Being Ready to Restore Order Is Crucial to Winning Wars, but the Real Question Is: Should We Fight Them?

In these days of permanent undeclared war, one of the key tasks defenders of liberty face is to find ways to reinvigorate limits on the national security state. This is especially difficult because the American public has simply gotten used to the idea that U.S. forces will always be in harm’s way, somewhere, and the country’s political class doesn’t seriously consider ways to limit commitments abroad.

American strategists have an enduring love for the clean victory. We aspire to wage honorable wars aiming at a swift, overwhelming defeat of enemy forces, followed by a rapid return home. There’s a seductive logic to this ideal: it at least has the virtue of identifying a clearly desirable end to the violence. Yet the last hundred or so years of military history shows that this is an aspiration better suited to the European wars of the 17th and 18th centuries, where small professional armies danced around one another, never seeking absolute decision in the field. Under those very limited conditions, it made sense for nations to submit to the verdict of battle. They lost relatively little in the process.

If only the post-1789 reality were more cooperative, then the aspirational war-limiting strategies of Colin Powell, Caspar Weinberger, and their many forebears might actually work. But in the modern era, the United States military has almost always found itself responsible for the occupation and rebuilding of defeated powers. Any study of American military strategy should place this point front and center, yet time and again, politicians and their advisors fail to reckon with the extended costs of war.

Nadia Schadlow’s War and the Art of Governance makes a compelling case that the American military professionals in general and the U.S. Army in particular suffer from a serious case of denial about the political character of war. Instead, the military and civilian leadership of U.S. armed forces have tended to cultivate plans that emphasize annihilating the enemy through technological prowess without much consideration of what happens after the major combat is complete.

This pattern repeats itself so often in U.S. history that Schadlow labels it “American denial syndrome.” She argues that it is defined by a recurring set of defects in how we understand war and what comes after:

The four themes that shape this denial syndrome—discomfort in a democracy with the idea of the military taking the lead in political activities, American concerns about colonialism, the view that civilians could take the lead in governance operations, and traditional views about what constituted war and the military profession—created continuous tensions as the United States planned or and executed its major wars.

These come together and make us unable to consolidate success on the battlefield into political success in the years to come. This is a powerful diagnosis of American strategy and foreign policy thought, one that offers a pointed reminder that the military, too, is a bureaucracy. And in the process, Schadlow offers a detailed confirmation of the common American sense that we regularly win wars but lose the peace.

The book identifies what she terms “governance operations” as the critical point of failure in most of America’s wars. By this Schadlow means a wide range of functions, but assigns special importance to the restoration of law and order in places held by U.S. forces, the rebuilding of essential infrastructure, and helping with the cultivation or renewal of a civil society that can support a new political order. Not without strong historical reasons, American military professionals have viewed these as inherently political and therefore civilian concerns. The trouble Schadlow identifies is that civilians cannot handle the job.

As a result of this default position, the U.S. Army delayed the creation of institutions that could handle these kinds of missions, and even after their creation, consistently treated them as a secondary or tertiary function of the service. This continues today: the lion’s share of civil affairs units are located in the military’s reserve components, and the largest active-duty formations reside institutionally in the U.S. Special Operations Command alongside psychological operations units. Schadlow emphasizes the ways that situating civil affairs here is telling: although many advocates of preparing for governance operations were excited about their affiliation with special operators, “it essentially codified” the view that being prepared to maintain and restore order was largely unimportant to the “real” Army.

Schadlow argues this is a terrible mistake, one that leads to crude prewar planning and the allocation of very few resources to the tasks of restoring order and providing for those affected by U.S. wars. Worse still, the Army has regularly attempted to divide authority for civil affairs projects across combat-oriented commands and military government units. But the central difficulty she observes is that the Army betrays a persistent institutional failure to build the capacity to pick up the pieces after most of the shooting stops.

The book’s account of these confused lines of communication and authority reaches tragic proportions in her case study of Iraq and Afghanistan. Generals trained to embrace Colin Powell’s doctrines of decisive war and rapid return home were extremely reluctant to take responsibility for post-combat operations, and as she puts it particularly in Afghanistan, “some senior military leaders believed they could avoid the politics of the conflict.” In Iraq, the prewar planning assumed there would be distinct phases of the operation, and that there would be a clear and distinct time where civil affairs professionals could take over from combat units.

The truth was far messier: just as in World War II, infantry units in Iraq regularly were forced – usually without explicit directives – to improvise solutions to local civilian crises in the areas they controlled. Often this happened while they were fighting insurgents emboldened by the U.S. failure to immediately restore public order.

Throughout the book, Schadlow largely remains neutral about questions of grand strategy. She is less concerned with the questions of ends than she is of means. But she offers an extremely pointed criticism of the nation’s leadership when it comes to contemplating those means:

When criticized concerning the US Army’s unpreparedness for aspects of the intervention in Iraq, former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld made the oft-quoted observation that “you go to war with the Army you have.” The question is, why do we have the army we have?…. Civilian and military reluctance to acknowledge the requirement for governance operations as a fundamental dimension of war has resulted in a denial syndrome that precludes effective war planning and perpetuates unpreparedness for this aspect of war.

She suggests that this refusal to take preparing for governance as seriously as preparing for direct combat amounts to professional malpractice, and makes a number of recommendations for improving the situation.

Some of Schadlow’s recommendations obviously follow from the history she presents. Unity of command is crucial, as is not trying to send civilians to do the work of establishing order in wartime chaos. More profoundly, she points to the need to recognize the intrinsically political nature of war, and quit pretending that soldiers can hand their political roles off to civilians. She emphasizes that civilians must generate the grand strategy of a nation, but soldiers cannot simply ignore the political dimensions of their operations on the ground, and should ask Congress to fund the creation and maintenance of units that can do the work of public order.

Insofar as we simply want to discuss what works to win in post-war politics, this is all well and good. This is a peculiar book in that what you take away from it probably depends on what you think U.S. grand strategy should look like in the world. It offers ammunition to interventionists and advocates of restraint alike.

Schadlow draws attention to an old concern in military planning: if you build a capability, it often gets used. When it comes to occupation work, she suggests that generations of American leaders have tried to avoid taking the nation into such work by simply being unprepared for it. She argues this is the wrong approach because “the propensity not to plan or size forces for stability operations increases the possibility of ‘prolonged operations.’” Her point is that American presidents have regularly opted for war whether or not the military was ready for what comes after the shooting stops, and she seems to be advocating a practical path forward in light of official Washington, D.C.’s view of reality.

Taken at face value, this book is simply an argument in favor of developing certain military capacities before the next war, so the U.S. can win the peace as well as the war. But the evidence Schadlow presents also suggests a different interpretation: American politicians should never contemplate the use of force without a complete accounting of what will happen next, and in the absence of a strong case that a war and an occupation is in the nation’s most vital interests, they shouldn’t go to war.

War and the Art of Governance offers an important reminder that America’s political amnesia isn’t just domestic: it’s present in the country’s international dealings, too. And we’d be wise to remedy it before it destroys what’s left of the republic.

Reader Discussion

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on March 27, 2018 at 11:39:11 am

One is conflicted regarding the *proper* role for the US Military in "governance operations. Can they, should they exercise these responsibilities.

A couple of thoughts:

1) The author (or essayist?) is incorrect in asserting that governance operations have been a failure for over a century and that the unpreparedness of the US Military (and by implication US government civilian authorities) is the cause.
WWII and Korea occurred less than a century ago. One need only look to that era to observe three successful examples of US Military governance operations, i.e., Japan, Germany and Korea. Success in this critical area can and has been achieved.

Yet, since that time, the US has been unable (unwilling, as the author arguably suggests) to attain similar success.

2) Reviewing the post-shooting activities of the Iraq War, we may, as does the author, conclude that the military is unable to provide proper governance, is unwilling or incapable of structuring new or provisional governments, and is anxious to "go home quickly." Yet, it must be remembered that it was NOT the military that was responsible for the breakdown of Iraqi society; that honor must be reserved for the civilian cadre, under the soi-disant modern day version of an 18th century British Viceroy to India, L. Paul Bremer. It was he who dissolved the Iraqi Army, it was he who insisted on a policy of radical "de-Baathification" thereby eliminating tens of thousands of teachers, engineers, technicians, police and military personnel whose only crime was recognizing the prior imperative to obtain a Baath Party membership. The resulting chaos and civil disorder, as well as the ensuing violent hostility to what came to be perceived as the *overbearing* American presence / influence was the inevitable result of the foolish and premature discard of the Iraqi civil service. To whom could the occupying forces then turn for assistance, for an understanding of the cultural / social / political mores of the subject, and presumably "soon-to-be-enlightened" society? To whom could the Iraqi people turn for assistance? Indeed, to whom would they turn for their livelihood?
Couple that with bureaucratic AND ideological infighting within the US State Department and the arrogance of Viceroy Bremer and the resultant loss of trust / faith in the Occupying Force was inevitable.

Yet, one should also remember that the *Surge* in Iraq was, perhaps, equally, a *governance operation* as it was a successful military operation, with US combat Forces providing those necessities and structure to the local citizens that were unable to be provided by the Provisional Coalition (yeah, right - some "coalition") Government under the arrogant Viceroy Bremer. Odd, isn't it that the military may be said to have provided the only evidence of successful governance operations, even though they were *unprepared for it, as the author suggests.

My point is not to dispute the author. I agree with her assertions that governance operations are critical to winning the peace. I also agree that the military tends to look upon such a role as a secondary responsibility BUT:
Can one seriously argue that the US Army before and during the Second World War considered governance operations as a principal responsibility and that they trained and prepared for it.

Hmmm - No!

So what has changed? Could it be that it is the US that has changed? could it be that bureaucratic and ideological divisions within the US Government, i.e., State Department and other agencies of the Executive Branch (OJ, include ideological differences in the Legislative as well) could also play a role in our present inability to successfully implement and manage post war governance? - a choice between making a "forward push for democracy" (G.W.Bush) and simply recasting Iraq from a warmaker to a less aggressive form while leaving their civil mores intact.

Recall also that after WWII, de Nazification was not quite so thorough as was the de-Baathification of Iraq.
I leave it to the readers inagination to determine why this was so.
One worked, the other did not!
The earlier approach did not suffer from a plethora of utopian ramblings; the latter one did!

But yes, the military OUGHT to be prepared to conduct such operations - as it appears that they are the ONLY ones capable of effecting it!

I would dare say that there was a greater

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on March 28, 2018 at 20:16:27 pm

I’m amazed that people expect our military whose primary purpose and design is to win wars is then expected to be a glorified police force the next day and rebuild/design a functional government the next day. Let’s leave the military be warriors and give the nation building to some civial entity. Maybe NATO or even the UN.

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Frank Morgan

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A 20th-Century Tolstoy?

Grossman is especially concerned to recreate wartime experience in its entirety, from the separation of loved ones to heroism, cowardice, and death.