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Issues Of Doctrine In The War On Terror

The war metaphor invoked by the United States in prosecuting the War on Terror renders its efforts subject to analysis by the doctrinal rules of war. Contemporary United States doctrine for fighting wars derives its foundation – its “rules of grammar” – from the writings of nineteenth-century Prussian General Carl Philipp Gotlieb von Clausewitz, particularly his seminal thesis, On War. (1) Despite being published posthumously after Clausewitz’s death in 1831, On War continues to shape current American military thinking and remains the most modern authority available on the essence of war. Simply put, no one has produced a better description of the essence of war and the immutable principles for its conduct in nearly two centuries. It is considered by many to be the greatest work on war and strategy ever produced by Western civilization, and its key concepts can be used to put current efforts in the War on Terror in perspective.

In his chapter on war as an instrument of policy, Clausewitz writes that “war’s grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic.” (2) By invoking the logic of war in declaring the War on Terror the United States committed itself to its rules of grammar, or means. Tilford explains Clausewitz’s concept of grammar in the following way:

The logic [nature] of war, violence directed by political intent, remains constant but the grammar [character] changes. Logic is a constant regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, nationality or cultural factors. On the other hand, how one addresses a particular problem or issue, the methods used, is subject to a large number of factors such as age, sex, physical condition, resources, culture, religious beliefs and values. Applied to war, there is then a distinctly American way of war that differs significantly from the way Chinese or Russians or Zulus make war. There is also a distinctly Muslim fundamentalist way of making war. Clausewitz’s point is that although nations and groups make war in different ways based on a large number of factors, they go to war for one logical reason only: to force an enemy to do their will. (3)

The first concept that Clausewitz offers is his definition of war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”(4) From the vantage point of Clausewitz’s definition the War on Terror is not unique, and it would be a mistake to see it in any way other than strategic context. To begin, Clausewitz’s definition of war can be broken into three elements. They are, first, that the effort is directed toward an identified opponent; second, that it involves violence or use of force to compel our opponent to fulfill our will; and third – implied – that we know our national will. The War on Terror does not present a new problem from Clausewitz’s logical perspective, but merely a modern application of an ancient concept.

Second, Clausewitz declared that all wars could be considered acts of policy. Otherwise, the entire effort contradicts the history of war. It is absolutely essential therefore that:

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and the commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive. (5)

To understand the true nature of the War on Terror requires not only a refined definition of the enemy, but also a knowledge and comprehension of the nature of the war itself. For the United States to stray from this principle, again, invites failure.

This leads to a third principle established by Clausewitz, that of the political objective. To paraphrase, the political object is the goal, war is the means for reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose. (6) Only upon establishment of the objective of the war can strategy be devised to achieve it. Following the logic of Clausewitz if al Qaeda is its most visible enemy in the War on Terror, and perhaps the forerunner of adversary networks in the information age, then the United States must understand the nature of al Qaeda, as well as the nature of its conflict with al Qaeda. It can then develop clearly defined, decisive and attainable objectives with attendant strategy to prevail against al Qaeda. Lack of clarity of strategic objectives, in the long-term, has the potential to lead to a wearing down of American resolve, which ultimately can lead to failure. This is evocative of the lack of clarity of strategic objectives, described very clearly and eloquently by Summers, which contributed to American failure in Vietnam. (7)

Clausewitz put forth two additional sets of concepts that offer insight into the War on Terror. They are the concepts of fog and friction, and the concepts of efforts that constitute preparations for war versus war proper. The concept of fog in war refers to the uncertainty of the information that is available to the commander. (8) Uncertainty can make problems seem, outside of perspective, larger than they really are. In the absence of information, that which is not known is left to chance. Friction is the concept that “everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult,” and the difficulties accumulate. (9) Clausewitz envisioned an army as a very simple machine, but with a multitude of moving parts, each of which retains its independent capability to generate friction.

Both fog and friction can be observed throughout the United States effort in the War on Terror. The effects of fog can be found in the lack of clarity of information that exists at the policy, strategic, operational, and tactical levels of effort. Friction can be observed in the homeland security related interagency conflicts between international, federal, state, local, tribal, and private agencies. Both fog and friction have impacted the strategic gaps that exist between agencies such as that between the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense; in the foreign-domestic divide described by the 9/11 Commission; in the lack of interoperability between agencies at all levels nationwide; and in the failure to share intelligence across agency boundaries. Examples of fog and friction abound in the War on Terror.

Finally, Clausewitz said that, “The activities of war may be split into two main categories: those that are merely preparation for war, and [those that constitute] war proper.” Preparations for war produce “the end product,” trained and equipped fighting forces. War proper “on the other hand, is concerned with the use of these means, once they have been developed, for the purposes of [waging] the war.” (10) The purpose of war is presumed to be the imposition of one’s will upon one’s enemy. Similarly, the application of effort to the War on Terror should be divided into those activities that are preparations for war and those that are conduct of the war proper. Both activities are necessary, but each should be considered separately and not confused one for the other when evaluating success. Nor can they be separated from objective and strategy.

The outcome of the Vietnam War is an example of the result that can occur when preparations for war and war proper are confused with objective and strategy. In referring to the United States defeat in Vietnam, Summers asks the question, “How could we have succeeded so well [tactically and logistically], yet failed so miserably [strategically]?” (11) He opens his analysis of the Vietnam War with this declaration:

At the height of the war, the Army was able to move almost a million soldiers a year in and out of Vietnam, feed them, clothe them, house them, supply them with arms and ammunition, and generally sustain them better than any Army had ever been sustained in the field. To project an Army of that size halfway around the world was a logistics and management task of enormous magnitude, and we had been more than equal to the task. On the battlefield itself, the Army was unbeatable. In engagement after engagement, the forces of the Viet Cong and of the North Vietnamese Army were thrown back, with terrible losses. Yet, in the end, it was North Vietnam, not the United States that emerged victorious. (12)

The Army’s accomplishments in Vietnam could not have been carried out without the application of preparations for war on a large scale. In essence, the Army did everything it was designed to do in Vietnam, but its successes did not achieve United States victory. The failure can be viewed in two ways. First, the activities that constituted preparations for war, e.g., logistics, personnel, and resource management were not always distinguished from war proper, resulting in misdirection of priorities. The result was a systems analysis approach to the Vietnam War that overrode strategic planning. More importantly, both preparations for war and war proper were directed toward an objective and strategy that were flawed. Regardless of the success of the military effort, it was in support of a flawed national objective and strategy that doomed the overall effort to ultimate strategic failure. The durability of the negative effects of strategic failure can be observed in the current debate in public forums on the nature and implications of the perceived threat to the nation.

How does the United States avoid making a similar mistake in the War on Terror? Much of the current homeland security effort in the War on Terror – reorganization of government, critical infrastructure protection, and scenario-based planning are examples – are defensive actions that take on the guise of preparations for war. They do not, in and of themselves, directly impose America’s will on al Qaeda or any other adversary. It is not certain that they are even effective deterrents. Those offensive diplomatic, information, military, law enforcement, and economic actions that are taken to apply force directly to terrorist adversaries to force them to accept the will of the United States are examples of war proper. In the final analysis, it will be necessary for the United States to ensure that its efforts, both those that constitute preparation for war, as well as those that constitute war proper, are directed toward clearly defined, decisive and attainable national objectives and facilitated by a clear and effective strategy for success. This will require a transformation of strategic thought. United States war-fighting doctrine, founded in Clausewitzean principles of war between nation states, must be adapted in order to apply it to prevail against non-state entities.

(1) Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), 605.

(2) Ibid., 605.

(3) Earl Tilford, “The War on Terror: World War IV,” A Reserve Officers Association National Security Report, Officer (October 2004), 37.

(4) Clausewitz, On War. 75.

(5) Ibid., 88.

(6) Ibid., 80-81.

(7) Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1984), 46.

(8) Clausewitz, On War, 140.

(9) Ibid., 119.

(10) Ibid., 131-132.

(11) Summers, On Strategy, 22.

(12) Ibid., 21-22.


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