The enemy the United States fought in World War II occupied a known physical space, was identifiable, and generally employed conventional military tactics. At the end of World War II, the enemy forces and their population centers were physically destroyed, which in turn destroyed the enemy’s will to fight. Following the cessation of hostilities the enemy accepted defeat unconditionally. For better or for worse, the World War II experience still frames much of how the Department of Defense organizes, trains, and executes military operations and how the White House develops foreign policy.
In stark contrast, the enemy the United States has fought since the attacks on September 11, 2001 moves globally at will, is often unidentifiable, and uses any tactic that works. Due to this enemy being dispersed throughout the world and able to access multiple safe havens and receive support, their will to fight is nearly impossible to destroy solely by military might or unilateral effort. Additionally, to serve its own national interests, the United States must make decisions that will often offend and embolden the enemy.
The World War II experience still drives the Department of Defense and how it executes its mission “to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country[i].” I believe it prudent for the Department of Defense to organize and train forces to meet its mission based upon an assumption of high-intensity conflict against a near-peer competitor. High end capabilities can always be restrained or tailored based upon a lesser threat, while low end capabilities can rarely be improved upon when a greater threat materializes.
Military actions are driven by foreign policy. When developing foreign policy that requires military action, the White House must understand how the military has historically been employed to support foreign policy but not necessarily attempt to repeat previous performances. If the enemy does not have the characteristics of the enemy in World War II, the White House cannot expect the same type of decisive victory.
Based upon the characteristics of the violent extremist enemy the United States faces today, an achievable foreign policy would be one through which the United States employs a whole of government approach working by, with, and through foreign partners whenever practical to manage the threats posed by violent extremists. This foreign policy avoids wording that implies time limits or decisive events. In other words, rather than “war” think “feud.”
War – a state or period of fighting between countries or groups[ii]
Feud – a mutual enmity or quarrel that is often prolonged or inveterate[ii]
This global effort to manage threats will likely never have a symbolic event such as the Marines raising a flag over Iwo Jima in decisive victory. Nor will the effort suddenly end as representatives of the violent extremists attend a formal surrender ceremony aboard the USS Missouri, formally ending hostilities.
Actions can be taken to manage the threats posed by violent extremists. These actions are best driven through the development of realistic foreign policy that establishes achievable goals and acknowledges history, but is tailored as appropriate based upon the prevailing circumstances.
This is another type of war new in its intensity, ancient in its origins – war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him.[iii]
– President Kennedy to the Graduating Class of the U.S. Military Academy, June 6, 1962.
[i] Department of Defense Mission Statement (September 11, 2014). Retrieved from http://www.defense.gov/about/
[ii] Merriam-Webster Dictionary (September 12, 2014). Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/
[iii] Kennedy, J (June 6, 1962). Retrieved from http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=8695