How Wars End: Why We Always Fight The Last Battle by Gideon Rose – Book Review

Gideon Rose, How Wars End: Why We Always Fight The Last Battle (Simon and Schuster: New York) 413 pp., 2011 (2nd Edition), $17.00 USD

By Jeff Collins

General Tommy Franks, commander of the 2003 US invasion force in Iraq, once told a civilian colleague during the planning phase of the war “You pay attention to the day after. I’ll pay attention to the day of.” This comment, in a nutshell, gets to the heart of the argument Gideon Rose poses in his new book How Wars End. Rose, currently the editor-in-chief of Foreign Affairs, provides a sweeping overview of the last 100 years of American grand strategy by focusing on how successive administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have failed to plan carefully in making durable political arrangements once their opponents have been defeated (p. xi).

As Rose puts it, American leaders (both political and military) have failed to grapple with what the famed Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz termed the ‘dual nature of war’. In effect, those individuals in decision-making roles have not made the ‘negative’, or coercive, component of war – the fighting – subservient to the ‘positive’, or constructive, component of war – the overarching political goals (p. 3).

Instead, he argues that what has emerged has been a ‘clear-division-of-labor’ approach to war-fighting where the military’s only modus operandi is to wage war against the enemy. What happens after the fighting stops, as exemplified by General Franks comment, is for the civilians in the State Department to figure out. But it isn’t just military brass like Franks holding this perspective. As Rose notes, since World War One it has been American presidents who have focused the brunt of their efforts on the negative component of war while paradoxically holding lofty visions of how the post-war world should look once the fighting stops (p. 268).

For example, in World War Two, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) saw the war as a “fight for a certain vision of international political and economic order” but yet simultaneously “stifl[ed] discussions about postwar German policy” or how such a liberal-democratic order would come about with the Stalin left occupying half of Europe. Instead, FDR argued that only an unconditional surrender of the Nazi regime, brought about by its total military destruction would suffice (p. 53, 69). As Rose writes, “until practically the day of the German surrender, barely a thought was given to the question of how to supply or even reach the Western sector of Berlin – located deep within the Soviet zone – should the Soviets not prove cooperative” (p. 88). As a further consequence of this lack of post-war planning, Europe remained in a political vacuum for two years, completely enveloped in “a major economic and political crisis” (p. 86). It was only with the consolidation of Soviet military and political positions in Central and Eastern Europe, coupled with a brutal winter in 1946-47, that the Americans finally responded with the Marshall Plan, a repositioning of American forces in line with the Truman Doctrine, and the creation of NATO.

Furthermore, in explaining why successive administrations have approached the strategising of war in this fashion Rose posits a number of explanations. For one, culturally, American society in general still views wars as “street fights on a grand scale, with the central strategic challenge being how to beat up the bad guys” – which effectively relegates away any serious planning for a war’s aftermath (p. 3). Secondly, he argues that the United States’ relative military and economic power position in the international system has continuously ensured that there are no real constraints on the policy choices confronting its decision-makers; as a consequence, there exists no real imperative to conduct any serious post-war planning – i.e. ‘if you hold all the cards then why fold?’ (p. 268). And finally, as the subtitle of the book indicates, Rose argues that presidents have been, and continue to be, beholden to analogies; continuously looking to past wars to conjure up ‘lessons’ on how to plan the current one. The problem, however, is that these ‘lessons’ keep reinforcing the view that military and the political components of war should be separate with the former taking precedent over the latter. This was perhaps most demonstrative during the 1991 Gulf War when President George H.W. Bush pushed for a quick and overwhelming trouncing of Saddam Hussein’s armies in Kuwait and not the total destruction of the dictator’s forces or his overthrow lest, it was thought, the United States would be drawn into a domestically unpopular Vietnam-style quagmire (p. 202). Therefore, instead of undertaking a long-term analysis of American interests in the region the temptation to avoid ‘another Vietnam’ practically ensured the survival of Saddam Hussein and his Republican Guard, guaranteeing an often counter-productive and long-term American presence in the region to counter any further Iraqi aggression (p. 221).

Fortunately, in Rose’s concluding analysis, he argues there is a way out of this cycle. For one, he suggests that the first goal of any war should be the establishment of a stable political situation conducive to America’s long-term interests while “the rest of the war [should be] seen as a countdown to that blessed event” (p. 285). Secondly, planners should follow Clausewitz’s advice and focus on what the war is supposed to achieve – is it regional stability or a new governing regime? And finally, given the impact analogies have played in decision-making any and all assumptions need to be vetted and challenged with contingency plans in place in the event of unexpected changes (p. 285-286).

Still, Rose’s solutions carry an underlining premise: if a president (or other senior decision-makers) approached war in this fashion then a successful meeting of America’s goals could be possible. However, this ignores a crucial point: not every war fought can be concluded favourably in America’s interests. Each war, at one level, must be taken as a unique set of variables. For example, given the nationalist imperative driving the North Vietnamese to reunify their country it is hard to fathom that they would have settled for anything less than total victory over the South, no matter what the cost or how well the US planned its strategy. The same can also be said about not planning for the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard during the Gulf War; say if this did happen and then what? The Shia and Kurdish uprisings following Iraq’s eviction from Kuwait could have potentially morphed into a civil war – how would have the Americans handled that? What if the Iranians intervened? Again, there are so many variables (some known, some unknown) at play in war – what Clausewitz calls the ‘fog of war’ – that to suggest that had careful political planning been done a certain favourable outcome would have occurred risks relegating debate to the realm of counter-factual history.

Nevertheless, despite that drawback How Wars End is well worth the read. In capturing nearly a century’s worth of American foreign and defence policy decision-making, while simultaneously infusing it with multiple theoretical arguments (realist, liberal, and foreign-policy analysis) with an easy-to-read narrative that flows through each succeeding chapter, Gideon Rose has achieved no easy feat. Few books take such a comprehensive view of how states plan to end wars. As for decision-makers themselves, when thinking about engaging in war they should just remember one of Clausewitz’s other famous dictums; in war, “[t]he political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes.”


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