Friday, March 11, 2016


With the American election looming lots of people have something to say about American military ventures.  Since World War II Americans have had a lot of frustrating experiences.  Dominic Tierney suggests there will be more wars of the type that have ended poorly for Americans.  By examining the past he suggests better strategies.  This book was recommended by Fareed Zakaria, always a good indicator.

The author starts with a personal history to explain the often peculiar consequences of war.  His Great-Grandmother after having two children was widowed after her husband had spent several years fighting in WW I and died near the end.  The author feels there were several logical points to end the war, but unfortunately it went on too long for literally hundreds of thousands of casualties.  But for him his Great- Grandmother remarried and gave birth to his grandfather.  History is full of similar adjustments to military conflicts.

The book is loaded with historical examples from Ancient Rome right up to current Mid-East conflicts.

Americans after WW II had changed.  They felt capable of dealing militarily with remote places and a sense of responsibility.  Most of their allies suffered a lot more from the war and those they conquered, Japan and Germany had military ambitions knocked out of them.  Americans got involved with places they didn't really understand:  Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq.  Assumptions were made and all too often action was commenced without really sorting out the consequences.

The outcome of war is not binary, ie. it is not all successful or all failure.  To optimize your chances, a state that is considering an attack, should not first  think of the first strike, but needs to plan the end game and work backwards.  He uses example of Cuban chess master, Capablanca who always thought how he wanted a match to end and worked backwards to achieve that result.  War is admittedly different, but the same principles can apply.  The author's strategy is surge, talk, leave.

A surge is a quick well thought out effort to consolidate your position.  Talking should start at the first practical opportunity.  Leaving requires some delicate manoeuvring.

Almost all wars discussed could have been ended sooner with less expense and loss of life.  They could have ended much more to mutual benefit,

The War of 1812 was a good example.  One could argue the Americans were lucky to avoid the full resources of the British Empire, but they were smart to realize Britain had higher priorities thanks to Napoleon.  The Treaty of Ghent, negotiated by John Quincey Adams and Henry Clay served the Americans well.

There are a number of factors that inhibit leaders from negotiating peace.  The concern for reputation-as a nation, as an individual, or as a political party.  Democrats are often accused of being weak.  Once committed in war the military feel they have much to lose.  Sunk costs seem like a waste unless redeemed by victory.   It is especially hard to end a war you started as the Kennedy/Johnson presidency and later George W. Bush can attest.

Prisoners are a concern to both sides and can be an early issue.  During the Korean War, President Truman wanted to give North Korean and Chinese prisoners a chance to defect if that is what they wanted, but of course the other side wanted to avoid that.  Both sides want to save face and that should be taken into account early.

After an army has left a country there are still concerns.  Too often the returning soldiers are not taken proper care of.  We are now aware of PTSD in a way we never were before, but it still has an impact. How the soldiers are treated has ripple effects and can make the rest of the population doubt that the cost was worth the effort.

The aftermath can be diverse.  The Americans fought the Vietnamese under the mistaken assumption it was necessary to avoid giving the Chinese more power and ironically the Americans are now working together with the Vietnamese to offset the Chinese.  Trade is more effective than aid, in resetting relationships.  Afghanistan is the world's leader in illegal opium, but they do have other assets that could be traded including pomegranates, gold, copper and lithium.

This brief summary doesn't cover all the concerns warring nations have, but the author has devoted much thought and research to finding better solutions.  He predicts that there will be many civil wars in far distant lands that can affect us, but do not need to be quagmires.

I would like to close with a few words found in the text quoting Dwight Eisenhower.  "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed and those who are cold and are not clothed."

You can read more of Domenic Tierney's opinions at

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