Saturday, March 29, 2008

Stab-in-the-back: a militarist view of warfare

The Mar-Apr edition of the Army's Military Review has a good example of someone using a stab-in-the-back view of the Vietnam War to advocate viewing domestic public opinion as a military target, Hybrid Wars by Jack McCuen:

We in the West are facing a seemingly new form of war—hybrid war Although conventional in form, the decisive battles in today's hybrid wars are fought not on conventional battlegrounds, but on asymmetric battlegrounds within the conflict zone population, the home front population, and the international community population. Irregular, asymmetric battles fought within these populations ultimately determine success or failure. Hybrid war appears new in that it requires simultaneous rather than sequential success in these diverse but related "population battlegrounds." Learning from the past, today's enemies exploit these new battlegrounds because the West has not yet learned to fight effectively on them. We still do not fully appreciate the impact and complexity of the nuanced human terrain.

One need only read our daily newspaper headlines or listen to TV and radio news about the insurgencies being fought within the populations of Afghanistan and Iraq to understand the validity of the above observations. Insurgencies rage within these conflicts' penetrated and often alienated populations in spite of our having first defeated the enemy's conventional forces. Our population at home usually wearies of the protracted struggles, waged, until recently, with little apparent progress. We are in danger of losing if we fail to fully understand the human terrain m these conflicts, as well as, perhaps, the even more decisive battlegrounds of public opinion at home and abroad. (my emphasis)
Public opinion is a part of the politics of war. And in a democratic society in wartime, public opinion should be shaped by free public debate, and as little as possible by military propaganda directed at the "home front".

It's a very different thing to define domestic public opinion as a military factor, as McCuen does here.

It takes him only until the second page to use the Vietnam War to argue that point:

In Vietnam, after a flawed beginning, we learned from our mistakes and successfully won the battle within the South Vietnamese population - although we ultimately lost the war when massive U.S. home front political pressure forced us to withdraw" (my emphasis)
That notion is one of the most poisonous legacies left to us by the administration of Jerry Ford the National Healer, whose chiefs of the White House staff were, successively, Rummy and Dick Cheney.

McCuen is an old-time counterinsurgency theorist. He argues, accurately, that the US military radically de-emphasized counterinsurgency after the Vietnam War. And the following argument is true so far as it goes, in situations where there is effectively...

... no host government, indigenous military, or police forces at the outset [of a conflict]; much of the political, economic, and social infrastructure will also likely have been destroyed or seriously damaged. These conditions will radically change how our military conducts counterinsurgency. As they have in Afghanistan and Iraq, our military forces will initially have to be responsible for conducting political and economic operations within the population. Until sufficient security and stability have been established to allow other government agencies to first participate and later assume responsibility, military forces will have these burdens while concurrently conducting military operations.
Although he talks about public opinion in the country where the war is actually going on and also international opinion, those appear to be largely window-dressing. His main argument focuses on how the military should attempt to control public opinion among the public at home. As in this passage:

Our current enemies have targeted the populations as their battleground of choice. They fully recognize that they do not have the military strength to defeat us in a conventional or nuclear war. However, past experience demonstrates to them that they can win wars within the population that we have not learned to fight. know they can protract such wars until home front and international community discouragement over casualties and cost force us to throw in the towel and withdraw. Our enemies’ strategic and tactical objectives are thus not to destroy our conventional military forces and seize critical terrain, but to seize, control, and defend critical human terrain until we give up the fight. The decisive battles of the hybrid wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought within the population battlegrounds - the populace in conflict, the home front populations of the intervening nations, and the international community. (my emphasis)
By blurring these concepts together, it softpedals - for those who aren't paying attention - the radical differences between the military conflict abroad, public opinion in the country undergoing civil conflict, and "home front' public opinion, in our case public opinion in the US.

Some such thinking as this lies behind Maverick McCain's policy of the 100 Years War for Iraq. The possibility that conditions in the country at war could defeat the US, or at least deny the US any clear-cut "victory" is absent. As is any recognition that that in a democracy it is the business ultimately of the voters to decide about war and peace, not the military brass. Or any notion that the intervening power may reach a point where it is rational to think that the costs of the war are exceeding any gains likely to come from continuing it. Here, public opinion at home is treated as a military front in the war.

It's hard to see how, in this perspective, any opposition to any war could be seen as anything other than unpatriotic. And as not just giving aid and comfort to the enemy - the Constitutional definition of treason - but of actual being part of the enemy.

Just how this approach is consistent with legitimate democratic practice is unclear to me.

This is another standard element in the stab-in-the-back pseudohistory of the Vietnam War, how Gen. Creighton Abrams won the war:

It was our faulty attrition strategy - our failure to orient operations on the population - that deprived the United States of success early in the Vietnam War. Fortunately, General Creighton Abrams assumed command of operations in Vietnam in 1968, and he recognized that the population was the key to success. Abrams radically changed the strategy to embrace a "one-war battlefield" where "clearing, holding, and rebuilding" the population was the critical objective of all military and civilian forces in South Vietnam; in other words, Abrams fought a hybrid war. (my emphasis)
Also, "in other words", McCuen's "hybrid war" notion is basically stab-in-the-back pseudohistory transmuted into counterinsurgency theory.

And, then, there's the final key element of the stab-in-the-back story, the gutless civilians at home caving after our glorious military had essentially secured Victory by 1972. "However," he writes, "even though the counterinsurgency war within its population had been virtually won, South Vietnam was far from able to defend itself in a conventional war against North Vietnam’s 20 battle-hardened, regular divisions without U.S. support." That would be in 1972, 11 years after the Kennedy administration committed large numbers of military "advisers" to South Vietnam, seven years after the Johnson administration "Americanized" the war by taking on the lead role in the counterinsurgency. And then:

By then, Congress had prohibited this support by law. Also, Washington had never allowed its forces in Vietnam to block the avenues of potential attack within/from Cambodia and Laos. The prohibition against U.S. support and our failure to seal off South Vietnam against future North Vietnamese conventional attacks assured the South’s ultimate downfall in the spring of 1975.
This interpretation of matters was encouraged by the Ford administration. And did I mention that at that time Rummy was Ford's White House chief of staff and Dick Cheney the deputy chief?

And here's another standard element of the stab-in-the-back dogma, Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831):

The current military term "strategic center of gravity" is the appropriate vehicle for thinking about the elements of success in hybrid wars. Clausewitz defined "center of gravity" as the "hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends ... the point at which all our energies should be directed." What all this means for us is that to succeed in a hybrid war, we must first identify proper strategic goals (in military parlance, "strategic end states"), and then go about achieving them by directing all our energies toward accomplishing certain strategic objectives. In hybrid war, we will attain our desired end states only by—

  • Conducting conventional operations that carefully take into account how destroying or neutralizing the enemy nation’s governmental, political, security, and military structures will play out in the longer term.
  • Clearing, controlling, and counter-organizing the indigenous population through a values-oriented approach that fosters legitimacy.
  • Winning and maintaining support for the war on the home front(s) and in the international community. Doing so means maintaining legitimacy and avoiding losses through incompetence.
He elaborates that all these fronts, including democratic public opinion at home, must be considered as parts of a "holistic attitude toward war", a "one-way" strategy as he calls it in which public opinion at home is as much a military target as enemy fighters:

Not surprisingly, the battle to achieve the third objective of gaining and maintaining public support requires different strategies, tactics, doctrine, and weapons than those used to control the physical and human terrain in combat zones. Competent strategic communications and the perception of moral legitimacy become the determining factors. Our current asymmetric enemies have, with a few exceptions, been much more successful than we have in influencing public perceptions. However, we can reverse this trend and control the moral terrain by judiciously executing our one-war "clear, control, and counter-organize" strategy.

That, of course, does not mean that success among the indigenous population is not decisive—success there is vital to establishing legitimacy and thereby maintaining home and international support. Knowing this, the enemy will often mount combat operations in the field hoping to give the impression that the intervening forces are losing, or at least not winning, and so influence both their enemy’s home front and international public opinion. They expect a country to cut its losses and retreat strategically when public opinion sours. Evidence from Vietnam and Somalia has led them to such a conclusion. (my emphasis)
The underlying assumption of this seems to be that a war should never be ended until some goal has been achieved, a goal that sounds implicitly like unconditional surrender of the other side. Otherwise, how could he treat cost-benefit calculations on the part of a democratic public as just as much a target in the war as the enemy soldiers? Because whatever the enemies in a particular situation may think or hope, anyone in their right mind would keep in mind what the costs of a war versus likely gains would be. And that calculation may look different in, say, the sixth year of a war than it did in the days of its shock-and-awe beginnings.

McCuen argues that the military's task in such wars is:

... simultaneous achievement of the three strategic aims described above - target lethal force carefully; clear, control, and counter-organize the people; work the information operations - will lead decisively to achievement of strategic objectives and post-bellum success.
Note again that "the people" blurs the distinction between the population of the country where the conflict is occurring and the "home front". But it's hard to read this any other way than as assuming that counter-organizing and "information operations" (propaganda) would be directly at least as much toward the "home front" as at the population in the country where the conflict is happening.

If McCuen is aware that for the military - or the civilian government, for that matter - to directly propagandize the voting public is illegal under American law. It can scarcely be said that the law is strictly enforced in that matter. But the law is there in recognition of basic principles of democracy and of the demarcations between military and civilian functions that the US has observed in the past, even in wartime, however imperfect the observance may have been in some cases.

The vision Jack McCuen articulates in this article is straight-up militarism. In the viewpoint he outlines, public opinion at home is as much a military target as enemy troops on the battlefield. Once a war is initiated, the generals should decide how it will be fought and the job of civilians (citizens and politicians alike) is to cheer for the war and give the generals whatever they say they need to prosecute it. And waging "information operations" against the democratic public at home is not only legitimate, but absolutely necessary.

Whatever else it may be, this is not an approach that is compatible with democratic government.

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