the hands of the generals. But putting it in the hands of the politicians (civilian and uniformed) has been disastrous.
Right now, we face a fast-moving enemy who understands our weaknesses very well. Our forces are the best in the world, but their hands are tied by their political superiors; our weapons are vastly more destructive, yet they cannot be deployed without bureaucratic nonsense and other delays. Our enemies have no qualms about provoking incidents they can turn into atrocities (with the willing assistance of a media that has lost its sense of right and wrong.) On one hand, outright defeat seems unlikely; on the other, we may lose either through death of a thousand cuts or simply surrendering our morality and embracing a final solution of our own. Steering a path that allows us to win without losing ourselves is not going to be easy ...
... And, right now, our current crop of politicians are not up to the task.