Lessons Learned in the War With Militant Islam, Part Two: Disproportionate Response

BY Glen Tschirgi
2 years, 7 months ago

This is the second installment of a little series I have started on TCJ which attempts to summarize some of the important lessons that America should have learned in its ongoing war with Militant Islam.

Part One of the series, “Naming the Enemy,” is here for those getting in late.

Lesson Two

Respond to asymmetrical attacks with overwhelming firepower and force, Proportional Response Doctrine Notwithstanding.

Hopefully we have learned that the American military is at its best when it is unleashed to do its worst.   When U.S. forces are allowed to employ the full range of firepower against the enemy, the results are not only devastating but a true blow on behalf of peace and freedom.

Recall the infamous Highway of Death leading out of Kuwait in 1991.  U.S. air assets created a literal hell on earth for the fleeing Iraqi military, blasting apart everything that tried to move along the highway out of Kuwait.  Because of the demonstration of air power and lethal force, the Iraqi resistance completely collapsed.   You can be sure that the memory of that torment was alive and real in the minds of Iraqi soldiers when the U.S. military came rolling into Iraq in 2003.   And many, many lives were spared as a result.   The Iraqis knew what the American military was capable of doing to them and wisely chose to disband rather than to undergo a similar baptism of fire.

This was the exact lesson drawn by General William T. Sherman in the American Civil War and by George S. Patton in World War II.  War is the worst experience of the fallen, human condition.   The horror of war, therefore, must be brought home to the enemy in sufficient measure so that any illusions about continuing the fight are forever banished.   General Sherman to this very day is hated by many in the South simply by virtue of his ruinous campaign of 1864-1865, the infamous, March to the Sea.   But Sherman’s devastation of large parts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina brought the war home to the Confederacy in a way nothing else could have and helped prevent a Confederate guerrilla war after Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Patton, too, believed that the surest way of saving lives and ending war most quickly involved brutal, relentless, wholesale envelopment and destruction of the enemy armies en masse.   Patton was a fierce critic of Eisenhower’s plodding tactic of attrition which Patton considered cruel and contrary to the very nature of the American fighting man.   The strategy of head-on attack in the face of a fortified enemy caused thousands of needless deaths of American soldiers.   It has been suggested by historian Victor Davis Hanson that Patton could have saved the lives of millions of Holocaust victims if he had been supplied and allowed to push his attack across the Rhine in 1944.  Similarly, the U.S. bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan in World War II were brutal but considered necessary to disrupt industry and break German morale.

Somehow the U.S. attitude has evolved into a nonsensical “kinder and gentler” way of war.  Perhaps this is the result of the doctrine of “Proportional Response” that is embedded in the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions in 1977 (protocols to which the U.S. is not a signatory).   This doctrine aims to limit both the resort to armed force and the type of actions undertaken once armed force has been initiated.   Proportional Response, however, took its modern form in the aftermath of total war in World War II.   The limitations attempt to spare civilian populations from the horrors of war, particularly where no, legitimate military advantage can be gained.

Unfortunately, warfare in the 21st Century has side-stepped the best intentions of the Geneva protocols.   And, I would argue, this is actually a deliberate development by asymmetric enemies such as Militant Islam that shrewdly recognize the weakness of States which feel bound to the protocols even where the Islamists do not.  So, for example, it has become routine practice for Al Qaeda to insinuate itself in the midst of civilian populations for the deliberate purpose of using the population as a shield against attacks by U.S. forces.   The Taliban practice this as well to devastating effect, forcing U.S. commanders to let enemy combatants go free or risk being brought up on charges like the Haditha Marines.

In Afghanistan we see the insidious effect of these ever more rigid and paralyzing rules of engagement, including restrictions on the use of artillery and close air support that result in higher U.S. casualties and more enemies who live to fight another day.   In Iraq, we failed to crush Al Sadr and his Iranian-sponsored militia on several occasions, leaving them intact to terrorize and intimidate legitimate political opposition groups.  Iraq to this very day is paying a heavy price for the survival of Sadr.

Such self-restraint, in the final tally, gains the U.S. nothing.   Such restraint has not garnered us any respect or appreciation from our Militant Islamic enemies nor even from the Middle Eastern population at large.  They view restraint as weakness.    The enemy has taken every advantage of this restraint with perhaps the best example being the Taliban who fire at U.S. forces and then promptly drop their weapons because they know the ROE’s prevent return fire on “unarmed civilians.”   The U.S. is thus held in contempt.   The result of such contempt can only be an incitement to the enemy to multiply plans for attacks against the U.S.

Surely a clear lesson in all of this is that the U.S. must employ overwhelming force in the face of asymmetric attacks.  The alternative of investing tens of thousands of ground forces to conduct anti-insurgent operations with one hand tied behind the back must never be repeated.

  • jbrookins

    I could not agree more.

  • Roy Lofquist

    “Proportional Response” is one of the tenets of “Just War Doctrine” which had its origins in the Catholic Church centuries ago. It is part of the core curriculum of the US Military Academies.

    Unfortunately, its meaning has been distorted. The intent was to condemn using minor incidents to initiate a war. It has nothing to say about “playing fair”.

  • TS Alfabet

    @ Roy:

    Agree to the extent that the doctrine has changed since its early beginnings.

    The modern iteration most definitely governs what a nation may or may not do as it wages war, so “playing fair” is, in fact, covered by the Proportional Response doctrine as it is interpreted by many today.

    One easy example of this is the Israeli experience during the 2008 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The PR police not only criticized Israel for resorting to war in response to the kidnapping of its soldiers (which was the original intent as you say), but also criticized the tactics and targets chosen by the IDF. The critics basically said that Israel’s targeting of Lebanese infrastructure and civilian areas where rocket launchers were co-located was “excessive” (the term actually used in the Geneva protocols rather than “disproportional”) relative to the military advantage to be gained. In other words, the Israelis weren’t “playing fair” as you term it.

    In fact, the Hezbollah leader, Nasrallah, famously said after the Israeli attacks were launched that he had “no idea” that the Israelis would respond with such force and fury to what he considered a fairly ordinary kidnapping to obtain the release of Hezbollah prisoners from Israel. The implication was that, had he known the kidnappings would ignite such destruction, he would not have ordered the operation in the first place. This is a valuable insight into the thinking of asymmetric enemies and shows that even Nasrallah was thinking along the lines of the Proportional Response doctrine (even if unconsciously). Further it shows that a disproportionate response has a verifiable deterrent effect upon asymmetric enemies.

  • http://www.firstcontactproject.org Rich Buckley

    Is the issue really the level of response, or is it why we are attacked? Dig deeper is my motto.

  • TS Alfabet

    @ Rich:

    It may be both.

    No question that the U.S. has tied its own hands in the “level of response” due to this idea of proportionality.

    As far as the “why” as you put it… Not exactly sure what you mean, but the post (the series really) assumes another 9-11 type attack, hence the “lessons learned” theme. When the next 9-11 attack comes, how should the U.S. respond in light of what we have learned from the past 10 years?

    Perhaps you would care to expand on your thoughts?


You are currently reading "Lessons Learned in the War With Militant Islam, Part Two: Disproportionate Response", entry #8099 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Islamic Facism,Islamists and was published January 25th, 2012 by Glen Tschirgi.

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