Channelling George Washington: How Not to Fight a War

News Abroad

Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“I’ve hemmed and hawed over talking to you about this for a good—or bad—week.  I’ve always been reluctant to criticize a sitting president.  That’s especially true in the case of President Obama because of his symbolic importance in the overall sweep of American history.  But I think it’s time to speak before it’s too late.”

“I share your feelings about President Obama.  What do you find so troubling?”

 “How he’s fighting the war in Afghanistan.”

“Is there a fundamental mistake that is troubling you?”

“His repeated statements that he’s going to withdraw American troops in 2011.  All by itself, this is losing the war.  Why is he saying this?”

“I don’t know.  Why you think this is a serious mistake?”          

“Can you imagine President Lincoln  announcing to the South  that if he didn’t win victory in twelve months or twenty-four months he would withdraw the Army of the Potomac?  Or President Polk when the U.S. Army marching on Mexico City declaring if they didn’t capture the city they would  go home?  Or Harry Truman telling the North Koreans and Chinese Communists that he would withdraw our army from Korea in 1952, at the end of his term?  There can’t be a better way of inspiring an enemy to keep fighting.”

“Do you think we would have won in Vietnam if we hadn’t withdrawn prematurely?”

“We now know that the North Vietnamese were down to their last cadres of men.  They resolved to launch one more offensive and if that failed they would have accepted peace.  The Russians agreed to reequip their army one more time.  Meanwhile, South Vietnamese morale had been wrecked by the American withdrawal and the massive cuts in aid a runaway Congress had imposed.  The South Vietnamese collapsed and the Communists rumbled to victory.”

“What would you have done, if you had succeeded the disgraced Richard Nixon and were an unelected president like Gerald Ford?”

“I would have given the North Vietnamese twenty-four hours to withdraw.  If they refused, I would have ordered the Air Force to begin a massive bombardment of North Vietnam.  I would have issued a similar order to the Navy.  I would have ordered the U.S. Army to have a hundred thousand men back in Vietnam in ten days.”

“What if Congress had voted against this decision?”

“I would have told them that this was why the framers of the Constitution appointed the president commander-in-chief of the armed forces.  I certainly would not have bleated, like President Ford, ‘our friends are dying,’ and done nothing.”

“Do you see other flaws in the way the Americans are fighting the Afghanistan war?”

“President Obama and his advisors don’t seem to grasp another basic principle of winning a war—seizing the initiative as early as possible —and keeping it.  You don’t spend three months ‘studying’ a war you’re already fighting before you decide to continue fighting it.  Then Mr. Obama cut the number of troops General McChrystal asked for—and took months to get them there.”                     

 “Why is the initiative so important?”

“The side that holds the initiative forces the enemy to fight where he doesn’t expect or want to fight.”

“Can you give us an example of how that works?”

“The best example is the American decision to invade Guadalcanal in 1942.  Until that point, the Americans were on a desperate defensive in the war with Japan begun at Pearl Harbor.  The Japanese had seized dozens of islands, Malaysia with its vital rubber plantations, and Indonesia with its vast oil reserves.  Only a combination of luck and courage had enabled the Americans to score hairbreadth victories in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, preventing the Japanese from seizing Australia and Hawaii.  The Guadalcanal assault totally surprised them.  After we won that ferocious struggle, we had the initiative and held it until the end of the war”

“Are there other examples in more recent wars?”

“After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush did a remarkable job of seizing the initiative.  He invaded Afghanistan and routed the Taliban, then launched a worldwide intelligence war that threw Al Qaeda on the defensive.  That’s why there were no follow-up attacks.”

“Do you agree with President Obama that President Bush is to blame for the way the war in Afghanistan has evolved?”

“Blaming President Bush is a lamentable habit that President Obama should abandon once and for all.  President Bush and his advisors made many mistakes in the first two years in Iraq.  They badly miscalculated the resources and abilities of the enemy.  Similar things have happened in the first years of all our wars.  We tend to be much too optimistic about our chances for a swift victory.  President Bush was soon forced to focus all his efforts on winning in Iraq.  During this time, Afghanistan had a garrison of about 2,000 troops.  We weren’t fighting a war there.  We simply lacked the manpower.  But President Bush learned from his mistakes.  He listened to General Petraeus and other top commanders, gave them the reinforcements they needed to regain the initiative and keep it—and won the war.”

“Can the same lessons be applied to Afghanistan?”

“Of course.  The tactics will be different.  But the same principles apply.  Seizing the initiative and holding it against a determined enemy until he quits.  But to do this in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama will have to junk the restrictions that he has imposed on our fighting men.”

“Could you explain this?”

“Under President Obama, the U.S. Army is forbidden to attack if the enemy is using civilians as cover.  They cannot call in artillery support if there is any possibility of killing civilians.  Even a pilot who drops a bomb that kills civilians may be liable to a ruinous court martial.  I can’t think of a better way to drain an aggressive spirit from an army.”

“Isn’t the Taliban’s strategy similar to the one you pursued in the American Revolution?  In 1776, you told Congress that we would stop trying to win in a single battle—a general action.  Instead, you wrote:  ‘We will protract the war.’”

“So I did.”

“It was a brilliant change of strategy, enabling a weaker army to wear down a much stronger opponent.  Now our position is reversed.  How can our stronger side—the Americans—win in Afghanistan against the Taliban’s protracted war?”

“By following a maxim I repeated frequently in the Revolution—‘we cannot lose as long as we stay in the game.’  Winning a protracted war requires patience and determination—and faith that we have a better cause.  In Afghanistan, this latter point is heavily in our favor.  The Taliban is the most brutal, tyrannical, backward-looking enemy we have ever encountered.  It is impossible to believe their call for a return to the savagery of the seventh century is more appealing to the people of Afghanistan than the benefits and hopes we embody with our belief in the blessings of freedom and the rule of law.”

“Is there anything else we need to win?”

“Indignation.  This can and should be supplied by the president, the leader of all the people.  The Taliban recently murdered a group of civilian doctors, several of them Americans, who had come to Afghanistan to help the poor.  Here was a marvelous opportunity for President Obama to depict the enemy as monsters.  He did not say a word.”

“Have American leaders evoked indignation at an enemy in the past?”

“Take a look at what Tom Jefferson wrote about George III in the Declaration of Independence.  He accused him of every moral lapse in the book, from slave-mongering to greed.  The goal was to make Americans very very angry at His Majesty and anyone who supported him.  Indignation is a key ingredient in fighting a war.  President Roosevelt denounced Japan for perpetrating a ‘day of infamy’ at Pearl Harbor.  President Polk accused Mexico of ambushing and murdering American cavalrymen along the Rio Grande.  President Lincoln maneuvered the Southerners into firing the first shot at Fort Sumter and then denounced them as rebels against the best government on Earth.  A president has to lead his people.  He has to appeal to their hearts as well as their heads to support a war.

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james joseph butler - 8/25/2010

Stop already! This is dumb. GW like most of his founding father brethren wanted to protect America from the internecine idiocy of 30 years wars et al. The author needs to reread GW's farewell address regarding the danger of foreign entanglements. Needless to say Pres Obama and Congress would also profit.

GW was an ordinary general but a genius compared to today's leaders regarding war and peace.

Jon Martens - 8/19/2010

Having studied Washington's campaigns, I find that he didn't have a great appreciation for logistics, ether.

Carlos Mejia - 8/18/2010

The victories at Coral Sea and Midway did NOT "prevent the Japanese from seizing Australia and Hawaii," but rather Port Moresby and Midway. We live in a sloppy age, but one expects better from historians like Mr. Fleming.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/18/2010

This is a country based on law (and order?), is it not? That law includes
the international one called UN charter, since it was signed and solemnly sworn to abide by American government. There are eight provisions in the UN charter for a so-called Just War.
Neither of these provisions have been met to justify the US war against Afghanistan or Iraq (as can be easily checked), which makes those wars the wars of aggression to replace undemocratic but popular and independent from US-UK imperial alliance governments with undemocratic, unpopular, but subservient to this alliance
local elites bought for $$, eventually maintaining a firm control over the regions in question through
large US military bases left there.
That's what should have been the main issue for all discussions on the topic "to stay or not to stay."

Edwin Moise - 8/16/2010

We do not, repeat not, "now know that the North Vietnamese were down to their last cadres of men. They resolved to launch one more offensive and if that failed they would have accepted peace."

The North Vietnamese had the strength for multiple offensives over an extended period, and they were expecting to have to carry out multiple offensives over an extended period. They thought it would be nice if the South Vietnamese collapsed quickly, but they were not really expecting this to happen.

The notion that the Vietnamese Communists may have been close to the point of abandoning their struggle in 1975 seems to me even sillier than the notions I have been seeing lately that they might have been on the edge of military defeat in early 1954, spring 1968, or at the end of 1972.

I would be interested in any evidence Dr. Fleming may have, for what he things we now know.

Andrew D. Todd - 8/16/2010

One makes allowances for HNN interns. One should not have to make them for Thomas Flemming. Flemming says that he "would have given the North Vietnamese twenty-four hours to withdraw. If they refused, [he] would have ordered the Air Force to begin a massive bombardment of North Vietnam... would have ordered the U.S. Army to have a hundred thousand men back in Vietnam in ten days" That statement is indicative of a a complete disregard of logistics. He appears to think that troops are mere chess pieces.

I discussed the logistics of the fall of South Vietnam a couple of years ago:


The reality is that it takes time to ship stuff halfway around the world. When the enemy is only a short distance from his objective, as the North Vietnamese were, there may not be enough time.

Richard F. Mehlinger - 8/16/2010

Thomas Fleming has no business "channeling" George Washington, and it is offensive that he tries to do so. He should let his ideas speak for themselves, rather than attempting to place them in the mouths of the long-dead.

Nat Bates - 8/16/2010

Washington was not a war-monger. He did not want entangling alliance. And, "Tom" Jefferson was not Tom.

Finally, Neo-conservative propaganda should be seen as an attack on the principles of the Declaration as enshrined by "Tom" Jefferson. Key among them is the belief in government by the people.

Dr. Fleming, with all due respect this is pure anachronism. I expect better from a historian of your standing, respectfully said sir.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/15/2010

This is sad. Not only does the voice in Fleming's head have a strict neo-con uber-mensch approach to international affairs, but it's also ignorant of recent history. Fleming's voice claims that "President Bush did a remarkable job of seizing the initiative. He invaded Afghanistan and routed the Taliban, then launched a worldwide intelligence war that threw Al Qaeda on the defensive. That’s why there were no follow-up attacks.”

First, al Qaeda attacked at least a half-dozen major targets around the world in the years following 9/11, resulting in hundreds of deaths from Europe to Indonesia. Second, the Taliban is not the same thing as al Qaeda: the Taliban which were the target of our Afghanistan operations had no Air Force, no surveillance satellites, no aircraft carriers or submarines and no major international allies. There was no way for the Taliban to carry out any attacks, follow-up, counter, or otherwise, against the US. To retain the initiative, all Bush had to do was keep dropping bombs on Afghanistan from the air, occupy a few strong points, and kill people on a regular basis. In the meantime, as Fleming's voice points out, Bush went into Iraq and squandered any chance he had at actually accomplishing anything in Afghanistan, and did so without anything close to the manpower necessary to succeed in Iraq, either.

If there is a spirit of President Washington watching over us, I very much doubt that he would have missed that, or missed the degree to which Fleming's beloved Bush has damaged the United States at home and abroad.