May 22, 2024
Starting wars is easy. Ending wars, as we have sadly seen over the last few decades, is a far more complicated process that requires an incredible amount of planning and forethought--ideally happening before the conflict even begins. James Micciche shares thoughts on the importance for planning early for conflict termination. Strategists need to be involved just as deeply with the long term peace plan as they are with the overall war plan.

To end war in a manner that brings long-term benefits, states must adopt an objective approach in defining political objectives and in designing military operations to achieve them.

As the world transitions to multipolarity, nations are increasingly turning to force to achieve political objectives, and while nations go to war expecting quick decisive results they habitually find themselves mired in protracted conflict. A primary reason nations can find themselves in conflicts lasting far longer than expected is the immense emotion related to war. War’s human nature affects all strata of society from political elites to the general populace creating three obstacles preventing states from ending conflict. The first is decoupling war from political goals, the second is an excessive focus on tactics, and the last is succumbing to victory disease.

The challenges associated with ending conflict are neither new nor a secret. Speaking in 2014 on ending the war in Afghanistan, President Barrack Obama warned, “I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them.” His warning proved true as the United States’ involvement lasted seven more years and ended in a Taliban victory. To end war in a manner that brings long-term benefits, states must adopt an objective approach in defining political objectives and in designing military operations to achieve them. A failure to do so can result in a state that excels at warfare, defined as the organization and employment of military power, but fails at war, which is the use of the military instrument of power to achieve positive political objectives.

Losing the Objective: War for War’s Sake

While a state’s political elites declare and end war, it is the people who provide the political support and fill the ranks to sustain conflict. In On War , Carl von Clausewitz states that the people’s role in war “mainly concerns…primordial violence, hatred, and enmity,” factors that only increase in intensity as war persists. Indeed, as Clausewitz notes, “If war is an act of force, the emotions cannot fail to be involved.”  War and emotions are interdependent, and, if uncontrolled, will lead to increasing levels of violence, making war termination difficult. The First World War provides an example of how collective emotions prevented a durable peace. A reason the Entente powers failed to achieve enduring outcomes during the peace process was their public’s demand for harsh reparations from Germany. This demand for revenge was a contributing factor to an even bloodier war some three decades later or even, in the view of some scholars, a continuation of the same conflict.

In contrast to passion, the government represents reason; it is also a mechanism to harness the emotions of the people towards a goal. A role of government is to employ war as a tool to achieve policy goals. Clausewitz describes this imperative by stating, “war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object.” Thus, the primacy of policy must always be at the forefront for strategists during any application of force; this includes war’s termination. British theorist B.H. Liddell Hart also saw war as a means to achieve political outcomes, but also asserted that “the object in war is to attain a better peace, even if only from your own point of view.”

Is thus dangerous and an impediment to war termination when the prosecution of war is decoupled from policy. Gideon Rose highlights the tendency for policymakers to emphasize the negative aims of war, such as defeating enemy forces or winning individual battles, rather than prioritize the actions required to achieve positive political outcomes. This emphasis on the tactical and operational impedes the planning for war to achieve policy objectives, through such means as setting termination criteria, establishing conditions for peace talks, and defining how military victories are supporting political objectives.

Policymakers’ overemphasis on tactical execution can create a gap between war and policy. This gap can result in the military prosecuting a conflict detached from the other instruments of national power with little understanding of warfare’s impact on postwar conditions. The growing gap between the act of war and the desired results has become so common that General Tommy Franks, who oversaw the 2003 invasion of Iraq, bragged to policymakers, “You pay attention to the day after, I’ll pay attention to the day of.” Franks’ comments highlight the acceptance of a segregated planning process for war and peace that prioritizes the means over the ends, or, stated another way, prioritizes the war over the peace. This very act makes ending wars increasingly more difficult, as one can see from almost two decades of American involvement in Afghanistan where the Department of State and the Department of Defense regularly diverged on policy ranging from governance to security force assistance.

The United States remained undefeated in all major battles throughout the war, but failed because its strategy focused on tactical actions and never established defined and feasible outcomes against an opponent fighting an unlimited conflict.

Tactics sans Strategy

Despite their primacy in the creation of strategy, directed political objectives can be inappropriately tactically focused and impede the prosecution and termination of conflict, even when generated from outside the military. Political objectives that are inherently tactical will likely lack some larger theory of victory, resulting in protracted wars in which the best possible outcome is a stalemate. During the Vietnam War, the Johnson administration’s flawed policy of attrition within a limited conflict was translated by Pentagon officials into a series of essentially tactical tasks, such as killing more enemy troops or bombing certain targets. As a technologically superior force with over 500,000 servicemembers deployed to Vietnam, the United States was able to conduct these tasks with impunity, generating scores of data and analytics in doing so. The United States remained undefeated in all major battles throughout the war, but failed because its strategy focused on tactical actions and never established defined and feasible outcomes against an opponent fighting an unlimited conflict. The United States’ failure in Vietnam is an example of the pithy quotation often incorrectly attributed to Sun Tzu, “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” It is essential for strategists to collaborate with policymakers to inform the best use of military force, including identifying political objectives obtainable through military power. Only then can a state work towards termination criteria and know when to end a conflict.

Victory Disease

Counterintuitively, winning might impede long-term success through the condition of so-called “victory disease,” which Colin Gray defines as “the extreme, almost euphoric, condition of overconfidence.” Victory disease can occur before or during a conflict. In its pre-conflict manifestation, a nation believes so highly in its capabilities that it begins the war with little concern for the enemy, the environment, and, most importantly, potential long-term outcomes. For example, Adolf Hitler, emboldened by his victories culminating in the fall of France, launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union opening a second front against a state with latent power magnitudes larger than Germany. This condition still affects contemporary states. In 2003, the United States, encouraged by its unipolar status and recent victory over the Taliban, believed its 2003 invasion of Iraq would last less than five months.  Similarly, Russia after the annexation of Crimea and later successful intervention in Syria expected a quick and decisive victory against Ukraine but is now entering the third year of a conflict some are calling a stalemate.  

When victory disease occurs during war, nations ignore political objectives and delay termination under the false hope that there is more to be had due to recent success. Starting in 425 BC, Athens rejected multiple Spartan peace offerings to end the Peloponnesian War despite having achieved its political objectives, a choice based on overconfidence and greed that could have avoided Athens’ ultimate demise. Some 2300 years later, Imperial Japan’s arrogance after victories in 1941 and 1942 created a condition known as senshoubyou, which led to strategic overreach, operational overconfidence, and tactical complacency, all major factors in Japan’s subsequent defeat.

To overcome victory disease, or at least reduce its impact, policymakers and strategists must continually assess war conditions and ensure assessments are both informing policy and tied to termination criteria. Accepting hard truths is no easy task, as multiple cognitive biases exist forcing individuals to seek affirmation, avoid contradictory information, and ignore or downplay unwelcome news. More recently, this was evident as both the executive and the legislative branches ignored countless reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) outlining the dire state of affairs in the latter half of the nearly twenty-year war in Afghanistan despite consistent tactical success. Heeding or addressing these warnings could have potentially led policymakers to realize the United States was not turning the corner but rather stuck in a maze mired with tactically focused strategy and opaque objectives.

No discussion of victory disease is complete without mention of Clausewitz’s analogy, of war being “nothing but a duel on an extensive scale.” A more colloquial modern version is to note that “the enemy always gets a vote.” In war, no belligerent has sole agency in determining when a war ends, further complicating the ability for warring parties to end a conflict even if and when one wishes.

Conclusion

Former Pentagon senior advisor Rosa Brooks asserted that throughout the Global War on Terror, the United States increasingly defined foreign policy through the framework of conflict. As this trend continues the military has transformed into the nation’s primary mechanism of statecraft. If Brooks’ assertation is correct, which evidence clearly supports despite the 2022 National Security Strategy’s attempt to reprioritize diplomacy, then knowing how to plan for war’s termination becomes more important. Strategists must ensure that war, as a tool of statecraft, supports political objectives enabling the cessation of hostilities and optimizing post conflict outcomes. To overcome the myriad obstacles associated with ending wars and beginning peace processes, strategists must always focus on the primacy of policy to overcome decoupling war from warfare, avoid tactically focused strategic objectives, and defeat victory disease. In doing so strategists can use reason and logic to overcome primordial violence, hatred, and enmity to enable a nation to achieve a better peace, if and when force is required.

James P. Micciche is a U.S. Army Strategist (FA59) currently assigned to XVIII Airborne Corps. He holds degrees from The Fletcher School at Tufts University and Troy University. He can be found on Twitter @james_micciche and LinkedIn

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: A C-17 departing Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan

Photo Credit: Matt Hecht via flickr

13 thoughts on “CONCLUDING CONFLICT: WHY ENDING WAR IS NEVER AN EASY STRATEGY

  1. An excellent article on an important topic. I enjoyed your grasp of history and relevant examples. I have been pondering this topic for quite some time and my conclusions are a little different from yours.

    All forms of government have their strengths and weaknesses. While I love our constitutional republic here in the United States, I am not blinded to some of its weaknesses when it comes to exiting a conflict.

    What do I mean by this? Our supreme law of the land – the constitution specifies that we have civilian control over the military. This very same constitution specifies that we hold elections for the president every four years. The president along with the potential aid of congress sets the conditions to end conflict. As we observed during the long war on terrorism (OIF, OEF, Spartan Shield…) incoming administrations changed the goals of the conflict and thus changed the military goals and objectives. Certainly, this complicates the process of accomplishing the military end state and ending the conflict.

    We are not the Ukraine and have not and God willing will not ever postpone an election. Thus, we must adjust to the changing political winds within our nation. With this said how do we solve this problem?

    #1. We should always strive to start a war with the maximum force in order to compel the enemy to surrender as fast as possible so we can complete the war under the same administration that entered into the war.

    #2. If you thought my first suggestion was a bit optimistic wait to you hear this one…and this is to encourage bipartisanship when it comes to foreign policy goals. I know that this seems a bit far-fetched in the political environment that we have existed in for the last twenty years or so.
    So, I am still thinking through the problem and your article has helped. Thanks for your thoughts and contribution.

  2. Ending war isn’t easy because politicians want to prove they have testicles by sending the military out to kill and maim on their behalf.

  3. It indeed may be difficult to “conclude wars” when the goal/the political objective of one side (for example, the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday and/or the U.S./the West in the post-Cold War) was/is to “modernize”/to “transform” other states and societies along what large population groups in these other states and societies believe to be alien and/or profane political, economic, social and/or value lines:

    (Even though the constitution that Napoleon imposed on) “the Spaniards was more rational than what they had before, … they recoiled from it as from something alien.” See G.W.F. Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right,” Page 287, T.M. Knox trans., 1962.)

    1. Hegel (again see Page 287 of the item that I reference above) suggests that the reason that the Spaniards recoiled (“as from something alien”) from the more rational constitution that Napoleon had given them, this was because “they” (the Spaniards) “were not yet educated up to this level” and, accordingly, “the mass of people” (needed) “to be animated by such an idea,” this simply was not present.

      Accordingly, to hope to conclude (transformative) wars — for example more quickly and more thoroughly — this would seem to require that we (a) get the “horse” (the education and the animation of the populations) (b) before the “cart” (military activities designed to deal with those few and remaining individuals and groups who continue to resist — otherwise embraced by the masses — “transformation”).

      (Rumsfeld, for example in Iraq, gets this all wrong; this, by his thinking that the “education” and the “animation” has already occurred and that, accordingly, only a small number of U.S./coalition military personnel will be needed — who will only be needed for a short period of time — this, to deal with the very few remaining [his words] “dead-enders.”)

      1. In bold lettering — at the very beginning of our article above — :

        “To end war in a manner that brings long-term benefits, states must adopt an objective approach in defining political objectives and in designing military operations to achieve them.”

        Herein:

        a. If the U.S./the West — based on objective facts and evidence and thus NOT on subjective feelings, opinions, emotions, etc. — views such things as “long-term benefits,” “a better peace,” its “political objective,” etc.; these, as requiring the transformation of the outlying states and societies of the world more along contemporary western political, economic, social and/or value lines. (The U.S./the West, thus objectively, deciding and stating that it cannot [or simply does not wish to or will not] live in a world in which other states and societies are allowed to “do their own thing,” “go their own way,” “make their own rules, decisions,” etc.),

        b. Then, in these such specific circumstances, how does the U.S./the West (a) design their militaries and (b) design their militaries’ operations; these, to achieve the specific — and the objectively determined — “long-term benefits,” “better peace,” “political objective” noted at my item “a” immediately above?

        1. From the final paragraph of our article above:

          “Strategists must ensure that war, as a tool of statecraft, supports political objectives enabling the cessation of hostilities and optimizing post conflict outcomes.”

          If the transformation (more along contemporary western political, economic, social and/or value lines) of an outlying state and its societies; if this was/is the political objective, then — from this exact such perspective — how can war, as a tool of statecraft, (a) “support political objectives enabling the cessation of hostilities and/or (b) help optimize post-conflict outcomes?

          1. Should you think that I have made too much of the idea that the “transformation” of outlying states and societies — more along western political, economic, social and/or value lines — THIS is the political objective that has dominated much of recent U.S./Western war — and the use of U.S./Western militaries in same — then consider the following from Sir Adam Roberts “Transformative Military Occupations … ” (see the bottom half of Page 601):

            “This part looks selectively at foreign military presences aimed at a fundamental democratic
            transformation, and considers their possible implications for the law on occupations. Put
            crudely, the traditional assumption of the laws of war is that bad (or potentially bad) occupants
            are occupying a good country (or at least one with a reasonable legal system that operates for
            the benefit of the inhabitants). In recent years, especially in some Western democratic states,
            various schools of thought have been based on the opposite idea, crudely summarized as good
            occupants occupying a bad country (or at least one with a bad system of government and laws).
            Both of these crude views of occupations are questionable. The second view—of the occupant as the bringer of progress—can lead to a dangerous mix of crusading, self-righteousness,
            and self-delusion. Yet this view is the product of serious considerations based on actual events,
            including the post–World War II occupations, the interventions since the end of the Cold
            War, and the case of Iraq. … ”

            Thus — re: the U.S./the West — if we wish to consider such things as “concluding wars,” then we must do this from the perspective of “the kind of wars (transformative?) upon which we have been embarked” — for a significant portion of the last 80 or so years?

          2. As to my comment immediately above, do “transformative wars” — and the need to know how to properly conclude them — do these go back further than our post-World II occupations? As to that such question, consider the following from the first paragraph of “Part IV. Conclusion: The Relevance of the Laws of War and Human Rights” of the Sir Adam Roberts paper that I reference in my comment immediately above:

            “The idea of achieving the transformation of a society through a military intervention is far from new. It was a key element in much of European colonialism and in France’s wars after the Revolution of 1789.”

  4. A concise, conventional summation — I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s remark: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Here are a few points that may stretch our limits.

    First, the AVF, and use of AUMFs impose a distance between employment and the “people’s role in war.” A veil has been drawn between the act and the people. Keep shopping, America.

    With respect to the Trinity, G.K. Chesterton said “They still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.” “Primordial violence, hatred, and enmity” have become…gauche. We reason that it’s reasonable to stay our hand, and remonstrate with our allies (e.g., the Israelis) to do the same. We break our own will, not the enemy’s.

    Then there’s inertia — once the vast green machine is put in motion, what forces can change blind perseverance? Every campaign, every new appropriation, every reorganization, every new platform will be presented as the wunderwaffe delivering on the “political objectives.”

    Friction rules. As Churchill said long ago, when one signs up for war, one needs to expect that “Antiquated War Offices, weak, incompetent or arrogant Commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant Fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations—all take their seats at the Council Board on the morrow of a declaration of war.” (Of course we introduce our own form of friction by not making formal declarations of war.)

    Finally, there is the unmentionable, best encapsulated by a GWOT soldier’s remark: “It’s a great war, everybody’s making money.” Profit, advancement, celebrity and attention — we have turned R. E. Lee’s admonition on its head: “It is good that war is so horrible, or we might grow to like it.” You can rationalize industry’s interest; as Henry L. Stimson said about mobilization during WWII, “You have got to let business make money out of the process, or business won’t work.” But the suits (policymakers) and uniforms? When there’s advancement without accountability, failure without blame, and perpetual gaslighting, the scales seem to have tipped toward liking it. And that’s truly horrible.

  5. History has a habit of repeating. Our politicians, when they go into a conflict, never have an exit policy. If they would follow:
    1.Weinberger Doctrine
    2. Powell Doctrine
    3. Fox Connor’s Principles

    1. I have always perceived the Weinberger doctrine and the Powell doctrine as being essentially the same principles, but they were named differently. Can you educate me in the significant differences between the two?

      1. Weinberger laid out his doctrine in a 1984 speech when he was SecDef and Powell was his military aide. When Powell became CJCS he reiterated it and told people it was really the Weinberger Doctrine. But Powell was/is more beloved so he gets the credit these days.

  6. I am thouroughly amazed by all the responses to this article…
    I would like to see a simple action plan using this article..
    Copies of this should be given to all members of Congress-to all administration officials-news outlets and the public in general…
    Perhaps then-before a conflict or policy.is proposed-it must also have a REALISTIC exit strategy… Example-Ukraine-exit strategy announced to the world.. We will leave Ukraine when Russia does… Clear, concise, unambiguous…

    as an aside: I am just a little citizen who happened upon Warroom by accident a while back…I’m a veteran..And I am constantly amazed at the professionalism and dedication to our constitution and country of you and all who participate in Warroom… If only the rest of our fellow citizens could read your work,.,..,..They would be better prepared as citizens of our country… Thanks…

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