Korea established a pattern

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Korea established a pattern that has been unfortunately followed in American wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan:

These are wars without declaration and without the political consensus and the resolve to meet specific and changing goals. They are improvisational wars. They are dangerous.

The wars of the last 63 years, ranging from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq (but excepting Operation Desert Storm, which is an outlier from this pattern) have been marked by:

  • Inconsistent or unclear military goals with no congressional declaration of war.
  • Early presumptions on the part of the civilian leadership and some top military officials that this would be an easy operation. An exaggerated view of American military strength, a dismissal of the ability of the opposing forces, and little recognition of the need for innovation.
  • Military action that, except during the first year in Korea, largely lacked geographical objectives of seize and hold.
  • Military action with restricted rules of engagement and political constraints on the use of a full arsenal of firepower.
  • Military action against enemy forces that have sanctuaries which are largely off-limits.
  • Military action that is rhetorically in defense of democracy — ignoring the reality of the undemocratic nature of regimes in Seoul, Saigon, Baghdad, and Kabul.
  • With the exception of some of the South Korean and South Vietnamese military units, these have been wars with in-country allies that were not dependable.
  • Military action that civilian leaders modulate, often clumsily, between domestic political reassurance and international muscle-flexing. Downplaying the scale of deployment and length of commitment for the domestic audience and threatening expansion of these for the international community.
  • Wars fought by increasingly less representative sectors of American society, which further encourages most Americans to pay little attention to the details of these encounters.
  • Military action that is costly in lives and treasure and yet does not enjoy the support that wars require in a democracy.

Some of the restraints and restrictions on the conduct of these wars have been politically and even morally necessary. But it is neither politically nor morally defensible to send the young to war without a public consensus that the goals are understood and essential, and the restraints and the costs are acceptable.

Mattis cited this Atlantic piece in his recent interview with the Mercer Island High School Islander.


  1. Kirk says:

    At least some of this is due to two rather large factors the authors don’t mention: The existence of nuclear arms, which make trying to take a war to a clear conclusion rather problematical, and the fact that the US has became what the former British Empire was in the immediate pre-WWII era: The final international arbiter and maintainer of the commons.

    Both of these factors lead directly into why wars since WWII have been frustratingly inconclusive, and are likely to remain so. The US is fighting to maintain the status quo, not crusading against evil any more. You can’t do that in an environment where the clearest source of evil, the former Soviet Union, has nuclear arms, effective delivery systems, and the will to use them were they brought to a conclusive battle. The only effective and workable strategy was what we did, which was to outwait them and hope that the inherent contradictions of their system would become apparent–Which they did. Everything done during the Cold War in terms of proxy fights like Korea and Vietnam were holding actions, spoiling battles intended to mostly keep the Soviet Union at bay while their underpinnings steadily eroded.

    The ennui that these factors create in the military stems is because unlike former conflicts where the US could bring things to a final unambivalent conclusion, today’s wars are only going to go so far before someone says “We’ll nuke your asses…”, and the whole thing becomes not worth fighting.

    Remains to be seen how that works out with the random nutters like North Korea and Iran; the former sureties of nuclear mutual destruction that kept things from boiling over with the Soviets are probably not going to work with either of those parties, and who the hell knows where we go from there. I have an unpleasant feeling that we may be minus a major North American or European city or two before this all gets resolved. I would not be buying property near any major potential targets, were I in the market for any.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    Our leaders are besotted by “wonder weapons” and deluded about the inferiority of our adversaries and the capabilities of our own forces. We have been fighting terrorism since the Carter administration, 40 years, six Presidencies. The result has been the spread of terrorism across Africa from Nigeria to Libya and Somalia, throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. We have troops, mostly SOCOM, on the ground fighting in all those areas. We have been fighting in Somalia continuously for 24 years. I think one can conclude that America’s Ruling Class is insane. Marie Antoinette and Hitler made better decisions.

  3. Adar says:

    Two additional items perhaps even more important.

    1. The adversary [at least in Korea and also in Nam] has tremendous manpower reserves and was willing to use that reserve strength in a profligate manner. Almost heedless of losses.

    2. America wants quick results. NO staying power.

  4. Lu An Li says:

    Congress gives tacit approval for these various wars by expenditures of funds for military operations. Withhold money if you do not like.

  5. Kirk says:

    The narrative necessary to support Adar’s second point is difficult to maintain when you stop and think about how long the US has maintained troops in Europe, Japan, and Korea. We’ve had plenty of patience there, and plenty of staying power.

    What the American voting public won’t put up with, though, is wasted lives, or allies who it perceives won’t fight. True or not, the perception that the South Vietnamese weren’t willing to fight for their own country played into a lot of the center and right-wing acquiescence to the Democrats defunding the South Vietnamese in ’74. Had there been a public consensus that the South Vietnamese were fighting hard, and weren’t corrupt, I think the Democrats would have had a hell of a time doing what they did. As it was, the propaganda against the South Vietnamese from the media did an awful lot to convince the people who mattered that they weren’t worth supporting. And, to be brutally honest, the South Vietnamese themselves did a lot to poison the well, themselves.

    Staying power? The US has plenty of it. What it doesn’t have is a toleration for the loss of life attendant to lost causes and those who won’t help themselves–A point that the European members of NATO would do well to remember.

  6. Graham says:

    My father used to speak, I think, for many when he repeated the notion that MacArthur had been right- there is no substitute for total victory.

    But war historically has not always been like that, not for any great power waging war at the fringes of its interest or for any power maintaining, as Kirk notes, order in the states’ system.

    There will likely always be wars in which victory is impossible, perhaps not even desirable. The people cannot be subdued, perhaps need not be, perhaps it is even desirable to maintain a balance and a degree of low level conflict indefinitely. This reality does not preclude the effective use of force for particular goals, nor mean a ‘quagmire’.

    This is not rocket science, and perhaps it could be explained to the voters well enough were any statesman ever prone to frankness. But wow you cannot explain it to the credentialed geniuses who write for the press, nor to policy intellectuals.

    It would be great if the US could find a balance between passivity in the face of the terrible fear of quagmire, and expectation of marching into the ruins of Berlin or Tokyo and turning the place into a clone of America. It might even mean fewer lives wasted if little wars are understood for what they are.

  7. Daniel says:

    There is another problem: the type of war has changed. We can see these types, as 1) defending your soil against invaders, 2) supporting allies in their version of (1), and 3) projecting/protecting our interests. The wars of the last 75 years tend to be mostly (3), and a little bit of (2). When we fight for our interests, we usually end up with strange bed-fellows: Do we fight Afghanistan, with Pakistan as allies who are clearly supporters of the same terrorism, but will publicly put on the face of anti-terrorism?

    We are allies with the Saudis, who support Wahabi Islam — one of the more radical sects, yet they are our buddies, because our interest occasionally align, and are intertwined. We far too often have to partner with the bad guy to stop the “badder” guy. This makes for messy wars, compromised objectives, and sets us up for future problems. (Does anybody remember US support for Sadaam, so that he would crush Iran?)

  8. Kirk says:

    Dan, you’re being a bit simplistic with regards to what you’re saying regarding Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

    There was one main reason we chose to address the issues of who actually attacked us on 9/11 indirectly: Collateral damage. The invasion of Afghanistan was basically meant to take the toys away from the Pakistani ISI, and teach them a lesson not to interfere with the US. We didn’t go after the Pakistanis directly because a.) the ISI is only a faction within the Pakistani government, and we wanted to discredit them and remove their power, plus b.) Pakistan now being a nuclear power thanks to the fecklessness of previous administrations, going into Pakistan to deal with the ISI would mean that untold millions of Indians would likely die in the resultant war, which would likely go nuclear in very short order.

    Same-same with Saudi Arabia–We know from the fact that the 9/11 hijackers were mostly Saudis with clean passports and full visa approvals that someone in the Saudi government was aiding and abetting them, since several were known to have been on the “Jihadi trail” and were on lists as radicalized troublemakers. Going in directly to deal with the Saudi government would have meant worldwide disruption of the oil markets, with the first-order side effects being the starvation of millions in the third world. Which is why, again, we chose to make an indirect attack on Saudi Arabia by setting up a democratic Arab government on their Northern doorstep, in place of their long-term proxy, Saddam.

    That none of this worked worth a damn? Well, I blame George Bush for that, and his inability to either explain what he was doing, or to defend himself and his policies against the traitor Democratic Party and their media co-conspirators. That’s how we wound up with Obama, who gave away the store to the Iranians, and who created the whole issue of ISIS by effectively mandating the release of regime prisoners from Camp Bucca, which was where most of the cadre for ISIS came out of. Then, too, he shut down the entire post-war support plan for the Iraqi Army, such that it basically ceased to exist as an effective force on his watch. Due to us pulling our trainers and logistics experts, the Iraqi Army that we’d trained and helped field circa 2005-2009 had effectively ceased to exist by 2011, when ISIS really got going. You don’t pay them, don’t feed them, and allow sectarian BS to go on in the ranks, don’t be surprised when the untrained masses evaporate in front of things like ISIS.

    Few other things, too–Saddam was never “ours” in the sense that we put him in power, or told him what to do. The sum total of aid we gave him in the Iran-Iraq war consisted of giving him just enough intel to be able to defend himself against the Iranians, who the Saudis were worried about after they’d engineered the fall of the Shah, only to find out that Iran under the Mullahs was both more predictable and dangerous than they’d calculated. We were only there in Iraq to help keep the oil fields free from Iranian dominance, and to stabilize things. We never told them enough to enable victory, even if they’d been able to somehow manage that. Iraq and Iran spent most of the 1980s re-staging the battles of WWI with modern weapons, and even less sophistication. All we did was keep things from getting out of control–They were never allies, in the sense of what the UK was, or most of our other alliances.

    Also, do note that the vast majority of the Iraqi arsenal came from two major sources: The French, and the Eastern Block. US? LOL… Not a lot, unless you go back to the 1950s. I remember us finding a few Garands and M1919A6 machineguns over there, but that was it–Everything else was Eastern Block, or mostly French.

  9. Graham says:


    Good point on the US and Saddam. Us support was never that great, certainly not to the point that the US was ever his main patron. As to what the US did, that strikes me as obvious stuff. Iran was a problem, so the US found a means in Saddam to make Iran’s life harder. All good. And as Kissinger purportedly said, “It’s a shame they both can’t lose”.

    I suppose the US will never entirely get out of this good guy/bad guy mindset. If anything, this has gotten far worse. The US used to talk like that and somewhat think like that and then act like a normal country in practice. Now basic concepts have slipped from mind.

    Like- yep, sometimes you will ally with bastards because it’s your interest. The latter part of the phrase is the important bit.

    Or, yep, this conflict might store up problems for the next. You can sometimes minimize that or even [mirabilis] foresee and prepare for the next round [a clear eyed approach to interests, ends and means helps], but it can’t be avoided all the time. That’s how foreign policy and history work. There’s no escape.

    Defeat Germany too gently in 1918, face them again in a generation. Defeat them hard in 1945, face Russia over the corpse. Use Sunni radicals to keel over Russia, Face Sunni radicals…

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