The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters
Volume 41
Number 4
Parameters Winter 2011
Article 15
In Praise of Attrition In Praise of Attrition
Ralph Peters
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Winter 2011-12 1
In Praise of Attrition
Ralph peteRs
© 2004 Ralph Peters
This article was rst published in the Summer 2004 issue of Parameters.
“Who dares to call the child by its true name?”
—Goethe, Faust
n our military, the danger of accepting the traditional wisdom has become
part of the traditional wisdom. Despite our lip service to creativity and
innovation, we rarely pause to question fundamentals. Partly, of course, this is
because ofcers in today’s Army or Marine Corps operate at a wartime tempo,
with little leisure for reection. Yet, even more fundamentally, deep prejudices
have crept into our military—as well as into the civilian world— that obscure
elementary truths.
There is no better example of our unthinking embrace of an error than
our rejection of the term “war of attrition.The belief that attrition, as an objec-
tive or a result, is inherently negative is simply wrong. A soldier’s job is to kill
the enemy. All else, however important it may appear at the moment, is second-
ary. And to kill the enemy is to attrit the enemy. All wars in which bulletsor
arrows—y are wars of attrition.
Of course, the term “war of attrition” conjures the unimaginative
slaughter of the Western Front, with massive casualties on both sides. Last year,
when journalists wanted to denigrate our militarys occupation efforts in Iraq,
the term bubbled up again and again. The notion that killing even the enemy
is a bad thing in war has been exacerbated by the defense industry’s claims,
seconded by glib military careerists, that precision weapons and technology
in general had irrevocably changed the nature of warfare. But the nature of
warfare never changesonly its supercial manifestations.
The US Army also did great harm to its own intellectual and practical
grasp of war by trolling for theories, especially in the 1980s. Theories dont win
wars. Well-trained, well-led soldiers in well-equipped armies do. And they do
so by killing effectively. Yet we heard a great deal of nonsense about “maneu-
ver warfare” as the solution to all our woes, from our numerical disadvantage
vis-à-vis the Warsaw Pact to our knowledge that the “active defense” on the
old inner-German border was political tomfoolery and a military sham—and,
Ralph Peters is a retired Army ofcer and the author of 19 books, as well as of
hundreds of essays and articles, written both under his own name and as Owen Parry.
He has experience, military or civilian, in 60 countries, and is a frequent contributor to
Ralph Peters
2 Parameters
frankly, the best an Army gutted by Vietnam and its long hangover could hope
to do.
Maneuver is not a solution unto itself, any more than technology is. It
exists in an ever-readjusting balance with res. Neither res nor maneuver can
be dispensed with. This sounds obvious, but that which is obvious is not always
that which is valued or pursued. Those who would be theorists always prefer
the arcane to the actual.
Precious few military campaigns have been won by maneuver alone—
at least not since the Renaissance and the days of chessboard battles between
corporate condottieri. Napoleons Ulm campaign, the Japanese march on
Singapore, and a few others make up the short list of “bloodless” victories.
Even campaigns that appear to be triumphs of maneuver prove, on
closer inspection, to have been successful because of a dynamic combination
of re and maneuver. The opening, conventional phase of the Franco-Prussian
War, culminating in the grand envelopment at Sedan, is often cited as an
example of brilliant maneuver at the operational level—yet the road to Paris
was paved with more German than French corpses. It was a bloody war that
happened to be fought on the move. Other campaigns whose success was built
on audacious maneuvers nonetheless required attrition battles along the way
or at their climax, from Moltkes brilliant concentration on multiple axes at
Koenigsgraetz (urgent marches to a gory day), to the German blitzkrieg efforts
against the Poles, French, and Russians, and on to Operation Desert Storm, in
which daring operational maneuvers positioned tactical repower for a series
of short, convincingly sharp engagements. Even the Inchon landing, one of
the two or three most daring operations led by an American eld commander,
failed to bring the Korean War to a conclusion.
More often than not, an overreliance on bold operational maneuvers
to win a swift campaign led to disappointment, even disaster. One may argue
for centuries about the diversion of a half dozen German divisions from the
right ank of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, but the attempt to win the war in one
swift sweep led to more than four years of stalemate on the Western Front. In
the same campaign season, Russian attempts at grand maneuver in the vicinity
of the Masurian lakes collapsed in the face of counter-maneuvers and sharp
encounter battles—a German active defense that drew on Napoleons “strategy
of the central position”—while, in Galicia, aggressive maneuvering proved to
be exactly the wrong approach for the Austro-Hungarian military—which was
ill-prepared for encounter battles.
There is no substitute for shedding the enemy’s blood.
Despite initial maneuver victories against Russia and in the Western
Desert, a German overreliance on maneuver as a substitute for adequate
repower ultimately led to the destruction of Nazi armies. Time and again,
from Lees disastrous Gettysburg campaign to the race to the Yalu in Korea,
overcondence in an armys capabilities to continue to assert its power during
grand maneuvers led to stunning reverses. The results were not merely a matter
of Clausewitzian culminating points, but of fundamentally awed strategies.
In Praise of Attrition
Winter 2011-12 3
Operation Iraqi Freedom, one of the most successful military cam-
paigns in history, was intended to be a new kind of war of maneuver, in which
aerial weapons would “shock and awe” a humbled opponent into surrender
while ground forces did a little light dusting in the house of war. But instead
of being decided by maneuvered technologies, the three-week war was fought
and won—triumphantly—by soldiers and marines employing both aggressive
operational maneuvers and devastating tactical repower.
The point is not that maneuver is the stepbrother of repower, but
that there is no single answer to the battleeld, no formula. The commander’s
age-old need to balance incisive movements with the application of weaponry
is unlikely to change even well beyond our lifetimes. It’s not an either-or matter,
but about getting the integration right in each specic case.
Although no two campaigns are identical, the closest we can come
to an American superpower model of war would be this: strategic maneuver,
then operational maneuver to deliver res, then tactical res to enable further
maneuver. Increasingly, strategic res play a role—although they do not win
wars or decide them. Of course, no battleeld is ever quite so simple as this
proposition, but any force that loses its elementary focus on killing the enemy
swiftly and relentlessly until that enemy surrenders unconditionally cripples
Far from entering an age of maneuver, we have entered a new age
of attrition warfare in two kinds: First, the war against religious terrorism
is unquestionably a war of attrition—if one of your enemies is left alive or
unimprisoned, he will continue trying to kill you and destroy your civilization.
Second, Operation Iraqi Freedom, for all its dashing maneuvers, provided a
new example of a postmodern war of attrition—one in which the casualties are
overwhelmingly on one side.
Nothing says that wars of attrition have to be fair.
It’s essential to purge our minds of the clichéd images the term war
of attrition” evokes. Certainly, we do not and will not seek wars in which vast
casualties are equally distributed between our own forces and the enemys. But
a one-sided war of attrition, enabled by our broad range of superior capabilities,
is a strong model for a 21st-century American way of war.
No model is consistently applicable. That isor should be—a given.
Wars create exceptions, to the eternal chagrin of military commanders and
the consistent embarrassment of theorists. One of our greatest national and
military strengths is our adaptability. Unlike many other cultures, we have an
almost-primal aversion to wearing the straitjacket of theory, and our indepen-
dence of mind serves us very well, indeed. But the theorists are always there,
like devils whispering in our ears, telling us that airpower will win this war, or
that satellite “intelligence” obviates the need for human effort, or that a mortal
enemy will be persuaded to surrender by a sound-and-light show.
Precision weapons unquestionably have value, but they are expensive
and do not cause adequate destruction to impress a hardened enemy. The rst
time a guided bomb hits the deputys desk, it will get his chiefs attention, but
Ralph Peters
4 Parameters
if precision weaponry fails both to annihilate the enemys leadership and to
somehow convince the army and population it has been defeated, it leaves the
job to the soldier once again. Those who live in the technological clouds simply
do not grasp the importance of graphic, extensive destruction in convincing an
opponent of his defeat.
Focus on killing the enemy. With res. With maneuver. With sticks and
stones and polyunsaturated fats. In a disciplined military, aggressive leaders and
troops can always be restrained. But its difcult to persuade leaders schooled
in caution that their mission is not to keep an entire corpstanks on line, but
to rip the enemys heart out. We have made great progress from the ballet
of Desert Storm—“spoiled” only by then-Major General Barry McCaffrey’s
insistence on breaking out of the chorus line and kicking the enemy instead
of thin air—to the close-with-the-enemy spirit of last year’s race to Baghdad.
In the bitter years after Vietnam, when our national leaders succumbed
to the myth that the American people would not tolerate casualties, elements
within our military—although certainly not everyonegrew morally and
practically timid. By the mid-1990s, the US Army’s informal motto appeared
to be “We wont ght, and you cant make us.
There were obvious reasons for this. Our military—especially the Army
and Marine Corps—felt betrayed by our national leadership over Vietnam. Then
President Reagan evacuated Beirut shortly after the bombing of our Marine
barracks on the city’s outskirts—beginning a long series of bipartisan retreats
in the face of terror that ultimately led to 9/11. We hit a low point in Mogadishu,
when Army Rangers, Special Operations elements, and line troops delivered a
devastating blow against General Aideeds irregulars—only to have President
Clinton declare defeat by pulling out. One may argue about the rationale for our
presence in Somalia and about the dangers of mission creep, but once were in a
ght, we need to win it—and remain on the battleeld long enough to convince
our enemies they’ve lost on every count.
Things began to change less than two weeks into our campaign in
Afghanistan. At rst, there was caution—would the new President run as soon
as we suffered casualties? Then, as it dawned on our commanders that the
Administration would stand behind our forces, we saw one of the most innova-
tive campaigns in military history unfold with stunning speed.
Our military, and especially our Army, has come a long way. But were
still in recovery—almost through our Cold War hangover, but still too vulner-
able to the nonsense concocted by desk-bound theoreticians. Evaluating lessons
learned in Iraq, a recent draft study for a major joint command spoke of the
need for “discourses” between commanders at various levels and their staffs.
Trust me. We dont need discourses. We need plain talk, honest answers,
and the will to close with the enemy and kill him. And to keep on killing
him until it is unmistakably clear to the entire world who won. When military
ofcers start speaking in academic gobbledygook, it means they have nothing
to contribute to the effectiveness of our forces. They badly need an assignment
to Fallujah.
In Praise of Attrition
Winter 2011-12 5
Consider our enemies in the War on Terror. Men who believe, literally,
that they are on a mission from God to destroy your civilization and who regard
death as a promotion are not impressed by elegant maneuvers. You must nd
them, no matter how long it takes, then kill them. If they surrender, you must
accord them their rights under the laws of war and international conventions.
But, as we have learned so painfully from all the mindless, left-wing nonsense
spouted about the prisoners at Guantanamo, you are much better off killing
them before they have a chance to surrender.
We have heard no end of blather about network-centric warfare, to the
great prot of defense contractors. If you want to see a superb—and cheap
example of “net-war,” look at al Qaeda. The mere possession of technology does
not ensure that it will be used effectively. And effectiveness is what matters.
It isnt a question of whether or not we want to ght a war of attrition
against religion-fueled terrorists. Were in a war of attrition with them. We have
no realistic choice. Indeed, our enemies are, in some respects, better suited
to both global and local wars of maneuver than we are. They have a world in
which to hide, and the world is full of targets for them. They do not heed laws
or boundaries. They make and observe no treaties. They do not expect the
approval of the United Nations Security Council. They do not face election
cycles. And their weapons are largely provided by our own societies.
We have the technical capabilities to deploy globally, but, for now, we
are forced to watch as Pakistani forces fumble efforts to surround and destroy
concentrations of terrorists; we cannot enter any country (except, temporarily,
Iraq) without the permission of its government. We have many tools—military,
diplomatic, economic, cultural, law enforcement, and so on—but we have less
freedom of maneuver than our enemies.
But we do have superior killing power, once our enemies have been
located. Ultimately, the key advantage of a superpower is super power. Faced
with implacable enemies who would kill every man, woman, and child in our
country and call the killing good (the ultimate war of attrition), we must be
willing to use that power wisely, but remorselessly.
We are, militarily and nationally, in a transition phase. Even after 9/11,
we do not fully appreciate the cruelty and determination of our enemies. We
will learn our lesson, painfully, because the terrorists will not quit. The only
solution is to kill them and keep on killing them: a war of attrition. But a war
of attrition fought on our terms, not theirs.
Of course, we shall hear no end of fatuous arguments to the effect that
we cant kill our way out of the problem. Well, until a better methodology is
discovered, killing every terrorist we can nd is a good interim solution. The
truth is that even if you can’t kill yourself out of the problem, you can make the
problem a great deal smaller by effective targeting.
And we shall hear that killing terrorists only creates more terrorists.
This is sophomoric nonsense. The surest way to swell the ranks of terror is
to follow the approach we did in the decade before 9/11 and do nothing of
substance. Success breeds success. Everybody loves a winner. The clichés
Ralph Peters
6 Parameters
exist because theyre true. Al Qaeda and related terrorist groups metastasized
because they were viewed in the Muslim world as standing up to the West
successfully and handing the Great Satan America embarrassing defeats with
impunity. Some fanatics will ock to the standard of terror, no matter what we
do. But it’s far easier for Islamic societies to purge themselves of terrorists if
the terrorists are on the losing end of the global struggle than if they’re allowed
to become triumphant heroes to every jobless, unstable teenager in the Middle
East and beyond.
Far worse than ghting such a war of attrition aggressively is to pretend
youre not in one while your enemy keeps on killing you.
Even the occupation of Iraq is a war of attrition. Were doing remark-
ably well, given the restrictions under which our forces operate. But no grand
maneuvers, no gestures of humanity, no offers of conciliation, and no compro-
mises will persuade the terrorists to halt their efforts to disrupt the development
of a democratic, rule-of-law Iraq. On the contrary, anything less than relentless
pursuit, with both preemptive and retaliatory action, only encourages the ter-
rorists and remaining Baathist gangsters.
With hardcore terrorists, it’s not about PSYOP or jobs or deploying
dental teams. It’s about killing them. Even regarding the general population,
which benets from our reconstruction and development efforts, the best thing
we can do for them is to kill terrorists and insurgents. Until the people of Iraq are
secure, they are not truly free. The terrorists know that. We pretend otherwise.
This will be a long war, stretching beyond many of our lifetimes. And
it will be a long war of attrition. We must ensure that the casualties are always
disproportionately on the other side.
Curiously, while our military avoids a “body count in Iraqbody
counts have at least as bad a name as wars of attrition—the media insist on one.
Sad to say, the body count cherished by the media is the number of our own
troops dead and wounded. With our over-caution, we have allowed the media
to create a perception that the losses are consistently on our side. By avoiding
an enemy body count, we create an impression of our own defeat.
In a war of attrition, numbers matter.
Regarding the other postmodern form of wars of attrition—the high-
velocity conventional operations in which maneuver and repower, speed and
violent systemic shock, combine to devastate an opposing force—the Army and
Marine Corps need to embrace it, instead of allowing the technical services, the
Air Force and Navy, to dene the future of war (which the Air Force, especially,
is dening wrongly). We will not live to see a magical suite of technologies
achieve meaningful victories at no cost in human life. We need to oppose that
massive lie at every opportunity. The 21st centurys opening decades, at least,
will be dominated by the up-gunned Cain-and-Abel warfare we have seen
from Manhattan to Bali, from Afghanistans Shamali Plain to Nasiriyeh, from
Fallujah to Madrid.
The problem is that the Department of Defense combines two funda-
mentally different breeds of military services. In the Air Force and the Navy,
In Praise of Attrition
Winter 2011-12 7
people support machines. In the Army and Marine Corps, machines support
people. While expensive technologies can have great utility—and Air Force
and Navy assets made notable contributions to the Army-Marine victory in
Operation Iraqi Freedom—the technical services have a profoundly diminished
utility in the extended range of operations we are required to perform, from
urban raids to extended occupations, from foot patrols in remote environments
to peacemaking.
The Navy is struggling hard with these issues, but the Air Force is
the strongest opponent of admitting that we face wars of attrition, since it
has invested overwhelmingly in precision weapons designed to win a war by
deconstructing” the enemy’s command networks. But the only way you can
decisively cripple the command networks of terrorist organizations is by killing
terrorists. Even in Operation Iraqi Freedom, airpower made an invaluable con-
tribution, but attacking military and governmental infrastructure targets proved
no substitute for destroying enemy forces. When, in mid-war, the focus of the
air effort shifted from trying to persuade Saddam Hussein to wave a white
handkerchief (which he had no incentive to do) to destroying Iraqi military
equipment and killing enemy troops, the utility of airpower soared.
It cannot be repeated often enough: Whatever else you aim to do in
wartime, never lose your focus on killing the enemy.
A number of the problems we have faced in the aftermath of Operation
Iraqi Freedom arose because we tried to moderate the amount of destruction
we inicted on the Iraqi military. The only result was the rise of an Iraqi
Dolchstosslegende, the notion that they werent really defeated, but betrayed.
Combined with insufcient numbers of Coalition troops to blanket the
country—especially the Sunni triangle—in the weeks immediately following
the toppling of the regime, crucial portions of the population never really felt
Americas power.
It is not enough to materially defeat your enemy. You must convince
your enemy that he has been defeated. You cannot do that by bombing empty
buildings. You must be willing to kill in the short term to save lives and foster
peace in the long term.
This essay does not suppose that warfare is simple: Just go out and kill
em.Of course, incisive attacks on command networks and control capabilities,
well-considered psychological operations, and humane treatment of civilians
and prisoners matter profoundly, along with many other complex factors. But
at a time when huckster contractors and “experts” who never served in uniform
prophesize bloodless wars and sterile victories through technology, its essen-
tial that those who actually must ght our nations wars not succumb to the
facile theories or shimmering vocabulary of those who wish to explain war to
our soldiers from comfortable ofces.
It is not a matter of whether attrition is good or bad. It’s necessary. Only
the shedding of their blood defeats resolute enemies. Especially in our struggle
with God-obsessed terrorists—the most implacable enemies our nation has
ever faced—there is no economical solution. Unquestionably, our long-term
Ralph Peters
8 Parameters
strategy must include a wide range of efforts to do what we, as outsiders, can
to address the environmental conditions in which terrorism arises and thrives
(often disappointingly littleits a self-help world). But, for now, all we can do
is to impress our enemies, our allies, and all the populations in between that we
are winning and will continue to win.
The only way to do that is through killing.
The fth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary denes to
“attrit” as to “wear down in quality or quantity by military attrition.” That
sounds like the next several years, at least, of the War on Terror. The same dic-
tionary denes “attritionas “the gradual wearing down of an enemys forces
in sustained warfare.” Indeed, that is exactly what we shall have to do against
religious terrorists. There is no magic maneuver waiting to be plotted on a
map. While sharp tactical movements that bring repower to bear will bring
us important successes along the way, this war is going to be a long, hard slog.
The new trenches are ideological and civilizational, involving the most
fundamental differences human beings can have—those over the intentions of
God and the roles of men and women. In the short term, we shall have to wear
down the enemys forces; in the longer term, we shall have to wear down the
appeal of his ideas. Our military wars of attrition in the 21st century will be
only one aspect of a vast metaphysical war of attrition, in which the differences
between the sides are so profound they prohibit compromise.
As a result of our recent wars and lesser operations, we have the best-
trained, best-led, best-equipped, and most experienced ground forces in the
world in our Army and Marine Corps. Potential competitors and even most of
our traditional allies have only the knowledge of the classroom and the training
range, while we have experience of war and related operations unparalleled
in our time. We have the most impressive military establishment, overall, in
military history.
Now, if only we could steel ourselves to think clearly and speak plainly:
There is no shame in calling reality by its proper name. We are ghting, and
will ght, wars of attrition. And we are going to win them.