How to Lose a War

30 September 2018


Review of Elie Baranets, Comment perdre une guerre : Une théorie du contournement démocratique (CNRS Editions, 2017)


In November 1968, Daniel Ellsberg wrote a review of a book-length debate with multiple contributors entitled Can We Win in Vietnam? In it, the RAND Institute analyst, who was involved in the planning of American foreign policy, expressed his frustration with how the public debate about America’s involvement in Vietnam had played out over the 1960s. He concluded his review in the American Political Science Review by complimenting two of the contributors, Ed Stillman and William Pfaff: if their views “had been more adequately represented and understood much earlier in our involvement in Southeast Asia, we might have avoided an American tragedy.” Less than a year later, while listening to a draft resister named Randy Kehler, this dissatisfaction with the lack of debate and confused strategy radicalized into full-fledged opposition to the war. Ellsberg later recounted how, following Kehler’s speech, he holed himself up in a deserted men’s room and sobbed for over an hour about what his country was doing in southeast Asia.


Shortly thereafter, he began furtively copying classified documents about US involvement in Vietnam, which he would eventually leak. When these documents were published in 1971 as the Pentagon Papers, the truth many had intuited became incontrovertible: the President of the United States had systematically lied about American involvement in Vietnam, not just to the American public but also to Congress. An already deeply-contested war lost all legitimacy, and the Paris Peace Accords were signed shortly thereafter. A new Congress slashed the budget for Vietnam, and in 1975 Saigon fell. The United States had lost a war.


In his new book Comment perdre une guerre : une théorie du contournement démocratique, Elie Baranets, a researcher at the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Militaire’s Institute for Strategic Research, argues that a democracy is most sure of losing a war when it undermines its own democratic principles. When leaders hide their true objectives in war, they begin a process that inevitably leads to confused military strategy, diplomatic miscommunication, and domestic contestation, all of which ultimately undercut the chance of victory. Daniel Ellsberg’s evolution over the course of the Vietnam War is just one particularly stark and influential example of how a war effort unravels when democratic principles are circumvented.


Baranets’s work is an intervention in democratic victory theory, a theory in International Relations that postulates that democracies are more likely than other forms of government to win wars. Based on Baranets’s doctoral thesis under Dario Battistella, Comment perdre une guerre examines two counterexamples of democratic victory theory: the United States’ defeat in Vietnam and Israel’s 1982 defeat in Lebanon. Both were democracies and yet neither obtained a victory against opponents who were, in theory, greatly outmatched.


In his introduction, Baranets carefully details his theoretical commitments, defines his terms, and articulates his thesis of “circumvention of democracy.” He defines democracy as a form of government whose leaders are chosen by free and regular elections in which a large portion of the adult population takes place, and where freedom of the press, expression, and association are guaranteed. His key term “circumvention” means there is a “substantial gap between the real war objectives and the public war objectives.” War is defined as a “lethal conflict that political entities engage in among themselves.” This theoretical definition of war has the notable advantage of not including an official declaration of war, thus allowing for an examination of other types of military engagements that fall short of the legal definition of war, including, for example, every single American military action since World War II. (In legal terms, all these wars have been mere congressional “Authorizations of Use of Military Force.”)


In the case of the Vietnam War, Baranets examines the various points when President Lyndon B. Johnson might have been transparent about the American military engagement in Vietnam and was not. Key information was withheld from the media, the broader public, and even from Congress. Military decisions were often made more with an eye towards the legislative calendar for Johnson’s domestic agenda than to the actual military objectives in Vietnam. Baranets details how these evasions and lies ultimately undermined communication between the White House and the military, eroded troop morale, and rendered the war illegitimate for a large portion of the American populace. As the peace movement gained steam, Johnson’s attempt to discredit it then set in place another chain of events that further undermined his authority and de-legitimized the war. Relying on a number of secondary sources, Baranets concludes that the war was ultimately unwinnable by the time Nixon took office in 1969, because the circumvention of democracy had already triggered such a spiral of misinformation and mistrust. As a result, American military advantage was undermined and the war was lost.


Israel’s 1982 intervention in Lebanon’s Civil War presents a similar dynamic for Baranets. The lead circumventor of democracy in this case, though, was not the Prime Minister, but the Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon. He began by engaging in military activities without full permission of the Knesset, which made planning difficult for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Sharon also repeatedly took advantage of information asymmetry in the cabinet to push through approval for his preferred plans of action. Once again, relying on a number of secondary sources, Baranets concludes that the IDF could have achieved clearly delimited war objectives in a prompt and direct attack had they been clearly articulated and understood. Sharon’s manipulations and misinformation, however, prevented this from happening. The original lie constrained later debates, as one lie led to another. Domestic dissent was provoked in similar fashion, as Sharon limited press access to information about the war, particularly to left-wing journalists, which only invited more contestation. He cites a particularly famous letter by author Amos Oz in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot disputing the Israeli government’s official account of the war objectives. Once again, a spiral of misinformation and mistrust undermined military superiority and led to defeat.


Baranets is a scholar of international relations, and as such his purpose is not a historical sifting of sources to contextualize the various influences leading to the failures of the United States in Vietnam and Israel in Lebanon. His book is not an evaluation of the relative importance of the circumvention of democracy by American leaders among other potential causes of those defeats. His scholarly goal is much simpler. Baranets is concerned with the role of one variable, democracy, on military victory or defeat. Baranets’s principal argument in Comment perdre une guerre is that democracies lose wars when democracy itself is circumvented through leaders lies to the public about their war objectives. It is therefore in a country’s national interest for its leaders to be transparent about their reasons for going to war and for continuing that war. In this sense, the greater thrust of Comment perdre une guerre is that transparency and democratic accountability really matter. The book is consequently a valuable contribution to our broader conversation about the foreign relations of democratic nations. It is an encouragement to voters in a democratic nation to demand more transparency and more democratic accountability with regard to our military engagements.


One of the great difficulties about accountability in a democracy is the gap between a policy’s implementation and its consequences. Nowhere, is this clearer than when it comes to war. American engagement in Vietnam began in the 1950s when Eisenhower was President; Saigon fell four presidents later in 1975. Foreign policy makers are well aware of this gap. When it comes to difficult decisions about ongoing wars, there is an ever present temptation to kick the can down the road.


The shifting explanations and justifications for the United States’s continued military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan this past decade and a half demonstrate the facility with which foreign policy makers can delay the political consequences of an unclear strategy. George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s foreign policy teams have come and gone, and Donald Trump’s may also be long gone before our military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan finally come to an end. In the meantime, trillions of dollars and far too many lives have been lost. Does the American voter even know why our military is still in Iraq or in Afghanistan? What average citizen could articulate what exactly our country still hopes to accomplish there at this great cost?


When we do eventually pull our military out of Iraq and Afghanistan, future scholars will inevitably question the enormous cost of those conflicts and the amorphous war objectives behind them. In those two cases, Baranets’s argument is likely still to hold. We can only hope then that whatever epistemic value there is in democratic leaders’ honesty about their foreign policy, it will work itself out sooner rather than later.


But even if his theory doesn’t hold up, or even if the effects are felt too late to really matter, then maybe that ought to push us beyond the confines of Baranets’s thesis and beyond the limits of international relations (or  history). When talking about the military engagements of our democracy, perhaps we ought to situate ourselves firmly within the realms of ethics and politics: our country’s leaders should have clear, attainable objectives for our military engagements, they should be as transparent as possible about those objectives, and, if they are not, then we as citizens of a democracy most definitely should hold them to account for their decisions.


Photo Credit: White House Photo Office, Nixon Cambodia, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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1 Comment

  • Geof says:

    “When we do eventually pull our military out of Iraq and Afghanistan, future scholars will inevitably question the enormous cost of those conflicts and the amorphous war objectives behind them.”

    “amorphous” is not the same as “secret,” which was the complaint about the Vietnam War’s raison-d’etre. Regarding Iraq, that may well be proven true some day, but as far as I’ve ever heard, the reason for invading Afghanistan was to deny its usage by Al Queda for preparing future attacks on the West. (“Al Queda” after all means “the base.”) Does anyone see any softening of the Taliban’s hatred for western mores? Until they agree that we all are living in the Second Millenium, not the First, I would be more worried about our Leaving than about our Staying.

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