Vietnam, Kosovo, and Strategic Failure

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 1999

In his oft-cited but little read book, On War, the nineteenth century Prussian army officer, Carl Von Clausewitz, wrote that "the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to make is 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. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive." Failure to adhere to this principle was President Johnson’s downfall in Vietnam. The same fate may await President Clinton in the Balkans.

Just as Johnson mistook the character of the North Vietnam and the relative saliency of US and North Vietnamese interests, President Clinton has substantially underestimated the staying power of Slobodan Milosevic, an adversary who has demonstrated a penchant for exploiting our own weaknesses and divisions. Most importantly, NATO has pursued a strategy that creates a mismatch between the goals it desires to achieve and the means that it is bringing to bear.

The justification for undertaking military action against Serbia was to force an end to the regime’s killing or expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. But NATO has refused to employ the tools that are most likely to achieve this goal: air strikes against Serb forces in Kosovo or the introduction of ground forces. Instead, NATO has opted for a leisurely air campaign designed to "degrade" Serbia’s military capability while not endangering allied pilots. The result has been an air campaign that resembles the "graduated response" approach that the US followed against North Vietnam, an approach predestined to fail because it is based on a linear understanding of war.

A linear approach to war implies that force can be increased incrementally until the adversary’s "threshold of pain" is reached, at which time he will submit to our will. But as Clausewitz understood and Vietnam proved, war is not linear. It is not a predictable phenomenon occurring in a deterministic, mechanistic world. Rather, like the subject of the branch of non-linear dynamics known as "chaos theory," war is a highly complex interactive system characterized by chance, "friction, " unpredictability, disorder, and fluidity. As such, it cannot be subjected to precise, positive control or synchronized, centralized schemes.

The source of war’s non-linear character is the fact that it is a human enterprise. As Clausewitz describes it, war is a violent clash of opposing wills, each seeking to prevail over the other. In war, the will is directed not against an inert object but against an animate one that reacts, often in unanticipated ways. Since war is a human enterprise, the human dimension must be central to any understanding of the phenomenon. In Kosovo as in Vietnam, we seem to have forgotten the human dimension.

For instance, NATO decision makers seem to have assumed that Milosevic would back down on Kosovo in the face of threatened air strikes. Hadn’t he done so in Bosnia? But the circumstances in Kosovo were different. Milosevic cares much more about Kosovo than he does about Bosnia. Besides, air strikes in Bosnia took place in conjunction with Croatian ground attacks. Facing the prospect of defeat in Bosnia, Milosevic made the best deal he could.

But Milosevic rode to power a decade ago on the issue of Kosovo and to let it go, even in the face of NATO air strikes, would threaten his hold on power. Thus NATO is faced with the problem that confronted the US in Vietnam-an asymmetry of interests. In other words, prevailing in Kosovo is much more important to Milosevic than preventing his depredations against the Albanian Kosovars is to the allies. This implies that he is willing to bear a much greater cost in order to achieve his goals in Kosovo than NATO is in order to achieve its objectives there.

This miscalculation has been exacerbated by strategic blunders. The first has been the conduct of the air campaign. NATO has eschewed the shock and psychological impact of a massive air assault. Instead, it has opted for what a colleague of mine at the Naval War College, Air Force Col. Phil Meillinger calls the "smorgasbord approach"-hitting a little bit of everything over an extended period of time. The fact is that the intensity of the current air campaign is about one fifth that of Desert Storm. While there is no question that Serbia is suffering, Milosevic may calculate that he can outlast NATO in what is being portrayed as a one-sided war of attrition.

Air power can be effective only if employed as part of a comprehensive war fighting strategy. When air power is isolated from such a general strategy as it was in Vietnam and now in Kosovo, it is bound to fail. Vietnam is usually invoked as an example of the inherent limits of air power, but in a paper delivered at a Wilson Center symposium on the Vietnam War in January 1983, Douglas Pike, the foremost American expert on Vietnamese communism, showed what might have happened had air power been properly employed in that conflict. Pike observed that "the initial reaction of Hanoi’s leaders to the strategic bombings and air strikes that began in Feb 1965-documented later by defectors and other witnesses-was enormous dismay and apprehension. They feared the North was to be visited by intolerable destruction which it simply could not endure." But the US air campaign was severely constrained, a fact that became increasingly apparent to Hanoi. The North Vietnamese leaders co
ncluded that the US lacked the will to bear the cost of the war.

Then came the Christmas bombing of 1972. "Linebacker II" was a massive, around-the-clock air campaign that far exceeded in intensity anything that had gone before. Hanoi was stunned. "While conditions had changed vastly in seven years," Pike continued, "the dismaying conclusion to suggest itself from the 1972 Christmas bombing was that had this kind of air assault been launched in Feb 1965, the Vietnam war as we know it might have been over within a matter of months, even weeks.

The second and by far more serious strategic blunder was NATO’s decision to deny itself the use of the ground option. In so doing, the alliance made it possible for Milosevic to redeploy his ground forces in order more efficiently and quickly to pursue his bloody campaign against the Albanian Kosovars without threat of interference. More importantly, by removing the ground option, NATO left itself with only two bad choices: to continue with a flawed air campaign that is unlikley to achieve the desired outcome; or return to the negotiating table with a strengthened Milosevic. The latter outcome would weaken the credibility of both the US and NATO and probably lead to the dissolution of the latter.

Because war is a human enterprise and a non-linear phenomenon, those who undertake must plan for uncertainty. A coherent and flexible political-military strategy should plan for multiple, unexpected outcomes. There must be "branches and sequels" to give the decision-makers the broadest array of choices in responding to the unanticipated actions of an adversary. The current plan seems to have only one branch and no sequels. The question arises, where are the senior military advisers who are supposed to convey to civilian leaders an understanding of the relationship between political ends and military means? This is no way to run a war.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense. His e-mail address is