Coping With Disorder: The Use and Limits of Military Force
Lawrence Freedman |Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015
During the early decades of the nuclear age, a debate developed on the general utility of force. In the new and dramatically altered conditions of that period, in which a third world war could have meant the obliteration of great cities and civilization, it was hard to see what political purposes could possibly be achieved by launching an aggressive war. But by the same token there were also horrendous risks in a defensive war if that required resort to the most destructive weapons available.
The dominant response, at least when it came to war among the great powers, was to argue that the role of military power would henceforth lie in its latency. This was captured most effectively by the concept of deterrence. In this respect, military power, and especially nuclear weapons, had a profoundly conservative impact, serving as a warning to a radical state of the consequences of any attempt to disrupt the status quo. The fear of war served to congeal political relations, especially in Europe.
Nevertheless, even during the prolonged period of impasse in relations between the blocs led by the U.S. and USSR, there were a great number and variety of wars that did not carry the risk of escalation to the highest, thermonuclear level. Many were directed against colonial holdouts. Others were consequences of decolonization, such as those between India and Pakistan, and Israel and the Arab world. After 1990, the breakup of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia resulted in a number of vicious wars, while the Middle East became progressively more turbulent. The end of colonialism did not bring peace to Africa but a succession of deadly internal conflicts. In the Asia-Pacific region the rise of China as an assertive, military power came to be watched warily by its neighbors.
So while the utility of force has been questioned in the West, most recently as a result of the unsatisfactory experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, others seem to find it useful enough. Even those optimistic demonstrations of the decline in the incidence and violence of war, popular a few years ago, now seem less persuasive as a result of the Russian intervention in Ukraine and the civil war in Syria.
Yet while resort to force remains all too common, as often as not it still disappoints. To take the last two cases, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin has failed to gain the influence he sought over Ukraine, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned a popular movement against his regime into a devastating civil war that has already seen him lose control of much of the country, with as many as 300,000 Syrians losing their lives and many, many more fleeing from their homes.
It is not the case that all wars are futile but they often are, to the point where the best predictor of future conflict is past conflict, so fragile are the political settlements and cease-fire agreements that conclude episodes of fighting. Moreover, many conflicts now seem to involve insurgencies with little interest in negotiated settlements, such as those involving extreme Islamists.
My argument in this essay is that not only do we need to adjust our thinking on the question of the utility of force to take account of changing forms of warfare, but we also need to recognize that part of the problem may lie in traditional ways of thinking, captured by what I call the Classic Model. I consider this model as an “ideal type,” a concept developed by the German sociologist Max Weber to describe a mental construct that serves as a model of a particular phenomenon in its most idealized and coherent form, against which what is found in the real world can be assessed. If reality diverged too much from the ideal, Weber argued, then there was a need to rethink the construct.
When it comes to the use of armed force, this ideal type sets expectations for both the military and its political masters, and a standard against which to judge actual operations. It seeks to establish a causal link between military action and political effects. As we shall see, the Classic Model often fails in this role because it provides an inadequate basis to integrate the political and military strands of strategy.
The Classic Model
The Classic Model represents a long-established conceptual framework derived explicitly from the classic works on military strategy. These focused on the major wars that, despite being rare events, still dominate the field. The most substantial of these conflicts are the Napoleonic Wars, which inspired the original classics, World War I, which inspired major revisions to the classics, and then World War II. Debates on the use of force after 1945 were influenced by the preceding years of combat but were now shaped by the possibility of mass destruction. This ideal type therefore referred back to a form of military practice that evolved over centuries. It focused on how regular forces were pitted against each other, prized inspired commanders, kept noncombatants out of the frame and assumed that the fate of nations would be determined by the result of the fighting. In recent decades, this ideal type has also come to include the view that both frontal assaults and prolonged attrition are best avoided, with a preference for sufficient speed and maneuver to leave the enemy surprised and disoriented. Whether victory came through a brilliant strategy or prolonged, grueling combat, the key point was that political gains would follow naturally from military gains.
The classic model separated the military and political strands of strategy. The development of a special field that came to be known as strategy was a consequence of the steady professionalization of Western navies and armies as well as the increasingly complex tasks they faced in moving large fleets and mass armies and understanding the technical demands of their fields. In ancient times, individual commanders integrated the political and military strands of strategy. Autocratic leaders have also presented themselves as masters of both strands who are able to bring them together. This was true of Napoleon, although he was much better at military strategy, and of Hitler and Stalin, though their strengths were more political. In the West, it is now normal for the two strands to be kept separate, and any attempt to bring them together will represent a challenge for civil-military relations. Politicians who fancy themselves as generals have been almost as disastrous as generals who fancy themselves as politicians.
This sharp division of labor brought its own problems. Carl von Clausewitz’s axiom that war was a continuation of politics by other means required that once politicians handed down the political objectives of a war, the military should take full responsibility for its actual conduct, and politicians should leave them alone while they were doing so. The idea of an “operational level” of war as an almost politics-free zone originated in late 19th-century Germany, was soon embraced by the Soviet army and, especially after the political micromanagement of the Vietnam War, became an article of faith for the American military.
Asserting this role meant that the military was taking on a big responsibility. It depended on the concept of the decisive battle, a clash of arms from which one side would emerge victorious. The importance of the decisive battle was at the heart of the main military textbook of the 19th century, Antoine-Henri Jomini’s “Art of War,” as well as Clausewitz’s “On War.” Victory would be determined by who held the field at the end of the day and who had suffered the most grievous losses in terms of casualties and prisoners. There was therefore a close relationship between winning the battle and winning the war. This did not necessarily mean a demand for unconditional surrender, but any negotiated peace would be on the victor’s terms. This assumed that war was the ultimate form of dispute settlement and the means by which states could assert their position in the international hierarchy in ways that others must acknowledge and accept.
Although it was challenged, for example by the German historian Hans Delbruck, who posited the possibility of having to win wars through exhausting the enemy rather than annihilating them in battle, European military high commands stuck to the ideal type of the classic model. Moreover, its influence was not confined to land war. It can be found in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theories of sea power and the first theories of air power. Although the classic model was somewhat neglected during the first decades of the Cold War, at least in the U.S., because of concerns with deterrence and counterinsurgency, it came back into vogue in the 1970s. In this respect, it gained support from the doctrine of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, which could also be traced back to 19th-century thinking. The Soviet focus on the operational art and maneuver helped validate the Western approach. If these two great alliances had clashed, they would have been prepared to fight along comparable lines, at least until the nuclear question came to be asked.
Once the Cold War ended, the model’s relevance was challenged by those convinced of the obsolescence of major war. Certainly geopolitical changes affect the sort of wars that are likely to be fought, and changes in weaponry affect the risks attached to them. Nonetheless, the possibility of major war still animates military preparations, and it is not too difficult to think of contingencies when one might break out.
At any rate, among its adherents, there is no presumption that the classic model is appropriate only for major war. To the contrary, it creates expectations for the use of armed force in all types of conflict and still provides the framework for much discussion of military strategy and the impact of new technologies. Working with this model encourages a search for some startling new combination of technology and tactics that would defeat an enemy with a single, surprise knockout blow, and shapes debate about whether the advantages in battle will lie with the attacker or defender, or with the continental or maritime power. Its influence can be found behind questions about the possibility of fighting a war with precision so that casualties and damage are minimized, and how this endeavor might be facilitated by the sort of esoteric, digital operations that come under the heading of “cyberwar.” Even in counterinsurgency, the model encourages strategies that depend on the elimination of the enemy as a fighting force, irrespective of the sources of its popular support.
Problems With the Classic Model
The core problem of the ideal type, namely the separation of military from political imperatives in the formation of strategy, was illustrated during the July 1914 crisis among the major European powers that led to WWI. German Kaiser Wilhelm II briefly raised the question as to whether it was wise for the proposed German offensive to pass through Belgium, thereby making British participation in the war highly likely. When told that it was essential, he did not pursue the matter. Russian Tsar Nicholas II had a similar conversation with his generals about their ambitious expectations for the Russian mobilization.
The war that subsequently broke out in August 1914 illustrated another problem. However brilliant in its conception, a strategy intended to deliver a decisive blow might fail when implemented. This is the familiar issue of plans not surviving contact with the enemy. If your plans depend on a knockout blow, even a strong punch that leaves your opponent just reeling, rather than helpless on the floor, will not do. If the enemy escapes with sufficient force to fight another day, or has held back enough of a reserve, then the fighting can continue.
In both world wars, Germany sought to win by taking allies out in sequence, before they could combine to form an unbeatable coalition. Twice it failed to do so. In WWII, though the fighting prowess of German forces remained considerable to the end, they were simply overwhelmed by greatly superior forces attacking over two fronts. Despite this, neither world war really challenged the classic model because both concluded with formal surrenders and a subsequent peace imposed by the victors.
Later wars also appeared to approximate to the ideal type, such as the one-sided victories achieved by India against Pakistan in 1971 and Israel against its Arab neighbors in 1967. Successful wars were fought by the British to liberate the Falklands in 1982 and by a U.S.-led coalition to liberate Kuwait in 1991. In these cases, victory came quickly. The problems with the use of force tended to become most evident in cases when the first weeks of combat failed to produce a result and the conflicts dragged on, turning into hard, grinding wars of exhaustion. In these cases, the key to victory was often less the quality of military planning or even performance than the progressive impact of demographic, economic and industrial strength. These scenarios also highlighted the importance of the intensely political tasks of sustaining civilian morale in the face of growing hardships and sacrifices, and of recasting the balance of power, whether by forging and sustaining alliances with countries with shared security interests or breaking up enemy alliances.
During the course of long wars, the intensity of fighting and the costs entailed sometimes led to an expansion of the wars’ aims. What began with a quite specific dispute concluded with demands for reparations and territory. In some cases, the upheaval due to the war was so great that regimes were overthrown and, at least after WWII, replaced by new constitutional arrangements imposed by the victors. These worked effectively, in East Germany because there was little choice, and in Japan and West Germany because they were democratic and fortified by economic success.
By and large, however, defeating an enemy produces not stability, but new grievances and political turbulence. Even after a stunning military victory, popular resistance, combined with a resentful and uncooperative population, can undermine attempts to assert a new political order, as Napoleon discovered in Spain and Russia. An occupation of a defeated country can be as demanding and time-consuming as inflicting the defeat in the first place. Yet eschewing occupation can make it harder to enforce a political settlement. During WWII, many German troops were pinned down by partisan activities in occupied countries, making them unavailable to fight against the Allied armies. In colonial wars, popular resistance and guerrilla warfare became critical in challenging and, in some cases defeating, regular Western armies. In such cases, the degree of resistance is often affected by how the war was conducted as well as the terms imposed when the main battles were over.
Experience therefore suggests that it is hard to win a truly decisive victory and, should one be achieved, it can be equally hard to translate this into the desired political effects. Pacifying opponents to the point where they are simply unable to resist is extremely demanding and rarely achieved. The closest the classic model got to the ideal type, therefore, was in short wars with unambiguous results. With longer wars, a clear defeat for the enemy would result in terms being imposed, but these often went beyond the original demands. In addition, wider political and economic factors were often vital in determining both victory and the quality and durability of the subsequent peace. By and large, with notable exceptions, wars launched in order to resolve a particular dispute led to frustration and disappointment. Battles were inconclusive; opponents unexpectedly resilient; conflicts ended in messy and unsatisfactory ways.
The Particular Challenge of Civil Wars
Most wars, however, are not between states, but rather civil wars, which also demonstrate the limits of the classic model. The category is not clear-cut because internal conflict often prompts external intervention, whether by likeminded militants who want to support a religious or ideologically cause; or by neighbors and on occasion major powers acting out of humanitarian or security concerns.
At times external forces are asked to hold the ring or monitor a fragile cease-fire, in the guise of a peacekeeping force. Sometimes there is no peace to keep, and external intervention must effectively take sides, either by preventing one side from winning by unacceptable means—starving or massacring civilians, for instance—or ensuring that the most ideologically sympathetic party comes out on top, as was attempted in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
How relevant is the classic model to these conflicts? The challenge for outside powers when a friendly government is struggling in the face of an insurgency is that once authority has been damaged it is difficult to recover it. The standard formula, adopted in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, has been to bolster the national government and build up its security forces, so that they need no longer be dependent upon external support. However, it has proved very difficult to implement this formula. It is hard to create a functioning national security system and legitimate government in the face of an insurgency, but it is hard to defeat that insurgency without them. It is generally understood that economic and social reform is necessary to create conditions in which a government is supported, but that can require upending existing power structures and addressing deep-rooted corruption.
This leads to familiar flaws with Western attempts at counterinsurgency: first, the tendency to ignore political context; second, the readiness to stick with the classic model by treating insurgents as a regular army to be defeated in battle or through attrition. The enemy, however, will avoid battle and concentrate on guerrilla warfare. In this mode, dispersed and operating as stealthily as possible, they become hard to pick out to be killed or captured. Body counts are rarely accurate. Missions to find and destroy militants can end up killing those only loosely connected with the militants, while generating sufficient anger to replenish their ranks. Not surprisingly, then, major powers are often reluctant to get involved in civil wars. As a result, most civil wars continue without sustained or substantial external intervention, with the bulk of the fighting undertaken by indigenous forces.
On the ground, instead of being fought by disciplined regular forces serving the purposes of either the state or its challenger, civil wars often pit relatively disorganized militias against each other. In these cases, the conflicts tend to be driven by ground-level considerations of individual and group security, and the violence is often more personal: Civil wars tend to involve strong claims on language, ethnic and tribal identities; break up communities that had previously been apparently harmonious; and leave legacies of bitterness, division and impoverishment.
At the ground level, too, individuals and groups can have quite particular interests, separate from whatever big player they notionally answer to, at times having to do with criminal activities, such as smuggling and trafficking in drugs, natural resources and people. Their interests can keep a conflict bubbling along, whatever the effects of peace mediators or armed peacekeepers. This is why once these conflicts take root it becomes very difficult to bring them to a conclusion. For outsiders who do try to help or just look after their own interests, the pressure is to stay and accept a permanent role in the politics of the host country and some continuing responsibility for pacifying hostile elements of the population. Once again, we are far from the clean-cut and decisive outcomes promised by the classic model.
For all its problems, the classic model is not always inappropriate. It can work well in circumstances where the political stakes and military options are straightforward, for example in a clash over ownership of a chunk of territory. Most wars are not straightforward, however, especially when they take place within states rather than between them, and when they involve a number of actors using force in different ways. In such wars there can be no sharp division of labor between the military and political strands of strategy, with the armed forces seeking to defeat the enemy to meet the political objectives handed down to them by civilians. Instead every military move has to be assessed for its political as well as its military consequences.
In such wars, victory is unlikely to come from a knockout blow or even a concerted military campaign with a sequence of engagements culminating in a final battle. Success will instead depend on managing the political as much as the military aspects of strategy. It will require the steady build-up of support and often the formation of a coalition of disparate groups, demonstrating to the population how life might get better and why the enemy should be considered threatening. Force can be used to give substance to these claims and assurance to potential allies. It can provide security, assert presence, signal a readiness to cooperate, undermine the enemy’s authority and eat away at the morale and confidence of its military capacity. The weaker the enemy forces, the less they are able to compete by providing security, reassurance and presence.
This is why political leadership is so important and also so difficult. It explains why external interventions in support of vulnerable leaders, or to fill a vacuum resulting from the collapse of a regime, tend to fail. Regimes that are vulnerable precisely because they are weak or discredited may be boosted temporarily by forceful action from outsiders, but unless they find the means that help them to overcome these initial deficiencies they will remain vulnerable. It is easier to start an intervention than to conclude one because it rarely seems safe to leave. Without a strong government, corruption and criminality will determine the form and levels of violence as much as any strategic logic.
This article opened by pointing to the role of latent force, and in particular nuclear deterrence, in helping to bring a degree of order to international affairs by providing a compelling reminder of the dangers of major war. Latent force also helps states establish order within their borders, by providing a reminder of the ability of the state to deal with any violent challenges to its authority. Once order has broken down at either the national or international level, then the preferred role of force is to create the conditions through which order can return. In such circumstances, however, the role of force may be less than decisive, and more effective at helping to cope with disorder than restoring order, geared to survival as much as to resolution.
Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies, King’s College London. His most recent book was “Strategy: A History” (OUP 2103). He is currently writing a book on the future of war.