A Nation at War
A Nation at War

The panels and resulting papers from the Seventeenth Annual U.S. Army War College Strategy Conference, held at Carlisle Barracks, PA, in April 2006.


The U.S. Army War College (USAWC) Strategy Conference each year addresses a major security issue of relevance to the United States and its allies.

The 2006 conference was designed to help frame vital questions that offer insights on the conference theme: “A Nation at War.”

Is America at war?
Perhaps worst of all is the answer that would come from the broad American public. Their vocal response might be affirmative, but except for those families with loved ones in the military, there might be scant tangible evidence that the Nation is at war.

Part of the confusion stems from the nature of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). The war is certainly existential, but judging the performance of the nation by the standard of the fight for the nation’s life in World War II is wrong. Even in World War II, some parts of the United States—government and public—might have been only marginally affected, but the overwhelming majority of the country felt in daily life the sacrifices required for the war effort.

Mobilization was immense; American industry was mobilized on par with the nation’s citizenry. Although some actions—like saving tin foil to be used in building battleships—were more symbolic than significant, virtually every American was acutely aware of his or her role in the war. When making comparisons against the World War II standard, analysts of today’s GWOT can not be faulted for suggesting that the Nation really is not at war.

A better standard to use for comparison would perhaps be the Cold War.
During the Cold War, the nuclear threat sometimes seemed like the Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the U.S. Populace, but faith in deterrence—even that provided by mutually assured destruction—allowed Americans to continue with their everyday lives. Industry was able to focus on products other than military materiel, contributing to the strength of the economy that was key in the eventual defeat of the Soviet Union. The analogy with the Cold War is not perfect: the economy may be of less importance in the GWOT than finding the intellectual capital to win the diplomatic and informational “battles” that lie ahead. Nonetheless, the Cold War paradigm is probably more appropriate for a comparison with today’s GWOT.

[T]he conference organizers decided to concentrate on five distinct aspects of the current war, hoping to touch in some way on each of the elements of national power.

1. Defending the nation’s borders (addressing—at least in part—the informational element of national power). When in a war—either of the Cold War or World War II variety—defense of the borders is an imperative. One side of a current political debate suggests that open borders are the more desirable alternative. While not specifically addressing the national security risks, the pundits on this side of the equation point out that tightening borders and limiting foreign entrance into the country are accompanied by real costs: economic costs, intellectual costs, and costs in international goodwill. Finding the balance between open and tightly-constricted borders presents a major national security challenge.

2. Building and maintaining international support (addressing an issue for the diplomatic element of national power). Even a “unilateral” preemptive attack requires the support of other nations, whether organized in a loosely-bound coalition or bonded together as allies in a legally-binding treaty. In Iraq and other recent operations, some part of that support simply has served a legitimizing function. Absent an international mandate—from the United Nations (UN) or other internationally-recognized body—the addition of coalition partners confers a degree of legitimacy on a particular operation. Those partners, though, join because of their own national interests, not necessarily because of some shared rationale for the conflict at hand. Those same interests drive alliances, too, but alliance partners usually can be expected to contribute significant—not token—forces to a fight. Both alliances and legitimizing coalitions provide a valuable service in the GWOT and any war; again the question is one of balance.

3. The domestic context and the Reserve Components (addressing domestic support through an analysis of one part of the military element of national power). Available evidence suggests that the Army’s personnel and equipment are stressed by the on-going requirements of “the long war” and the continuing obligations for engagement around the world. One key piece of evidence is the paradigm shift in how the Army Reserve and National Guard are mobilized, deployed, and employed. While supporting processes remain mired in a Cold War mentality, the Reserve Components have gone from being a strategic reserve—the Cold War model—to an operational reserve. A new force generation model is attempting to put some predictability into deployment cycles, but the reserves in the GWOT are deploying more regularly, with some predictable adverse impacts on recruiting, retaining, and equipping the force. Another adverse impact became obvious in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when many of the National Guard first responders in the affected States were unavailable because of deployment. As with nearly all of the adverse impacts of limited force size, adaptable leaders found “work around” solutions that dedicated soldiers could execute to accomplish the mission. However, these solutions frequently fell short of the desired end-state and were clearly executed on the backs of war-weary soldiers, both active and reserve.

4. Economic dimensions (addressing the economic element of national power). Economic globalization may be a good phenomenon for those nations blessed with the ability to move rapidly as markets shift.
However, globalization also creates a regime of “loser” nations, those with no ability to adapt quickly and with no safety net when a broad swath of their citizenry find themselves unemployed, possibly producing recruiting opportunities for America’s enemies around the world. Another economic phenomenon that affects the means to execute the nation’s strategy is the amount of America’s external debt. A robust economy is needed to prosecute the war; some of the current monetary and taxation policies put the economy at significant risk in the mid-term.

5. The rule of law (also addressing the information element of national power). One of America’s enduring values is the legal foundation of society.
Even when—perhaps especially when—America’s enemies ignore the basic provisions of international law, America should set an example for the rest of the world by adhering to the highest legal standards. In the GWOT, that example has been tarnished by perceived inadequate justification (casus belli) for the war in Iraq and by inappropriate conduct during the war. Notable among the latter is the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, but the practice of rendition of prisoners to third countries and the use of “aggressive interrogation techniques”— some believe this to be a euphemism for torture—are not helping the United States win the “war of ideas” in the Muslim world.
02 Mar 2007 by Simon W. Moon