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Everything You Think You Know About Limited War is Wrong

December 22, 2016

One of the critical problems with much of the writing on strategic subjects is a failure to define the terms being used in a clear and universally applicable manner. When we fail to explain what we mean when we use terms such as “limited war” or “total war,” we build in a potentially fatal underpinning for the formulation of policy and strategy. This error also robs the discussion of any firm ground for critical analysis. Moreover, if we don’t understand what we mean by “limited war,” we don’t understand what we mean when we describe any war. Shoddy thinking lays a foundation for defeat.

The fuzziness of our approach to defining limited war can be seen even in classic texts on the subject. In 1981, John Garnett, one of the founders of modern strategic studies, wrote: “Only conflicts which contain the potentiality for becoming total can be described as limited.” Diplomat Robert McClintock wrote in 1967: “Limited war is a conflict short of general war to achieve specific political objectives, using limited forces and limited force.” Both of these typical definitions explain limited war in relation to other types of conflict (“total war” and “general war”) that also lack clear, generally agreed upon definitions. In his classic 1957 work, the best-known theorist of limited war, political scientist Robert Osgood, defined this kind of conflict in terms of the objective sought and (among other things) by the fact that the combatants “do not demand the utmost military effort of which the belligerents are capable.” This description is nebulous at best and fails to offer a firm and usable explanation of “effort,” or what some would term the means used. The definitions haven’t improved with the passing decades. A 2010 book noted:

The term limited war implies regular military operations by one nation-state against the regular military force of another nation-state and excludes irregular operations by terrorist organisations against state or by other non-state actors like warlords against a state or against other warlords.

This is merely another variation of a definition based upon means with the addition of the opponent’s doctrinal warfighting methods.

Unfortunately, this type of conceptual weakness is typical in the theoretical and historical literature. The given definitions of limited war generally imply that the level of means used by the combatants determines whether or not a conflict is a limited war. Yet defining a war by the means used fails to provide a clear, consistently applicable basis for critical analysis. War, as Carl von Clausewitz wrote in On War, is a political tool, and when nations go to war they do so to either overthrow the enemy regime, or for something less than this. The political objective sought explains the war, not the means employed in an effort to achieve it. The British maritime theorist Sir Julian Corbett expanded upon Clausewitz’s foundation in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Here, Corbett used the term “unlimited war” to describe a conflict waged to overthrow the enemy government, and “limited war” for a war fought for something less. This creates a stable underpinning for all subsequent clarifying analysis. Examining a war based upon the political objective sought provides an anchor for analyzing any war. The means applied to reach those objectives certainly help to determine the nature of the war being fought — as does the political objective of the opponent — but defining a war based upon the means used (or not) lacks universality because it is not concrete. These help determine how the war is fought, but not what the war is about — the political aim — and this is what matters most because it is from here that all the other elements contributing to the war’s nature derive their value.

As noted above, “limited war” is often defined in relation to the term “total war” and its various dysfunctional brethren such as “general war” and “major war.” As I wrote recently at The Strategy Bridge, when writers use the term “total war,” their definitions are inevitably dominated by discussions of the means used by the combatants. One of the more influential and famous uses of the term “total war” occurs in Clausewitz’s On War, where he uses it in a theoretical sense as an unobtainable “ideal type.” I deal with this in detail in the current issue of Infinity Journal.

Why does how we define limited war matter? First, all of the wars in which the United States has been involved since the Japanese surrender in 1945 have been branded limited wars — regardless of whether or not the term accurately depicts the nature of the conflict. The term probably reentered the modern lexicon thanks to an innocent remark by then Secretary of Defense George Marshall. In May 1951, when asked during the Senate hearings on Korea how he would describe this struggle he remarked: “I would characterize it as a limited war which I hope will remain limited.” Since then, “limited war” has become a descriptor of choice for every American conflict. Korea became the archetype “limited war” in books such as the well-known 1964 work by journalist David Rees. This is despite the fact that the Truman administration changed the political objective to an unlimited one on September 9, 1950 (and back to a limited political objective in May 1951).

In Vietnam, the United States fought for a limited political objective, but the North Vietnamese pursued an unlimited political objective against South Vietnam. In the Gulf War, the United States pursued a limited objective, but wavered on this at the end with calls for regime change. In Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 the United States pursued regime change and thus unlimited political objectives. But once new governments were formed, the United States fought to preserve these and thus its political objectives became limited in these respective nations. To brand these conflicts as “limited wars” is simplistic.

Some authors have carried the mistake beyond American wars and tried to brand almost every conflict “limited.” Seymour Deitchman, in his 1964 Limited War and American Defense Policy, provides a list of 32 wars fought between 1945 and 1962 that include such different conflicts as the Chinese Civil War (1927 to 1949), the Philippine Hukbalahap Rebellion (1946 to 1954), and the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He classifies all of these as limited wars. He also offers a list of 59 conflicts that occurred — or almost did — during this same period and breaks down all of these into three types: conventional wars, unconventional wars, and deterred wars. He does all this without clearly defining limited war. Such blind throwing of the “limited war” blanket over any conflict, especially if it is not “big” (whatever that means), is a flawed method of attempting to analyze, understand, and fight these wars. It is also a blatant manifestation of the current conceptual problem Americans have in regard to defining all wars.

Second, the problem of not understanding the nature of the war is directly related to how we currently define — or more accurately — fail to define limited war. For example, in a 2014 article, journalist David Ignatius described what the United States began doing in Iraq in June 2014 as a limited war. He gave no clear definition of limited war and seems to believe that the most recent Iraq war is limited because the United States is using very little of its military means. This simply explains the means being used. It does not in any way describe what the United States hopes to achieve, and the political objective being sought is the keystone for what is being done — or at least it should be. As the stated U.S. political objective seems to be the destruction of the de facto ISIL state, it would be more accurate to define the American political objective as an unlimited one.

Ignatius is hardly alone in his approach. Indeed, one could argue that he is firmly aligned with current as well as past U.S. strategic and analytical thought. A better but still problematic example appeared in a 2015 issue of The National Interest, and another in a 2013 Breaking Defense article. One can easily find other recent examples from academics  journalists, and policymakers. Too often works about limited war (which are all rooted in Cold War publications and concepts, Bernard Brodie being a key early convert) cloud rather than clarify our understanding of conflicts.

Third, writers on limited war, as well as the experience of the Cold War itself, helped teach many in modern liberal states that victory should not be pursued because its achievement was actually bad. Again, we turn to John Garnett: “In limited war ‘winning’ is an inappropriate and dangerous goal, and a state which finds itself close to it should immediately begin to practise restraint.” Former U.S. Secretary of State and retired general Colin Powell once noted:

As soon as they tell me it [war] is limited, it means that they do not care whether you achieve a result or not. As soon as they tell me “surgical,” I head for the bunker.

We find another example in an article by a veteran of more than two decades in the U.S. foreign service. He criticized examinations of American wars as being too “victory centric,” faulted them for using a “victory-tinted lens,” and insisted that searching for a reason for not winning a war “treats victory as the norm and military frustration as an aberration, an attitude that distorts our understanding of conflict and its unpredictable results.” Instead, the focus should be upon cutting one’s losses to avoid a protracted conflict. In other words, we should learn to lose at a lower cost. Such thinking has helped undermine the U.S. and Western ability to clearly identify the political objective or objectives for which it is fighting any war (the ends), create intelligent strategy for achieving this (the ways), and harnessing national power — especially military power (the means) — sufficient to achieve the desired end.

Bad limited war theory has helped rob the United States and other Western nations of the awareness that wars should be waged decisively. If leaders cannot clearly define what they want, how can the military hope to deliver it? And if sufficient means for getting the job done are not provided merely because the war has illogically been branded “limited,” how can one win? The result is that “victory” — both in battle and in war itself — has generally disappeared from the statements of analysts and policymakers. As strategist Edward Luttwak has pointed out, many of these same figures view the term itself with suspicion. Why does this matter? Refusing to pursue victory can produce an endless war. Indeed, though Ignatius’ discussion of limited war leaves much to be desired, he makes the interesting argument that one of the problems with fighting limited wars is that they don’t resolve problems, which is certainly a conversation worth having. Also, your enemy is trying to win. Only Western liberal democracies in the post-World War II era go to war without the expectation of victory. Fortunately, the political leaders who fought against the Nazis understood the necessity of victory. Winning (or losing) a war matters, particularly to the people who live directly with the results.

The refusal to define or value victory in warfare, as well as the refusal to seek it, is a political problem that affects the ability of the military to wage the conflict effectively and deliver victory. Since the time of the Korean War, U.S. political leaders have too often sacrificed the lives of American men and women in wars without having a clear idea of what they mean by victory, and sometimes without a desire to even achieve it. These political leaders don’t often phrase things this way, but that is the reality of the result of their decisions. If the war is not important enough to win, is it important enough to even fight? A recent example of the devaluing of victory in Western intellectual circles is Dominic Tierney’s The Right Way to Lose a War. This work largely concerns itself with learning to lose wars better. Why? Because “[w]e live in an age of unwinnable wars.” In the author’s defense, he insists that his work will help the U.S. reverse its “military fortunes and start winning again,” but the task of military and political leaders is not to lose wars more efficiently. Their job is to win wars. Dutch political scientist Rob de Wijk insists that when fighting “to be successful, liberal democracies must use force decisively.” This seems a statement of the obvious, but it is no longer so obvious to many American political leaders, journalists, and academics.

All of this demonstrates a Western world intellectually at sea in a strategic sense. Consistently, its leaders don’t know how to set clear political goals, don’t understand how to conceptualize the wars they launch in pursuit of often fuzzy political objectives, and don’t value victory — or tell the people what this means. Waging war in this manner is either an expression of ignorance or an example of dishonesty — intentional or not — on the part of political leaders for short term political purposes that have long term effects on U.S. public opinion and the men and women who are being sent to fight wars their leaders don’t call wars and have no interest in winning. To purposefully fight a war one must — at a minimum — know why one is fighting, what they hope to achieve, understand the enemy, know what victory looks like, and chart a sensible path for getting there.


Donald Stoker is Professor of Strategy and Policy for the U.S. Naval War College’s program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is the author or editor of numerous books and articles on strategic subjects and is currently writing a book on limited war. His most recent book is Clausewitz: His Life and Work. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: California State Military History Museum

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8 thoughts on “Everything You Think You Know About Limited War is Wrong

  1. The author does an exceptional job of uncovering the gaps in defining Limited War. I think the disparities he identifies buttress the overall lack of consensus on the correct labeling of different -type wars. Irregular, guerrilla, revolutionary, low-intensity, hybrid, unconventional and limited war all denote similar but distinctly different concepts of warfare related to the era and conflict in which they gained popularity. At the end of the day, the clash of hostile wills among different kinds of actors can take many forms. Since these actions are inherently dynamic and in flux, they sometimes can be defined, and in other cases defy a moniker of any sort. Knowing that, I think the a certain level of vagueness is appropriate and connotes the central idea that the actors involved are not “all in” concerning the achievement of goals and preferred outcomes.

    1. Andy, There is a distinction between war and warfare (methods) as well as the methods adversaries employ. You seem to use the two interchangeably.
      While the community may not have agreed on hybrid war it is pretty clear that hybrid adversaries use all methods, irregular, conventional, disruptive, catastrophic as well as criminal to achieve political objectives. We, US military, have yet to discuss what capabilities are required and how to combine those capabilities to confront a hybrid adversary, regardless if these methods are used in a limited or unlimited war.

  2. Excellent defense of returning to the political objective.

    In these types of discussions, I always recall an observation by an active duty military professor: “war is only limited for those not in the fight.”

  3. This is one of the best articles I’ve read on WOTR recently. The author goes beyond the issue of weak political will to the deeper issue of fuzzy political objectives, which I believe is the primary reason for the feeling of needing to conduct “limited war” in the first place. War is terrible, no matter its title. It only gets worse if it is protracted due to weak minds. Also, the thought of our leaders aiming to “lose wars more efficiently” is a slap in the face to every American, military-affiliated or not. American military credibility is at an all-time low; China snags sensitive UUV with no shots fired, Iran captures two war boats with no shots fired, Chinese Maritime Militia harass U.S. warships with no repercussions…my take is that “limited war” is manifested by confused commanders with no established ROEs, scared to death in a culture of careerism and political correctness.

    1. Perhaps it’s more a lack of recognition — or acknowledgement — that separating war and politics isn’t possible, coupled with the lack of maturity to define “win” in any other terms than an enemy completely prostrate and transformed into a rough copy of ourselves, and most corrosive, the lack of political will (as in willingness to risk not being re-elected) to put in the time and resources to meet these lofty conditions.

      Too many people point back to WWII as the example to follow. Certainly, “win” was defined clearly — defeat the Axis powers and establish conditions for basic economic and social recovery. Those conditions were met by 1946. The long-term economic and political efforts that followed were not part of WWII…they were part of the Cold War, where “win” was redefined as “prevent Soviet military and political takeover of Western Europe, and we put in the resources to accomplish it.

      We tried to combine the two in our most recent adventures, but refused to commit the resources to fully accomplish either.

  4. I submit that “limited” and “unlimited” wars are divided based on their threats to the combatants’ survival. Wars need not be mutually important to the nations fighting, with “limited vs. unlimited” being a rather common structure in history.

    For the United States, I would categorize the Cold War, the Civil War, and the Revolutionary War as unlimited, and everything else a limited conflict, because we could have negotiated peace terms without national capitulation. Some of those limited wars would have cost us dearly to sit out, so they weren’t as optional as “limited” would suggest, but we had far more options than many other nations have had.

    What is important for strategists and policymakers is the realization that a limited war for America–in which we have a threshold of pain and a limit to how far we are willing to go–is probably not a limited war for our adversaries, who consequently have an extremely high tolerance for suffering and a willingness to use extreme measures to defeat us. The key is to either fight for objectives our enemies can afford to compromise on, or to realize that they will never do so and maximize our force accordingly.

  5. Growing up in the 1980s, I saw the effects of war….the Vietnam war as in the movies….NAM.

    It affected the society in every way. From movies such as Good Morning Vietnam to seeing homeless Vietnam Vets on the streets of San Francisco. U would have to walk over them as they were sprawled on the concrete jungle. I would read fictional and non fictional stories of 50,000 Americans killed in NAM.

    So for me limited or protracted…..it matters little. I saw the victims of war all around me.

  6. A very useful piece. Stoker has articulated something I have played with for some time, the idea of categorizing limited versus unlimited on the basis of regime changes, not means or ways. Of course the definitional problem is supreme. As dead Carl wrote (in a translation that Moran and Paret did at NPS where Stoker works, I believe):

    “Again, unfortunately, we are dealing with jargon, which, as usual , bears only a faint resemblance to well defined, specific concepts.”
    Carl von Clausewitz, 1827, from “Two Letters on Strategy,” ed. and trans. by Peter Paret and Daniel Moran, p.37.