We Shall Study War: Armed Force Doesn’t Solve Problems

Military force doesn’t create a lasting peace. It creates the conditions in which peace can be pursued through other means.

The ammunition etched the battle’s story into the landscape. Bullet holes pockmarked the buildings around the Sadr City neighborhood. During one patrol, the soldiers took me onto the second floor of a high rise to show off the damage from a missile fired at an insurgent. The explosion had scorched the room’s entire inside. We could see the street below through a missing wall.

Yet on that same street, a line of cars waited for Iraqi Police officers’ permission to proceed. Shoppers crowded the market to purchase staples for the week’s meals. Children chatted with the soldiers standing guard. The fighting, it would seem, had forced the insurgents out and brought about peace.

That was probably true in the short term. But with limited wars, force has much more modest potential in the long term. Insurgents could always retreat, lick their wounds and return once the Americans and Iraqi government shifted their focus elsewhere.

Instead of bringing about a decisive conclusion, force merely creates the conditions in which one party can seek a more long-lasting solution through other means—economic, diplomatic, even reconciliation.

This can be seen in the way terrorist groups end. A RAND report that examined all terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006 found that military force or the terrorist groups’ own victory accounted for the demise of just 17 percent of the groups.

By contrast, 40 percent ended because they “were penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies.” An additional 43 percent ended because they were brought into the political process.

“The conventional war aims to win, limited war aims to convince,” wrote French General André Beaufre.

When Gen. David Petraeus spelled out his 14 “Observations from Soldiering in Iraq in 2006,” only four of those observations had much to do with traditional combat—and three of those related to general leadership qualities just as applicable to the business world as a warzone. 

From the same wall-less room of the Sadr City high rise, I could see these practices in effect. There was a line of concrete barriers the Americans built to create checkpoints for people moving in and out of the top two-thirds of Sadr City. These checkpoints forced would-be bombers in one of Baghdad’s most dangerous areas to hazard Iraqi security if they wanted to attack anywhere else in the capital.

Both Iraqi and American leaders also invested enormous amounts of time collecting intelligence to map out insurgent cells. They had sprays to detect explosives on the hands of those who’d been building bombs. And after most raids, they photographed every room in crime-scene detail. It was all very CSI: Baghdad.

Even more importantly, they sought to give residents a stake in Iraq’s future. Engineers created parks out of debris-filled fields. With children playing in the park, parents were more apt to discourage insurgents from using the sites for roadside bomb and rocket attacks. It also cleared areas so soldiers could better see hidden weapons—a practice the jargon-heavy military dubbed “nonlethal terrain denial.”

The Americans poured money into a nearby wholesale market that provided products for vendors across the capital. They brought supplies to a local school. The goal was to provide quick, demonstrable improvements to the area.   

The soldiers didn’t do this because they wanted the Iraqis to like them. They did it to convince the people that their best hope for the future lay with the Iraqi government, not Sadrist insurgents.

Ammunition may have carved the battle’s story into the landscape. But in this case, that ammunition was so much more than bullets and missiles.

“Money is ammunition,” Petraeus wrote.


Be sure to check out the entire series:

  • May 22:
  • May 23:
  • May 24: Armed force doesn’t resolve problems.
  • May 25: Wars are not about justice.
  • May 26: Worthy goals undermine one another.
  • May 27: Wars are not bipolar.
  • May 28: Wars are not about victory.


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