War and politics

Harry G. Summers Jr.

January 25, 1991|By Harry G. Summers Jr.

WHAT IS war? That might seem a rather obvious question, but as the war in the Persian Gulf goes into its second week it is clear that many people do not fully understand what war is all about.

Curiously, even for those born long after that conflict was over, World War II remains the paradigm of war in most American minds. For them, total war, total destruction and total victory are what it's all about. You can even sense that in some discussions of why Baghdad is still standing after thousands of allied air sorties. Views of relatively little structural damage and reports of light civilian casualties, while testimony to the pinpoint accuracy of America's smart bombs and munitions, do not conform to that model, and paradoxically are seen by some as evidence that our air campaign has been less than successful.

This misperception exists even at the highest levels of the government. Calls for the trial of Saddam Hussein on war crimes charges for, among other things, mistreatment of allied prisoners of war are certainly understandable, but they are not in consonance with the United States' stated war aims. Instead of total victory, these aims are limited to expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, restoration of the government there and insuring peace and security in the area.

But total victory, as in World War II, is a necessary precondition for war crimes trials. After that war, enemy political and military leaders were brought to trial and convicted. Such was not the case after Korea and Vietnam, even though the crimes of North Korean Premier Kim Il Sung and North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh were equally monstrous.

Both waged aggressive war, and both killed and viciously mistreated American POWs. But since total victory was not achieved in either the Korean or Vietnam wars, neither was brought to trial. If President Bush intends to hang Hussein high, he needs to change his war aims, for as it now stands, calls for a trial, whether Bush realizes it or not, are just empty threats.

But the greatest misapprehension about war is the peculiar American view that war and politics are diametrically and fundamentally things apart. Americans by and large reject the Clausewitzian dictum that "war is simply a continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means," and fail to see that "the main lines along which military events progress, and to which they are restricted, are political lines that continue throughout the war into the subsequent peace.

"War cannot be divorced from political life," Clausewitz warned, "and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements are destroyed, and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense."

Most commentators are measuring the progress in this war in military terms. In doing so, they are overlooking the enormous successes already scored in the political dimension of the conflict. The most significant success, the one that made all else possible, was persuading the Soviet Union to support America's actions in the gulf. The Soviet Union is indeed the enabler of the conflict, for without its tacit agreement the U.S. couldn't have disengaged its VII Corps from its defensive positions in Germany and deployed it to the gulf. And without that corps' two armored divisions, armored cavalry regiment and other fighting units, the allied forces in the gulf would have lacked the punch to take offensive action against Iraq.

With its veto power in the U.N. Security Council, the Soviet Union could have blocked any U.N. action against Iraq. But instead, as Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney pointed out earlier this week, it took an active role in condemning Iraq and voting for the imposition of sanctions, including military sanctions, against its former ally. The result was the total cutoff of all Soviet arms, ammunition and military spare parts to Iraq.

Equally remarkable was the success of the Bush administration in forging an Arab coalition against Iraq. While Saddam Hussein called for a jihad, or holy war, Egypt and Syria, two of the largest Arab nations in the world, joined the coalition and moved their armored divisions into Saudi Arabia. The demeaning question of whether these Arab forces would fight was answered when the war planes of both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait joined in the air campaign against Iraq.

Also taking part in the air campaign are aircraft from Britain, Canada, France and Italy. In addition, military forces of some 28 nations from around the world are ready to do their part when and if ground combat operations are required.

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