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The Unintended Consequences of Limited Objectives

by Karen McKay, LTC US Army (ret) [Asheville Tribune (6 December 2009)]

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 WWII ended.

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 evangelical mission.

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 American demands.

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 victory.

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 millions.

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 prisoners.

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 go.

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 states.

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 swift move.

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 them.

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 safe.

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.