Limited War

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Limited War

Limited wars in history

The modern concept

Continuing problems


Limited war is a subjective and relative term that has gained currency chiefly to distinguish certain conflicts from wars fought for ends and by means that have impressed men as extreme. Limited wars are as old as the history of mankind. They have occurred among the most primitive and the most advanced peoples and in every civilization. The great majority of all international wars have been fought for ends far short of domination or annihilation and by means far short of the complete destruction of the enemy’s armed forces or his society. In these respects even the two so-called total wars of this century—World War I and World War II—were significantly limited.

The concept of limited war is also old and ubiquitous in history. Primitive tribes, as well as the knights of the Middle Ages, have been conscious of explicit customs and rules of mutual restraint in the conduct of warfare. In ancient China, as well as eighteenth-century Europe, there were laws explicitly formulated to regulate warfare.

Yet the consciousness of limited war as a distinct kind of warfare, with its own theory and doctrine, has emerged most markedly in contrast to threemajor wars, waged between several major states, in behalf of popular national and ideological goals, by means of organized conscripted forces and massive firepower: the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II.

The detailed elaboration of a strategic doctrine of limited war, the formulation of specific plans for carrying out this doctrine, and the combined efforts of government, the military establishment, and private analysts and publicists to translate the doctrine into particular weapons and forces are developments peculiar to the nuclear age. They are products of the profound fear of nuclear war and the belief that the limitation of war must be carefully contrived, rather than left to inherent limitations upon military capabilities.

The principal exponents of limited war in the eighteenth century were (1) the principal military tacticians of wars of fortification and maneuver, like Vauban and Marshal de Saxe; (2) proponents of international laws to regulate and civilize war, like Vattel, who drew upon the principles of Grotius; and (3) political theorists like Rousseau and Fenelon, who saw war as a necessary, if rather indecisive, instrument for preserving a balance of power. In the latter half of the nineteenth century legal and balance-of-power theorists were somewhat overshadowed by the exponents of modern military power and glory, like Marshal Foch. Most of the leading military thinkers, with the notable exception of Karl von Clausewitz, were prophets of blitzkrieg and wars of annihilation. After World War I, proponents of international order, in their search for collective security and disarmament as methods of avoiding war, generally ignored the problem of limiting war. Liddell Hart, virtually the only exponent of a military strategy of limited war between the two world wars, applied his prescriptions chiefly to Britain’s situation.

After World War II, however, there was a great resurgence of interest in limited war among civilian analysts as well as military experts, particularly in the United States after the Korean War. The new exponents of limited war advocated the systematic control of military potential and of war as a useful, carefully restricted instrument of policy. On the most fundamental level they drew their inspiration from Clausewitz, who in expounding the theory of war as a continuation of diplomacy had related the scope and intensity of war to its political context with a profundity appreciated equally by Lenin and Mao Tse-tung.[See the biography ofClausewitz.]

A limited war is now broadly defined as a war that is fought for ends far short of the complete subordination of one state’s will to another’s and by means involving far less than the total military resources of the belligerents, leaving the civilian life and the armed forces of the belligerents largely intact and leading to a bargained termination. More narrowly, it is defined as a local nonnuclear war. Limited war is therefore a matter of degree. It is also a matter of perspective, since a war that is limited for one belligerent might be close to total for another. Furthermore, a limited war may be restricted in some respects and not in others. Thus, a civil war or insurrection may be fought by limited means for the total stake of controlling a government.

Yet despite the impossibility of defining limited war by simple and absolute criteria, it is not difficult, historically, to distinguish limited wars from wars of great scope and intensity.

Limited wars in history

The eighteenth century

The middle of the eighteenth century stands out as the first notable period of limited warfare in the history of the modernstate system. In marked contrast to the preceding religious wars and the general wars revolving around Louis xiv’s struggle for hegemony and to the subsequent French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the wars of this period generally consisted of short, duellike battles of maneuver fought for limited dynastic and territorial objectives, within a system where rough equilibrium of power was maintained by about five major states. The wars left civilian life relatively unaffected and altered the international status of the major countries only minimally or gradually.

The limited character of war in this period must be attributed largely to the economic and technological obstacles preventing the major states from destroying each other’s armed forces and devastat- ing or occupying each other’s homelands. This in turn reflected the limited capacity of monarchies to organize armed forces and mobilize military potential. Furthermore, warfare was limited by the great role of sea power and by the fact that sea war did not ravish the land.

The limited warfare of the eighteenth century, however, cannot be attributed solely to the nature of military technology, since the technology was not very different then from that of the preceding and following periods of general war. It must also be attributed to the limited nature of the political ends for which states fought; to the equilibrium of power between the major participants, which restrained them from pushing an advantage too far; to the stilted, drill-field military tactics suited to keeping expensive and untrustworthy troops under control; to a general respect for laws of war distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants, belligerents and nonbelligerents; and to the prevailing social and political system, which made these political, legal, and military constraints congenial to the homogeneous ruling classes of Europe. Beyond these factors, the limitation of eighteenth-century warfare can be explained simply by the desire of rulers and ruled to avoid the chaos of the religious wars.

The nineteenth century

The Napoleonic period removed many of the political and social conditions of limited war. In undermining the ancien regime and introducing the concept of the “nation in arms,” itprepared the way for a popular nationalism far less congenial to the limitation of war than the pragmatic Realpolitik of the eighteenth century.

Napoleon demonstrated the capacity of states to generate popular enthusiasm for war by nationalistic and ideological appeals and to translate this enthusiasm into unprecedented military power through mass conscription and the mobilization of industry and technology. By reconciling military discipline with individual initiative, he enabled states to use new tactics of camouflage, mobility, and destructive pursuit that gave war a new dynamism. He showed that where such decisive force could be exerted on land, sea war would cease to be a limiting factor and instead would become, through blockade and the destruction of commerce, a forerunner of total war against civilian life.

Nevertheless, the rest of the nineteenth century —notably from 1854 to 1870—was, again, a period of limited war, thanks largely to the absence of wars between the several major states (except the Crimean War, which was fought in a peripheral location). The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the unprecedented development in peacetime of war plans, conscription, military logistics, and communications (notably railroads and telegraph) and a rapidly advancing military technology. Yet, the new potentialities of destruction inherent in these developments were not fully exploited or generally appreciated until World War I, although the American Civil War should have been a grim warning. Instead, Prussia’s quick, limited victories in 1866 (against Austria) and 1871 (against France) were believed to be the models of future wars.

The two world wars

World War I was not deliberately undertaken as a general war. It became a world war because of diplomatic miscalculations, the interlocking network of alliance commitments, the inflexibility of mobilization plans and war plans, the prevailing assumption among the military that a general war was inevitable, the weakness of civilian control over the military, and the failure of the initial German offensive, followed by a war of attrition and stalemate that national animosities, fed by popular sentiment, made it difficult to terminate without victory. Consequently, even if the will to avoid general war had been stronger, war would have become general and extremely destructive without a systematic effort by governments to subject military planning and operations to overall political direction under a strategy of limited war.

Yet few drew any such lessons from that shocking experience. Rather, it was generally assumed that unless war could be avoided by collective security and disarmament there would soon be another and even more devastating world war. The rise of the expansionist totalitarian powers, the fascist glorification of war, and the perfection and proliferation of more destructive weapons, including aerial bombardment, seemed to make this inevitable.

Actually, the fascist states preferred to satisfy their ambitions through intimidation and through quick, limited aggressions against negligible opposition; but the failure of the democratic states to contain these aggressions at the outset by limited means and their unwillingness to use force for limited ends assured the fulfillment of the prophecies of total war when the democratic states, contrary to Hitler’s calculations, belatedly offered resistance in 1939 and when Japan, confronted with the American oil embargo and rearmament, launched what it regarded as a limited, preventive attack on Pearl Harbor.

The nuclear age

In the aftermath of World War II, the invention of nuclear weapons and the onset of the cold war raised a general feeling that only the United Nations and disarmament could prevent another total war. Yet, within a decade this opinion had been modified by the widespread conviction that the potential destructiveness of a nuclear war would deter a total war and by a concomitant surge of private and official interest in meeting a purported danger of limited wars.

This new attention to limited war has been justified by the occurrence of more than fifty limited wars of various kinds within twenty years after World War II. All of them were fought outside Europe, with the exception of the Greek civil war in 1945–1949 and the Hungarian rebellion in 1956. The great majority were internal wars; that is, wars that arose and were fought largely within the boundaries of a single state. Several of these were full-scale civil wars: in Greece; China in 1945–1949; Bolivia in 1949; Algeria in 1954–1962; Cuba in 1958–1959; the Congo in 1960–1963; Vietnam from 1959; and Indonesia in 1966.

A number of internal wars were, in communist parlance, “national liberation wars,” supported from outside by the Soviet Union, Communist China, or other communist countries: in Greece; French Indochina in 1946–1954; Burma in 1948–1954; Malaya in 1948–1960; the Philippines in 1946–1954; and Vietnam. And one should add to this list two abortive rebellions against Soviet and Communist Chinese domination: in Hungary, and Tibet in 1956–1957. Although internal, most of these wars were major international political events because they determined the status of colonial holdings and/oraffected the balance of power in the cold war.

Several of the approximately fifty limited wars arose from a direct invasion of the territory of one state by another state: the Korean War in 1950–1953; the Guatemalan war in 1954 (which, However, had many characteristics of an internal war); the Israeli-Egyptian war and the British-French invasion of Suez in 1956; and the Indian conquest of Goa in 1961. One might also categorize the Quemoy-Matsu conflict in 1954–1958 as an aborted interstate war. Like most of the internal wars, these interstate wars reflected the major political issues in the world since World War II: the national-colonial conflict and the communistnoncommunist conflict.

There were, also, a few interstate wars fought primarily by subversive means, but all of these except the war in Vietnam were low-level conflicts arising from indigenous national rivalries: Somalia-Ethiopia in 1960, Indonesia-Malaya in 1963, and Algeria-Morocco in 1963.

Some of the civil and internal wars were quite destructive—as in Greece, China, and Algeria— and total, rather than limited, in the sense that different regimes competed for complete control of a country. The Korean War, although limited from the American and Chinese standpoint, was virtually total from the standpoint of the North and South Korean regimes. Yet, all of these wars were strictly limited in geographical extent, the number of countries directly involved, and the scope and intensity of violence. Although a number of them involved either the United States or the Soviet Union, none involved both powers directly and simultaneously.

The limited nature of these wars can be partly explained by a variety of conditions that helped limit wars in previous periods of history: the limited or local nature of political issues at stake, the tactics of internal warfare, the limited military capacity of the belligerents, the one-sided nature of the contest, the pressure by allies for constraint, the fear of overcommitment at the expense of protecting prior interests elsewhere. The notable feature of this period, however, is that despite the global nature of the cold war and the depth and intensity of the overall conflict of interests and aims, and despite the immense destructive power that the principal adversaries could inflict upon each other, the major communist and democratic powers did not bring their full military power to bear upon each other. Only in the Korean War did major Western and communist powers employ their armed forces in direct combat with each other. Therefore, the limitation of warfare since World War II must be largely attributed to the military abstinence and restraint practiced by the principal adversaries in the cold war.

A large part of the explanation of this military abstinence and restraint lies in the deterrent effect of the very capacity for mutual destruction that would make another general war so catastrophic. This deterrent effect, combined with a number of other military and political factors conducive to limitation, was most marked in the Korean War, where, contrary to all previous expectations in the West, an American-Communist Chinese conflict remained local and limited, with each side deliberately refraining from military actions that threatened to expand the war and both sides agreeing to an inconclusive termination.

The limited war in Vietnam is as notable an example as the Korean War of studied application by the United States of ascending gradations of limited force toward the achievement of a negotiated settlement on limited terms. It was even more notable, however, for evoking widespread popular approval of and insistence upon such limits.

The modern concept

The Korean War in time stimulated a new concept and strategic doctrine of limited war, which received additional impetus from the growth of Soviet nuclear striking power, the introduction of thermonuclear bombs and long-range missiles in Soviet and American arsenals, and the communists’ explicit emphasis in the 1960s on national liberation wars.

According to this concept, the stability of the bi-polar nuclear balance, resulting from the reluctance of the nuclear powers to use nuclear weapons except in retaliation against nuclear weapons, could not be relied upon to deter communist powers from supporting limited aggressions and might, in fact, encourage such aggressions because the United States might be deterred from using nuclear weapons first when it had no effective means of conventional resistance. Furthermore, if involved in a local conventional conflict, the United States and its allies might not be capable of controlling the escalation or expansion of such a war but would have to choose between defeat and a nuclear catastrophe. To deter such aggressions or to fight local wars effectively without incurring an intolerable risk of nuclear war, the United States, according to this thesis, would have to develop a capacity to fight different kinds of small wars successfully, with a diversified arsenal of conventional capabilities appropriate to various constraints upon weapons, targets, and the zone of combat, while holding open the lines of diplomatic communication to facilitate the termination of combat, probably short of a clear-cut military or political victory. This new concept of limited war was explicitly based on the principle, drawn from Clausewitz, that the conduct of war should be scrupulously disciplined by overall political considerations, so that war will be an effective instrument of policy rather than an instrument of maximum destruction.

The concept of limited war did not find official favor with American Secretary of State Dulles; only in the last years of the Eisenhower administration were some concessions made to the idea. Instead, the administration stressed the alleged economic and military necessity of avoiding future Koreas by depending primarily on the American capacity to meet local conventional aggressions with strategic and tactical nuclear retaliation to deter little and big wars alike. This strategy—loosely called massive retaliation—was also adopted by allies of the United States in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), who were equally anxious to substitute nuclear firepower for conventionally armed man power following their brief rearmament effort during the Korean War period.

In this period, however, a movement for strategic revision arose within the United States Army and Navy and among academic analysts and research organizations interested in military questions. According to this revisionist movement, the dependence of the West on nuclear weapons was increasingly incredible as a deterrent against the most likely forms of aggression; it would be ineffective or disastrous if deterrence should fail or be inapplicable; and it was inadequate as an instrument of policy in conflicts short of war (in which the Soviet Union could confront the United States and its allies with the choice between acquiescence and thermonuclear holocaust).

When President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McNamara took office in 1961, they explicitly adopted the concept of limited war, which had emergedas a criticism of the prevailing strategy. Moreover, they instituted a far-reaching program to revise military policies so as to support a strategy oflimited war. They created “special forces” to handle guerrilla warfare, urged a build-up of NATO#x2019’s conventional capabilities in order to raise the threshold of effective resistance without resorting to nuclear war, and increased the capacity of the United States to transport armed forces by air to prevent or deter local wars. The key phrase used to describe this revised strategy was “flexible and controlled response.”

The concept of flexible and controlled response, however, was applied beyond local nonnuclear war. It also embraced the concept of deliberately planning for the “option” of using nuclear weapons in a limited fashion, under constraints upon their number, type, and targets and in response to effective central political direction.

Thus, the concept of limited war came to include even a controlled strategic “counterforce” war, in which the United States would try to confine nuclear exchanges to such military targets as missile bases, holding back its capacity to devastate Soviet cities, as an inducement to the Soviet Union not to attack American cities.

Whether or not a nuclear war could be kept limited, the unwillingness of the American government to relinquish this possibility was a striking indication of growing inhibitions against resorting to unlimited war or depending entirely on the “balance of terror “to deter armed conflict. It signified increasing reluctance to depend for deterrence upon a military response that it would not be rational to carry out.

There were signs that the nuclear-missile age had induced similar attitudes in Soviet civilian and military leaders. Premier Khrushchev led Soviet spokesmen in avowing that thermonuclear weapons, by deterring the “capitalist-imperialist “powers, had overruled the Marxist-Leninist dictum that the dictatorship of the proletariat could come about onlyby a violent clash of arms precipitated by imperialist desperation. Such a clash, he said, was no longer “fatalistically inevitable.” Onnumerous occasions he and other Soviet leaders stressed the immense and intolerable damage that communist as well as “imperialist” powers would suffer in a nuclear war.

Although Chinese spokesmen did not disagree with this view, they differed with Soviet spokesmen in being more confident that the United States would be deterred by Soviet nuclear power from escalating national liberation wars and particularly from initiating the use of nuclear weapons.

Whether for effect or out of conviction, Soviet spokesmen continued to assert that any war between the Soviet Union and the United States would result in nuclear war and continued to deny the possibility that either a strategic or tactical nuclear war could be limited, but in the mid-1960s some Soviet military men began to publish criticisms and qualifications of these views.

Furthermore, communist doctrine had always emphasized political constraints on war and the cautious, flexible use of force. Mao Tse-tung’s strategy of revolutionary war, which dominated Chinese thinking and remained the leading rationale of un-conventional war, was suffused with concepts of limited war although its aim was total. By 1961 both Soviet and Chinese strategy emphasized the necessity of supporting “national liberation wars” (that is, internal wars promoting a communist takeover) and acknowledged the possibility of “local wars” outside Europe (that is, geographically restricted wars between states, which might or might not be limited in weapons) as a contingency to be deterred or frustrated.

Continuing problems

In the United States there emerged during the 1960s a broad consensus supporting the strategy of flexible and controlled response. AmericaℙsEuropean allies largely accepted the strategy as it applied outside Europe, but they were generally far more skeptical about the feasibility or utility of fighting a limited conventional war, let alone a limited nuclear war, in Europe. Their skepticism reflected differences of geography and was not likely to yield to American persuasion. Accordingly, they remained reluctant to build up NATO’s conventional capabilities and were fearful that the emphasis on a strategy of limited conventional war would undermine the credibility of nuclear deterrence. France went furthest in openly criticizing the doctrine of flexible and controlled response and in acclaiming a doctrine of extended nuclear deterrence as a substitute for conventional resistance. Despite the German Federal Republic’s twelve divisions and the six American divisions, the capacity of NATO’s European-based forces to withstand the Soviet Union’s forces in eastern Europe for more than a few days remained in doubt. France’s withdrawal from NATO’s integrated commands in 1966 only highlighted this situation.

The United States in the mid-1960s became increasingly preoccupied with the war in Vietnam. There the addition of concentrated firepower (includingheavy strategic and tactical bombing) and regular ground warfare to guerrilla warfare and civic action fitted none of the previous concepts of limited war. Except for more detailed attention in the United States to the process of escalation, strategic thought about limited war seemed to have passed its phase of innovation.

Strategic quiescence, however, did not resolve outstanding differences in the West about the particular forces and strategies needed for deterrence, resistance, and the support of policy in crises short of war. What should be the purpose of NATO’s conventional forces in Europe: to provide merely a “screening, force” to detect an attack or to be a “tripwire” to sound the alarm for nuclear retaliation? to prevent an unopposed limited territorial grab? to force the enemy to pause long enough to consider the risk of a nuclear war? to withstand Soviet forces in Europe conventionally for days? months? Under what conditions, if any, should the West use nuclear weapons first? If nuclear weapons were used, how, if at all, could a bilateral nuclear war, especially one in Europe, be significantly limited in geographical extent, targets, and duration? What should be the function of tactical (that is, battlefield) weapons as opposed to longer-range nuclear weapons? Could either tactical or strategic nuclear exchanges be confined to “bargaining and demonstration”? How could such exchanges be kept under effective central command and political control?

The most hopeful thing about these unanswered and necessarily conjectural questions was that their very imponderability made a potential aggressor uncertain about the response to his incursions, and this uncertainty, combined with his awareness of the intolerable penalties of miscalculation, would itself be a powerful deterrent to rash moves. Indeed, notwithstanding the Korean War, throughout the cold war both the communist powers and the United States and its allies have exercised great caution in avoiding a direct military encounter with each other, afraid that any such encounter might expand into a thermonuclear war. Approaches to the brink of war, such as the Formosa Strait crisis in 1958, the Berlin crises in 1948–1949 and 1958–1962, and the Cuban crisis in 1962, show that this caution does not preclude dangerous tests of will and nerve, under the shadow of war. Yet, through such tests the major adversaries in the cold war seem to have learned the acceptable limits of pressure and counterpressure short of war. If the detente that developed after the Cuban missile crisis should last, it will be largely due to this mutual understanding, toward which the American doctrine and forces of limited war made a major contribution by bolstering American resolve to accept the risks of war in crises.

One of the serious questions for the future, However, is whether the deterrents that have developed in an essentially bipolar world would persist in a world in which there might be a number of additional significant centers of political decision and military power both inside and outside the two blocs. A more decentralized structure of international power and interests might weaken the existing deterrents against aggression and war and increase the danger of limited wars breaking out and expanding into major wars, especially if the initial belligerents owned nuclear weapons. In the light of this danger, the most challenging problem of limiting warfare in the future might be to extend to an eroding bipolar or multipolar world methods and concepts of deterring, confining, and restraining warfare that would be as effective as those that emerged in the first two decades after what one must hope was the last, and not just the latest, world war.

Robert E. Osgood

[see alsoDeterrence; NuclearWar; Strategy. Other relevant material may be found underInternationalRelations; Military; WAR.]


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