Lessons Unlearned: A Comparison of Three American Wars

June 1, 2000 Topic: Security Tags: BusinessSociology

Lessons Unlearned: A Comparison of Three American Wars

Mini Teaser: From Panama to Kosovo: the decline and incoherence of American warfighting.

by Author(s): Thomas Donnelly

Operation Just Cause, code name for the invasion of Panama in December 1989, was the first serious exercise of military power by the United States during the post-Cold War era. It would prove to be everything that subsequent U.S. military operations were not: a rapid, decisive application of overwhelming might that removed a petty tyrant from power, left a lasting imprint on local and regional politics, and brought democracy to an oppressed people. Given the peculiar pattern of U.S. military operations since 1989 -- whereby military power has been employed in an increasingly halting and feckless manner, producing less and less of enduring political value -- one cannot help but wonder why the campaign has not been enshrined as a paradigm for the American way of war.

Just Cause proved to be a minor masterpiece in the art of high command. This is remarkable for two reasons: first, because American strategy and policy in Panama and, more broadly, in Central America have historically been reactive and short-sighted; and, second, because the architects of American military operations have moved cautiously, even timidly ever since. Even those in the Bush administration who oversaw the storming of Panama later lost their taste for boldness. As well as this, in the strictly military sense, Just Cause provided a revealing glimpse of the operational, tactical and technological prowess of the U.S. military. It was in Panama, after all, that the highly competent force, resurrected from the ashes of Vietnam, and trained and equipped through the Reagan build-up of the 1980s, first revealed itself.

Just Cause was fought during the small hours of December 20, 1989, and the combat portion of the operation was essentially completed by noon, though it took until January 3, 1990 to seize Manuel Noriega, who had gone into hiding when the invasion began. The operation was a classic coup de main, an attempt to "take down" not only the Panamanian military but its political base in one swift blow. Success came at a comparatively low cost -- 26 American deaths (including 23 soldiers) and 500 to 600 Panamanian fatalities -- especially given the fact that a substantial portion of the fighting took place in the crowded slums of Panama City. Yet the combat phase of the operation was but one part of the story. The majority of dead Panamanians were civilians, not soldiers, many lost to the indiscriminate fire of the Panamanian Defense Forces. Though the war lasted less than a day, it triggered widespread looting and arson in Panama City, leaving an estimated 10,000 Panamanians homeless, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. The complete pacification of the country took several additional weeks.

The campaign began with nearly simultaneous assaults on twenty-seven targets throughout Panama. Though many of these sites were clustered in and around Panama City and the canal zone, they included a substantial effort at Rio Hato, a Panamanian airfield and military base about seventy miles west of Panama City on the Pacific Coast. While the United States had substantial forces stationed in Panama prior to the invasion, many of these were performing various desk assignments at U.S. Southern Command. A sizeable portion of the combat forces were dispatched directly from the United States, including parachute assault teams from the army's 75th Ranger Regiment and 82nd Airborne Division. The bulk of the force was comprised of army light and mechanized infantry supported with helicopters. As well, Marines, Navy seals and a variety of other special operations forces played key supporting roles -- along with the F-117 "Stealth" fighter, a large fleet of air force airlifters and tanker aircraft. In all, about 27,000 U.S. troops participated directly in Operation Just Cause, while thousands more supported it.

The Art of Bureaucratic Warfare

Studying the events that led up to the invasion of Panama, it is surprising that it all came out so well. In 1989 American policy toward that country was a shambles, the result of years of incompetent and neglectful stewardship. During the later years of the Reagan administration, American policymakers seemed unsure what to make of Noriega. At the same time, Noriega's grip on Panamanian society was weakening, as was the status of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF). Corruption within the PDF, along with a growing desire among Panamanians for more open, accountable and democratic government, had created an increasingly inhospitable environment for Americans living in the country. As his position worsened, Noriega turned to anti-Americanism. To supplement his power base within the PDF, he created paramilitary "Dignity Battalions", which were little more than well-armed mobs. As threats against the American community in Panama escalated, the Bush administration and the Pentagon arrived at the conclusion that their former ally could no longer be left in place.

What most distinguished the design and planning for Just Cause from more recent U.S. military operations was a desire to create decisive political change. Interestingly -- and perhaps disturbingly -- the primary push in that direction came from the military, and in particular from the late General Maxwell Thurman and then Lieutenant-General Carl Stiner. In late 1989 Thurman was named to take over U.S. Southern Command (which covered the Caribbean and Latin America), replacing General Frederick Woerner. Thurman and his predecessor could not have been more different: Woerner was a "soldier-diplomat" with considerable experience in the region and a fluent command of Spanish, and who relied heavily upon his contacts with the PDF leadership. Thurman was a career staff officer who achieved a measure of fame overseeing the revival of army recruiting during the 1980s (he was the father of the "Be All You Can Be" advertising campaign). For his part, Stiner, then commander of the army's XVIII Airborne Corps, had spent much of his career in special operations and in the 82nd Airborne Division, which prided itself on its ability to execute quick-paced strikes.

Thurman and Stiner had studied carefully the position of the PDF in Panamanian society. The PDF controlled and was controlled by Noriega; it was hardly an army in the professional sense. In contrast to the majority of senior Reagan and Bush diplomats, Thurman and Stiner believed that to achieve stability in Panama, not only Noriega but the entire PDF hierarchy had to go.

The distance between Stiner and Thurman on one hand and the Bush team on the other became apparent during a coup attempt in October 1989 by a mid-ranking PDF officer, Major Moses Giroldi. Although he bungled the attempt badly -- after trapping Noriega in his office, Giroldi allowed him to talk his way out the door -- many in the Bush administration were tempted to offer Giroldi American support. Thurman objected, arguing that substituting Giroldi and his cronies for Noriega would do nothing to resolve the fundamental problem. Thurman's position carried substantial risks: not only would a chance to eliminate Noriega be lost, but it was quite likely that Noriega, now uncertain of his backing within the PDF, would incite the masses with anti-American rhetoric and set loose his Dignity Battalions. In the end, the Bush administration withheld its support.

Stiner and Thurman enjoyed remarkable success in the art of Washington bureaucratic advocacy, success that proved as essential as their military prowess to an enduring victory in Panama. Under basic guidance from Thurman, Stiner devised the Just Cause assault plan, essentially a special operation writ large. As the theater commander in chief, Thurman enjoyed a variety of new powers conferred under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols defense reforms. His career had established him as a well-known commodity with credibility in Washington. This, in turn, helped to convince newly installed Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, and eventually President Bush, that a bold plan not only could work but offered the best course of action. (Despite his rapid rise in the Reagan and Bush administrations, Powell in the fall of 1989 was still very much a creature of the army and, indeed, had spent his career as a subordinate to Thurman.)

More important, the planning for Just Cause extended beyond the sphere of combat operations in ways that subsequent operations have not. Although the extent of looting frankly surprised Stiner and Thurman, and they overlooked the importance of some issues such as the protection of the media and the wave of reporters and television crews that would flood the country to cover the war, the two commanders did prepare for stability operations after combat. In Stiner's phrase, he wanted to "take Panama down one day, and offer it a helping hand back up the next." Even as they withdrew elite units such as the Rangers and the 82nd Airborne, Stiner and Thurman inserted regular infantry units to conduct patrols and stability operations, and summoned civil affairs experts to reconstruct the Panamanian government, police force and other civil institutions.

A final factor that distinguished combat operations in Just Cause was the daring of its architects. Stiner and Thurman embraced risks, not recklessly but in order to conclude the fighting rapidly and decisively. Yes, the enemy was dramatically outgunned, but Just Cause was truly an inspired plan. When first briefed on the operation, Colin Powell responded that it "had a lot of moving parts", and so it did. But for Stiner and Thurman the tactical and technological abilities of their forces -- which, in 1989, had yet to be widely recognized -- invited boldness and decisiveness, not caution or excessive concern with casualties.

A Lesson Forgotten

The contrast with the subsequent employment of American military power is extraordinary. Since Just Cause, American forces have been used fitfully, cautiously and with only mixed results to show. In the two major military campaigns conducted since Panama -- in the Persian Gulf and in southeastern Europe -- the United States has pursued half-solutions and achieved incomplete victories. It has wielded just enough military force to prevent Saddam Hussein from controlling the majority of the world's oil supplies or Slobodan Milosevic from undermining stability in Europe, but no more.

Just eight months after eliminating what he termed his "Noriega problem", President Bush faced a much bigger "Saddam problem." Though conventional wisdom has it that the months leading up to Desert Storm amounted to a triumph of diplomacy and strategic planning, the record suggests otherwise. For one, the military received inconsistent and confusing guidance from senior administration officials. Indeed, at the final high-level conference prior to the launching of Desert Storm, Lieutenant-General Frederick Franks, commander of the U.S. VII Corps, which was to execute the campaign's main attack, plaintively asked Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, "How do I know what victory looks like?" This sort of confusion is even more remarkable when one considers that -- except for Thurman and Stiner -- most of the senior Bush administration team during Desert Storm was the same as during Just Cause. Yet the contrast between the two campaigns could not have been more striking.

To begin with, the Bush administration was unable to make a principled case for the Gulf War. The president's efforts to portray Saddam as a modern Hitler, for example, were hardly in tune with Secretary of State James Baker's claim that the war was about "jobs, jobs, jobs." The Bush team regularly protested that its problem was not with "the Iraqi people", merely with Saddam and his henchmen. Yet a declared aim of the war was to restore the Kuwaiti monarchy, hardly a representative government and one whose leaders seemed content to fight for their country from London's finest hotels. Even Bush's initial reaction to the invasion appeared muddled: before famously declaring that the invasion "would not stand", he had to be admonished by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher not to "go all wobbly."

Confusion over principles was compounded by murky political goals. Many Saudi and Kuwaiti leaders and diplomats continue to express wonder that a greater effort was not made to "go to Baghdad", and maintain that they would have supported such a move. Even as the war developed, with Iraq's Scud attacks on Saudi Arabia and Israel, the Bush administration made no effort to modify its stated war aims. Nevertheless, a week after the war had been halted, army planners were warned by General Norman Schwarzkopf to prepare options for an assault on Baghdad.

Fought for more limited goals than those of Operation Just Cause, Operation Desert Storm was also fought in a more limited fashion. The most profound difference was the substitution of a sequential campaign for the simultaneity that characterized operations in Panama. Whereas Just Cause attempted to "take down" an entire country within the space of about eight hours, the Gulf War was divided into distinct air and ground campaigns, leaving open the possibility of diplomatic negotiations at almost any point. Even during the hundred-hour land war, the coordination between air and ground forces was sharply limited, and air campaign planners still lament the decision to subordinate what they viewed as the strategic air campaign -- focusing on leadership and other targets in Baghdad, for example -- to tactical concerns.

Even the ground war proceeded in a disjointed and sequential fashion, with the Marines and army conducting attacks that were not particularly well coordinated or synchronized. There were several separate ground wars just as there were separate air campaigns: the Marines' job was to liberate Kuwait, while the army's was to destroy Iraqi forces in the field. Oddly, the campaign that would have had the greatest lasting effect on Saddam's hold on power -- the destruction of the Iraqi army, its leaders and its equipment -- was the campaign that received the least attention and lowest priority. And, of course, that campaign was halted before it achieved its aim.

Likewise, the contrast between command arrangements for Just Cause and Desert Storm bears noting. Whereas Stiner enjoyed remarkable latitude and a strong advocate in the person of General Thurman, General Schwarzkopf faced a very different challenge. During the run-up to Desert Storm, the structure of tactical and operational planning was disjointed. The U.S. Central Command staff proved inadequate to the demands of such a large war, and an alphabet soup of elite service planning organizations played overlapping roles in crafting the poorly coordinated air and ground campaigns. The gruff and abrasive Schwarzkopf had no talent for Washington insider maneuvering and loathed his assignment on the army staff. Moreover, he was often employed in the unlikely task of soothing Saudi and other Arab sensibilities. In Washington, General Powell not only had to protect Schwarzkopf; he was at the same time advocating a more restrained strategy while involving himself with the details of the main ground attack.

The parallel wars of Desert Storm resulted in a victory, to be sure, but an incomplete one whose outcome continues to bedevil policymakers. Little effort went into post-combat planning, with disastrous effects for the Kurds in the north of Iraq and the Shiite in the south. Saddam Hussein has yet to comply with the UN mandates that ended the war, as ongoing "no-fly zone" operations over northern and southern Iraq -- and the seasonal cruise missile strikes -- attest. Indeed, these operations have continued for so long that a larger number of U.S. air sorties have been flown since the Gulf War than during it.

Reductio ad Absurdum

It is Desert Storm, not Just Cause, that has provided the template for recent U.S. military operations. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the conduct of last year's war against Serbia. While the full history of Operation Allied Force is still to be written, press accounts during the war and a remarkable series of articles by Dana Priest in the Washington Post last year revealed that the planning and conduct of the Kosovo campaign was very far removed from the Panama paradigm. Allied Force was conceived as an "air only" war, replete with Vietnam-like pauses for negotiation or strategy reassessment. Indeed, President Clinton pledged at the outset that he did "not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war."
As during Desert Storm, the air war over Kosovo was a meticulously "phased", sequential campaign that first would neutralize Serb air defenses, then strike at sites south of Belgrade, and finally culminate in attacks on the capital itself, including "leadership" targets such as ministry buildings and communications towers. But unlike Desert Storm, Allied Force would begin with strikes on a mere fifty-three targets, mostly air defenses, and be sharply limited by concerns over civilian casualties and possible pilot losses. Initially, no attacks would be directed at industries that might support Serbia's military.

NATO Commander General Wesley Clark faced opposition from his own senior advisers and in particular from General Michael Short, head of the U.S. Air Force in Europe. Short, realizing that attacking Serb ground units in Kosovo would prove a difficult and frustrating task, chafed at Clark's orders to strike Serb forces in the field, deriding them as "tank-plinking", air force slang for attacking mechanized forces one by one. In a postwar interview in Air Force magazine, Short complained that "the massive and laborious tank-plinking effort in Kosovo was in many ways a waste of airpower since it did little to achieve NATO's stated goals." According to the Washington Post, these differences eventually prompted this exchange, when in a video conference Short expressed satisfaction that his aircraft would be allowed to strike Serb police headquarters in downtown Belgrade:

"'This is the jewel in the crown', said Short.

"'To me, the jewel in the crown is when the B-52s rumble across Kosovo', answered Clark.

"'You and I have known for weeks that we have different jewelers', said Short.

"'My jeweler outranks yours', concluded Clark."

It is difficult to imagine Stiner or Thurman engaging in a similar set-to with one of their subordinates. And it is ironic that Clark, widely reviled in the military as a "political" general thought to be too cozy with President Clinton and senior administration officials, had to fight his war under restrictions with which the Just Cause commanders never had to contend. These limitations help to explain the unsatisfying nature of the "victory" in Kosovo, if indeed one can call it that. They persisted through the end of the war and to this very day -- from the Russian race to the Pristina airport to the compromised role of French troops in Mitrovica, Clark has fared no better in stability operations than he did in waging the war itself. Uncertainty of purpose still handicaps NATO and U.S. operations in Kosovo and the Balkans. In fact, the "post-combat" phase of operations in Kosovo appears far more daunting than the bombing campaign itself.

When confronted with the Just Cause to Allied Force evolution of U.S. military operations, it is tempting to conclude that each conflict is sui generis and that drawing general lessons from specific campaigns is folly. Delivering the keynote address at a conference marking the tenth anniversary of the Panama invasion, no less an authority than Bush administration National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft warned against drawing overly broad conclusions from the 1989 campaign. Still, the current paradigm -- waging limited war with limited force in a halting fashion -- has yet to produce lasting results.

Pursuing a "Panama paradigm" is not beyond the capacity of American armed forces. While "taking down" an entire country in eight hours may be a difficult standard to meet, in hindsight it is clear that both Desert Storm and Allied Force could have been concluded more rapidly and more decisively, as there were no tactical or operational reasons that precluded a bolder approach. The failure to pursue one proved to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Both in the Persian Gulf and in the Balkans, U.S. and NATO forces currently face open-ended commitments with no satisfactory "end state" in sight.

Yet the Pentagon continues to move farther away from the Panama template. Defense Secretary William Cohen has produced a preliminary review of the Kosovo campaign to coincide with his new budget request. The air force is trumpeting Kosovo (as it did the Gulf War) as the first war won by air power alone. The army has plans to acquire lighter combat vehicles, allegedly to improve its strategic mobility. Enthusiasts for the "revolution in military affairs" speak glowingly of America's increasing ability to conduct long-range precision strikes. At the same time, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Hugh Shelton argues for a reduction of U.S. forces stationed in the Balkans. The Defense Department is more than willing to punish opponents from a distance, but unwilling to do much more.

But for a global superpower -- animated by universal political principles, favored with rich and powerful allies, and fielding dominant military forces -- there ought to be a strong disposition to act decisively in war. This is not to argue that the United States should not be prudent in deciding whether to go to war in the first place, but rather to argue that when America does go to war it should do so in a certain manner. It should act in accordance with American political principles. It should seek, whenever possible, a lasting political outcome and fashion its military strategy accordingly. It should seek to achieve victory rapidly, to employ ample force for that purpose, striving for simultaneous rather than sequential operations. And it should recognize that, having taken such a fateful step, it bears a certain responsibility to clean up the mess it leaves behind.

Essay Types: Essay