“Why have the major post-9/11 US military interventions turned into quagmires, and what can we learn from these conflicts about war termination and its role in policy and strategy?” Christopher D. Kolenda muses rhetorically at the beginning of his book. It’s the plainspoken, aptly titled Zero Sum Victory: What We’re Getting Wrong About War. “…The war termination problems that the United States encountered during the major post-9/11 interventions may not be an aberration. The Vietnam conflict suffered from the same factors, albeit in subtly different ways…Examination of war termination challenges enriches these perspectives.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: https://www.cnas.org/people/christopher-d-kolenda
An important difference from the Iraq and Afghanistan case studies is that a negotiated outcome—in the form of North Vietnamese capitulation—was discussed from 1964 to 1966 during deliberations over whether to escalate the Vietnam War…The odds against success in Vietnam may have been greater than in post- 9/11 Afghanistan or Iraq. In the latter two, the United States overthrew existing regimes.
These were replaced by new governments before the insurgencies fomented (although resistance began immediately in Iraq, and within a year in Afghanistan). In Vietnam, the United States needed to rescue a deeply troubled client. By 1964 the NLF had significant internal support as well as external support and sanctuary from North Vietnam, and it controlled roughly 40 percent of the country. The South Vietnamese government was deeply kleptocratic and losing popular legitimacy. Either situation, unless reversed, normally results in a loss for the government. South Vietnam had both from the start of the US intervention.”
These statements are just the tip of the iceberg. Kolenda brilliantly demonstrates time and again how the ghosts of the past juxtapose the militant actions of the present. But interestingly, he also demonstrates not only how hindsight on said matters is twenty-twenty, but thinking in reverse about the time period juxtaposed against modern warfare tactics and regimes also addresses pivotally needed ruminations. So much of the problematic aspects of modern warfare today lie in a lack of communication and sense of cohesion with our history, as much as they are due to unforeseen consequences and missteps based upon antiquated, trigger-happy, and conflict-immediate methodologies. “A country goes to war to achieve certain aims.
These aims could include vanquishing an existential threat, territorial conquest, regaining lost territory, regime change, retribution, coercing the adversary to change certain policies, and the like. Success, quite logically, means the durable attainment of those aims. This simple concept is at the heart of many of America’s troubles with irregular wars,” Kolenda writes. “…Successful warfighting, even to the point of defeating an opposing army, is normally not sufficient for a durable political outcome. War, in political scientist Thomas Schelling’s formulation, is violent bargaining. Even wars that have involved the surrender of the adversary’s armed forces usually involve some form of negotiation.”
At a time when the country at home finds itself in such a divisive place, philosophies Kolenda holds as sacred contemporarily reveal an unenthusiastic, and thoroughly unsettling portrait of times ahead.