TCS Daily

Bipolar Disorder: America's Schizophrenic View of Warfare

By Josh Manchester - August 30, 2006 12:00 AM

Our attempts to compare every conflict to World War II or Vietnam hinder our ability to fight different kinds of wars, including the current one.

In the pantheon of American warfare, no conflict garners as much popular admiration as the Second World War, which holds the title of ideal war. Consider:

  • The campaigns in both Europe and the Pacific were largely conventional affairs, leading to decisive victories
  • The nation was largely unified in the war's prosecution; politics ended "at the water's edge"
  • The entire country was put in uniform; everyone served in some way or another, whether in the infantry, at sea, or in factories at home
  • The economy was militarized; the entire resources of the country went toward the war effort
  • The result was unconditional surrender; and yet the victors made allies of the vanquished.

Whereas World War II is the gold standard for US warfare in most Americans' reckoning, the specter of Vietnam forever haunts our every move in any conflict that does not appear to resemble World War II. In Vietnam:

  • Conventionally fought battles never seemed to result in sustainable progress
  • The nation was divided as it had not been since the Civil War
  • Only volunteers and those drafted were sent to Vietnam; the National Guard was never mobilized, and draft deferments galore were available for a variety of reasons
  • The result was a qualified defeat; a hollowing out of the US military; a loss of confidence in US commitments abroad; and various forms of outrage that continue to affect a number of Baby Boomers today.

The result of these two national experiences is that warfare exists along a one-dimensional axis for most Americans. World War II exists as the positive terminal of this circuit, and Vietnam as the negative; the tendency then is to reinforce the one, while eschewing the other.

The truth is something more complicated: World War II was a total war, fought by societies in their entirety, and won therefore by the side that could materially and technologically outperform the other side. Vietnam was a counterinsurgency, and won by the side that managed to win the civilian population over to its beliefs. These are merely two types of warfare, not two opposing poles; our own experience seems to show us that if only we try to fight every war as World War II, then we'll win; and therefore counterinsurgency campaigns are to be avoided at all costs. And once you find yourself in the middle of one . . . then all is lost!

But deciding that only one kind of warfare is ever worth fighting is to leave the United States vulnerable to any other kind of warfare that its enemies might want to throw at it. And they always get a vote.

Thomas Mackubin Owens once described this kind of thinking as "strategic monism":

"'Strategic monism,' . . . is based on the idea that all of our security problems can be solved by a single approach to war or a single system. Advocates of 'airpower can do it all' are a good example of strategic monism . . .

"The problem with the strategic monists is that the United States might invest in an approach that is not able to address the entire spectrum of conflict. Eisenhower's 'New Look' defense posture, which emphasized long-range nuclear-armed bombers, is a case in point. Adversaries were able to develop asymmetric strategies which the United States could not counter. With the election in 1960 of John Kennedy, the New Look was superseded by 'Flexible Response,' which remained more or less the defense posture for the remainder of the Cold War."

Many observers across the political spectrum today seek to account for our failures or defeats in the War on Terror by partaking in complicated analogies to determine whether we are in a particular phase of World War Two, say, 1939 for example, and have thus really not begun to fight at all, or whether we are in the midst of the folly that characterized the Johnson White House, say in 1967, and thus are destined to lose.

But we would be better served as a nation to take a cold, hard, sober look at our position in 2006 and note that while similarities can always be found throughout history, each incident is strikingly different and the future is never foretold. We would be better served as a nation to note that we are engaged in a counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign in Iraq that resembles Vietnam in some superficial ways, but does not make failure a foregone conclusion; and moreover, that while counterinsurgency tactics and strategies might currently apply in Iraq, that does not mean they will always apply everywhere, as a strategic monist might think. Indeed, our Navy and Air Force, which are simply supporting actors on the Iraqi stage, might well be the stars of any campaign to defang Iran's nuclear ambitions.

We would be well-served to notice these things and then, rather than comparing and analogizing in order to predict the future, we might instead choose to make it, asking ourselves: What do we need to do to win?

Josh Manchester is a TCS Daily contributing writer. His blog is The Adventures of Chester (

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