Todd Greentree, recently retired American diplomat and former professor at the U.S. Naval War College who is writing a book on small wars, recently spoke at the May 16 session of the World Affairs Forum. This Santa Fe-based international affairs organization emphasizes small group discussion on current foreign affairs issues critical to Americans.
Mr. Greentree’s presentation and the ensuing discussions were so thoughtful that I decided to highlight a few ideas discussed that sunny afternoon.
America’s Continuing Amnesia
First and foremost, every new generation of Americans fails to learn from its elders the basic requirements for fighting and winning small wars. We are seemingly incapable of learning the lessons even of our own history. Yet, the U.S. has fought in far more small or irregular wars than it has in traditional state-vs.-state conflicts like World Wars I and II. Moreover, the U.S. is far more likely to fight irregular wars in the future.
Americans too often forget that the U.S. itself was created through irregular warfare. George Washington’s rag-tag Continental Army could not have defeated the well-equipped and professionally trained British Redcoats musket-to-musket on a conventional battlefield. Washington, therefore, relied on guerrilla war tactics. And lest we forget, he received support from the French army and navy – just at the time it was needed most. International support from the outside played a crucial role: the American army, such as it was, could not have succeeded alone.
Because of our continual reinvention of the wheel, Americans - time after time - have failed to consider the pros and cons before entering a small war that is often being waged thousands of miles from our shores, and then repeated the same mistakes. Emotion - not rational thought – has far too often prevailed – and usually not to our advantage. Iraq, for instance, substantiates – not repudiates - this rule.
War is Politics by Other Means
Whatever happened to nineteenth century Prussian General Clausewitz’s cardinal rule: “War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means?”
- Karl von Clauswitz, Vom Kriege (1832-4), Oxford Concise Dictionary of Quotations.
Irregular wars, in particular, are often fought for internal political reasons. They are fought by the political underdog against the powerful, the weak vs. the strong. The unconventional or irregular methods employed do not suggest early, decisive victories, in fact, quite the opposite. Small wars are likely to stretch over years, even decades before they end – if they do.
Why? Many small wars are civil wars in which one group or groups resort to violence in an attempt, or repeated attempts, to unseat and replace those in power. Time is on the side of the weak – the guerrilla soldiers who live off the land and the people. They can and do fade into the population – because they are part of it and are sustained by it.
Irregular wars tend to be dirty precisely because the weak have few conventional weapons to employ and are unable to fight according to internationally negotiated rules of warfare.
War debilitates and destabilizes: the forgotten lessons of classical Greece
Finally, the U.S. has forgotten the lessons of classical Greece despite the preponderant influence of neoconservatives in the political-military thinking of the Bush Administration who argue that everything we need to know was written in the classics.
Even the neoconservatives or especially the neoconservatives have forgotten lessons that should have been learned from Ancient Greece’s best war chronicle - Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars. Thucydides tells us that warfare enervates, that wars are corrosive and can destroy the fabric of societies and he demonstrates how even Athens, then the ancient world’s predominant power, declined because it confused its strength with its hopes and overreached its means. (See “Those Who Would Plan Our Expedition to Syracuse” on ZenPundit, May 17, 2005)
I look forward to Todd’s forthcoming book on small wars and thank him heartily for his stimulating and thought-provoking presentation.