Everything You Think You Know About Limited War is Wrong


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

CCBot/2.0 (https://commoncrawl.org/faq/)