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How Wars End

Why We Always Fight the Last Battle

Author: , Editor, Foreign Affairs and Peter G. Peterson Chair

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Publisher A CFR Book. Simon & Schuster

Release Date

Price $27.00 hardcover

432 pages
ISBN 978-1416590538


In early 2009, when the Obama administration assumed responsibility for the unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of the new president's supporters were "surprised and dismayed" when U.S. policy toward either war did not change dramatically. Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose explains that, in fact, "wars are difficult to close out even when they are started well, and mistakes at the beginning complicate the job exponentially, no matter who is in charge later on."

In How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle, Rose asserts that leaders are often focused on defeating the enemy and find it difficult to switch gears and construct a stable political environment in the aftermath. For instance, in the early stages of the Afghanistan war, a memo was sent to then secretary of defense Donald H. Rumsfeld stating that the United States government "should not allow concerns about stability to paralyze U.S. efforts to oust the Taliban leadership.... Nation-building is not our key strategic goal."

Rose attributes this to an "inherently flawed" clear-division-of-labor approach to war, in which policymakers deal with political matters and military leaders with military matters. In fact, "political issues can permeate every aspect of war," he says.

Such confusion stems from an incomplete understanding of the nature of war: "Wars actually have two equally important aspects. One is negative, or coercive; this is the part about fighting, about beating up the bad guys. The other is positive, and is all about politics. And this is the part that, as in Iraq, is usually overlooked or misunderstood," writes Rose.

While this might seem like common sense, he writes, "in war, as in life more generally, common sense is actually quite uncommon." Surveying the endgames of six U.S. wars from World War I to Iraq, Rose finds:

  • "Woodrow Wilson fought a war to make the world safe for democracy but never asked himself what democracy actually meant and whether, say, a constitutional monarchy in Germany would fit the bill." A generation later the United States found itself once again "dragged into a battle against an aggressive German regime and its partners";
  • Franklin Roosevelt "resolved not to repeat Wilson's mistakes but never considered what would happen to his own elaborate post-World War II arrangements should the United States' wartime marriage of convenience with Joseph Stalin break up after the shooting stopped." In the aftermath, the administration realized that even a "complete transformation of Germany would not be sufficient to guarantee peace in Europe," as a new threat was forming from the Soviet Union;
  • The Truman administration casually established "voluntary prisoner repatriation" as a key American war aim in Korea—thinking that no prisoners should be repatriated against their will—"but never thought how many prisoners might grab the option and whether it would block an armistice, which it did for almost a year and a half." (Forty-five percent of the United Nations' casualties during the war occurred after negotiations began: "more than 124,000 of them, including 9,000 Americans, came during that period when prisoner repatriation was the sole contested issue");
  • "The Kennedy and Johnson administrations dug themselves deeper and deeper into Vietnam without any plans for how to get out," making it impossible for the Nixon and Ford administrations to escape unscathed;
  • "George H. W. Bush assumed Saddam Hussein would fall as a result of defeat in the Gulf War, but did little planning for how to achieve that outcome or what would happen if it didn't occur";
  • "When the [George W. Bush] administration toppled Saddam, the "United States was left presiding over a country rapidly spinning out of control, with officials having no plans or resources for what to do next. Liberation turned into occupation; local ambivalence into insurgency and then civil war."

Rose argues that the crucial test for Obama and his successors "will be not simply whether they can muddle through the struggles that were bequeathed, but whether they can avoid making major mistakes themselves in the wars that will follow down the road."

He concludes, "If new generations of wartime policymakers fail to think clearly about what they are doing and stumble badly once again, they will have nobody to blame but themselves.... For them, exercising prudence when deciding how to spend the blood and treasure of their fellow citizens is not an option; it's a moral obligation."

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