Will to Win?

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 05-16-2021

I had the opportunity last year to work with a fellow on what war-fighting might look like “next.” He wanted to imagine a battlefield “beyond the industrial age,” where we wouldn’t have soldiers in the field, weapons would all be remote, cyber would take a lead role, and autonomous, standoff weapons would dominate.
Certainly, there’s rapidly approaching a day when the battlefield will be swarmed with robots and drones of all sizes and capabilities. Cyber efforts, both in attack and defense, will wash over the entirety of each warring nation.
But in the end, all the sophisticated gear will still lead around to a simple question: do you kill “that guy?” Perhaps “non-lethal” weapons will allow fighting with a minimum of killing. Hmmmm…  Some history is needed…
When the US went into Somalia in 1992 - post Desert Storm - there was talk about “the new way of war,” and various concepts were thrown around: “Dominant Battle-Space Awareness,” “Focused Logistics,” and “Precision Delivery” [of Weapons]. In fact, we had all those. And we had a few opportunities to kill lots of Somalis - do some digging on the hunt for Muhammed Aideed (Operation Gothic Serpent, the Battle for Mogadishu, aka "Black Hawk Down.”) We killed a lot of Somalis. But we didn’t break their will. We left, they stayed. 
We went back to Somalia a number of years ago. We’re doing a little better now. But are we winning? At the strategic level? Whose will is going to break first?
As Harry Summers pointed out, we never lost a tactical engagement in Vietnam. But, to quote a North Vietnamese Colonel, “So what? It didn’t matter.”
Clausewitz, the dean of modern political-military thought, emphasized that: “War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.” But the Field Marshal had a great deal more to say, telling us that: “War is… an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.” This is as true in limited as in unlimited war. Further, as he said to a friend, there can be ‘no purely military solution to a great strategic issue.’
In short, the whole of the nation has to be involved. And in particular, the nation has to be willing to endure the cost, the cost necessary to break the enemy’s will.
And if you are not willing to kill “that” guy, there remains the distinct probability that he IS willing to kill you. And while he may be nothing more than a poor Afghan mountain-man, or a Somali tribesman, and against your ultra-sophisticated gear only has a rock; the fact remains that if you don't kill him with your ray gun, he will eventually kill you with his rock. 
Will is the key. And many an Afghan mountain-man has substantially more will than the policy-makers of Foggy Bottom. But how did we get here? What happened to the will to win, inside the halls of power in Washington?
During the Cold War there was an assessment - started by a few Big Brains of the 1950s and 1960s, and firmly formulated by Bob McNamara - that 400 nuclear weapons  delivered on target would deter the Soviets. This soon was distilled to: 400 weapons would destroy the world, which then further distilled to: any war was going to eventually lead to a nuclear exchange and hence the end of the world. War then became not a “continuation of policy” but a failure of policy, as no one would have a policy that ended in his own destruction. 
War, and thus war winning, became separated from policy. And with that separation if seems that Washington lost any understanding of will.
The result is that the “deep thinkers” at various think tanks and government agencies came to regard “war” as failure and saw little need to understand it. Their job was to simply avoid it… Any treaty became a good treaty…
During the Russian attempt to occupy Afghanistan (1979) stories quickly emerged that highlighted the tenacity, the will, of the Afghans. One particularly fascinating story related that Afghan tribesmen stole very heavy rebar from Russian construction sites and - drilling by hand, as in, no power tools - turned rebar into muzzle-loading rifles. These may not have been very good rifles, but the determination behind that effort is worth considering. I told that story to several three star officers just after September 11th, trying to impress upon them that this wasn’t going to be easy and that the tribesman of the Hindu Kush wouldn’t wilt easily under pressure; 20 years on they still aren't wilting.
While Clausewitz noted that no strategic issue could be solved purely on military terms, he pointed out that the central issue in war was to break the enemy’s will. And the core element of breaking the enemy’s will, of waging a successful war, is violence, extreme violence. When Sherman warned that: “war is hell,” he wasn’t saying it should be avoided at all costs. Clearly, there were some costs that could be born. Sherman and his friend, US Grant, had just fought an incredibly bloody civil war, and from their perspectives the cost had been worth it. 
Sherman’s warning was more pointed, and more brutal: you need to be prepared for hell. Don’t start a war under the misguided assumption that you can do it without hurting anybody. Clausewitz again, on being “kind” in war: Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.
Thus, while certain deep thinkers look to “modern,” “non-lethal” means to fight wars, in the end, war is about fighting and fighting is about killing. And to get right to the heart of the matter, killing enough of the enemy, and breaking enough of his “stuff” that we break his will, that he decides that the aims, the goals, that led to the war are no longer worth pursuing. History has shown that that usually adds up to a great deal of killing. 
So, that leaves us with this: if the military, and the leadership, cannot, or will not engage in that sort of thinking, don’t go.