Unleash Hell!!! "War logic" and the war in Iraq

As far as I can remember, the biblical story of David vs. Goliath has never been to me the story of a bright victory of weakness against strength On the contrary, I’ve always thought that David was the strongest of both opponents. Not only does he rely on the will of God but he also draws upon his cleverness in order to defeat his adversary. It’s not so counter-intuitive as it could appear at a first glance: power doesn’t necessarily imply strength or having much more material capabilities.

From "war" to "logic of war":

In the last issue of Res Militaris, Laure Bardiès wrote a smart and insightful piece in which she argues to give up descriptive categories  and instead promote analytical ones in order to better explain and understand contemporary wars.

Basically, her arguments draw on weberian sociology to build ideal-types that could account for the logic of actors (by which she means not only the belligerents, but also different actors, pursuing different and sometimes diverging interests, inside a political-military apparatus). The reason is clear: categories we are used to employ in order to depict contemporary conflicts are either too descriptive (i.e. tied to the formal characteristics of wars) or too normative (i.e. shaped by one actor’s perception of the other). "Asymmetric" war (war between a "weak" and a "strong") falls in the former while "irregular" war (war between state-soldiers and terrorists/insurgents) is clearly typical of the latter.

She proposes to look further: according to Clausewitz, war is waged for political purpose. Means as well as ends are a function of the significance of the fight given by the actor. It could thus be possible to design ideal types that could account for their logic, the dynamic interplay between them and their evolution in time. Accordingly, she offers to transform the categories of "total war" and "limited war" into "total war logic" and "limited war logic".

In order to build her ideal type, she suggests to analyze the relations between issues, objectives and means.

Thus, a "total war logic" would exist when an actor has absolute issues at stake (like its survival), design accordingly its objectives as imposing its will whatever the costs and thus relies on every means at its disposal in order to do so. On the contrary, a "limited war logic" would be characterized by relative issues, objectives restricted by a threshold beyond whom costs would overcome the expected benefits, and  thus means would be quantitatively restricted.

Eventually, Laure Bardiès concludes by articulating a dynamic interaction between those logic:  what if an actor has a "limited war logic" against his opponent waging (in its own perception) a "total war"? Obviously, the latter has the advantage owing to its greater capacity to abide costs. In addition, she argues that the real difference between both logic lies in two criteria

1) the determination to pursue the armed struggle

2) the proportion of means effectively engaged in comparison to the total amount of means at the actor’s disposal

Applying "war logic" to the US War in Iraq:

Empirically, it is difficult to apply that model. Of course, this is precisely the function that ideal type is supposed to perform: to serve as a reference in order to analyze contingent situations.  No historical configuration would exactly fit with one of the ideal type, the greatest probability being that it would be situated somewhere between both poles of the spectrum (or, more precisely, that it would shift from one to another due to the dynamic characteristic of war). But, if we take the three elements of the model, the Iraq war (as waged by the Bush administration) would fit in the following table:

In that case, issues and objective are congruent with a "total war logic" while means comply more with the "limited war logic". Indeed, issues were raised at a very high level, with the Bush administration arguing that Saddam Hussein could use weapons of mass destruction or funnel them to terrorist groups in order to wage war on the US soil. Objectives were also designed as absolute: first to destroy the regime and then to transform Iraq in a stable, democratic State allied with the US in its struggle against Al Qaeda. On the contrary, means were mostly limited, both in the invasion phase and in the subsequent stage of occupation (the main strategy during the first years being to withdraw troops as soon as possible).

In order to understand that gap, one should examine the very reasons of the war against Saddam’s regime, which have nothing to do with the real threat it posed to the US (even if Bush and his counselors thought it could be a real threat at the time), but more with several ideologically biased perspectives about  the threat. First, the invasion was supposed to prevent (or preempt in the Bush’s rhetoric) attack from Saddam and second to deter any aggression. Instead of assessing the threat of non state actors, the Bush administration at the time was more concerned by the threat posed by rogue states. Second, that move was a way to fix the problem posed by the the regime of sanctions imposed on Iraq. Third, the war was also a mean to restore the status of the US after 9/11.

That gap could also be explained by the way Donald Rumsfeld and several strategists in the Pentagon thought war should be now waged: with limited, but more lethal and decisive, means. In their view, technological advance coupled with operational excellence would suffice to overthrow the regime.

Eventually, ideology had a vote: neoconservative Weltanschauung – which envisioned democracy as the "natural regime" of any society – coupled with the administration’s reluctance to nation building led to a poorly planned post-Saddam Iraq.

With regards to the means, they were mostly limited both in quantity (troops deployed on the ground were mostly insufficient to perform the task of securing Iraq after the fall of the regime and achieving Bremer’s revolutionary agenda) and in quality (meaning here that the strategy was oriented toward withdrawal).

Incoherent strategy: 

That discrepancy between issues and objectives on the one hand, and means on the other hand led to strategic incoherence.  In order to understand the difficulties encountered by the US military in Iraq, one has to add two critical variables.

  1. the dominant elements of the strategic and military culture insist on the necessity to achieve a decisive victory. In other words, even a "limited war logic" can imply the maximum use of force in order to win a quick victory (and one could add: all the more decisive that issues and objectives are "limited"). In the case of Iraq, that logic implied to deliver the maximum amount of force in order to topple the regime. The problem is that, once Saddam defeated, a much harder challenged emerged, which would have requested a much larger amount of political patience and strategic flexibility. Consequently, in the absence of a decisive victory in the other goal (building a stable and democratic Iraq), the Bush administration shifted to denial. That produced a lowering of the expectations regarding the final stage to achieve before withdrawing and releasing sovereignty to the Iraqi government. Hence, the hope raised by a temporary surge of force in order to achieve a decisive victory against insecurity. The fact that the Bush administration took such a long time to accept the challenge of the task and the reality suggests that the "total war logic" was almost rhetorical. The fact that it accepted to lower its expectations suggests that the logic became less and less "total" and more and more "limited" with time (and especially after Bush secured a second mandate). Nevertheless, the capabilities of the US to endure such a military effort on the long run is tied to both determination (especially regarding the political leaders and the officers deployed on the ground) and endurance (with regards to military capabilities to sustain a high tempo rotation cycle).
  2. given that first element, it is worth to underline the link between that culture of "decisive and quick victory" on the one hand and the reliance on a strategy of annihilation on the other hand. That link is in no way necessary. Insurgents’ strategy suggests that a "total war logic" can instead rely on a strategy of attrition, in order to raise the opponent’s costs until he decides to give up. Facing such a strategy, the Bush administration (and the theater commander) could not longer rely on the sole use of military force in order to win the decision. If the surge achieved several of the objectives set by the administration, it was a consequence of multiple factors, in which the US strategy is only  a part (even if I argue that it is the most important as it benefited from other political dynamics at play which it partially shaped in return). Although eventually that strategy morphed into a "hybrid" form, associating annihilation goals (dismantling "irreconcilable" actors) and attrition means (the use of SOF raids in order to disrupt AQI’s organization and leadership).

Time and interests:

That model is highly significant if one considers the very importance of time and interests. Actually, interests are what shape issues and objectives. Those interests lie in various actors and can take several forms: material as well as ideological, bureaucratic as well as corporate. In some case, they even can affect the whole society (when survival is at stake). But that doesn’t imply those interests to be stable or able to determinate issues and objectives in a strict causal way. A narrower view tends to show how the margin of maneuver for political leaders is more important than one would expect. Notwithstanding, interests play a role in limiting or raising issues.

But that’s also a function of time: the longer a conflict, the more the tendency to shift from one logic to the other. In the case of the war waged by the Bush administration in Iraq, determination and stubbornness was a byproduct of high issues and unrealistic objectives. But determination translated into denial and did not lead to raise the level of means deployed in Iraq, with the very exception of the surge. But Bush’s decision to escalate is not a proof a a "total war logic", it has more to do with the bias toward the need to achieve decisive victory. On issues and objectives, time tended to lower Bush’s expectations and focused his attention on more limited objectives in Iraq.  Quite the opposite, Obama’s narrowing of issues and objectives fit more with the "total war logic": by elevating the real objective of the US toward dismantling Al Qaeda and escalating drones strikes and SOF raids, the 44th president showed his willingness and determination to achieve victory.

In short, the Iraq war case study suggests that means are not necessarily determined by issues and objectives, but by other factors. Among them is the perception of what military force can achieve in terms of military and political effects. In return, that false perception gave way to a misleading assessment on those effects, leading to the belief that the US should avoid long term commitment on the ground in the near future.

To conclude, the war waged in Iraq by the Bush administration may fit the "war logic" model proposed by Laure Bardies. Indeed,both  determination and the relative level of means are  a function of the duration of the conflict. But, as her model deals more with the coherence between issues, objectives and means, it is worth to complete it with intermediary variables that would help to explain and understand the disjunction between those elements. In short, her work is the first step toward a better understanding of today’s dynamics of conflict. Further researches programs should focus on relevant question as the supposed role of the public opinion – or more accurately, its perception by political elites – in shaping strategic decision; while mine are more focused on the way "war logic" is an important component in the process of shaping political and military effects.. Because not only is strategy a bridge between ends and means, but its function is to generate effects.


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