In a recent discussion group I was confronted with the idea of total, conventional, attrition-style warfare as a simplistic solution to the vagaries of counter-insurgency.

And simultaneously I came across this order, issued by a Nazi commander in occupied Greece during World War Two.The Germans faced an insurgency in the rough terrain of Greece's mountainous hinterland, which sometimes wore no uniform and could be aided by the civilian population. The Nazis pursued a simplistic solution of brutality which refused to use any critical analysis of the human terrain of their war.

The enemy has thrown into bandit warfare fanatic, communist-trained fighters who will not stop at any act of violence. The stake here is more than to be or not to be. This fight has nothing to do with a soldier's chivalry nor with the decisions of the Geneva Conventions. If this fight against the bands, in the East as well as in the Balkans is not carried out with the most brutal means, the forces at our disposal may in the near future not last out to master this plague. The troops are therefore authorised and ordered in this struggle to take any measures without restriction even against women and children if these are necessary for success. [Humanitarian] considerations of any kind are a crime against the German nation. [issued by Field Marshal Keitel, following instructions from Hitler, 16th December 1942]

The German policies of reprisal, mass murder, and deportations did nothing to dent the numbers of guerilla forces that harassed the occupiers from the mountains. In fact, destruction of villages probably forced many into the mountains and into taking up arms. Is this who we want to be? Do we really want to take a page out of the Nazi playbook in our own foreign affairs?

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While I'm inclined to agree with you, I don't know - from a political standpoint - that there are many other options. While our politicians would never be so blunt about it as Keitel's words, there is very much a "at least we are doing something about it" stance today, that seems to favor such retaliatory/attrition style warfare. (See Israel's responses to Hammas for one example). 

The long game, is a much harder sell (patience and sometimes what appears to be capitulation and appeasement) - and it is hard to know which strategies will be most effective (and fastest) as far as getting those guerillas to throw down their guns. The oft used phrase "winning the hearts and minds" is what it comes down to, but actually doing that is damnably hard, and can literally take generations.

I don't know if there is a third option. I hope there is.

Well, specifically on the topic of discarding the Geneva Conventions and indiscriminately killing civilians... that is absolutely immoral and impractical. It dehumanizes the people one is trying to befriend and it works against mission accomplishment by justifying the propaganda of insurgents.

The problem of course, is that it was pretty much absolute brutality that ended WW2. The Allied forces firebombed whole civilian populations. It was breaking the will of the German people and utter destruction of largely civilian infrastructure, leaving huge sections of Germany bombed back into the dark ages that enabled the more comfortable and socially acceptable aspects of the conflict to happen in the first place. 

 Neither Nagasaki nor Hiroshima had any military purpose

 We then did not ask the German or Japanese people what they wanted. We told them what they were going to get. Going so far as to cut up Germany into sections to be governed by Men who were not the least bit German, and humiliating publicly the Emperor of Japan and the people of Japan by posting his picture, standing next to General MaCarthur who stood almost a foot taller, then letting a German born, Jewish woman write part of the new Constitution.

 It is a very easy argument to make that detonating a thermonuclear warhead over a massive, dense civilian population that had virtually no directly military relevance was a war crime. Unfortunately, it was a war crime that had to happen. 

 IF you're going to go to war, either go Roman, or just don't bother. 

Unfortunately, it was a war crime that had to happen.

Many U.S. military authorities at the time, including GEN Eisenhower, disagreed on the necessity of using the atomic bomb on those targets.

And such 'Roman' decisions give the enemy a propaganda tool, advance their political agenda, and help him impose his will on friendly forces. It gives friendly forces a black eye. For instance, the iconic image of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a Viet Cong officer turned the successful U.S. military victory in the Tet Offensive into a political defeat.

Today that is certainly a violation of the principles that govern the lawful use of force in armed conflict, one of them being military necessity. Without the moral high ground, counterinsurgency warfare cannot be effective. So when such a principle as military necessity is violated, one loses that high ground and the mission becomes harder to accomplish.

War has more dimensions than the application of force. Theorists from Sun Tzu to Clauswitz describe war as primarily a moral contest.

What happens after the war is won, truly won, is a moral contest. But when you half-ass a war like Korea, Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq, you're going to lose, no matter what moral high ground you occupy after the fact. The last hundred years has very, very clearly demonstrated that. 

I think you are confusing "half-assing a war" with limited maneuver warfare. That style of warfare actually is far more the norm than large-scale attrition warfare exemplified by WWII. Read Max Boot's Savage Wars of Peace, which is an awesome education on the U.S.'s small wars.

Though I would say that the U.S. didn't half-ass Korea, nor was it a maneuver-style war. It was fairly traditional. And the U.N. inflicted as many as 400,000 killed on the Chinese, not to mention the North Korean forces.

And again with Viet Nam, the U.S. brought to bear more than enough military force to beat the N.V.A. & V.C. in the military contest. But ultimately military action supports political policy. And South Viet Nam lost politically in part because it lost the moral high ground, as exemplified by that iconic photograph I discussed.

A couple of notes. First, wasn't Hiroshima the HQ of some army? Were not the Japanese preparing for a desperate, suicidal defense?

Secondly, the mass destruction visited on Japan & Germany--recalling that 'vengeance is mine, saith the Lord' sort of thing--may have been necessary to prevent them from waging war again, including by making it possible to rule them tyranically.

Thirdly, what Clausewitz means by the moral contest is aptly summarized this way: Put the fear of God into the souls of your enemies. It's a matter of imposing will. Think of it this way: What fights against friction & the fog of war? The will of the commander.

Fourth, Korea & Vietnam could not be won because American rulers were unwilling to destroy their enemy. They were willing, for a time, to defend South Korea & South Vietnam, but not to wipe out the rulers in North Korea & North Vietnam. Whatever the moral ground might be, Clausewitz says wars are won by some metaphor about the center of gravity...

First, wasn't Hiroshima the HQ of some army?

It was, but hitting the city meant just killing off one leg of leadership. In terms of strategy, hitting Hiroshima had a significant impact on  the shipping infrastructure of Japan.

 The Japanese were in fact preparing for something. At the time, the debate was rather or not to stage a Normandy-like mass invasion/landing onto the Japanese mainland, or drop a nuke. It was decided that it was better to destroy a city of their civilians than a cities' worth of our troops, a decision I agree with. My only point was, this is how wars are won. 

I agree. Pamphlets were thrown over Hiroshima anyway; some kind of warning. Hard to explain; it didn't do much anyway, but it must have seemed moral.

But victory brings peace back, & then people like to think that war is gone, forever. Somehow, democracy does not understand anything beyond the day's horizon.

If morality means tens of thousands of Americans have to die invading Japan, maybe less morality is in order. I don't like the thought of killing more Japanese all that much either; the fewer killed the better. But peace is a return to morality & that just means more people will have to die because wars were not prevented by immoral means. I thought martial morality did not mean making wars unwinnable, but adding a bit of spine to morality...

Somehow, democracy does not understand anything beyond the day's horizon.

A hell of a sentence, young Man. 

 As to the topic at hand, yea. The cold hard reality is, peace is what happens when the enemy is either afraid to try, or dead. It only lives on the other side of war, and passivity is a luxury paid for by warriors.

It strikes me that love of country may be damned inconsolable...

I would say that in those wars such as Vietnam we didn't give it a half ass effort. We gave it our full 100% effort. The big problem is that we gave it 100% effort by way of the moral high ground. Maybe that is splitting hairs and taking the high ground and half assing it may amount to the same result but I do believe they are very different.


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