Louis Rene Beres, professor emeritus of international law at Purdue, discusses the concept of "winning" war in the modern era after Donald Trump's bold claims to West Point graduates...
“It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.” – Guillaume Apollinaire, “The New Spirit and the Poets” (1917)
In his commencement address at West Point on June 13, 2020, US President Donald J. Trump presented a narrowing view of American justifications for any future war. Nonetheless, by continuing his administration’s core ideology of “America First,” Trump also placed markedly traditional emphases on achieving “victory.” In essence, he advised new US Military Academy graduates: “If our people are threatened, we will never ever hesitate to act. And when we fight, from now on, we will only fight to win.”
Though these comments were uninspired, unimaginative and detached from any authoritative legal standards (not much recognizable refinement of Clausewitz or Sun-Tzu here), they were also reassuringly mainstream. After all, who can effectively argue against what people everywhere have always taken as self-evident? Prima facie, in general at least, isn’t it much better to “win” than to “lose?” Why then enter into any conflict, law-based or otherwise, with a less ambitious objective than complete military victory?
There are appropriate rejoinders. People everywhere have not always proven themselves to be capable judges of war entry calculations. All too often, in fact, these “people,” or what Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gusset would call the “mass man,” do not calculate at all. Instead, they think only “in their own flesh.” What this means is that popular judgments of cost-effectiveness regarding war-entry options have usually been a “seat-of-the-pants” matter, and not ones of any conscientious strategic or jurisprudential analysis.
This remains the evident case with US President Donald J. Trump, who, with a peculiarly dull-witted shrewdness, extols “attitude” over law and “preparation.”
There is more. There are manifestly coherent responses to this president’s disjointed throwaway lines about war-winning. More precisely, there exist several compelling, intersecting, and verifiable historical reasons to argue against Trump’s “reasoning,” not only because it fails so conspicuously to rise above a searingly mind-numbing banality, but also because it ignores a significant number of substantive analytic and legal deficits.
To begin with, truth is sometimes counter-intuitive. Accordingly, there is no longer any meaningfully determinable way to identify and calculate prospects of “victory” and “defeat.” Inter alia, the pertinent criteria are either indecipherable, unacceptable, or both. When, for a tangible example, might we eventually say with some evident objectivity that the Afghanistan War is over (whether it has been “won” or “lost”) and/or whether the “War on Terror” will expectedly have any determinable finite conclusion?
All too often, American military planning has been founded upon a flagrantly empty virtuosity, What if it should turn out that the Afghanistan War had been fought without ever being able to ascertain victory or defeat outcomes? In such a perplexing but still plausible case, Americans may simply have to face up to a more generally foreseeable future of protracted uncertainty and doctrinal incoherence. Faced with such a distressing future, we would then have no choice but to abide by a more-or-less cascading series of confused war terminations, a seemingly endless pattern potentially even more destabilizing and disconcerting than a pattern exhibiting certain conspicuous policy failures.
With such a foreseeable scenario, Americans would have to confront but also accept a dire national debility; that is, a barely endurable circumstance of protracted uncertainty and collective insecurity. Examined more interestingly, perhaps within appropriate conceptual categories of 19th-century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, the whole country could then find itself afflicted with an existential “despair.”
Here, in candor, we would be speaking of an immobilizing sickness of the “soul,” a so-called “sickness unto death.”
How likely is such an existential scenario? Whatever our current views concerning wars in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan, only one analytic judgment seems utterly certain. It is that long-traditional notions of victory and defeat must now have diminishing or little relevance in measuring success of ongoing US military operations. This instructive indictment also holds true (perhaps even more so) for the persistent and increasingly inchoate American “War on Terror.” Though this Bush-era term is no longer in linguistic fashion, the underlying concept, in its broad outline of principles, remains much the same.
How, we must ask, could we ever know if this “war” were over, and if it had been won or lost? The answer here is not only obvious; it is also unassailable. We could never know. Retrospectively, it will have been purposeless to orient this conflict toward the traditional notions of victory and defeat in the first place. Prima facie, it will then have revealed that other more useful and discernible goals than “winning” ought originally to have been established.
In the past, when America’s wars usually had more readily identifiable beginnings and endings, declarations of victory and defeat could still make some military and political sense – at least in principle. For the most part, until the end of World War II, wars were governed by certain formal law-based declarations of belligerency, and by equally formal conflict-terminating agreements (i.e., armistices and/or peace treaties). Today, of course, matters are strikingly different. Now, more typically, we are engaged in simultaneous interstate and counterterrorism conflicts that will never open or close according to any neatly jurisprudential statements or relevant international law codifications.
Sometimes, moreover, these conflicts are animated by difficult to measure but still-palpable promises of power over death (promises of “martyrdom“). These conflicts are not easily rendered subject to any law-based conclusions.
It will even be difficult to disagree that the rudimentary lines of demarcation between conflict and peace have become gray, disturbingly blurred, distracting, essentially meaningless.
There is more. Some truths are counter-intuitive. For the future, there will likely be no recognizable enemy declarations of war or declarations of surrender. Instead of parades with lavish floats and colorful flowers, there will be only interconnected plateaus of exhaustion, of suffering, and of an exasperatingly shallow rhetoric. Always – and this never really changes – we can expect the humiliating and debilitating chatter of shallow national thinking.
Should America listen to this chatter of the mass – especially in electing the next US president – it will end badly on several fronts, above all, with regard to new wars that can never be determinably won. Then, as a suitable quid pro quo for continuously abiding the suffocating American “wasteland,” this nation will receive what poet TS Eliot once called “the supplication of a dead man’s hand.”
By definition, that would be a lethal supplication.
What does this really mean for America and its strategic postures of “fighting to win?” Is there still a rational “out,” an “emergency exit” or “off-ramp” from collective self-destructiveness? At a minimum, we should no longer cling so desperately and mindlessly to outdated and futile military expectations. At some point, at least, truth will have to discover its correct place in US presidential policy-making, and truth, as we must already know, while often scandalous, is also exculpatory.
The narrowly ritualistic pleas of politicians and generals that we should plod on proudly till some indeterminable but still glorious “victory” can no longer be defended in serious analytic thought. Indeed, accepted too uncritically, these vain exhortations could only lead the United States to further legal, intellectual and fiscal insolvencies, and, as a corollary, to a state of ever-expanding anarchic vulnerabilities.
It’s very nice, of course, to “make America great again,” but such blatantly childish exhortations can offer little more than assorted tactical obfuscations and eventual national despair.
How has the current American president “gotten away” with such insidious banalities? This is the question we all need to ask before we can ever understand changing long-preserved American ideas of “victory” and “defeat.” Unsurprisingly, the 19th-century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, had summed it up generically and (portentously) for all time: “When the throne sits on mud,” warns the German thinker in Zarathustra, “mud sits upon the throne.”
Once upon a time, the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke prescriptively of “plain living and high thinking.” Today, in Donald J. Trump’s declining United States, virtually any evidence of “high thinking” is treated merely as an embarrassment. As for “plain living,” that can only be interpreted these days as irrefutable evidence of some professional failure. We must ask, therefore, among so many other relevant questions: Can a nation that still embraces such a thoroughly inverted set of ideals hope to prevail on absolutely any of its future battlefields?
This is an important question, and, significantly, one that is almost never asked outside the dedicated Pentagon agencies and academic think tanks.
Another serious problem is emerging from the altered meanings of victory and defeat. Until Hiroshima, in August, 1945, states, city-states and empires had all remained essentially secure from homeland destruction, at least unless their respective armies had first been defeated. In brief, for prospective aggressors calculating before 1945, a presumed capacity to destroy required a prior capacity to win.
But this is no longer the case.
What now? From the standpoint of ensuring any one country’s survival, not just the United States, the goal of preventing a classical military defeat has now generally become conceptually misguided and effectively beside the point. From our own specifically American vantage point, preventing defeat will not assure our required safety from aggression or from terrorism. Now, in fact, we may be capable of warding off any substantial destruction of America’s military forces, and even of achieving certain piecemeal operational objectives along the way. Still, truth being exculpatory, we may yet have to face extraordinary or even exterminatory harms. In response, the American president and his counselors could sometimes have to consider the prospective advantages of a preemptive or defensive first strike.
Moreover, any advantages of such “anticipatory self-defense” will have to be assessed in legal as well as tactical/operational terms.
What does this mean for America’s growing number of national and sub-national enemies? From their particular point of view, a perspective that we must finally learn to appreciate and understand, it is no longer necessary to actually “win” any war, or even to win any singular military engagement. Derivatively, these adversaries needn’t attempt to figure out any traditionally complex land or naval warfare strategies. In historical terms, they don’t have to triumph at “Thermopylae” (referencing the classic battle of 480 BCE between the Greeks and the Persians) in order to lay waste to “Athens.”
Not at all.
For America’s several enemies, both state and sub-state, there is no longer any overriding reason to work through what military strategists call complex “force multipliers,” or to figure out any prospectively useful “correlation of forces.” Today, whether we already understand this point or not, these enemies can wreak authentic forms of havoc without first ever having to subjugate us.
It is time for this truth to be more meaningfully understood.
This is, at least in part, a terrible truth. But it remains critical nonetheless. Truth, we must always recall, remains exculpatory.
There is more. This particular strategic truth remains vital not because of anything that we Americans have necessarily done wrong. Rather, at least in part, it is pretty much the natural consequence of (1) certain constantly evolving national and terrorist military technologies, and of (2) certain corresponding cultural dispositions.
This particular evolution can’t be summarily stopped, degraded, or reversed. Our current and still-growing American vulnerabilities in the absence of any prior defeat simply represents a lamentable fact of international strategic life, one that must somehow be endured and then be suitably remediated. To ensure that these vulnerabilities remain tolerable, however, we will soon have to fashion, together with bold new ideas for productive international alignments (some having to do with “Cold War II” ), a new and comprehensive military orthodoxy.
This will have to involve, among other things, certain refined deterrence, preemption, and war-fighting options. Whether or not President Trump will ever be up to this task is exceedingly problematic. Much of what will be required at the most primary intellectual level will center upon the probable emergence of mutual superpower interests. For example, both Russia and the United States share a tangible interest in combating Jihadist terrorism.
Together with a fresh look at nuanced arrangements for active and passive defenses, a new American military orthodoxy will need to re-consider various complex interpenetrations and intersections among these arrangements. In the formal language of science and strategy, a lingua sacra without liturgical applications that still allows for certain improvisatory agilities, these interactions are called “synergies.” Here, by ignoring what our eighth-grade geometry teachers once taught us about the “whole” and its relation to “parts,” the geostrategic total may turn out to be much greater than the additive sum of its components.
A simple metaphor can help to clarify. Both smoking and drinking alcohol have generally injurious effects upon the human organism, but when they are undertaken together (e.g., smoking at a party with cocktail in hand) the combined somatic injury will likely be greater than what would be the simple addition of each particular behavior’s separate consequences.
There are lessons here. In geopolitics, as in pathology, the whole can sometimes be greater than the sum of its parts. Geopolitics is not geometry.
Surprisingly, then, there is a potentially significant upside to changing meanings of victory and defeat. What is true for America is also true for its principal enemies. Like Americans, these assorted and widely-dispersed foes must now also confront potentially huge homeland vulnerabilities in the absence of any prior military defeat.
Understood properly by America’s leaders, especially its president, this largely unforeseen mutuality of weakness could be turned to a critical advantage. Once we can finally acknowledge that America’s strategic goals may have to become more modest than any traditional ideas of “victory,” our exercise of world power could begin to become less visceral and thus more thoughtful. Instead of announcing plans for an illusory victory in Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran or elsewhere, President Trump and his generals should more comprehensively seek to refine pertinent complex combat orthodoxies (ones involving advanced integration of all deterrence, preemption, and war-fighting options), and to fashion bold new ideas for international ties and alignments.
Lamentably, until now, Donald J. Trump has much more prominently been abandoning or splintering America’s once-viable ties and law-based alignments. In this connection, Mr. Trump will also have to more closely examine this country’s intersecting arrangements for active and passive defenses and all of its similarly intersecting preparations for cyber-defense and cyber-war.
This will not be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted, that is, for the national leader “who thinks only in his own flesh.”
There is more. As ancient Greeks and Macedonians had already recorded in their own principal historical texts, war – though a “violent preceptor” – is ultimately an intellectual affair, a persistently calculating contest of “mind over mind,” and not just one of “mind over matter.” Going forward, it will be stunningly important for the United States to understand that while stark presidential bifurcations of “winning” and “losing” may be useful for narrow political reassurances, they are also strategic simplifications, hapless reductions of complex analytic issues to genially conventional levels of public discourse. The policy point from this moment on should not be a childishly propagandistic “we will only fight to win,” but rather “we will only fight to meet certain explicit, identifiable and worthy goals.” Further, recalling the French poet Apollinaire, “we will never allow ourselves to be conquered intellectually.”
If such a newly-thoughtful “battle cry” should ever be taken seriously by the Trump White House, America could best assure that it will never be conquered “by arms.”
In the final analysis, the overriding goal of all states, not just the United States, must be still more ambitious. It must be to get tangibly beyond the inherently inadequate principles of Realpolitik or power politics altogether. Now a determinedly zero-sum national orientation to world politics has become so darkly unpromising and corrosive that the planet displays a recognizably incipient chaos. In the shadowy years ahead, only one thing remains reasonably certain about world politics: The longstanding Hobbesian universe of a bellum omnium contra omnes – a war of all against all – can never be sustained indefinitely.
Soon, all states, but especially those that rely implicitly or explicitly upon some form of nuclear deterrence, must begin to think more self-consciously about creating alternative systems of world politics. While even the tiniest hint of interest in global unification or integration (or what French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin calls “planetization”) will sound unacceptably fanciful to “realists,” it is actually far more realistic than seeking to continue on our present collision course. Expressed more succinctly, as an “axiom” from which various operational hypotheses might subsequently be deduced:
The long-prevailing “every man for himself” ethos in world politics is time-dishonored and destined to fail. In the United States, this dying ethos is currently known as “America First.”
Again and again – and at some point, perhaps irretrievably – world systemic failures could become intolerable. Accordingly, it will not be enough for leaders and strategists to merely tinker at the jagged edges of some ultimately presumptive “victory.” Then there will have been no good reason for forging endless ad hoc agreements between recalcitrant states or between these states and various surrogate sub-state organizations (i.e., “hybrid” actors). Again, the playwright may prove more helpful than the diplomat or soldier: “What is the good,” inquires Samuel Beckett in Endgame, “of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane.”
For the present unsteady moment, it is certainly a very correct query. In the longer term, any longer term, the only sort of realism that can make any real sense, the only sort of Beckettian “good” for the United States, will be a stance that points toward a much “higher” awareness of global oneness and world system interdependence.
The less hesitant such an indispensable stance, the better.
In its most fully optimized expressions, such a potentially promising awareness would coalesce around what the ancients had called “cosmopolis,” or world city. For certain, the lucid and willing prophets of a more integrated and harmonious world civilization must remain few and far between. But this “inertia” is not on account of any intrinsic lack of need for aptly intellectual “prophecy.” Instead, it reflects a progressively imperiled species’ nearsighted unwillingness to finally take itself seriously – to recognize that the only sort of common loyalty that can promisingly rescue states must first embrace a far wider commitment (both individual and national) to all humankind.
At its heart, this is really not such a complicated or bewildering idea. It is hardly a medical or biological secret that those basic factors and behaviors most common to all human beings greatly outnumber those traits that continue to superficially differentiate one particular segment from another. Unless the leaders of all major states on Planet Earth can finally understand that the survival of any one state will be contingent upon the survival of all, true national security will continue to elude absolutely every nation.
This consequential failure would include the “most powerful” states, even the US and Russian superpowers now caught up in “Cold War II.”
One central truth in the study of world politics remains far from receiving any presumptive recognition. It is the critical understanding that our vulnerable planet represents an indissoluble or organic whole, a fragile but intersecting “unity” that already exhibits irrevocably lost opportunities for both human justice and global peace.
To seize these still-residual opportunities, “visionaries” throughout the world must learn to build solidly upon the foundational insights of Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, and correspondingly on the more recent observations of seminal thinker Lewis Mumford: “Civilization is the never-ending process of creating one world and one humanity.” Antecedent to Mumford is the incomparably succinct distillation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 classic “The Over-soul:” Says the American Transcendentalist philosopher: “The Universe is the externalization of the soul.”
If ever there were doubts about microcosm and macrocosm, and the primordial connections between them, Emerson’s “Over-soul” resolves them in these eight words.
But now back to more narrowly explicit assessments of “fighting” and “winning.” In the short term, US military strikes against Iran or North Korea or some other adversary of the moment could seemingly represent a reasonable and cost-effective instance of law-enforcement (international and domestic) in our anarchic world system. But in the longer term, which is indisputably more important, such vigilante or “self-help” remedies will need to be supplanted by something more enduring than episodic threats and visceral reprisals. While no one has yet figured out just how to bring about such necessary transformations, it is similarly obvious that proceeding ritualistically along an endlessly corrosive course of interstate rivalries can never succeed.
Above all, we ought never be “lulled back into sleep” by any shortsighted calls for “victory.” The only triumph authentically worth celebrating will be one that can finally transport us beyond millennia of “the bloody hatred, the destruction.” As we may learn from filmmaker Federico Fellini (“The visionary is the only realist.”) and from playwright Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (see above), so may we now also benefit from Aeschylus, the far-seeing ancient Greek author of Oresteia, here presenting the quandary of Agamemnon. “Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatred, the destruction?” Soon, however improbable, we will also need to think more self-consciously and systematically about creating alternative world futures.
This is not an imperative easily understood by American politicians of either political party or of any characteristically narrow ideological stripe. And to a current US president who reads nothing, literally nothing at all, and who blithely invents pertinent law according to his own intuitive whims of the moment – maintaining an already defiled status quo may represent the only realistic expectation. Once again, however, truth is exculpatory, even when it is an inconvenient or catastrophic truth.
What next for American war-fighting strategies and global order? Hope remains, of course, though it must now be expressed obliquely, sotto voce, or perhaps in a deliberate undertone. Assisted by capable visionaries and scholars, an American president might somehow learn to understand that though phrases like “fighting to win” may elicit reassuring endorsements from the American “mass,” they could still make no substantive intellectual sense. In all such primary matters, recalling the French poet Apollinaire, Americans should soon more clearly recognize that the cumulative perils of enemy “arms” (i.e., war and terror) are made possible only when they have first been “conquered intellectually.”
An American president who openly loathes intellect and “learns only in his own flesh” can never prevent such a determinative conquest of the United States.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, PM Sharon, 2003), he is the author of twelve major books on international relations and international law. Professor Beres’ articles on military themes have appeared in such journals as Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); The National Interest; US News and World Report; The Hill; Modern Diplomacy; Jurist; Armed Forces and Society; Strategic Review; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Comparative Strategy; Studies in Conflict and Terrorism; Special Warfare (Department of Defense); The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (West Point); Parameters: The Journal of the U.S. Army War College; and The New York Times. His latest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed., 2018). Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, three weeks after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, An American President’s Perilous Misunderstanding of War, Strategy and Survival, JURIST – Academic Commentary, June 26, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/06/louis-beres-winning-war/.
This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at email@example.com
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