War Stories

Why Are We Still Fighting in Iraq?

The military doesn’t know how to end a war.

Seven weeks after President Bush’s May Day victory declaration, the war in Iraq is not yet over. More than 50 American soldiers have died in Iraq since then, almost as many as were killed in the three weeks of formal combat. The deaths have come not just from sniper potshots, but also in the course of sizable U.S. raids, at least one (in Fallujah, outside Baghdad) involving a full Army brigade.

What has gone wrong here? Much of it is related to the administration’s famously inadequate preparation for postwar reconstruction; if civil discord weren’t so seething (over lack of water, electricity, jobs, money, and so forth), the guerrillas might have demurred from such bold attacks. However, much of the current situation is the result of a more generic problem—the failure of U.S. military strategists to think much about how wars end.

Huba Wass de Czege (pronounced HOO-ba VOSS de-say-ga) is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general who has given some thought to these matters lately. To the extent the Army has evolved into a more agile fighting force, Wass de Czege has been a major influence: In the early 1980s, he rewrote the Army’s official field manual on operations, replacing the old book’s doctrine of attrition and firepower with the ancient but forgotten concepts of maneuver warfare, deep-strike offensives, and combined air-land battle. He then founded the Army’s School for Advanced Military Studies, an elite, yearlong postgrad program, to inculcate the new concepts in the next generation’s officer corps.

Last year, Wass de Czege observed two big official war games, the Army’s “Vigilant Warrior” and the Air Force’s “Global Engagement.” Shortly afterward, he wrote and privately circulated a memo, called “02 Wargaming Insights,” that Donald Rumsfeld would have done well to read. (The general recently sent me a copy.)

These sorts of war games “tend to devote more attention to successful campaign-beginnings than to successful conclusions,” he wrote. “War games usually conclude when victory seems inevitable to us (not necessarily to the enemy), at about the point operational superiority has been achieved and tactical control of strategically significant forces and places appears to be a matter of time.”

Winning a war, he noted, doesn’t mean simply defeating the enemy on the battlefield. It means achieving the strategic goals for which we’ve gone to war in the first place. In both war games, he wrote, the question of how to achieve those strategic goals couldn’t be answered because the war game ended too soon.

This is unfortunate, he went on, because, important though it is to understand the early stages of a military campaign, “it is just as important to know how to follow through to the resolution of such conflicts.” He added that, if the game managers did follow through the next time they play, they would learn that they—and, by extension, U.S. military commanders generally—have underestimated “the difficulties of ‘regime change’ and the magnitude of the effort required to achieve strategic objectives.”

All these observations, written well before Gulf War II, seem painfully prescient in retrospect. They are also consistent with a long-standing shortfall in American military thinking. There seem to be no U.S. Army field manuals on the subject of what used to be called “war termination.” I know of only one book on the general subject that’s still in print: Fred Ikle’s Every War Must End, written in 1971 (with a final chapter added for a 1991 revised edition).

Except when chronicling the endings of specific wars, scholars have shied away from the subject, perhaps a legacy of the farce that greeted Paul Kecskemeti, an analyst at the Rand Corp. who wrote a book in 1958 called Strategic Surrender: The Politics of Victory and Defeat. It was mainly a case study of the German, Japanese, and Italian surrenders at the end of World War II, but a few right-wing politicians were so panic-stricken by the book’s title—they thought it advocated surrendering to the Communists—that they forced a bill through Congress outlawing government funding of any study even mentioning the word “surrender.” (Rand was, at the time, funded mainly by the Air Force.)

In fairness to our current crop of officers and their civilian authorities, how to end wars has not been a hot issue in American military history. World War II was fairly straightforward: The enemy surrendered unconditionally, and the rest of the world didn’t seem to mind our subsequent occupation. Korea was a stalemate, Vietnam a rout. The hemispheric wars have been minor and manageable. The first Gulf War was a roaring battlefield success that ended—it soon seemed clear—badly, a mixed phenomenon that should have prompted attention to the matter, but didn’t; Desert Storm’s shady aftermath (the survival of Saddam, his repression of the rebels) could easily be attributed to the involvement of the United Nations since its mandate left no room for missions beyond ousting Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

So here we are, still fighting a war because Saddam’s last loyalists, perhaps aided by other anti-American forces, have refused to recognize our war-gamed definition of when the war is done.

Late last March, halfway through the official phase of the war, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, raised a stink when he told a reporter, “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against.” In a sense, different from the one he meant but far more troubling, he was right.