Insurgency by Chase Stone (DeviantArt)

Clausewitz Turned On His Head

On Strategy, Clausewitz, Civil-Military Relations, Post-Vietnam Malaise, and America’s ISIS Quandary

This post is provided by Martin Skold, who is currently pursuing his PhD in international relations at the University of St. Andrews, with a thesis focusing on the strategy of long-term international security competition. He is a contributor to the Center for International Maritime Security’s NextWar blog.

War, we are told by a wise elder, is the “pursuit of policy by other means.” In fact, this famous statement was perhaps more an aspiration on Carl Von Clausewitz’ part than a statement of metaphysical truth. It is often observed that German generals in the succeeding generations completely forgot this famous dictum, which demoted them relative to civilian leaders they often held in contempt. But American generals do not seem to be immune, either.

In any discussion of strategy for any war a democracy might fight, public support should be seen as a constraint on resources – it is not always unlimited, and it shapes what options are available.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis (Rick Vasquez, Stars and Stripes)

As retired U.S. Marine General James’ Mattis’ comments regarding the advisability of ruling out ground troops to combat ISIS demonstrate, there is a disconnect growing between America’s military and political leadership over how to respond to ISIS. This disconnect is actually less one of ends than of means: the disagreement regarding ISIS is not one regarding the desirability of defeating ISIS, but rather of what tools are available and worthwhile to use to do it. In any discussion of strategy for any war a democracy might fight, public support should be seen as a constraint on resources – it is not always unlimited, and it shapes what options are available. To fail to account for politics is to fail strategically.

Hovering U.S. Army helicopters pour machine gun fire into tree line to cover the advance of Vietnamese ground troops in an attack on a Viet Cong camp 18 miles north of Tay Ninh on March 29, 1965, which is northwest of Saigon near the Cambodian border. Combined assault routed Viet Cong guerrilla force. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

It is important to see the generals’ mindset in its historic context. The Vietnam War cast a long shadow, and still influences the mindset of America’s military leaders. In the years following Vietnam, a movement emerged within the U.S. military and the American civilian defense establishment to implement what its members saw as the lessons of that catastrophe. In the view of many military officers and civilian officials, the conflict had been lost not because of a failed counterinsurgency strategy or even the unfeasibility of obtaining the requisite public support for involvement in a long and thankless guerrilla war, but because the civilian leadership had failed to set a clear policy and give the military the tools to achieve it. Most notably, politicians had set limits on the military’s use of force by initially preventing the escalation of the war outside South Vietnam. (For a critique of this argument, see Max Boot’s book, The Savage Wars Of Peace.)

U.S. Army General Creighton W. Abrams, Jr., Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army
(Herbert Elmer Abrams)

In particular, this view colored and shaped the key administrative and policy decisions made within the Defense Department in the following decade, and probably beyond. It was the impetus behind Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams’ famous decision to restructure the force so that reserves would need to be called up, and thus the public itself mobilized. If a major theatre deployment occurred, this administrative structure would, theoretically, deter politicians from starting unpopular wars, on the one hand, and mobilize the public behind a war once it started, on the other. In view of what had actually occurred in Vietnam, this may have been overoptimistic. The U.S. troop presence there exceeded half a million at the war’s height, and the use of conscription meant that the public was, if anything, too much involved – and yet neither the scope and cost of the conflict nor the employment of involuntary military service served to prevent the war from starting. Nor did Abrams’ reforms prevent the U.S. from getting involved in Iraq in 2003. On the other hand, the policy did ensure that when the U.S. fought in Iraq decades later, reserves and National Guardsmen were deployed against all expectations and against the public’s wishes and better judgment, making an unpopular war all the less popular.

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger speaks with Army Maj. Gen. Colin Powell during testimony before the Senate Budget Committee on Capitol Hill on Feb. 8, 1985. (AP Photo)

At a higher level of decision-making, the thesis that Vietnam was the result of political mismanagement and micromanagement led to the promulgation of the famous Powell-Weinberger Doctrine (or just the Powell Doctrine), made famous by Gen. Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. More an informal wish list than a policy statement, the Doctrine held, in summary, that the U.S. should avoid involvement in a major conflict unless its interests were seriously threatened, it employed as much force as possible and fought to win, a clear policy and exit strategy existed, and there was a realistic expectation that the public and its elected leaders would support the war effort to the extent necessary. (The Gulf War is often seen as a textbook case of the Powell Doctrine in action. It is also the only one of numerous American wars to date that everyone agrees followed it.) Although this doctrine made sense in committing land forces – particularly sending ground troops to fight a frustrating and protracted counterinsurgency campaign – it makes less sense when the U.S. has no intention of committing ground troops but still has policy objectives that require some amount of force to be used.

The real variable is not how much force is used, but how it is used, and whether any amount of force can achieve the required political outcome.

Students of counterinsurgency will note in particular that the Powell Doctrine is in some respects irrelevant to counterinsurgency campaigns, insofar as final “victory” in them is often elusive, public support often runs out before the final objective is achieved and the exit strategy can be executed. The real variable is not how much force is used, but how it is used, and whether any amount of force can achieve the required political outcome. In some respects, the Powell Doctrine is merely an entirely justified caution against waging a major counterinsurgency campaign. Unfortunately, this is precisely where it limits itself, because when there is clearly a need to take action against an elusive enemy and a major counterinsurgency campaign cannot be waged, the Powell Doctrine cannot be satisfied.

It goes without saying, but it bears repeating: whatever the U.S. achieved in two decade-long counterinsurgency campaigns came at costs the public was not willing to pay. If only out of a sense of humility, it pays to count the blood-and-treasure cost for a moment.

The human costs for Americans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in dead and maimed service members, were tragic. Although the American people are often held to be willing to accept combat deaths and casualties if they achieve something worthwhile, even allowing for the fact that Iraq was in reasonable shape when the U.S. exited, the results were not seen to justify the blood spilled.


Nor, in the midst of a sluggish economy, can Americans so easily afford to chip in the money required to achieve such an outcome. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined to cost the public somewhere in the neighborhood of one percent of the U.S.’ GDP per year. If one adopts the economist Joseph Stiglitz’ famous characterization of Iraq as the “three trillion dollar war,” once all costs and indirect effects were tallied, then Iraq cost the U.S. approximately two percent of its currently $17 trillion GDP per year. There are very few worthy causes even at home for which Americans would willingly surrender two percent of their income, and given what has happened to Iraq in the years since U.S. combat troops left, it is difficult to explain to taxpayers what they will get for their money.


It is fashionable in policy circles to speak of the public in the third person – that the public wants this or will not allow that. In fact, as policy makers sometimes need to be reminded, they are voters themselves, and what the public wants may, in fact, reflect what policy makers know as well. In the case of Iraq, as it currently stands, the public are quite justified in its desire to avoid going back into an endless land war in the Middle East. The costs are significant; the results ambiguous or nonexistent. This author, for one, thinks the public has a point.

President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Cross Hall in the White House in Washington. (AP Photo)

This brings us back to General Mattis’ comments. In a hearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Mattis, who held the position of CENTCOM commander before his retirement in 2013, stated, with regard to President Obama’s promise not to introduce U.S. ground forces into Iraq when using military force (airstrikes) to combat ISIS, “You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do.”

These views have a long pedigree, and are probably correct. They reflect the sentiment behind the Powell Doctrine: if you are going to use force, hit as hard as you can, and certainly do not telegraph weakness to the enemy; they also reflect the long shadow of Vietnam. As a matter of fact, U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, who commanded the U.S.-led military operation in Kosovo, argued against graduated escalation of the Kosovo air campaign, a viewpoint that may have been shaped by his study of the similarly graduated air campaign in Vietnam in his master’s thesis. But what holds true for an air campaign does not necessarily apply to the insertion of a ground force into a guerrilla war, which is, or has become, a very basic and fundamental policy decision that the public and its representatives will debate vigorously.

War, to reiterate, is supposed to serve a political objective. Embedded in the entirely reasonable policy of containing ISIS and doing as much damage to it as possible is the implicit additional policy that the U.S. should not get involved in another endless Middle Eastern counterinsurgency campaign. The public will not support it, and they are right not to do so.

A GI gets a closeup photo as President Nixon meets with troops of the 1st Infantry Division at Di An, 12 miles northeast of Saigon, on his eighth visit to South Vietnam and his first as president, on July 30, 1969.

In the end, presidents are accountable to the public, not only for reelection (or reelection of their preferred successor), but also for their place in the history books. Although there have been unpopular presidents whose reputation improved with time, few presidents want to go down in history as having badly served the voters who elected them. While this may seem to encourage slavish efforts to obtain popularity, it also ensures that the voters’ preferences are honored. And, as noted, where reinserting ground forces into Iraq is concerned, the voters have a point. Moreover, because of the constitutional division of war powers, presidents have found it advisable (even if they refuse to admit they are legally required) to obtain congressional authorization for major military operations. And congressional debate, in turn, is publicized and “soundbited” for public consumption – a discussion with Congress is an indirect discussion with the people as a whole. In America’s democratic system, this is entirely as it should be.

Presidents are constrained by politics and political options. In the case of President Obama, he must, on the one hand, build as much of a public consensus as possible behind the very necessary effort to combat ISIS, and thus prevent a Sunni extremist state from emerging in the Middle East. Certainly, he must prevent ISIS from expanding to the point where it could attack Israel, take Mecca and Medina (and therefore legitimize its position as a leading state in the Islamic world and encourage further political support for itself), or seize oilfields that could be used to finance terrorism. As long as ISIS is confined to relatively impoverished tracts of desert and Mesopotamian farmland, and as long as its fighters cannot easily travel from there to strike at America and its allies, it is relatively tolerable – but it must be contained for that reason. The public can be persuaded to accept this as a policy, even if Americans do so grudgingly. By contrast, the public will not accept – and, objectively, probably should not accept – another counterinsurgency campaign. Although one may disagree with certain aspects of President Obama’s strategy (the decision to support “moderate” Syrian rebels against both Assad and ISIS is, in my view, particularly foolish), the broad outlines make sense: contain and roll back, but do not wade in directly.

The way to allow for the one option and not the other is to build consensus at the outset. Just as it was necessary for President Obama to make the case for limited intervention to contain ISIS, so too was it necessary to assure the public as he did that intervention would not lead to another ground war, and, most crucially, to build a political consensus around this limitation. The easiest way to prevent this was to make the promise at the start that ground troops would not be used.

The recent debate over airpower versus combined arms is in fact beside the point: airpower is cheap, “good enough,” and publicly acceptable; introducing ground forces is none of those things.

U.S. President Bill Clinton beside Gen. Hugh Shelton, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
explaining the U.S. and NATO mission in Kosovo on April 1, 1999.
(Win McNamee/Reuters)

Such promises are common coin in the political world, and they cannot be easily broken. The furor that recently erupted over the famous “you can keep your doctor” pledge with regard to the healthcare law is merely a case in point. And while presidents do break their word, surprisingly enough, the “No Ground Troops” pledge has been made more than once in recent years and kept. President Clinton made it with regard to the Kosovo war in 1999, which elicited a similar round of criticism regarding setting limits from the outset. (In that case, the criticism was perhaps more valid: Kosovo was far more a war of choice than the war against ISIS is at this point, and was less likely to result in a guerrilla war. But regardless, Clinton adhered to it.) It was also made by President Obama himself with regard to the thankfully abortive threat to intervene in Syria over its chemical weapons usage in September 2013. (This may be a technicality, in that President Obama avoided intervening in the end, but it reinforces the point nevertheless: what the President promised to avoid, he avoided.) It is effectively a decision to limit a military intervention to an air campaign, which may not be effective on its own, but which will not cost too much blood or treasure. In recent history, whether in Kosovo or Libya, it has been shown that while the use of airpower alone may not be decisive, prolonged air campaigns can be waged relatively cheaply and without too much public opposition, and sometimes achieve some of the military and political objectives they served. It has also been shown that a prolonged and indecisive air campaign need not lead to the major and, again, political decision to use ground forces. The recent debate over airpower versus combined arms is in fact beside the point: airpower is cheap, “good enough,” and publicly acceptable; introducing ground forces is none of those things. The policy, which must precede the military strategy, is therefore clear.

In following the example of his post-Vietnam colleagues in effectively invoking the Powell Doctrine, Mattis was in fact forgetting another key tenet of military strategy: that war must serve a policy set in the end by politicians. He was also forgetting its American corollary: policy must serve the public’s general preferences.

Military strategy must not only serve policy, but it must account for where and how, exactly, that policy is made.

Count Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke, 1800–1891, Prussian Field Marshal, Chief of the General Staff of Prussia
(Wikimedia Commons)

In doing so, he was, in two different ways, mirroring history. The shadow of Vietnam is long; the shadow of Moltke and Guderian longer. The Marine Corps, more than the other services, in the post-Vietnam era fell in love with German tactical and operational thinking of both the pre- and post-world wars variety. This underlay the “maneuver warfare” movement that led to the famous Marine Corps Warfighting manual and a radical reappraisal of the way the Marines would fight conventional wars – up to and including barely pronounceable German military terms, such as schwerpunkt and auftragstaktik, into the Marines’ vocabulary. (One of the more extreme examples of this penchant — some would say a fetish – for German military doctrine is probably the civilian defense analyst William Lind, who advised the Marines in this era and who is an unreserved admirer of Wilhelmine Germany.) The re-discovery of German maneuver warfare thinking was undoubtedly good for the Marines’ conventional operational doctrine (it met with legendary success in two wars in Iraq, in one of which Mattis was a key leader), but it makes for bad politics and worse strategy. Whereas Bismarck, translated to the present day, might have preferred to operate with a degree of obscurity and thus avoid telegraphing his reservations to the enemy, and while Moltke might have argued for a free hand to conduct operations as he saw fit possibly with maximum force, America’s constitution and political system require that the generals not only take their cue from the politicians, but that the politicians consult the public. Military strategy must not only serve policy, but it must account for where and how, exactly, that policy is made.

As noted, many German generals mistakenly assumed that, in a highly militarized state, they could tell the politicians what to do. To whatever degree this was true there and then, it is not true in America today. Even when any individual politician can be influenced, politicians in general and the voting public are too closely entwined.

Car bombing in Iraq, 2005 (SPC Ronald Shaw Jr., U.S. Army)

It is time, therefore, to carve out two corollaries to the Powell Doctrine. First, the U.S. should stay out of major theater counterinsurgency campaigns in almost every conceivable instance – the level of public support required to make the Powell Doctrine implementable just isn’t there. And second: if war must be waged against an unconventional adversary because the adversary threatens to attack the U.S. but is likely to fight as an insurgent force if attacked, the will of the public must be accounted for where ground troops are concerned. Furthermore, the military operation must make do with what it has, if need be fighting a sub-optimal air war for limited objectives.

To do otherwise is to turn Clausewitz on his head. And probably make him roll over in his grave.


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