Losing the Peace is Still Losing


Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series in which thinkers from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) will explore the U.S. military’s phasing construct and the line between war and peace. Be sure to read the first installment, “American Strategy and the Six Phases of Grief.”


Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford has expressed frustration with the U.S. military’s phasing construct, saying he doesn’t find it “particularly useful” for addressing today’s challenges, such as “gray zone” conflicts. This disconnect between the phasing construct and present-day challenges is merely the latest symptom of a deeper problem in how the U.S. defense establishment thinks about war. For the past quarter century, U.S. defense thinkers have used terms such as “asymmetric warfare,” “hybrid warfare,” “irregular warfare,” “unconventional warfare,” “unrestricted warfare,” “ambiguous warfare,” “gray zones,” and “military operations other than war” to describe adversary approaches and military operations that don’t fit within the narrow box of traditional or conventional “war.”

At a certain point, it is worth asking whether the traditional U.S. concept of war is too narrow or even if it is “conventional.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted that war does not fit into “neat, tidy boxes.” There are many ways to use violence or the threat of violence to achieve political aims. Perhaps it’s time to drop the qualifiers and expand the default concept for what constitutes war. The U.S. military acts like a team playing a game for which it wrote the rules. Unfortunately, the other teams never agreed to play by them. Instead of annotating each deviation the other team makes of our “rules,” maybe it’s time to burn the rulebook.

It all comes, perhaps, from watching too many World War II movies. This conflict infuses American culture as the archetype of what war is and, more importantly, what war should be. Politics is set to the side as militaries clash in total war, with unconditional surrender as the aim. This is a type of war, of course, but it is a historical anomaly. It does not describe the American experience in almost any other war, from the Revolutionary War to the current conflict in Afghanistan. Grenada and Panama might fit the bill, brief though they were, but the War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, World War I, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, Kosovo War, Afghanistan War, and Iraq War all did not. Some of these were messy guerrilla conflicts, but even those that were fought against nation-states defied the paradigm of unconditional surrender and total victory. When the wars ended, the adversaries still remained. In some cases, this meant that the peace that ensued was only temporary. Disagreements over the balance of power persisted, and before long conflict flared again. Unresolved issues in the Revolutionary War led to the War of 1812; the Spanish-American War was followed by the Philippine-American War; World War I was followed by World War II; the Persian Gulf War was followed by 25 years of continued U.S. military involvement in Iraq; and militarized confrontation on the Korean peninsula persists to this day.

The U.S. military’s six-phase planning construct affords no space for the fact that conflict and competition does not always end when the fighting ceases, that the struggle for power and dominance continues. Sometimes the end of fighting means total victory, but sometimes it means a return to something like the gray zone conditions the United States faces today, a space comprised of military competition and coercion short of outright war. Similarly, the phasing construct ignores the possibility that crises may not lead to total war. It views the day-to-day jockeying for position and brinksmanship that nations engage in only through the lens of a prelude to full-scale war, a major blind spot in addressing today’s “gray zones.” In these spaces, Schelling is a better touchstone than Clausewitz.

Limited war has gotten a bad rap since Vietnam. The U.S. military’s response after Vietnam was to go the other way, with the Powell Doctrine as the logical reaction. The Powell Doctrine, however, is of no use for countering tactics that hover below U.S. thresholds for escalation. It seeks clarity — military operations with overwhelming force, a clear exit strategy, and only when diplomacy has failed. Military operations should have clear objectives — and the muddled incrementalism of Vietnam isn’t a playbook to follow either — but the Powell Doctrine assumes a sharp peace-war divide that is not always realistic.

In many situations, military force is diplomacy, through violence or the threat of violence. Moreover, securing political aims requires persistent engagement. Long-term competition may be punctuated by periods of sharp crises or violence, but military power must persist to be relevant. The extended (and taxing) no-fly zone operations following the Persian Gulf War were a logical and unsurprising aftermath to a conflict that shifted the balance of power in the Middle East, but left Saddam Hussein standing. This reality is fundamentally at odds with the Powell Doctrine’s desire for rapid, decisive action followed by equally rapid American withdrawal. This is not because military power was misapplied in the Persian Gulf War and its aftermath, but because the nature of competition and conflict is such that achieving one’s aims requires more than simply the application of violence. It requires resetting the table after the shooting ends to build a peace on your terms, and building that peace often requires years or decades of intense military efforts.

Even when initially decisive military victory is swift, as it was in the defeat of the Taliban in 2002 and Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, securing American political objectives in the aftermath can prove long and difficult. American military thinking favors the decisive battle, however, and shortchanges the necessary but messy crafting of a new political order in the resettling after a conflict. Phase IV “stabilize” operations — even despite nearly 15 years of struggling through them — still take a backseat to Phase III “dominate” operations in terms of force planning, doctrine, training, resource allocation, and risk mitigation. This is a problem, because crafting a new political order that is in America’s interests after a conflict is the only reason for going to war in the first place. “Winning the war and losing the peace” doesn’t count as a “win.” It’s like fumbling the ball at the goal line — it doesn’t count. Colin Gray has noted:

Stability operations must be approached as being integral to strategy, not as behavior that follows the “war proper.” War is only about the peace that follows. It should be waged in such a style that the subsequent peace is not fatally mortgaged. With respect to irregular conflict, the current focus of most attention, stability operations, are, or should be, part and parcel of the U.S. strategy from the very outset.

Gray’s critique is a challenge to expand the American military concept of war. War is more than simply the decisive battle. It is about the use of military force to achieve political aims, which includes limited war, deterrence, gray zones, and stability operations. Ironically, this broader paradigm is the ultimate Clausewitzian approach, one that places the pursuit of political aims first. If military force can be used to achieve one’s political aims short of resort to outright war — as America’s adversaries are trying to do with gray zone tactics — then all the better. Force is a tool that can be used in many ways to achieve political aims.

The obstacles to thinking this way about war predate Vietnam and even Clausewitz. They stem from the very origins of Western civilization and the advent of a “Western way of war.” In his sweeping tome, A History of Warfare, military historian John Keegan places the origins of the Western way of war and the desire for the decisive battle in the invention of the Greek phalanx:

The battles of earlier and other peoples … had continued to be marked by elements that had characterized warfare since its primitive beginnings — tentativeness, preference for fights at a distance, reliance on missiles and reluctance to close to arm’s length until victory looked assured. The Greeks discarded these hesitations and created for themselves a new warfare that turned on the function of battle as a decisive act, fought within the dramatic unities of time, place and action and dedicated to securing victory, even at the risk of suffering bloody defeat, in a single test of skill and courage.

The phalanx was not only a revolutionary tactic but, more consequentially, a revolutionary conception of warfare. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with comrades and pressing against the enemy in a wall of flesh and shield was a dramatic departure from the skirmishing and individualized combat that characterized warfare for millennia. It required a surrender of the self to the group and a level of courage —a recklessness for one’s own life — that would be familiar to modern militaries, but was deeply at odds with other highly individualized warrior cultures.

In the ensuing centuries, Western militaries came to be organized predominantly around the decisive battle, a form of warfare that requires highly regimented and disciplined formations. From the formations of Swiss pikemen to the rows of musketeers reloading and firing at each other without flinching, the Western way of war has revolved around men stoically facing death en masse, trusting in the organization’s ultimate victory even as they are mowed down by the impersonal machinery of war. When Western militaries have faced adversaries unwilling to confront them head-on, they have often struggled, always seeking to draw their ghostly opponents out of the shadows and into decisive battles. Yet tactics of “evasion, delay, and indirectness” — what Keegan describes as “Oriental warmaking,” with roots in the horse warriors of the Eurasian steppe — can also be highly effective. Napoleon’s advance into Russia wasn’t defeated with a decisive battle. The United States wasn’t defeated in Vietnam with a decisive battle. There were no decisive battles in the Iraq and Afghanistan counterinsurgency wars. China isn’t securing the South China Sea today with a decisive battle. The Western way of war is a way of fighting, but it isn’t the only way.

This bias toward the decisive battle is pervasive not just in the U.S. military, but across Western culture. The game of chess, for example, stands in stark contrast to the Chinese game of Go as a metaphor for conflict and competition. In chess, opponents square off on a field of battle, advancing forward under protection and eventually killing one another in a relentless bloodletting until only a few pieces remain. In Go, by contrast, players place stones on an open playing field to secure positions with the goal of encircling one’s opponent. Both games are elegant and strategically complex abstractions of competition, but they embody different philosophies of victory. In chess, winning consists of killing the opponent’s army and capturing the king. In Go, winning consists of outmaneuvering the opponent and encircling him. In chess, pieces are either dead or alive. In Go, the balance of power tilts slowly like the shifting of sands — or like the dredging of sand into artificial islands.

The Defense Department’s planning, as reflected in its war games, operational plans, planning scenarios, and resource decisions, rarely captures the full breadth and diversity of the various modes of competition and conflict. Instead, they revolve around phase III operations — the decisive battle. This reflects a narrow concept of “war” the United States is comfortable with, but other operations are given short shrift.

Phase III “dominate” operations are important. If the United States is to remain a global power, it must be able to dominate adversaries in the decisive battle. The United States must also be able to leverage military power to secure American interests in situations short of major combat operations as well. U.S. dominance in phase III is likely to continue to drive adversaries to avoid the decisive battle and compete in other ways, making other forms of warfare equally important. Weakness in phase III can cause the United States to lose a war, but dominance in phase III alone is not enough to win one.

The United States doesn’t get to pick the type of wars it fights. The enemy gets a vote. The U.S. military desires “full-spectrum” capabilities — being able to fight across the spectrum of conflict — but more often than not, that results in a focus on Phase III operations with the assumption that other activities are “lesser includeds.” Yet the character of warfare is different at different points along the spectrum of conflict, and it requires different forces, training, and doctrine. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have painfully demonstrated, a military suited for conventional force-on-force conflict is ill-prepared for counterinsurgency or peace enforcement. “Lesser includeds” is a myth that should die.

The six-phase planning construct isn’t the root of the problem. It is a symptom of the true problem, which is an overly narrow concept of war and peace. The United States struggles in gray zones and stability operations not because the phasing construct requires the military to pay less attention in these phases, but because in the American mind these activities aren’t “war.” Joint Publication 1 states, “The ultimate purpose of the U.S. Armed Forces is to fight and win the Nation’s wars.” This is either an incomplete statement or the concept of what constitutes war needs to expand. The United States today faces areas of militarized competition that aren’t war as we traditionally conceive of it, but aren’t peace either. To compete effectively in this space, the United States needs a more fluid understanding of the spectrum between war and peace and of the military’s role in securing America’s interests. A revised phasing construct — or an entirely new replacement — should facilitate this more expansive view of thinking about competition and conflict, not reinforce existing predilections toward the decisive battle. As this series progresses, we’ll begin to explore new paradigms that aim to broaden the understanding of competition and war.


Paul Scharre is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security. He is a former infantryman in the 75th Ranger Regiment with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Opal Vaughn