On the March 27, 2011 edition of Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show, GPS, The Global Public Square, an exchange between Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass and Brookings Institution senior fellow Robert Kagan highlighted one of the most prominent ways in which the Beltway’s foreign policy mavens have ignored the purpose of bringing America’s military might to bear in a conflict. Kagan, in response to Haass’ concerns about the unknown endgame of America’s then-relatively new intervention in Libya, made a truly remarkable statement:
[W]e start wars, whether it's World War I, World War II, the Civil War—we don't know. We don't know everything. And this—this demand that we have to know how something ends before we take any action whatsoever, that would be truly debilitating. We would never do anything if we did that.
When you’re someone like Robert Kagan, for whom it seems war is an end unto itself, then it might not be important to have an idea of what represents a satisfactory conclusion to any particular set of hostilities—after all, “We would never do anything if we did that.” But how wars end is as, if not more important, than how they start. Dr. Kagan might have better understood this had he perused the excellent book How Wars End: A History of American Intervention from World War I to Afghanistan, from Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs.
Covering World Wars I & II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, Rose demonstrates how a less-than-clear, overly-optimistic, or poorly planned endgame in any conflict can lead to disastrous consequences. Through a thorough reading of historical sources, Rose ably reconstructs the waning days of the various conflicts in question.
Rose opens with a quote from the famed Prussian philosopher of military strategy, Carl von Clausewitz: ”No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve and how he intends to conduct it.” While this might seem like fairly obvious advice, it has often been lost on leaders who initiate conflicts—as well as supporters like Kagan—and too often it has led to consequences that would have likely caused many to eschew war in the first place. Beginning with World War I, Rose demonstrates how the Kaiser’s disbelief that his country could lose a war while still occupying large swaths of its enemy’s territory, Woodrow Wilson misplaced idealism, and the machinations of allies with divergent interests could combine for a disastrous peace settlement and an even more destructive war later.
Moving on to World War II, Rose provides a wealth of information on the creation and execution of the Allied demand for unconditional surrender from both Japan and Germany. In the European theater, this policy was, most likely correctly, seen as necessary to prevent the Soviets from pursuing a separate peace with Berlin. And, while so much of the successful Anglo-American strategy relied on Russian sacrifices on the Eastern front, Roosevelt’s belief that his personal relationship with Stalin would eventually win concessions from Moscow vis-à-vis Soviet desires for a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe once the conflict was brought to an end. In the Pacific, the end of the war cannot be divorced from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the perpetual, perhaps unanswerable question: was it necessary?
The discussion of how the repatriation of Chinese POWs held up the negotiations that sought to end the Korean War was both fascinating and appalling. The role agents of Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek played in fomenting sentiments against repatriation amongst a large number of Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war is particularly illuminating of the ways in which one’s supposed allies may have interests and motives that run counter to one’s own. The inability to resolve the POW issue helped extend a war that nobody seemed to want to see continue, but it was also an issue that Chinese negotiators would eventually overlook when it became moot after South Korean leader Syngman Rhee opened the prison camps and allowed communist prisoners to “scatter to freedom” in the south. If this incident proved nothing else, it is that both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were correct in believing they needed to keep regimes like those of Rhee and Chiang Kai-Shek at arms length from one another, so they could not collude in ways that would undermine American objectives or undertake joint actions that might lead to a wider war.
One of the more intriguing explorations Rose offers is the conclusion of the first Gulf War. Despite then-President George H.W. Bush’s contention that “We’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all,” the terror of the first Bush administration about getting stuck in another Vietnam-like quagmire had a lasting effect on the administration’s plans for terminating the conflict. This desire led to decisions that, in hindsight, are suspect and would lead to a decade of sanctions, aerial bombardment, and a subsequent war that would involve just the type of occupation those involved in planning the original conflict had so strenuously sought to avoid.
The latter Iraqi conflict, still ongoing at the time of the book’s publication—with repercussions that will still be felt for some time after—could be a case study in the failure of war termination. It has become cliché to cite General David Petraeus’ quote during the initial invasion: “Tell me how this ends,” but it is fitting for a conflict that seems to have had only the most optimistic assessments for its termination from the beginning. This goes as well for the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan—America’s longest war—and there is little Rose can offer to the reader about how that eventual endgame might take shape. And therein lies the one major flaw in an otherwise excellent work.
Rose deftly eschews monocausality in his explanations and seeks to provide multiple angles of analysis for his readers to evaluate how and why each conflict in question end in the manner in which it did. How Wars End is, however, lacking in any semblance of prescriptive analysis. It is fine to understand better how past wars end, but will those lessons be applicable in the future? Judging from Rose’s work few lessons—outside of having an understanding one’s desired endgame and avoiding unnecessary rigidity in accomplishing that goal—are easily generalized in a way that makes them of use in future conflict. This flaw is far from fatal though and does not diminish the value of a truly excellent book.
How Wars End is an superb study of the problems of war termination in the 20th and early 21st Centuries. Not covered in this review, but of obvious interest to readers, will also be Rose’s chapter on the Vietnam War and the numerous attempts to end that disastrous affair. With the potential for disaster in mind, perhaps if more people understood what it takes to bring a conflict to a successful conclusion, they might be less eager to begin them as carelessly as both contemporary policy and commentary would suggest. Unfortunately, given statements cited above from an analyst as influential as Robert Kagan, that may not be likely in the near-term. But, with time, works like How Wars End might instill more caution about instigating conflicts when they are not necessary, and provide greater wisdom on how to bring about a successful conclusion when they are.