The Nature of War
I write historical novels about war. My first book, Fall Eagle One, is about World War II in Europe. My second novel, Hold Back the Sun, is set in the opening months of the Pacific War in the Western Pacific. Asphalt and Blood, which is at the copy edit phase, tells the story of U.S. Navy Seabees in the Vietnam Battle for Hue City.
In order to write about war, one must understand it. I spent over 29 years in the U.S. Navy, of which seventeen months were in Vietnam. I hold the Navy’s Combat Action Ribbon. An amateur historian all my life, I have concentrated my studies on WW2. From personal experience and rigorous study, I believe that I have an understanding of modern warfare.
War is, by its very nature, barbaric and horrific. The purpose of war is to impose one’s will on the enemy through the use of military force. War is not a duel, with rules to assure that one opponent has no advantage over the other. War is successful only when the enemy loses the will to resist.
In today’s Washington Post, Eliot A. Cohen, former Counselor of the U.S. State Department, argues persuasively that many in today’s Washington, D.C., do not understand the nature of war. He points out that President Abraham Lincoln hated war as much as anyone on earth, yet he understood that winning the American Civil War required his generals to break the will of the Confederate population to continue the struggle. I assert in Fall Eagle One that Union generals invented the modern concept of Total War as it was practiced in WW2. The “scorched earth” campaigns carried out by General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley and General Sherman’s March to the Sea in Georgia speak for themselves. Photographs of Richmond, Virginia, after its surrender look much like those of Berlin in 1945.
Only rigorous application of force makes possible a rapid conclusion of hostilities and a minimization of total casualties. Following the suicide bombing of U.S. Marines in Lebanon early in his administration, President Reagan ordered Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, to develop a new doctrine for the use of military force. The resulting “Weinberger Doctrine,” sometimes called the “Weinberger/Powell Doctrine,” espoused the following:
military force should only be used as a last resort in situations where key national interests are involved,
military force should only be used in situations where a large majority of the U.S. public supports its use, and
when military action is taken, it should be in such overwhelming force that the ensuing conflict is concluded quickly, thereby minimizing overall casualties.
This doctrine governed U.S. military involvements through the NATO actions in the Balkans during the Clinton Administration.
Unfortunately, sometime during the run-up to the Vietnam War, the competing doctrines of “Just Enough Force” and “Proportionality” crept into the conduct of war. For years, the U.S. attempted to apply just enough military pressure to force the North Vietnamese to give up their conquest of the South. When Moshe Dayan, the former Defense Minister of Israel, visited Vietnam in the 1960s, he was asked how the U.S. could end the war. His answer was direct: take the war to the enemy’s homeland. Because obliterating North Vietnam’s capacity to continue fighting was not even being considered, the Vietnam War dragged on for years.
“Proportionality” implies that, when attacked, the response should be no more severe than the attack. This doctrine seems especially attractive to reporters in the news media, who ask about it continually when interviewing combatants. “Proportionality” calls for a “leveling of the playing field,” a minimization of one side’s military advantages. In the context of warfare, “proportionality” guarantees prolonged conflict, which in turn maximizes total casualties. Pursuing this course is anathema to any competent military commander.
War is not some game. People suffer and die in war. It is not, as Chancellor Bismarck argued, simply “Diplomacy by other means.” As I said earlier, war is both barbaric and horrific. I believe that Secretary Weinberger and General Powell got it right on the use of military force. Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Harry Truman all understood the nature of war and applied overwhelming force to end WW2. Current world leaders could emulate their wisdom.
Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from Amazon.com. Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun set in the war in the Pacific.