Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Review The Clausewitz Delusion, How the American Army Screwed Up the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (A Way Forward)

Melton, Stephen, The Clausewitz Delusion, How the American Army Screwed Up the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (A Way Forward), Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2009


In The Clausewitz Delusion, How the American Army Screwed Up the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (A Way Forward) the U.S. Army Staff College’s Stephen Melton argues that the U.S. military’s doctrine led it to fail in its most recent conflicts. The author believed that America threw away decades worth of history fighting offensive wars and subsequent occupations that started in colonial times for a defensive approach during the Cold War and planned for short imperial battles after embracing Carl von Clausewitz after Vietnam. That left the U.S. unprepared for wars like Afghanistan and Iraq.


Melton writes that the Cold War had two main legacies. First, the U.S. planned for a defensive war against an expected Soviet invasion of Western Europe. In the process the American military shifted its emphasis from offensive wars which had been the American tradition since colonial times when the first European settlers fought the Native Americans. That also included long occupations of Indian land, and then places like the Philippines, Germany and Japan. Second, after Vietnam the U.S. adopted Carl von Clausewitz as its main military thinker. He wrote about short, limited wars between imperial powers. This also detracted from conducting large offensive wars and governing the conquered territory. Most of The Clausewitz Delusion involves breaking down what Melton thought was wrong with U.S. military thinking and then providing examples of successes and failures throughout history. This provided a good argument for Melton’s thesis.


There are just two chapters on Iraq and Afghanistan and they are used to point out how the American army went wrong. First General Franks who was in charge of both invasions based his planning upon Clausewitz. He only thought about overthrowing the regimes and had no plans for what to do afterward because that wasn’t how the military had been trained during the Cold War nor advised by Clausewitz. Without a postwar strategy the U.S. ran both countries on an ad hoc basis making strategic mistake after mistake such as disbanding the Iraqi military and dismissing Baath party government officials which created thousands of enemies and decapitated the government. The Americans didn’t even know they were legally bound to declare themselves the occupying power when the invasion ended. In the meantime, most of the country’s cities descended into chaos with looting and revenge killings which robbed the Americans of authority and legitimacy. Many others have written about how the U.S. mishandled Iraq but Melton tried to give an overarching theory for why it happened. On the other hand, his book is in line with the U.S. establishment that believed that if the Bush administration just tried the right approach Iraq could have worked out.


The last third of The Clausewitz Delusion is an argument that the U.S. needed to change its doctrine by learning American history. He believed that the army needed to plan for both offensive and defensive wars, and create units specifically designed for the occupations of foreign countries. This would require a massive restructuring of the military as well as its planning. He doubted that would happen however because the army would have to change its entire mindset that it has been following since the 1950s. The American military has proven amazingly resilient even in the face of failures such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It has even rejected the counterinsurgency lessons it recently re-leaned in those last two wars and has gone back to its planning for taking on major powers such as China or North Korea based upon Clausewitz’s ideas of destroying the enemy in a short and decisive battle.


Stephen Melton’s book is really not about Iraq or Afghanistan. Rather it’s a military history and diatribe against the American army’s world view. It tries to give a lesson of how America fought offensive wars and occupied enemy lands even before it was a nation in colonial times and how that was all forgotten due to the Cold War and Vietnam. Iraq and Afghanistan are simply short examples that the author uses to prove that point. He then goes over all the changes the United States needs to make to try to handle these types of wars in the future even though that’s very unlikely given the military’s institutional mindset. The first two parts are engaging, well written and provide a convincing argument. The problem comes in the last part which gets very long winded and is completely theoretical about what should be done. It’s still interesting but not for someone looking for a book on Iraq or Afghanistan.


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