Why do military and political leaders so often ignore the need for postwar planning?
For a couple of reasons: First, people focus obsessively on the military aspects of war, the coercive aspects, and they don’t think about the political, constructive, aspects. We think of war as a negative act of beating up an enemy, rather than as a constructive act. The real challenge in war is connecting the two.
‘Carl von Clausewitz says that everything in war in simple, but the simplest thing is difficult’
Why do national leaders fail to heed Carl von Clausewitz’s advice, quoted in your book, “thinking through clearly in advance what a particular war is supposed to achieve”?
That’s one of those things that is easy to say, but is hard to do. The real answer is that they haven’t bothered in practice, over time, to think about these things as carefully as they should have.
Is the problem a matter of policy-makers refighting the last war or of ignoring its lessons?
Policy-makers are dramatically influenced in each war by the lessons they drew from the previous war. Whether those lessons are appropriate in a new context is an open question. History can be a helpful guide to policy-making when used carefully. But history used poorly is worse than nothing at all.
Why has the United States often—as you observe—failed to develop an exit strategy?
Because exit strategies are very difficult. Exit implies leaving, and that may not be the same thing as solving the problem. The challenge is that wars have two different elements, or aspects: They have a military aspect—fighting or coercion. And a political aspect—like the creation of a stable, durable, healthy political settlement.
What kinds of exit strategies has the United States tried?
Essentially, the exit strategy that the United States has found is that there is no exit strategy. We are still in Germany, for instance. I would argue that “Clear, Hold and Build” is what the U.S. has done around the world over time. Germany is nothing more than Faluja writ large: World War I is best understood as a clearing operation for Germany. We left Europe afterward, and the same problems recurred, then we’re back in Germany clearing it again in World War II. We did the same thing in Japan, and we’re still there. We did the same thing in Korea, and we’re still in South Korea. When we have just exited, as in Vietnam, it’s been when we have washed our hands of an area and let chaos reign.
Is this difficulty in ending a war just an American problem? Or is it common to modern warfare?
It’s inherent in the nature of war. The dual-faced nature of war, the coercive and the constructive, is at the heart of war itself. Those two elements form what I call the Clausewitzian challenge: How do you make force serve politics? It is very, very difficult to do. Historically, other countries have done just as badly at this as the United States. Some even worse.
Do the ways that a war is fought shape the peace that follows?
Absolutely! Clausewitz says that the main lines of war are political and continue from the war into the postwar strategy. And a lot of times what you do during the war has a dramatic effect on the postwar environment. One way of thinking about it is, if there is any goal that you absolutely positively want to achieve, it’s best to achieve it before the fighting stops. Because once the shooting stops, things freeze up, and even fluid situations can become much less so.
Should preparing for a postwar peace be part of the military’s mission? Can it be?
Yes. War is a partnership between military and political leaderships and organizations. It can’t be one or the other. This makes it inherently difficult and messy. There is a great temptation to simplify matters by creating a clear division of responsibility, in which military officers and military organizations should deal with the fighting, and civilians should deal with the political matters. This is logical on its surface but in practice it’s been absolutely disastrous every single time it’s been tried. Because the fact is, everything is politico-military.
Who, in American history, understood that idea and acted accordingly?
George Marshall, obviously, is very good in this regard. And Dwight Eisenhower, who not only understood this stuff when he became president, but even beforehand.
Are you referring to the end of World War II in Europe?
The real problem in World War II at that point was not that the United States should have broken with the Soviets earlier, it was that they should have had a backup plan in case there was a break. We all know about the Berlin Airlift and the heroism involved, but the airlift was necessary only because those involved in postwar planning never specified how to supply isolated West Berlin should the Soviets decide to hold it hostage.
Americans have often been fond of “unconditional surrender.” But when ending a war, is that a useful concept?
It depends. Unconditional surrender is best understood as buying a free hand for what to do after the surrender is achieved. Whether that is a useful goal depends on what is planned for the postwar era. If the goals are less than total, it’s a high price to pay for something that is not necessary. If all you want to achieve is a status quo ante—if somebody invades and you want to push them back across the line—there’s no need for unconditional surrender. In our Civil War the goal was to conquer the Confederacy and re-establish it as part of the American polity. We needed something like unconditional surrender in that context, because it was a total war.
What was wrong with the post–World War I Versailles settlement?
There were two things wrong with Versailles. The first was that it was overly punitive to Germany. And the second was that it did not ultimately resolve the security dilemmas in Europe. A good settlement of a war is one that leaves all the powerful parties satisfied with the outcome, and no unsatisfied parties particularly powerful. Versailles was the opposite.
Who developed the wiser settlement that occurred after World War II?
It’s fascinating. There was a whole set of lessons from the failures of the World War I settlement, and plans were developed in the late 1930s and the ’40s. Franklin D. Roosevelt is the key. Before America entered the war, in the spring of 1940, British and American military authorities worked out the details for a campaign in Europe—here’s how we’re going to go across the continent. They added Russia into the plans after the Germans attacked the Russians. During the early ’40s, they put in place a whole array of policies for the postwar period. It’s the Roosevelt administration, with some rejiggering under Harry S. Truman. Roosevelt and Truman, Marshall, Dean Acheson, Eisenhower—those are the key people, and they did a great job.
After this book, do you have a sense of “dos and don’ts” about how to ensure that postwar settlements match grand strategy?
Yes. Clausewitz says that everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. And that is true of grand strategy as well. What you should do with your postwar planning is easy to say and hard to execute. It’s not rocket science: Follow professional best practices; have a clear vision of what you want to achieve on the ground after the war; develop a strategy for achieving that; monitor the implementation of that strategy to see that it actually works out; think through and make explicit your assumptions. And develop backup plans in case the crucial assumptions turn out not to be valid, or if things go worse than you’re expecting. We shouldn’t kid ourselves. War and the political aspects of war are incredibly difficult. The creation of a postwar settlement that’s stable, durable and better than the status quo ante is an extraordinarily challenging task.