Strategy as Performance Art

Adam Elkus on 2015-12-02

I have seen this excerpt from Ralph Peters’ old Bill O’Reilly interview posted throughout the Internet today and yesterday. I was somehow fortunate enough to miss it when it first came out, but now I see it. I do think it is a worth a comment due to the problems that it represents in terms of strategic thinking (or the lack thereof).

Peters, here, is playing a well-worn act. The cold and hard (yet nonetheless florid and romantic) figure that, alone, sees what must be done. This sort of elaborate performance is a less touchy-feely variant of the Care Bear Theory of Strategy. Whereas the Care Bear Theory assumes that if only X and Y knew better, they wouldn’t be fighting (e.g, the assumption that violent conflict is aberrant and only occurs due to mistakes, preventable escalation, provocation, blowback, false consciousness, Western imperialism, etc), the more militaristic variant of the Care Bare Theory that Peters voices is considerably simpler. American military might is a caged tiger being held back by sniveling, unmanly lawyers, bureaucrats, and politicians. If only we could recognize that we were at war with “Islamist terrorists” (a very broad category that happens to include, ahem, some people fighting ISIS right now) and set that tiger free, we would be OK.

Peters’ fans may see this differently. They might say that it is a Shermanesque gesture, but General Sherman was different from Peters in several critical ways. What Sherman did was well within the norms of 19th century warfare, and was far harsher on property than it was on people. Sherman’s reputation as an evil butcher is a product of Confederate propaganda. Moreover, Sherman was a strategist. Sherman made a compelling case that the Southern capability to make war had to be eliminated for the civil war to end, and that the destruction of Confederate infrastructure was the way to go about eliminating the Southern capacity to make war. As much as one dislikes the stereotypical image of the American Way of War, one can certainly see how Sherman embodied the best traditions of the stereotypical American Way of War. What Peters is effectively offering is something very distinct from Sherman. Instead of bringing finality to war, Peters effectively has created a kind of military equivalent of a programmer’s infinite loop.

Let’s assume the lowest number Peter uses for the maximum time it takes for the terrorist to rebuild their forces. In Peters’ world, we destroy Really Bad Terrorists at time T+0. At T+5, we destroy them again. At T+10 we destroy them again. At T+15 we destroy them again. And so on. There is no termination condition because Peters had not specified one, even implicitly. Of course, Peters might counter this by biting the bullet and saying, yes, it’s neverending but as long as it can be done at tolerable cost to the US it is better than avoiding the problem of fighting terrorism. And, in this limited formulation, Peters might be right. However, it is this very assumption that is Peters’ undoing.

First, there is the odd assumption that the US can just continuously project an expeditionary force to totally wipe out an opponent every five years. This would require the establishment of a permanent logistical structure dedicated solely to carrying out repeated overwhelming combined arms strikes regardless of the US’s other concerns (e.g, trouble with at least several great powers would necessitate an immediate redirection of resources) as well as the establishment of a political and diplomatic structure that would enable the US to continuously do this without other powers thwarting it. Given that the leadership of the countries that we would need to do this is not static, this is a highly problematic assumption. The destabilizing political effects of repeatedly barging into another territory and leveling cities like Genghis Khan every five years might do far more damage to US security interests than the actual terrorists being combated. For this reason, one also wonders how and why regional powers would somehow cooperate or stand idly by while the US repeatedly rolls in, blows everything up, rolls out, and leaves them to pick up the pieces and deal with the security fallout. And all of this, of course, would have to be somehow paid for in the middle of sequestration.

Second, note that Peters does not even remotely consider the possibility of using force to change the adversary’s behavior. The Israeli national security policy does not aim to totally eliminate its non-state adversaries; it seeks to carefully apply force to degrade their capabilities and dissuade them from aggression. Moreover, as AE Stahl notes in his recent survey of Israeli strategy in Operation Pillar of Defense, the Israelis have also recognized that the only thing worse than tolerating a terrorist state on their border is that terrorist state somehow disappearing into anarchy. As one Israeli official Stahl communicated with noted:

Hamas is the only viable political entity that exists in the Gaza Strip that is capable of being responsible for Israeli interests. Now, if you will hit him too strongly and destroy him, you will find yourself without a reliable and responsible political adversary in the Strip. Actually, you are going to create chaos, a dangerous vacuum. Strategically, this is much worse for you.

The US may have to live with the reality of needing to maintain an expeditionary capability for quashing sub-state enemies and sub-state enemies that, like ISIS, successfully acquire their own state. But if this is so, then Peters ought to recognize that the sustainability of how this is done matters a great deal. There is an enormous difference between maintaining a low-level special ops and drone campaign (which has had mixed strategic results at best) and the ability to deploy the modern equivalent of a few Roman legions to completely destroy an opponent and then pack up and leave every 5–10 years. Peters should provide some evidence that this is remotely plausible or desirable.

But this isn’t really what I want to talk about. I could talk a lot about why raiding isn’t a cure-all, but I wrote about that years ago. I could talk a bit about why tough guy talk isn’t really strategy, but I also wrote about that more recently. Instead, I think I will talk about something else. Peters is not really expressing a theory of victory as much as engaging in a kind of strategic burlesque performance. Peters gets to raise the imagery of “smoking ruins and crying widows” without, of course, the substantial amount of noncombatants that will be killed or horrendously mutilated as a consequence of his preferred policy option.

Those lawyers and bureaucrats Peters so despises serve a valuable function: ensuring US compliance with the laws of war and US domestic law. This does not earn them any sympathy from their anti-war critics, but they nonetheless have helped US soldiers, spies, and diplomats through some of the most tangled military, intelligence, and counterterrorism problems of the last decade and a half. Granted, war is war and even the most precise and accurate weapons will inevitably miss their targets or hit the wrong targets. But in Peters’ world, we would remove them all.

Peters’s fans likely flock to him because they see him as a truth-teller that abstains from political correctness. But what Peters is engaging in is a form of active duplicity that Orwell would have recognized quite well. Peters’ policy option would involve slaughter on a massive scale. Yet, because Peters knows that he cannot openly call for it absent some World War II-like condition of supreme emergency, he has cloaked it in the anodyne term “collateral damage.” Collateral damage is a bomb falling on the wrong house, and it is something that the United States military has, compared to previous wars it has fought, substantially reduced. What Peters is hinting at, but will not say outright, is that he is willing to tolerate civilian death on a massive scale and the systematic destruction of the homes and communities they live in. To call this “collateral damage” is to abuse political language.

Comrade Putin would certainly approve of this rhetorical flourish, as it is essentially what the Russians have done in Chechyna and are currently doing in Syria right now. But would the American people? The role of the security analyst when a figure like Peters does this sort of dance ought to be to simply remove his room for ambiguity. Call Peters on his bluff. Get him to say, in plain terms, what he believes we ought to do and the human costs he is willing to accept. Ask him what level of “collateral damage” he believes is a tolerable price to pay. And then let us all decide whether we are actually so imperiled that we must resort to barbarism.