Saying: Those who don't know history are
condemned to repeat it.
Better Saying: Those who don't know history are
more easily misled by dishonest politicians.
Corollary to Better Saying: Politicians ignoring history can get American troops killed.
Upon us are interesting times. Americans are
dying in Iraq, war looms in Korea, and the destructive
potential of terrorism has reached unthinkable levels.
It is noteworthy, then, that some national
politicians are behaving in ways that play directly into
the strategy of our enemies. It may be that they are ignorant
of the effects of their actions; I hope so, because the alternative
is that they understand the strategy of our enemies and are
proactively encouraging it for partisan political purposes. Either
way, the effect is the same.
Victory in war is based on destroying what
Clausewitz described as the enemy's "center of gravity."
Sometimes it would be based on geography -- capture the enemy's castle or
capital and you win the war. Sometimes it has been the enemy military force itself -- defeat the enemy's
army, and he will be unable to continue the fight.
Today's American military is virtually undefeatable
in the field. Therefore, to our enemies, our strategic center of
gravity is neither our geography nor our fighting forces; it is the will of
our political leadership to continue to fight in the face of
Throughout history, lower-tier forces have achieved
strategic victory over more powerful adversaries with tactics that target
political will. Victory can thereby be accomplished without decisively defeating
the more powerful enemy forces in the field.
ignore this lesson at our peril.
One example is the American Revolution. George
Washington knew that he could not consistently defeat the British in major, set-piece
battles. Washington tried to do just that in
the Battle of Long Island, with disastrous results. From then on,
his strategy was to attack the will of the British political leadership --
the enemy's center of gravity -- by
prolonging the war.
In contrast, the American center of gravity was Washington's
army itself. As long as the Continentals were in the field, the war
would continue to bleed the British people of their treasure and their
This is why Valley Forge was as decisive as any
battle; by keeping the tiny core of his army together through that
terrible winter, Washington kept the American center of gravity intact.
Five years after the Battle of Long Island,
Washington captured Cornwallis' relatively small
command at Yorktown. Although losing those 7,500 men was a setback,
the British Army was still the most powerful force in the Americas. And
yet, this victory was the tipping point of the entire war, and
led to the independence of the Colonies.
The key to the American victory was not that
they had defeated overall British military capability; they hadn't.
The key was that they had defeated the
will of the British people to continue the conflict. Englishmen were sick and tired of
this draining war; the setback at Yorktown was the last straw that
caused them to accept peace on the Americans' terms.
It is interesting that almost two centuries later
the Vietnamese Communists studied and applied the lessons of George
Washington's victory over the militarily superior British to defeat the militarily superior USA.
The American center of gravity in Vietnam was the
will of its leaders to accept the political consequences of the
never-ending flow of casualties.
For example, the overall Communist strategy of the Tet Offensive
of 1968 was not to achieve final victory over the American and South
Vietnamese forces; it was to create the impression among the American
people that the war couldn't be won, and that it would be pointless to continue.
Tactically, the Tet Offensive was a disastrous defeat
for the Communists. The Viet Cong was so decimated that it had to
receive a massive infusion of North Vietnamese Army troops to continue as
a credible military force; some units became as much as 70% NVA.
Yet on a strategic level, Tet was a smashing success
for the Communists. American television screens showed images of the horrors of war -- an ugly picture
regardless of who is winning.
In spite of the facts on the ground, the predominant
analysis of American
commentators and politicians was that Tet was a huge American setback.
This had the exact effect that the Communists wanted -- they had their
eyes on our media and our politicians at all times. In an historic
speech following Tet, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not
run for reelection, and that his priority would be to ease America out of
In his excellent book After Tet, historian
Ronald H. Spector says: "Some active opponents of the war
experienced jubilation...Now the war would end...Of one thing everyone was
sure, a great turning point had been reached. A British journalist
visiting the United States a few months after LBJ's speech was struck by
the way in which...
'the rancorous, near hysterical atmosphere of the
Tet Offensive has been entirely transformed since the President's
speech....People outside politics are not arguing much about the war at
present....Most of them appear to believe that whoever captures the
presidency...will be obliged to end the conflict within a matter of
months. How this is to be done or what concessions are to be made
is very much a matter of detail.'
It was this matter of detail which was to prolong the
war for the next four and a half years..."
Note that the end of American involvement was the
Communists' strategic goal; the Communists' tactical defeat during Tet was a
strategic victory. They set their tactical plans with an eye to
American media coverage, which in turn influenced American politicians,
which in turn influenced America's military in a way that
the Communist military forces couldn't.
Regardless of whether you think the Vietnam war was a
wasteful, dark chapter in American history (which I do), the lesson is
that a lower-tier military can achieve strategic victory over a superior
military not by defeating the superior force in the field, but by
defeating the will of the people and the politicians who control that
George Washington did it to King George; Ho Chi Minh did
it to Lyndon Johnson.
And in Somalia, Mohammed Adid did it to Bill
Clinton. In Mogadishu in 1993, 19 American servicemen were killed in
a botched snatch-and-grab of Somali warlords loyal to Adid. Upon
seeing television images of dead American soldiers, the President and Congress immediately pulled our troops
According to Brian Steed in his book Armed
Conflict: The Lessons of Modern Warfare:
"...the understanding of the Somali warlords was to inflict harm on
U.S. and U.N. forces and create a political pain level sufficient to force
At the same time that America's military has become
virtually invincible, our politicians have
become extremely averse to casualties. The lesson for our
enemies: Bloody the Americans a little bit and they will run away; politicians haven't the stomach for a fight if it will cost a few
votes. Osama bin Laden took notice. He specifically noted our
retreat from Somalia as evidence that we were a paper tiger.
We see the same strategy playing out in Iraq.
Saddam's military had no chance to defeat our forces in the field.
So now elements loyal to his regime target American troops for murder, one
a day, trickling on, a never-ending news story.
This is militarily insignificant. But it cuts
to the bone of the true American center of gravity.
Terrorist leaders stay with a course of action when they
see it working. In the recent past, generating a steady stream of
casualties has proven the best way to get the Americans to go home.
It has worked nearly every time it's been tried, which encourages the
terrorists to continue.
This is why President Bush, when asked how he felt about the continued attacks by Saddam loyalists in Iraq, said
"Bring 'em on!" It wasn't the meaningless utterance of a
clueless cowboy, as his political opponents would have us believe.
It was a calculated message to those who have directly targeted his will
to continue. It made it starkly clear that the tide has turned, and that we
will no longer shrink from a fight when we get hit.
This is a critical turning point in American
political leadership. Although every American battle death is a
tragedy, we encourage future attacks when we retreat in the face of militarily insignificant
casualties. By standing like a stone
wall (nod to General Jackson intended), President Bush has drawn a line in
cement, serving notice to our enemies that our center of gravity is no
longer the formerly weak resolve of politicians.
After the 1983 terrorist bombing of the U.S. Marine
barracks in Lebanon, Congress insisted that we pull our forces out.
The message to the terrorists was that if they hit us in the nose, we
would cry and run home. President Reagan warned that that would only
cost more lives in the future, as terrorists would continue with what to
them was a successful tactic. President Reagan was right.
Thank goodness President Bush took heed of that
lesson. It is costing lives now. But the message to terrorists
is that if they hit us, they will be crushed.
That will save lives in the future.
So when you hear the John Kerrys and Howard Deans of
the country scream bloody murder and demand that President Bush be
replaced or impeached seemingly every time a terrorist attacks an American soldier, look at it from our enemies' point of
view: That is exactly the response they hope for. Like Ho
Chi Minh and Mohammed Adid, today's enemies are hoping to "create a political pain level sufficient to force
Every time they kill a soldier, terrorists turn on CNN to
see if that murder becomes a rallying point for the enemies of the
terrorists' enemy, George W. Bush.
Note an example of how it should be done:
Almost everyone agrees that President Jimmy Carter's handling of the
444-day Iran hostage crisis was less than stellar. Even so,
then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan refused to undermine
Carter's authority in the heat of the standoff by publicly criticizing
him in order to gain advantage in the 1980 election
It is legitimate to question our government's
policies, even in wartime. The policies of a sitting president are
fair game for challenge in an election cycle, even in wartime. But
lives are on the line; it must be done in such a way as to show a united
national will to finish the job, with only the means open for
debate. What we are hearing from some of President Bush's domestic
political enemies is something altogether different.
When you hear the hew and cry of those people, ask
yourself if their tone and content edify our commitment to a successful
long-term result in Iraq, or if their tone and content make our mortal
enemies smile with delight that their attack on our center of gravity is
having the desired effect.
You don't tug on Superman's cape. At least, not
anymore you don't.