What the U.S. Can Learn From a Century of War

6 minute read

This post is in collaboration with The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, which brings together scholars and researchers from around the world to use the Library’s rich collections. The article below was originally published on the Kluge Center blog with the title The True Costs of 100 Years of War.

Kissinger Chair Bradford Lee arrived at the Kluge Center this fall with an ambitious research question: were the results of one hundred years of American military interventions in foreign conflicts worth the costs of achieving them? He sat down with Jason Steinhauer to discuss his research, in particular his analysis of World War I, a focus of his tenure at the Library.

Brad, yours is a fascinating and complex project, to examine 100 years of American military intervention in foreign conflicts and assess the results. As a first question, perhaps you could tell us what led you to this research question.

The project was a convergence of different things. First, there were the withdrawals of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. We could be looking at very disappointing outcomes in both places. I was aware that in modern American history, after each period of major warfare, even after World War II, there had been a strong wave of disillusionment over the results that our efforts had produced. I saw an opportunity to reach well beyond an academic audience and address a much larger audience, providing a longer-term perspective on all the major military interventions from 1917 to 2017.

I was also aware of the major number 100. Many other historians, especially in Britain, wrote on 1914 in 2014. For Americans, of course, the big centennial will come in 2017, 100 years after U.S. entry into World War I.

You’ve said that this is an examination of decision makers making decisions in war, not a retelling of the wars themselves. Could you expound on that: what sources are you examining and which have you chosen to omit?

I’ll be drilling deeply into what I regard as the most important policy, strategy, and operational decisions made by American leaders in World War I, World War II, the Cold War (with Korea and Vietnam treated as theaters in the larger war), and the Wars of the Muslim Rimland (as I have dubbed the warfare from 1979 on). But, of course, all the decisions had a context rooted in the past and consequences playing out in the future, so there will be a broad narrative sweep to the book. I do not want to rehash the story of each war. I want not only to bring to bear my own intellectual experience of straddling the very different worlds of historians, theorists, and practitioners, but also to get as close as I can to what was on the minds of the key wartime decision makers of the past century.

What are some of the decisions made by American military leaders that you are re-examining?

For World War I, I hope to throw new light both on the role of Admiral William Sowden Sims (the U.S. naval commander in Europe) in the critically important Anglo-American decision to counter German U-boats by convoying merchant ships and on the startling objection by General John J. Pershing (commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in France) to President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to negotiate an armistice with Germany in the fall of 1918.

For World War II, I will take a new look at the two-pronged offensives of 1943-1944 in both the Pacific (under General MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific and Admiral Nimitz in the Central Pacific) and Europe (in the Mediterranean and northern France). In particular, I’ll raise new questions about the decision to follow up the invasion of Sicily with an invasion of the Italian mainland and point out the merits of a more direct island-hopping route to southern France.

For Korea and Vietnam I have some fresh things to say about offensives that were undertaken in 1950 and 1965 and not undertaken in 1951, 1953, and 1969. For the end of the Cold War, using research I have done in Soviet Politburo documents, I will be able to illuminate, more clearly than has yet been done, the effects on Gorbachev of Reagan Administration decisions to impose costs on the Soviet economy.

Finally, for the Wars of the Muslim Rimland, I will have something new to offer about the decision not to send conventional forces to try to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora in December 2001, the unfortunate change in American diplomatic and military leadership in Kabul in 2005 (plus a change in the Afghan government that year), and the Obama Administration’s reassessment of US “Af-Pak” policy and strategy in 2009.

The value of counterfactual thinking has been contested among historians and social scientists. You’re embracing it in this project. What about counterfactual scenarios are illuminating for this particular type of study?

When historians or social scientists make an explicit argument about what caused some big historical development, there are counterfactuals implicit in that causal argument. Why not make explicit what is implicit? I also have, in the forefront of my mind, the 19th-century discussion of “critical analysis” by Carl von Clausewitz, the greatest strategic theorist. He says it is absolutely essential to the education of practitioners to have them grapple with historical cases in which the course of action decided upon did not turn out well. A would-be practitioner has to think about the options not chosen and consider which one of them might have produced better results.

So, in principle, I don’t think historians and social scientists should tremble at the sight of counterfactual scenarios. The rub is to do counterfactual analysis well. The best that one can do is to project a sense of possibilities and probabilities and engage readers in a dynamic swirl of arguments and counterarguments, relative pluses and minuses.

Read the rest of this interview here at the blog of the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress

Bradford Lee is the fourteenth Kissinger Chair at the Library of Congress Kluge Center. He lectures on whether the results of U.S. military intervention in World War I were worth the costs on Thursday, May 7th at 4 p.m.

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