In Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, even when military leaders got the battlefield right, they did not succeed in this secondary but important job. The question is why did not more officers, and with more effect, ask David Petraeus’s 2003 question "how does this end?"
From my observations, the problem is that the military often conflates winning battles with winning the war, as they sometimes assume someone else was engaged in the knitting together of their tactical victories into strategic success. This was all the more understandable when strategic success as in these insurgency wars was defined in socio-political, not military, terms. Meanwhile, elements of the national leadership, congress and public assume that if our esteemed military were on the case, it would produce not only tactical victories—its core job—but also strategic success. To sum up, each side implicitly pushed responsibility for the really big war questions to the other side. This was not the military’s failure alone, and is not "losing" in the military sense, but it is failure none the less.
The final question is, why does the military keep getting this strategic job wrong. One factor, which Fallows does not highlight, but others including Huntington have, is the anti-Clausewitz mindset of the U.S. military. If victory is defined as ‘unconditional surrender’ then strategy and thus victory look a lot like tactical battlefield action on a grand scale. If national leadership (at least of a power without peers) wants such a victory it just pours resources into the military until victory is achieved. And here Fallows has a point.
The more the military is isolated from our society and its political limitations, the more it can harbor this view. Likewise, the more the military is placed on a pedestal, the more its confusion of tactical military success with political victory will go unchallenged by our political system, and likely shift to reluctance to criticize the political leadership’s war goals and means.
Fixing this is hard. Fallows correctly rejects a draft, but even with one, this dynamic was seen during Vietnam. The military puts enormous effort into civilian education and other exposure for its promising officers, but an inbred service family caste, military academies which segregate future officers early from civilian America, base services that isolate service families from their communities, all reinforce the separateness that feeds misunderstanding in both directions.
There is no feasible solution to this isolation, thus better to recognize and deal with it. That begins with our political leadership’s mission of winning conflicts and the military’s role to assist. The military must insist on knowing what the political goals are, which assumptions underlie these goals, what the means will be, and then insist on receiving them. And the country’s political leadership and public must understand that it is their job, not the military’s, to define victory and mobilize resources to achieve it—while holding the military responsible for winning on the battlefield.
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This is J Fallows again, not J. Jeffrey. More to come.