The Unintended Consequences of Limited Objectives
by Karen McKay, LTC US Army (ret) [Asheville Tribune (6
Throughout the Old Testament, God commands Israel to destroy its
enemies that the nation might survive. Somewhere along the way,
both Israel and America lost sight of that imperative.
Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt agreed to divide Europe when
General George Patton, driving hard for Berlin, was ordered to
stop short at the Elbe. The seeds of limited objectives were
sown, Communism enslaved all of Eastern Europe, and millions died
or were sent to the gulag.
The policy gelled in Korea. President Truman ordered Douglas
MacArthur, pursuing the retreating Communists northward, back to
the 38th Parallel. The limited objective of containing Communism
was codified. The people of North Korea were enslaved in
unspeakable privation while South Korea thrived despite constant
threats from the North.
Alluring half-measures and self-delusion about their
effectiveness took over US strategic thinking. No offense in
depth, certainly no destruction of the enemy's ability to make
war. Just push them back behind their own borders and tell them
to stay there like good little enemies. Total victory became
politically incorrect before the term even existed. With the zeal
of a reformed smoker, limited objectives became America's
Israel in particular has been subjected to US tutelage in victory
avoidance. While not quite believing that the meek shall inherit
the earth, the innate Jewish hunger for peace and Israel's
critical need for friends predisposed them to submitting to
Startlingly to the world, the Jews were not driven into the sea
when the combined armies of eight Arab countries invaded the day
after Israel declared independence. But the terms of peace
brokered by the United Nations sowed the seeds of continuing war.
The '56 War, the '67 war (America and [Great] Britain reneged on
their security promises to Israel), the Yom Kippur War, the
Litani Operation, the Lebanon-Hezbollah War, and the First &
Second Intifadas all ended the same way. Israel, fighting for
survival, on the brink of destroying the Arab armies, was
pressured by the US to pull its punches. Only in the last Lebanon
war, it appears that it was the Israeli political leadership,
having finally learned the lesson of limited objectives, that
stopped its heretofore undefeated military short of achieving
The result has not brought peace in the Middle East, but one long
war – 1948-present – punctuated by limited
ceasefires. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, our strategy of
limited objectives has brought death, enslavement, and horror to
In Vietnam, politicians tied our military's hands behind its
back; hamstringing it with rules of engagement so restrictive
that the war became a deadly farce. We know now that the Johnson
Administration had decided that the war was unwinnable, yet
continued to pour men into it with no intention of fighting to
win. After the Nixon Administration negotiated the withdrawal of
US troops from Vietnam with the guarantee of support for the
South Vietnamese government, Congress betrayed that commitment.
With the collapse of the US limited effort, millions of Southeast
Asians died, fled as refugees, or were enslaved. The dominoes
fell: South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos .... The killing fields of
Cambodia were born; the Montagnards of Vietnam, staunch US allies
in the war, were hunted down and exterminated; more than a
million Vietnamese fled to sea as boat people, an estimated
250,000 of them perishing.
The blithe denial of the consequences of limited objectives, the
invincible ignorance of facts, is epitomized by Senator John
Kerry on a 2007 C-Span talk show. Responding to a caller's
concerns about pulling out of Iraq, Kerry, who served in Vietnam,
said that there was no bloodbath in Vietnam after the American
pullout, and the reeducation camps, while not pretty were no big
deal. In fact, an estimated 160,000-200,000 died of starvation,
privation, abuse, torture, and execution in those reeducation
camps. The Communist regime still holds thousands of political
Two decades later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, threatening the
oil fields of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. America went to
war to push Saddam back behind his own border. Again, the US
military brilliantly executed its mission, but the objective was
limited to reestablishing the status quo. Baghdad was off limits,
and Iraq's military remained intact. Saddam promptly began
violating the rules of disengagement, and he murdered thousands
of his own people. Limiting our objectives then not finishing the
job – made inevitable another war.
Critics of former President George W. Bush complain that we have
been in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than we were in World War II.
The analogy fails.
World War II was total war, the only objective total victory. It
was conducted without concern for collateral damage. The Allies
went where the war led them, went after supply sources and lines
wherever they were, carpet-bombed cities without regard for loss
of life or historical treasures. POW rights were narrowly defined
by the Geneva Convention.
In contrast, the War on Terror (WOT) is being fought with
self-imposed restrictions to limit civilian casualties, and
respecting national sovereignties, cultures and borders, and
nation-building concomitant with combat operations. Armchair
lawyers second-guess the actions of troops in the heat of battle;
the Marine Corps has gone so far as to embed lawyers with combat
units in Iraq. A USMC lawyer explains that these Marines are
angry young men. Not surprising if every jarhead goes into
dangerous door-to-door combat in a hellhole like Fallujah with a
candy-ass lawyer looking over his shoulder.
US claims officers on the heels of combat operations take
residents' damage complaints and pay on the spot for whatever
American troops broke. It doesn't buy us any good will. In that
part of the world, courtesy is a sign of weakness.
Most key to our failure to achieve victory to this point is the
decision not to go after the terrorist sanctuaries and supply
sources in other countries. That self-defeating policy is costing
lives and treasure, and extending the war just as it did during
the Korea and Vietnam wars.
Compounding the error of limited objectives is our failure to
understand the threat we face. We violate Sun Tzu's first dictum
of warfare: Know thine enemy.
He, our enemy, understands us very well. He knows that we desire
peace so fervently that we will sacrifice security for the
illusion of promised peace. He knows our revulsion for violence.
He knows that he can evoke timidity in the effete west by such
unspeakable acts of brutality [such] as beheading a Jewish
American journalist on live television. He knows also that he can
provoke our outrage – against our own side – by
complaining about such cruel torture as putting underwear on a
prisoner's head. Our enemy also knows how to manipulate our
public opinion by following Goebbels' Principle: Tell a lie loud
enough and often enough and it will be accepted as truth.
President Bush was excoriated in the media over a comment that we
cannot win the war on terror. In a conventional sense, we cannot.
Victory traditionally means an enemy concedes defeat and
surrenders his sword. In the War on Terror, there is no enemy
leader, no Hirohito, no Hitler, no Robert E. Lee [sic: Jefferson
Davis], no Kaiser [Wilhelm] to sign a surrender document.
The enemy we face is like drifting swamp gas, ever moving,
vanishing, reforming. He is the child of Mao's guerrilla fighter,
the fish that swims in the sea, but his sustenance is pure hatred
and religious fanaticism. Privation and suffering don't drive him
to desperate action, nor [do] lofty visions of improving the lot
of his people motivate him. The train bombers in England were all
professionals born and raised in [Great] Britain, enjoying all
the fruits of free society. The 9/11 terrorists were
well-educated, upper-middle class professionals.
Victory will come when the terror-sponsoring states – Iran,
Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, North Korea, Red China, Russia
– give it up, when terrorists have no place to run, no
place to hide, nobody to support them.
That will happen only when it becomes too costly for the sponsors
of terror to carry on, or when they fear the full, unfettered
wrath of the American military and our allies coming down on
them. Until we have the will to annihilate our enemy's ability to
make war against us, we have no choice but to keep stomping out
terrorists like cockroaches only in those places where we dare
We know what we must do to secure our civilization against the
new Dark Ages that our enemy would bring upon us. The principles
of victory and governance of stable societies have been
understood ever since Creation. Even before Moses transcribed
God's instructions for self-rule, there had been well-managed
Niccolo Machiavelli, possibly the most misunderstood and maligned
man in history, had a keen understanding of the nature of man and
good government. In The Prince, he advised rulers to
govern with justice and benevolence, and to allow people to go
about their lives freely. But when there is no way to avoid
violence, act swiftly with concentrated brutality as necessary,
get it over fast, and then restore freedom.
It's the principle of removing a large adhesive bandage from your
tender body. Trying to avoid pain by tugging it a millimeter at a
time and waiting for the pain to stop before going on just
prolongs the agony. A merciful nurse will yank it off in one
The Florentine would have approved of President Truman's decision
to drop The Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dreadful as it was,
it stopped the war. Without it, deaths on both sides [would have
been] exponentially greater than the total casualties in those
cities as the war dragged on.
Peace results only from strength. The Book of Joshua records that
the city of Gibeon, the men of which were every one a warrior,
watched Israel's conquest of Jericho and Ai. In the face of
overwhelming power, the Gibeonites offered salt before a sword
was swung, allying themselves with the Israelites. The ancient
island kingdom of Minos needed no walls because of its powerful
navy. [Genghis Khan and] Alexander the Great offered peace to
kings in his path. If they accepted, he left the ruler to govern
as his vassal; if they rejected his olive branch, he crushed
Bush's resolute response to 9/11 convinced Mu'ammar Qaddafi that
he was next in the Warrior President's cross-hairs. The downfall
of Saddam [Hussein] inspired the Libyan despot to reform his own
terrorist-sponsor ways. He genuinely feared being next on George
Bush's target list.
Two centuries ago, Karl Von Clausewitz stated in On War
that the immediate aim of war is the destruction of the enemy's
armed forces. We didn't do that in Korea, or in Vietnam, or in
Gulf One. We've stopped the Israelis from doing it.
Clausewitz recognized that nations not directly involved will
seek to restore the status quo regardless of the rightness or
wrongness of the conflict. He warned against blunt swords in
peace and half-measures in war.
Limited objectives are the handmaidens of timidity and
indecision. They fail every time they are tried. Only those
nations that fear not to act boldly and decisively survive. One
whose will and sword become dull is doomed.
Machiavelli, writing in The Prince of the Persians'
triumphant revolt against their Median overlords, says that it
was critical that Cyrus found the Medes soft and effeminate
through their long peace.
England was in decline in 1884 when the Mahdi, a self-proclaimed
Messiah in the Sudan, declared a jihad against Christians. When
his forces slaughtered an army of 11,000 Egyptians led by British
officers, London decided to abandon the Upper Nile and dispatched
General Charles Gordon with one aide.
His mission: rescue some 15,000 Europeans who had taken refuge in
Khartoum, and establish a stable government in the Sudan. Gordon,
assessing the situation upon arrival, sent an urgent request for
troops. Prime Minister Gladstone dithered in indecision. Gordon's
severed head was on a pike pole in the fallen fortress of
Khartoum when a relief force was finally dispatched.
The lesson was lost on John F. Kennedy, whose nerve failed him
after the young President gave the go for the 1961 Bay of Pigs
Invasion. He called off critical air support for the forces
already landing on the beaches. Hundreds were killed in the
invasion. The war was over in a day; Castro took thousands of
prisoners. In the following weeks, hundreds of POWs were
executed, and hundreds more of the resistance inside Cuba were
rounded up and exterminated. The betrayal of the liberators
secured Castro's iron-fisted stranglehold on the nation.
After the Second Lebanon War, even the left-leaning Israeli
newspaper haAretz blamed the political correctness
[that] has taken over military thought for the disaster. The
newspaper traces the onset of limited-objectives thinking to 1969
and Israel's failure to react when Egypt violated a treaty to
move its surface-to-air missiles closer to the Suez. The
catastrophic repercussions of this lack of reaction were evident
in [the Yom Kippur War].
The Obama Administration ran on a platform of withdrawing from
the War on Terror, even banishing the term from the American
lexicon. Terrorists are merely criminals with civil rights. No
longer frightened, [Mu'ammar] Qaddafi is again sticking his thumb
in our collective eye. Iran and North Korea are kicking dirt over
us. The resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and Iranian operatives
in Iraq are threatening to undo our hard-won achievements in
those two theaters.
Thomas Jefferson preferred diplomacy and detested professional
armed forces. But it was this President who sent a powerful
military force to wipe out the Barbary pirates, the then scourge
of the world, and established a permanent navy to keep the seas
Uncompromising resolve is required to end international
terrorism. Without total victory, we will never have peace. Our
enemy intends to win at any cost. Life matters not to him –
but it does to us, and he knows it.
The inherent weakness in democracies is a low threshold of pain
for the price of war, aversion to protracted struggle, an
inclination to cut and run. Democracies are also reluctant
aggressors, rarely choosing to start an optional war. Rather,
they are wedded to the status quo – the comfort zone of the
devil we know. Again, Machiavelli: if a leader must act to save
his society, he must act swiftly, decisively, savagely, and get
it over with before the fierce will of the people for military
action dissolves into complacency and timidity.
The War on Terror may well be long, on the order of
generations-long wars in earlier centuries. But if it drags out
in protracted, uncertain struggle with limited objectives, we
will see our civilization die of a thousand thousand cuts. The
enemy has attacked America's homeland. If we do not take this war
to him with that terrible, swift sword, the soil of our homeland
may be soaked with blood for a long time to come.
The only acceptable outcome of the War on Terror is total
victory. The consequences of failure would be catastrophic.