The Virtue of Unfought Wars


Michael Cohen makes the excellent point that it’s necessary to get U.S. strategic thinking outside the “counterinsurgency vs. big army” dynamic that has us—or, rather, the military and military-affiliated organizations—stuck debating whether in the future we should be fighting a lot of counterinsurgencies or fighting a lot of conventional wars against medium-sized countries. As he puts it with admirable brevity:

In the end, perhaps the focus of the US military and American foreign policy, writ large, should be to avoid counter-insurgencies — AND AVOID CONVENTIONAL CONFLICTS.

Quite so. Obviously one doesn’t want to rule out the use of military force as a matter of principle, and a country of our wealth and size can easily afford to maintain significant military capabilities. But it still makes much more sense to be dedicating time, attention, and resources to avoiding U.S. involvement in significant hostile military operations. Gian Gentile observes, against the counterinsurgents, that “A North Korean march on Seoul will not be a fight for hearts and mind.” No, it won’t. But a North Korean march on Seoul is a scenario we can almost certainly avoid. And since South Korea has twice the population of North Korea and five times the GDP, our strategy should be based around the idea that the South Koreans can and should be shouldering the bulk of the responsibility for coping with this scenario.

Some U.S. participation in South Korean defense is, I think, a good idea but this is primarily about stabilizing the overall situation in northern Asia and reducing the likelihood of conflict not that there’s some pressing need for us to be gearing up to refight the Korean war. In general, it’s the wars you don’t fight that tend to do you the most good.