Book Review: How Wars End

How Wars End: Why We Always Fight The Last Battle-Gideon Rose (Simon and Schuster, 2010)

America has never lost a major military conflict in its centuries-long existence. We have always performed quite well in the kinetic, or coercive, aspect of war. It’s the endgame, author and Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose notes, that seems to repeatedly befuddle American policymakers.

Rose opens with a summary of Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s attitude on war: it is made specifically for the achievement of predetermined, political, and strategically critical objectives. Blood and treasure shouldn’t be expended just for the hell of it. Despite this, America has historically placed too little emphasis on postwar planning. Predictably, the results have left much to be desired.

Rose goes on to chronicle the decision making and thinking of major players in each war, and how their thinking evolved (or failed to) as conditions on the ground changed. The book approaches the subject in a traditional and formulaic manner, moving chronologically from war to war with a brief reflection at the end of each chapter.

Rose provides incredibly well-researched and riveting accounts of discussions between presidents and foreign policy principals. Descriptions of concurrent events, such as major military breakthroughs and shifts in domestic political approval, provide ample context for said discussions without draining out the key narrative. As a history book, thus, How Wars End is fantastic; where so many authors are obsessed with major battles and key generals, Rose is more concerned with how these events altered the endgame philosophies of those directing them.

As a prescriptive tome, however, the book leaves something to be desired. Early on, three themes are established and stuck to: leaders consistently misread history, apply inapplicable analogies to their current situations, and generally miscalculate their strategic positions. Whatever postwar goals, thus, that are established, aren’t ultimately achieved.

Woodrow Wilson’s postwar goal was the establishment of a global world order, which would require amenable terms for the defeated powers. Yet once in the war, Wilson continued to give unrestrained financial and military aid to allies without demanding promises of a fair armistice. The League of Nations never came about, and America essentially donated millions of dollars and over 100,000 lives to fight another bloodier war in the future.

Years later, the Truman administration similarly ignored its positive goals (preventing Communist control of Korea) in keeping American boots fighting two years after the ultimate ceasefire terms were, for all intents and purposes, already determined. In Vietnam, a combination of Henry Kissinger and presidents Johnson and Nixon misread lessons from Korea in insisting upon terms with the North that they knew could never be sustained after American troops left. In the Iraq War, President Bush and then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld paid more attention to the Gulf War (determined to basically do the exact opposite of whatever Bush’s father did) than to the specifics of what they wanted out of the conflict, what it would cost in blood and treasure, and how they would accomplish it.

Rose’s advice for policymakers is certainly true, and his emphasis on postwar planning is much needed, but the prescription is overly encompassing and not particularly actionable. It seems to, in fancier words, boil down to “don’t be stupid”.

It’s a shame that the author had to take on the pretext of a book that would solve a problem, because if not for this, How Wars End would be nearly flawless. Ironically, it seems that Rose botched the endgame.

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