• Michael Shurkin

Loose Change No. 7: The Myth of Decision in War

A point I hear frequently in debates about Barkhane is the argument that the mission is a failure because France has not achieved a decisive victory. The desire for a decisive victory then is contrasted with the dread “endless war.” It seems that the only worthwhile military interventions are those that plausibly can lead to the former. The faster the better. The latter, however, is synonymous with failure. Once a conflict drags on longer than, well, some arbitrary time frame one imagines to be appropriate, there had better be clear evidence that decision is just around the corner…otherwise, the conflict defaults to “forever” and must be abandoned. It’s lost.

The search for decision reflects a narrowly Clausewitzian understanding of war that applies to some conflicts but not others. In many wars, decision is achieved by destroying the enemy’s forces, by seizing a position that places the enemy in checkmate, or otherwise by so demoralizing the opponent as to make it give up. This is warfare that Frederick, Napoleon, Grant, and Foch understood. However, there are other kinds of conflicts, asymmetrical or limited ones in which such objectives are irrelevant. Destroying the enemy’s armies may be implausible or irrelevant (there’s always someone else willing to pick up a rifle); there are no key positions the possession of which would doom one side or the other; and destroying the enemy’s will, if possible, would require playing a long game. Or maybe a nation simply decides that allocating the kinds of resources that might yield a quick decision is not in its interest. The goal, really, is to manage a crisis that has not arisen to a level of importance that would justify national mobilization.

But here’s the key point: Long, slow, and unsatisfying wars are not bad wars because they are long, slow, and unsatisfying. The lack of decision does not mean they are not worthwhile. Their worth should be determined through an altogether different calculus that considers costs and benefits. Is it in one’s interest to keep at it or to walk away? Where’s the greatest risk? What of the opportunity cost? Sometimes the answer might be to give up. But not always. Maybe some crises can only be managed like a chronic illness rather than cured. Maybe even “forever wars” are the least bad option. Such a determination would have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

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