"So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David." I Samuel 17:50
The biblical story of young David defeating the towering warrior Goliath has been an enduring and attractive metaphor for those outmatched in warfare.
Arriving on the battlefield merely to bear messages, David is enraged by the blasphemy of the Philistine and defiantly volunteers to accept Goliath's challenge for a man-to-man engagement, one no other Israelite warrior will. David tried on the king's armor, but finds it cumbersome and unwieldy. Instead, David casts off the armor and confronts the Philistine champion with only a sling, a handful of stones -- and a burning faith in his Lord. Just as Goliath draws his sword, David quickly loads the stone into his sling and launches the projectile at the Philistine's head, knocking him down in a single lethal blow. David beheads Goliath, emboldening his fellow Israelites, who rally and give chase to the suddenly retreating Philistines. David's improbable victory – an example of courage and ingenuity overcoming brawn and brute force – has inspired lost causes everywhere.
Because American forces have struggled mightily in their campaigns against insurgents (and eschews the depiction as barbarous, as the philistine label now implies), one can appreciate why the United States would imagine itself as David. Indeed, the fortitude to augment an already sizable manpower commitment and shift dramatically to a counter-intuitive military strategy of protecting the population, could be lauded as the daring and resourcefulness worthy of David. However, such aspirations are futile. In modern warfare, it is ragtag insurgents and militants, armed with recycled weapons and improvised devices, who play the part of David.
America, a superpower capable of deploying thousands of troops thousands of miles from home and armed with aerial robotic vehicles to remotely target enemy leadership, is, undeniably and irrefutably, the modern-day embodiment of Goliath.
A Future of Warfare Unrealized
The advanced capabilities that mark America as Goliath were once thought to be the means for achieving hegemony, and a benign one at that. In the wake of the first Persian Gulf War and the end of the Cold War, the Bush 41 Defense Department (in)famously explored fashioning a defense posture that would maintain U.S. preeminence and preclude the emergence of any potential future global competitor. The disclosure of the proposed strategy led the Bush Administration to scale back its ambitions but the succeeding Clinton Administration similarly examined how to exploit the gap between American and other powers' armed forces. By 1996, American leadership envisaged "leveraging technological opportunities to achieve new levels of effectiveness in joint warfighting". Most promisingly, the American military predicted "[b]y 2010, we should be able to change how we conduct the most intense joint operations. Instead of relying on massed forces…, we will achieve massed effects in other ways. … we will be increasingly able to accomplish the effects of mass — the necessary concentration of combat power at the decisive time and place — with less need to mass forces physically than in the past." [Emphasis added]
By the late 1990s, many observers recognized the impetus to substitute manpower with technologically-enhanced weapons – precision munitions in particular – had resulted in “cruise missile diplomacy” whereby the United States had the power to strike and destroy the enemy and his infrastructure without risk to American lives. In 1999, an American-led NATO operation in Kosovo had successfully ejected Serbian paramilitary forces by relying solely on airpower and without a single loss of life. The American way of war promised minimal casualties – both friendly and enemy.
While America had seemingly achieved a hegemony acquiesced to by the world because of its demonstrated ability to wage wars on its own terms, the country's enemies were drawing different conclusions. Observing the ignominious withdrawal from Somalia in 1994, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden dismissed the American soldier as a “paper tiger.” Equating the American disaster in Mogadishu with the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan, bin Laden concluded the United States could be defeated by the same tactics and declared war on America in 1996. Culminating years of terrorist strikes on embassies and deployed military assets with the attacks of September 11th, bin Laden had finally succeeded in provoking America into a “war against Islam”.
While the American way of war dispatched the Taliban and Hussein regimes within a few weeks, the caveat of an old Afghan proverb was soon manifest – “the war is over [and] now the real fighting begins.”
Triumphant American ground forces soon found themselves combating vicious insurgencies in both countries. Superior equipment and technology were immaterial as American forces struggled against roadside bombs, suicide bombers, and incessant mortar attacks. Conventional methods failed against insurgents, the leadership struggled to find the right strategy, and casualties mounted. The premise and promise of the American way of war proved ephemeral.
Some military theorists had warned against casually dismissing engagements with irregular forces as “military operations other than war”.
In 1989, the Marine Corps Gazette published an article entitled “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”. Tracing the history of warfare through three successive “generations,” the authors contended future antagonists, having observed the advantages held by modern militaries, would usher in a “fourth generation” of warfare by opting for indirect approaches, such as insurgency, terrorism, civil disorder, and propaganda.
In 1991, military historian Martin van Creveld contended the future of conflict would correspond to the decline of the Westphalian state system. As states and non-state actors embraced Fourth Generation tactics, Van Creveld warned a state's conventionally trained forces would ultimately fail – unable to achieve decisive victory and demoralized by the inevitable moral dilemmas associated with suppressing an insurgency.
Speaking bluntly in 2002 about the difficulties Israel has experienced dealing with the Palestinians, van Creveld stated, “if you are strong and you are fighting the weak, then anything you do is criminal.”
A Way of Warfare Unappreciated
As the strongest of the strong, the American Goliath will only be condemned for whatever action is taken. So whither the American Goliath?
The American Goliath should shrug.
America may be an enduring revolutionary force by virtue of its commitment to worldwide democracy, but it is also a Westphalian state. Constitutionally elastic, America can adapt and evolve in the face of post-Westphalian adversaries, but it will always be a custodian of the Westphalian system.
Whether a protagonist faces an antagonist stronger, weaker, or evenly matched, the maxims of Clausewitz and Sun-Tzu remind all warriors that war is the extension of politics by other means and wars are fought to be won. Such axioms bring into focus the need to remember war is ultimately about upholding the national interest, having realistic expectations, ensuring sufficient means are employed, and using every advantage available.
If denunciation as a Goliath is inevitable, then America would be best to recall the observation submitted by one of its more famous generals -- war is hell. To be feared rather than loved is better and having a bloody military reputation in today's world is still invaluable.
As laid out in the exceptional Armed Forces Journal article, "An Alternative To COIN," America should practice "repetitive raiding," whereby the military leverages a very well demonstrated aptitude for destroying the enemy, iteratively if necessary. Instead of expending valuable time and treasure for marginal gains -- the price incurred by counterinsurgency operations -- the American military should continue limiting major operations to the rapid destruction of enemies and returning should the enemy reconstitute. Embracing repetitive raiding means never having to own it after breaking it.
Israel has already demonstrated the efficacy of repetitive raiding in the form of Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in December 2008. After the disastrous performance against Hezbollah in 2006, the Israeli military leadership used the intervening 2006 to 2008 period to aggressively shift doctrine and training back to maneuver tactics and destruction of the enemy, away from patrolling and policing the population. Moreover, the Israeli military undertook rigorous planning and intelligence gathering – all with eye toward being ready for the inevitable provocation. When Hamas began launching rockets after the end of the six month ceasefire in December 2008, Israel retaliated immediately according to preset plans.
In retrospect, the goals identified during Operation Cast Lead are telling – “to strike a direct and hard blow against the Hamas while increasing the deterrent strength of the IDF” [Emphasis added]. As much as Israel did strike a blow against Hamas, the more critical achievement was the Israeli military restoring its reputation as a formidable foe. Operation Cast Lead may have have earned Israel international condemnation, but Hamas rocket attacks since the four week operation have declined substantially and the despicable tactics of the purportedly "weaker" side have only begun to be publicized.
The American military's reputation has been partially restored, primarily because of doctrinal flexibility and the manner in which it has achieved successes in Iraq. In Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal's political-military campaign has been brilliant and a model for carefully calibrating the use of force, but it signals the nation may persist in pursuing capabilities offering only marginal utility instead of re-focusing on core capabilities.
New restrictions on aerial bombing may preclude civilian deaths, but at the cost of greater risk to American ground forces in need of air support. Moreover, advanced American reconnaissance capabilities instantaneously transmit instances of such risk to the screens of warfighters whose very instincts have been honed to retaliate. Inclined to “bring the hate,” these airmen must now site idly by and a key American advantage is neglected.
“Terror from the skies” – aerial bombing – still works; the practice has simply been evaluated against the wrong standards. If the enemy must move on open terrain and has no air force or effective anti-aircraft weapons – as in Afghanistan – then aerial bombing can be very effective.
Unfortunately, the current administration has failed to establish a coherent approach to dealing with post-Westphalian threats. Divisions exist among the various decision-makers as to the extent of which war powers inherited from the previous administration will be maintained. While candidate Obama asserted President Bush had overreached, President Obama has not led his various State, Defense, and Justice Department stakeholders to a consensus on detention protocol. Attaining precision on detention matters aside, the ultimate question is who determines who is an enemy to the United States is. Stated plainly, the president is hesitant to declare definitively who the nation's enemies are – i.e. be presidential.1
Returning to the Biblical Goliath, one should remember he was the greatest warrior of a tribe resisting the encroachment of the neighboring Israelite Kingdom. When survival is at stake, dispatching your greatest warrior is not unfair. In a duel, exercising any and all advantages is not unfair – it's intelligent.
1 In today's networked world, where the enemy is when he or she is captured is irrelevant. What should matter the most to the president is his or her identity, specifically his or her citizenship. If the individual is an American citizen, then he or she is protected by the Constitution. If the individual is not, then he or she suffers the consequences. Refusing to define how the enemy will be identified has muddled the entire counter-terrorist campaign to the point where the nation's intelligence director has testified American citizens involved in terrorist activities are legitimate targets for assassination.