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Jacobs: The simple questions of war

Military analyst says hope is not a war strategy; need to clarify objectives

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Jack Jacobs
Military analyst

I think it was Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice in Wonderland,” who trenchantly observed, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

Now, Lewis Carroll was not a tactical or strategic genius (and Lewis Carroll wasn’t even his real name) but in one sentence, he articulated the primary principle of most human endeavors, particularly war.

Success is almost universally the result of first asking, “What are we trying to accomplish?” It’s the first question asked by private soldiers, by general officers, by successful businessmen … by everyone who has any idea what he’s doing. Before allocating resources, before everything else, make sure you can identify the objective result. In other words, start at the end and work backwards.

In World War II, the Allies made a decision that the objective was the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, and everything we did was with the purpose of causing the Axis to surrender unconditionally. D-Day, the Battle of Iwo Jima, dropping nuclear weapons on Japan … they all carried the same message: We will keep it up until you quit.

Dealing with Iraq isn’t World War II, but when we use the military instrument of power, we ignore the Principle of the Objective at our peril. It should be clear to most observers that our original concept was neither clearly articulated nor properly planned, and that we have decided, quite late in the game, that we can’t accomplish the mission. So, we’ve changed the objective.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with changing your mind, but the consequences of doing so need to be considered before you start. Any successful investor, before handing over the money, will thoroughly and scrupulously investigate how the investment can go wrong, and this calculus will weigh heavily on the decision to invest in the first place.

So, while it’s essential to first identify the objective, it’s equally important to ask, “What can go wrong?” Many have said that the failure of our mission in Iraq will produce a security situation far worse than having Saddam control Iraq, odious as he was. I concur. While Iraq may still become a beacon of freedom in the Middle East, the real results are far less palatable: Iraq disintegrating or controlled by a Shiite demagogue; a strong, maniacal Iran; a possible regional war; and a substantial loss of American influence everywhere in the world.

The business of protecting our nation’s precious freedom can not be the result of a process that throws resources at a problem in the (often vain) hope that divine providence will intervene. Hope is not a strategy. Once the bullets and shrapnel start flying around, it’s a bit too late to decide that we got it wrong.

Because all it takes to get it right is to ask a few simple questions.

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