"This is War...Really" by LTG James Dubik (ret.)


This is War...Really

by LTG James Dubik (ret.), ARMY Magazine, March 2009

It seems hard for some military and political leaders as well as others to understand that our fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates is really a war. In fact, I’ve had several conversations over the past few months with people who believe we are fighting not a war, but some kind of police action against terrorist criminal activity. We cannot hope to structure a clear and comprehensive strategy if we lack clarity and comprehensive understanding of the task at hand.


“As a total phenomenon,” Clausewitz tells us, war is best understood in terms of a remarkable trinity composed of “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity … the play of chance and probability … and … of subordination, as an instrument of policy.” He equates the first element of this trinity with the people, the second with the commander and the army, and the third with the government. “The political aims,” Clausewitz states, “are the business of government alone.” War is, therefore, a continuation of political activity by other means—for instance, using force to compel an enemy to do a state’s will.


In the 19th century, nation-states, in pursuit of political aims, seized the monopoly on the use of force. At the time Clausewitz wrote, it was mostly nation-states that had the means to wage war: human capital, money, production, supply chains, the organization to make all this work together toward a common set of aims and a population willing to support this huge effort. Explaining war in terms of people, the army and government were Clausewitz’s primary focus. He knew, however, that war cut a wider berth. In fact, Clausewitz describes war as a chameleon that “slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.”


“Every age,” he goes on to write, “had its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions.” At the time Clausewitz wrote, the nation-state had been ascending for about 200 years, but he was aware that war had other “ages.” We should be aware of this as well—what we have seen and are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan is the chameleon of war changing yet again.


In the war we are fighting, the leadership of al Qaeda, rather than the government of a nation-state, has provided the reason for subordination. In lieu of a national population, al Qaeda’s ideology—complete with an interpretation of both history and current conditions—has created the enmity, hatred and motivation within its affiliate groups and their followers. The elements of chance and probability are provided not by a conventional army but by a variety of unconventional irregulars and terrorists ranging from true believers and suicide bombers to those on the street paid to lay an improvised explosive device (IED) or act as early warning to criminals selling their skills to whomever pays.


Al Qaeda has figured out a way to raise not only human capital in fighters and leaders, but also to raise the money to pay its fighters and purchase arms, equipment and supplies. It has also figured out how to create a supply system and build an organization—actually, a network of loosely affiliated organizations—and, most important, how to make all this work together toward the political aims laid out in its strategy. Nation-states’ monopoly on waging war has eroded.


The real problem with understanding the war we are fighting lies within our mental framework. Legally, diplomatically and militarily, we understand war too narrowly as the conventional militaries of one nation-state or group of nation-states fighting against those of another. According to this framework, all other use of violence is crime or “operations other than war.” The chameleon, however, is changing colors. We can hold to our framework and refuse to call this a war. Or we can recognize what Clausewitz called “the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander” can have: “to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.”

To read the entire article, please visit AUSA.org