From the Punic Wars (264–146 b.c.) and the Hundred Years War (1337–1453) to the Arab–Israeli wars (1947–) and the so-called War on Terror (2001–), some wars never seem to end.
The dilemma is raised frequently given America’s long wars (Vietnam 1955–75) that either ended badly (Iraq 2003–11) or in some ways never quite ended at all (Korea 1950–53 and 2017–?; Afghanistan 2001–).
One, such bella interrupta involve belligerents who are roughly equally matched. Neither side had enough of a material or spiritual edge (or sometimes the desire) to defeat, humiliate, and dictate terms to the beaten enemy. Think Rome and Carthage from 264 to 146. For 118 years, they fought three Punic Wars until greater Roman growth and vitality finally allowed it to dominate the Mediterranean and dictate terms on the North African coast, which finally resulted in the destruction of the Carthaginian Empire rather than another defeat of it. There was no fourth Punic War.
Certainly over the length of the Hundred Years’ War, England and France were often either too equally matched, or both lacked the necessary military clout to destroy their adversary’s army, march on the respective enemy capital, occupy it, and end both the material and political ability of the losing side to make war.
In the post-war nuclear age, America’s enemies having roughly equal military power was never the reason that America failed to achieve victory in conventional wars. Rather, for a variety of reasons — political, cultural, social, economic — the U.S., at times, both wisely and foolishly, chose not to apply its full strength to pursue the unconditional surrender of its enemies.
In other cases of never-ending wars, the two sides were clearly asymmetrical. One side easily could and should have won decisively and ended the conflict with a lasting resolution. Yet the apparently stronger side chose not to win, or for a variety of circumstances was prevented from victory.
Tiny Israel has had the power to vanquish its enemies in an existential war, but chose not to use its full military potential — given both internal and external pressures. Israel apparently concluded that the permanent occupations of the Sinai, Gaza, and borderlands of Lebanon, which would have provided permanent demilitarized ground corridors, would be too costly either in terms of policing and stabilizing hostile populations or too politically expensive in alienating key Western allies.
Nor did Israel think it could force a consensual government on the West Bank or change hearts and minds, as happened with the Israeli Arabs who do not regularly organize and fight Tel Aviv. Nor, in an age of missiles and rockets, did Israel yet have the technological ability to create absolutely safe skies or the global support to retaliate by air in Roman fashion.
The result was that Israel is forced into a chronic cycle of defeating regional enemies without the ability to end the perpetual willingness of the defeated to suffer tactical defeat, and then rearm and reequip during periods between wars, and then renew the conflict on supposedly better terms.
As in most serial wars, the U.S. chooses to fight to prevent defeat rather than to achieve lasting victory.
The American slog in Afghanistan is somewhat similar. Americans feel that the level of force and violence necessary to obliterate the Taliban and impose a lasting settlement is either too costly, or not worth any envisioned victory, or impossible in such absurd tribal landscapes, or would be deemed immoral and contrary to Western values. Therefore, as in most serial wars, the U.S. chooses to fight to prevent defeat rather than to achieve lasting victory.
But given that no one welcomes either defeat or unending war, why do such conflicts continue?
Again, prestige matters. Defeat in the modern age can cause a change of government or lose a country its deterrence at best — and, at worst, lead to impoverishment and decline. Often in such stalemates, both sides dream that cosmic forces will soon intervene to recalibrate relative strength or will, resulting in eventual victory, either by the enervation of the enemy, or the addition of new allies, or some sort of new weapon, new mobilization, or new strategy.
In the present West, there are few optional or non-existential wars that can be won in the traditional sense, despite the West’s overwhelming military power. Western nations rarely deem an enemy so purely evil that it deserves the full force of Western might or that defeating it will be worth the potentially high cost.
The bizarre modern Western doctrine of “proportionality” (akin to the tit-for-tat blood feuds of the Icelandic sagas) tends to ensure stalemate. Leisured Western publics are uncomfortable with using their militaries’ full strength, given the collective guilt and bad publicity that accrue when their forces inflict far more losses than they have incurred. Yet, paradoxically, disproportionality was always central to resolving chronic wars: Having much more power makes the weaker aggressor suffer so much that it never again tries to undertake another attack.
Disproportionality was always central to resolving chronic wars: Having much more power makes the weaker aggressor suffer so much that it never again tries to undertake another attack.
A few exceptions to these constraints prove the rule. Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia was largely castigated by the world for its perceived cruelty and genocide against the former states of Yugoslavia. Certainly, Serbia was considered an unsympathetic Western power; Milosevic was deemed an odious dictator. And the Clinton administration believed it could force out Milosevic with air power alone, precluding televised mass casualties, both Westerners and Serbs alike. Despite political and military mishaps, American strategy largely worked, albeit belatedly and only after tens of thousands of innocents had been killed in the decade of internecine and tribal bloodletting.
In cases such as the 1989 removal of Manuel Noriega or the 1983 invasion of Communist-run Grenada, Americans targeted unsavory characters (both within their own hemisphere) and nations that were small and easily defeated without serious costs (45 Americans killed in the two operations). In other words, both unpopular dictatorships without outside patrons could be easily removed at little cost and rather quickly. Likewise, few enemies were killed in either campaign.
But such enemies are rare. Go into the Middle East to remove odious autocrats (such as Saddam Hussein or Moammar Qaddafi) and problems mount. The Middle East is a political nightmare, where any Western intervention raises issues of big-power patronage, radical Islam, Shiite–Sunni divides, oil, political hot potatoes of past colonialism and imperialism, the Arab–Israeli conflict, and hundreds of millions who profess Arab solidarity. Alliances are unsteady and melt away or appear ex nihilo. The specter of other big-power interventions loom. Difficult logistics elevate costs. The distance from the U.S. makes it hard to convince the American public that such optional interventions are really existential and worth the costs, which have a habit of rising rather quickly to levels Americans will not tolerate.
The British pulled off the Falklands victory largely because of the clear aggression of Argentina, the support of the U.S., the indifference of a declining Soviet Union, the belief that the 500-year reputation of the Royal Navy was at stake, and the nuclear status and conventional military superiority of Britain, which allowed it to control the contours and escalation of the war. All that said, what allowed Britain to prevail was the ability to control losses (255 killed) and win the fighting quickly even at great distance (74 days).
In sum, the classical rules of existential conflict rarely apply in the nuclear age, which explains why so often war becomes chronic and stalemated. Of course, in the future there may well be aberrations like Grenada or Panama or even Kosovo, or existential wars such as we’d see if North Korea launched a nuclear war or mounted a conventional invasion of South Korea — such conflicts would resolve fairly quickly one way or another. But the idea that the United States can customarily win a war quickly without using its full power or marshalling public support remains difficult. And it’s very rare that the U.S. faces existential threats prompting the full use of U.S. military superiority and earning the determination of an aggrieved public to purse unconditional surrender at any cost.
A final irony?
Our enemies know these paradoxes as well as we do. By design, they seek to involve the United States in conflict on their terms. September 11 aside, they seek to avoid posing a perceived existential threat that might provoke an infuriated American public, fueled with the military power to finish any war they enter.
The result is the present age of serial Punic conflict, perhaps intolerable to the psyche, but in amoral terms tolerable as long as casualties are kept to a minimum and defeat is redefined as acceptable strategic wisdom. In the past, such periods of enervating war have gone on for a century and more. Ultimately, they too end — and with consequences.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, released in October from Basic Books.