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Total war

Total war

Acknowledging that total war and limited war are complex happenings is a germane, yet necessary point to make, however there are some overarching elements within the definitions which are able to be used as guidelines to the politico – and kinetic – actions. Notwithstanding, the possibility of kinetic action a critical input into the power stakes is an escalation in friction, in which a dominant power seeks to minimise its own losses rather than maximise its gains, and in having this mindset often launches a preemptive attack. Such a course of action signals events escaping human control.[1] Human control, can be taken as a failure in negotiations, or in the recognition that war does not necessarily have to be a course of action. An overt kinetic action therefore signals that the ‘talking is over,’ and a new outcome must be established. There is however, a striking paradox in the act of using total war as a strategy. The reason is that a belligerent wants a definitive outcome and the use of total war and why it is ‘preferred’ in a broad sense is regardless of its cost the political enticement to generate a war of this ‘type’ and at this extreme level, is that total or ‘hegemonic’ war has, a ‘benefit’—‘victory and defeat re-establish an unambiguous hierarchy of prestige congruent with the new distribution of power within the [political] system.’[2] External to the psychological and strategic machinations of striking first in order to establish advantage, is any kinetic actions there is inevitably a requirement beyond the initial strike. This can be summed up as

Total wars involve a high mobilization of society … Because total wars take on the characteristics of a fight for survival, they tend to mobilize resources and means to wage battle with few restraints … The goals in total wars are much more open-ended and often expand as the war progresses. Total wars often demand the complete overthrow of the leadership of the other side whether through demand of unconditional surrender as in World War II, or complete annihilation [of the enemy]… .[3]

And further underpinning the severity of this ‘type’ of war and its significant implications is

[C]haracterised by the unlimited means employed and by the general scope of the warfare. Because all parties are drawn into the war and the stakes involved are high, few limitations if any, on violence are observed with respect to the means employed; the limitations in violence and treachery tend to be only those necessarily imposed by the state of technology, of available resources, and the fear of retaliation.[4]

In contemporary times, and although total war is a possibility in the Taiwan-China frictions it is safe to argue the escalations and outcomes of WWI and WWII—especially the thermonuclear end to the Pacific phase of WWII—the devastation of both altered the way in which wars would be fought. Based on this understanding, ‘limited war’ is able to be introduced and albeit briefly analysed.

Limited war

The quest for power and power-stakes as general political machinations would not, and did not end with the cessation of hostilities in the human catastrophe that was WWII. Sovereign nation-states and other actors remained vying for an elevation of their status, and this continued to be sought through violent kinetic actions, or war. The recognition that another thermonuclear exchange needed to be avoided introduced a unique form of (internationally recognised) violent interaction: limited war. To wit

Modern limited war required a nation-state to place artificial restraints in the conduct of war to preclude it from escalating into more total war … Artificial limited war required nations to place limitations on the objectives sought; weapons and manpower employed; the time, terrain, and geographic area of hostilities; and the emotions, passions, and energy, and intellect committed by a nation.[5]

As difficult as this is in times of tension a ‘balancing act’ in limited war is required—the application of the correct amount of force at the correct time in order that set parameters are set and only limited means are applied. This is summed up

[A] strategy [utilising limited war] would harness the nation’s military power more closely to the attainment of its political objectives. A variety of military instruments, including conventional forces, would be readied to respond to different threats at different levels. The amount of force employed in any situation would be limited to that necessary to achieve political aims. The objective would be not to destroy the opponents but to persuade to break off the conflict short of achieving their goals … Limited war must be directed by the civilian leadership … [and] the military must be a controllable instrument of national policy.[6]

There is an overriding complexity within limited war however, and it is summed up ‘[t]he problematics of limited war are that it has within it conceptual tensions: how much of a commitment is ‘limited,’ and by what ‘means’ should they be measured?’[7] The complexity resides in ‘at what point does a belligerent consider a war to be limited’? As this is a concept rather than a strict definition it is exactly that it is ‘limited’ that (theoretically) it is able to be escalated or retarded at any time. The inherent tension in the concept however, is expressed in a ‘war may be limited from the perspective of one belligerent, yet virtually unlimited in the eyes of another.’[8] An example of the aforementioned is the Second Indo-China War—commonly referred to as the Vietnam War[9]—involved the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the US and its allies is a case in point. For the US and its allies, the war consisted of stopping the encroachment of North Vietnamese (NV) forces into the south; the establishment of a stable (and favourable) government; and stalling the enemy advance beyond the 17th parallel. In simpler terms it was a regional limited war that was being fought by the ARVN and its allies in the south of the country only. Alternately, the NV forces both in the north and south of the country were fighting a total war. The different approaches to a war further signals the distinctly different military outcome required by the belligerents. For the government of North Vietnam the only effective and acceptable outcome that would be consistent within the schema of their ‘fight for survival’ was the crushing of the ARVN; the complete expulsion of the US and its allies; and absolute unification of the north and south of their country.

Having briefly examined war and its definitions allows for a nuanced analysis of the milieu that is facing Taiwan which can now be focused on with the aforementioned as a guide to the politico, military, and geo-strategic position that Taiwan has been placed, in the early twenty-first century.

Continued tomorrow … The Asia-Pacific

Previous instalment … War as it ‘is’

 

[1] Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 200-202. 

[2] War and Change in World Politics, 200.

[3] The War Puzzle, 67. Emphasis added.

[4] War and Change in World Politics, 200.  Emphasis added.

[5] Adrian Lewis. The American Culture of War.  The History of U.S. Military Force from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom. New York: Routledge, 2007, 203.  Emphasis in original.

[6] Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy, 22-27. Osgood’s limited war theory is precise in its meaning and line reasoning, although Herring argues it has numerous flaws as it is ‘primarily an academic, rather than a military, concept, and it drastically misunderstood the dynamics of war.’ See: George Herring.  LBJ and Vietnam. A Different Kind of War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994, 4. Emphasis added.

[7] Strobe Driver. Why winning a war is no longer necessary: Modern Warfare and the United States of America through the prism of the wars of Vietnam and Iraq. Federation University, PhD Thesis, 2010, 103.

[8] Robert Osgood. Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, 2.

[9] The Vietnam War is ‘known as the “American War” in Vietnam.’ See: British Broadcasting Corporation. Timeline: Vietnam. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/country_profiles/1243686.stm>

Strobe Driver completed his PhD in war studies in 2011 and since then has written extensively on war, terrorism, Asia-Pacific security, the ‘rise of China,’ and issues within Australian domestic politics. Strobe is a recipient of Taiwan Fellowship 2018, MOFA, Taiwan, ROC, and is an adjunct researcher at Federation University.

 

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2 comments

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  1. Alcibiades

    … it was a regional limited war that was being fought by the ARVN and its allies in the south of the country only.”

    A regional, limited war ? Suspect the Nth Vietnamese may have considered it a ‘Total War” conflict, somehow. Giap ?

    The largest number of US casualties since the US Civil War ?

    Hm, Laos, Cambodia, are they located in the South of the country only ?

    Special forces bases, raids & operations into neighbouring countries, as well as routinely into Nth Vietnam ?

    Coastal amphibious SEAL landings and raids on the Nth Vietnam coastline, towns, villages and harbours.

    The naval and aerial mining of the latter harbours.

    John McCain, and others, must have been shot down and captured in ‘the South only’ ?

    The until then the longest and sustained strategic bombing campaign of Nth Vietnam by the USAF & and the air assets of a standing (on continuous rotation) carrier task force, since WWII, was against military, industrial, and civilian infrastructures in the Sth only ? Laos, Cambodia ?

    As a disabled vet, and having not referenced a single source, my memory only recalls Operations such as ‘Linebacker’, ‘Linebacker II’, ‘Barrel Roll’ just to name a few.

    Forgive me, must be early onset of alzheimers on my part, perhaps …

  2. Alcibiades

    “For the US and its allies, the war consisted of stopping the encroachment of North Vietnamese (NV) forces into the south; the establishment of a stable (and favourable) government; and stalling the enemy advance beyond the 17th parallel.”

    Again my apologies, one must be mistaken in recalling the objective of the US & its allies was to attempt to maintain a facade of legitimisy re the illigetimate puppet Sth Vietnamese regimes, they corruptly installed and continue to prevent the re-unification of the nation by preventing any free vote or expression of sovereign will by the citizens of BOTH Nth & Sth Vietnam, an utterly artificial division, ever coming to a vote.

    Creating endless division (divide & conquer) and rule by corrupt illigitimate minorities and several puppet Juntas in order to suppress the will of the South Vietnamese.

    A direct continuance of thier prior direct support of the colonial French occupation after WWII, in fact the direct assumption of the previous failed French role in what was formerly Indochina, approximatley a year after the decisive strategic French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, no ?

    Who encroached upon whom, and by what Lawful, Just, right ? Something vague about dominoes, and a false flag in the Gulf of Tonkin, was it not ?

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