A strategic remedy for problematic "limited war" thinking?
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A strategic remedy for problematic "limited war" thinking?

07 Jan 2020 - 12:56
Photo: U.S. paratrooper during an airborne operation in northeastern Italy, 2019. © U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos/Flickr
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‘Western elites and leaders lack the intellectual foundation to discuss war in a rational and logical manner.’ Many scholars might shy away from such bold statements, but Donald Stoker is not one of them. In Why America Loses Wars, Stoker analyses the main problems of contemporary limited war theory and seeks to provide a strategic remedy.  

Stoker, a recently-retired American professor who worked for almost two decades at the Naval War College, argues that often when scholars and leaders use the term “limited war”, they have no clear idea of what the term means. As a result, they are prone to making misguided strategic decisions and to losing the war.

To properly define what “limited war” is, Stoker goes back to Carl von Clausewitz (not surprising, as Stoker wrote a biography on the Prussian strategist) and to maritime theorist Julian Corbett. He adopts Corbett’s definition of unlimited war as ‘a conflict waged to overthrow the enemy government’, whereas a limited war is fought ‘for something less.’ Stoker argues that wars should be classified as “limited” or “unlimited” based on the political objective that the military action seeks to accomplish, not on the means employed in that action.

U.S. Army paratroopers during an exercise in Germany, 2019. © U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos/Flickr
U.S. Army paratroopers during an exercise in Germany, 2019. © U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos/Flickr

Using this distinction, the author engages in an in-depth analysis of a number of post-World War II wars, focusing in particular on the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Whilst the conflict in Korea is often seen as a limited war, the political objective of the American leadership changed in the period from 1950 to 1953 from a limited one (defending South Korea) to an unlimited one (reunification of the two Koreas; thus ousting the North’s leadership) and back to a limited one (defending South Korea).

Stoker also mentions the war against Islamic State (IS). Whilst being “limited” in terms of the troops committed, this war was in Stoker’s view an unlimited conflict in that it sought to unseat the IS leadership.

Stoker convincingly argues why the way we think about limited war is wrong and how it should be done better

Why America Loses Wars combines case studies supporting its central argument with more general reflections on strategic thinking. It is in these reflections that Stoker’s Naval War College background is most apparent. With military precision and scrupulous attention to processes, he thoroughly develops his argument from the formulation of definitions all the way to the post-war endgame.

Stoker also shows the danger of not expecting the unexpected and unpacks quite a few buzzwords that characterise contemporary literature on warfare (think “hybrid warfare”). These general reflections alone make the book worth the reader’s time. Combined with the analytical framework, Stoker convincingly argues why the way we think about limited war is wrong and how it should be done better.

The structure of the book, however, inhibits rather than supports the argumentation. Although the individual strategic thoughts are valuable, Stoker does not always make clear where they fit in the overall picture of his argument. The fact that Stoker cuts corners every now and then does not help.

For example, arguing that ‘the belief that a nation must have allies and must have UN sanction to act is a self-imposed constraint’ can be the interesting start of an elaborate argument on norms in the international system. However, by merely positing this statement and moving on, Stoker seems to ignore the fundamentals of international law.

Similarly, Stoker states that President Obama did not seek UN approval for American military engagement in Iraq in 2014, but omits that this engagement came upon the explicit request of the Iraqi government. This sometimes leaves the reader with a “what else are you not telling me” feeling.

These unfounded or poorly-argued claims detract from an otherwise timely and well-researched volume that asks a number of key questions about (limited) war

Furthermore, whereas much of Stoker’s criticism of defence intellectuals and political leaders is well-sourced, he at times stretches his arguments too far. For example, he dismisses a study which argues that certain US interventions were too 'victory centric’ and mistakenly used unsuitable military means to achieve complex political objectives.

Stoker however unfairly represents its main argument as ‘the US should learn to lose more quickly at a lower cost’. And when zooming in on criticism of Israel’s military activities and victories, Stoker notes – without evidence – that ‘tingeing some of this criticism is the traditional anti-Semitism of Western elites’.

These unfounded or poorly-argued claims detract from an otherwise timely and well-researched volume that asks a number of key questions we have to consider when thinking about (limited) war.

In his eighteen years at the Naval War College, Stoker must have taught hundreds of students. While reading Why America Loses Wars, one cannot escape a “wish I had been there during his lectures” feeling. Stoker not only displays a rare clarity of thought but also equips readers with the analytical tools they need to better asses issues of (limited) war and strategy.

Why America loses wars Donald Stoker
 Why America Loses Wars. Limited War and US Strategy from the Korean War to the Present 
 Published by Cambridge University Press in August 2019
 344 pages
 ISBN: 9781108611794

Auteurs

Maarten Broekhof
Research Fellow Nederlandse Defensie Academie