Tinkering With Deadly Force

Jan. 1, 1993

If you believe the people who draw newspaper cartoons or march in peace parades, US military leaders are a hawkish bunch, always eager to go to war. At the same time, another group of critics accuses those same military leaders of being reluctant warriors, far too cautious about sending the troops to fight abroad.

The truth is that military professionals understand the realities of war and thus are seldom enthusiastic about getting involved in one. When a decision to fight is made, however, the armed forces can be counted on to raise their commitment level to 100 percent. They have little patience with the dilettantes back home who develop second thoughts when they witness the ensuing bloodshed and destruction.

Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, says the US officer corps has coalesced into an “All-or-Nothing” school of thought on the use of military force. Mr. Aspin says an opposing faction-the “Limited Objectives” school-is on the rise and may prevail.

The Limited Objectives people were stirred to action, apparently, by the Bush Administration’s refusal to order air strikes in the Balkans last summer. This group does not agree that use of military force necessarily leads to escalating conflict or deeper involvement. Neither does it agree that the sole purpose of combat is to win battles and wars.

The objective may be something entirely different, such as sending political signals to an adversary. “What we are really talking about here is striking military targets or assets to influence behavior elsewhere, most often air strikes in one place to convince someone to change their behavior in another place,” Mr. Aspin explains.

According to Mr. Aspin, the military leaders in the “All-or-Nothing” camp are frozen on four propositions: Military force should be used only as a last resort. There should be a clear military objective. It should be clear enough to determine when we have achieved it and the troops can come home. Force should be applied in “overwhelming” strength to get the job done decisively, quickly, and with few casualties.

Under those rules, Mr. Aspin observes, the armed forces would be employed “only very, very rarely” and “will not be a useful tool for achieving objectives.” He warns that “people may not be willing to pay $250 billion or even $200 billion a year for a military that is not very useful.”

Furthermore, he says, modern technology makes it possible to use military force–especially airpower–with great precision and with limited risk of casualties or collateral damage. “These things tend to tilt the debate somewhat in favor of the Limited Objectives school,” he concludes, although “I think we are still going to have to decide the use of force case by case.”

All of this, of course, goes back to the old “Vietnam Syndrome” argument. The armed forces were supposedly demoralized and left combat-shy by the defeat in Indochina. Never again, if they could help it, would they be bogged down in a war the nation had no heart to win.

In 1984, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger proposed six tests to determine whether US troops should be sent into combat: Is a vital national interest at stake? Will we commit sufficient resources to win? Will we sustain the commitment? Are the objectives clearly defined? Is there reasonable expectation that the public and Congress will support the operation? Have we exhausted our other options

The Persian Gulf War of 1991 met all of the Weinberger criteria. The results were so spectacular that they stimulated worry in some quarters about a “Gulf War Syndrome,” in which military leaders, their confidence restored, might move in reckless and arrogant ways. What the various syndrome theorists tend to forget is that the armed forces do not decide which wars they will fight. When the President tells the troops to go, they go.

If elected leaders sign up to the Limited Objectives concept, they demonstrate a casual attitude toward a grim responsibility. Modern military power is awesome stuff to unleash if your objectives are unclear or your intentions are fuzzy.

The Limited Objectives doctrine sounds very much like open-ended commitment for uncertain purpose. The scholars of the Limited Objectives school are not the first to believe they can regulate war and use power in measured doses. Those who remember the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, and Desert One might be forgiven if they think they’ve heard these ideas before.

If the approach breeds true to historical form, the next step is to have political aides cooking up military operations in the back rooms of Washington.

These people are not dealing in abstract concepts. They are tinkering with deadly force. If their notions become policy, we may learn all over again that it is much easier to get into a fight than it is to get out of one.