The US military is investing heavily in preparing for large-scale combat operations. These operations, pitting the US armed forces against peer or near-peer adversaries, would require large numbers of troops, would almost certainly be expensive, and would risk high numbers of casualties. In other words, major war. But even if the US military is prepared, the American people aren’t. This is a problem.
A major war, fueled by rising competition between great powers, is certainly not guaranteed. Any geopolitical gains made would likely be offset by high casualties and the risk of a nuclear exchange. However, miscalculation and misperception could inadvertently lead to a dangerously escalatory armed clash. Military establishments the world over, and especially in the United States, are assiduously preparing for the possibility.
However, one seemingly overlooked yet vitally important area of preparation is domestic support. At present, there is no organized effort in the United States to explain to citizens why war may be necessary. This may mean that, in an emergency, there will not be sufficient domestic support and understanding to allow the use of force. Militaries and governments should not, of course, directly propagandize about the “virtues” of war—war is something to be avoided wherever possible. Nonetheless, the US government would be well served by an expanded communications strategy that explains both the stakes of and rationale for action. This would ensure that in the event of conflict, US citizens are more engaged and less vulnerable to misinformation.
Even as the Pentagon conducts more ambitious exercises and acquires high-tech weaponry, the American people are deeply uncertain about going to war. Just 41 percent of Americans support fighting China to defend Taiwan from invasion. Support for defending a Baltic ally invaded by Russia stands at 50 percent. These numbers are not inspiring—especially as young people are the most dubious of foreign military commitments. Moreover, some experts have pointed out that these figures are misleading because pollsters do not explain the consequences of war. Half of Americans may be willing to defend Estonia or Latvia. But how many would stick to their guns if such a commitment cost tens of thousands of American lives and risked a nuclear exchange? More polling is needed to understand this issue, but it makes for unwelcome hypotheticals.
Questions about American resolve are hardly new. In fact, such fears have been Western Europe’s greatest strategic anxiety for decades. The key strategy deployed to mute this is tripwire forces—NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic nations is the most recent manifestation. These small units, including Americans, signal alliance commitment to regional security. In the event of a Russian invasion, they would likely suffer heavy casualties, triggering a “rally round the flag” effect making it more likely that America goes to war.
This is conventional wisdom, but it may not be entirely true. A RAND study in 1996 found that populations are willing to tolerate high levels of casualties in pursuit of important objectives, ideally achieved through a clear victory. Washington rightly sees Baltic security as important to its strategic interests. Would the average American—when many lives are on the line in pursuit of, at best, restoring the status quo ante—agree? This is especially important given that a scenario with columns of Russian armor rolling into Estonia is less likely, barring a major change in the strategic environment, than some combination of political interference, information operations, cyber warfare, agitation among Russian-speaking minorities, and other steps short of war—essentially what the Kremlin has engineered to its benefit in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. This hybrid warfare will muddy the situation. In some contingencies, for example a Chinese blockade of Taiwan, US forces may in fact fire the first shots.
The result of this is that the US military is planning for war, but it cannot be assured of significant domestic support in the event that war occurs. This may mean, for instance, that political pressure precludes Congress from authorizing military action at all. Even in the event of a military commitment, protests could impact logistics networks, demoralize personnel, and complicate strategic communication efforts. In the Cold War, the US government expended significant energies on domestically focused messaging about the evils of communism. This effort ran the gamut from formal broadcasts to comic books.
A carbon copy of that overtly propagandistic approach would be ineffective in today’s operating environment. Instead, the US government should start conducting more comprehensive surveys and focus groups about American attitudes toward war in several different contingencies. General questions about willingness to fight are helpful. But how do those commitments change if the United States is perceived as the aggressor? Or if fighting would incur significant casualties? What is the impact of political polarization and information warfare on popular mobilization? Would a war in defense of the status quo poll well? Or would the American people demand maximalist war aims, potentially resulting in regime change?
Once the first sets of surveys are in, the government will be in a stronger position to take action. This might involve changing public engagement strategies to emphasize not only joint force readiness, but why readiness is useful. More funding and support to organizations exposing human rights abuses conducted by China and Russia may be valuable. Engagement in schools and universities, perhaps through model UN and ROTC programs, would allow servicemembers to explain their perspective to younger audiences.
The overall intent of the effort would not be to valorize war, nor to suggest that the US military is eager to engage in it. Rather, it would be to soberly make the case for why, for example, certain small, faraway countries are worth fighting for. It would also work to demystify the character of conflict. Even if the information is unpalatable—discussing, for example, the number of casualties or risk of nuclear escalation—it would set expectations and help inoculate the population against panic in the event of crisis.
This strategy is not without significant risks. It could be perceived, and certainly would be spun by foreign actors, as highly propagandistic. It could become so in truth without careful controls and coordination. More broadly, it could lead to blowback and major public debates that might be unflattering to the defense establishment. On a strategic level, it might expose red lines, limiting space to maneuver. Further, the civil-military implications of a DoD-led public information campaign could be problematic.
These issues are not an argument against taking such steps, however, but rather concerns that must be carefully accounted for when planning to take them. For example, the overarching communications model employed might take more cues from public service announcements than propaganda. Workshopping plans with think tanks, civil society, and interest groups across the political spectrum could serve as a helpful way to tailor and sense check the messaging.
More solutions, and more problems, would no doubt come to light as the project progresses. And it is important that it does so, at the earliest opportunity. Current US strategy may require the American people to make vast sacrifices on short notice in pursuit of unclear objectives. Taking some initial steps to lay the groundwork for such commitment is sensible, despite the risks. The Pentagon plans for war with immense capability and seriousness. It should approach public engagement with the same perspective.
Matthew Ader is a student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He is an associate editor at the Wavell Room, and tweets infrequently from @AderMatthew.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Rey Ramon, US Army
The Pentagon perspective isn't adequate from the American public's standpoint because the American public targets the Politicians. The International public targets the American citizens as perhaps being too ignorant and naive in not seeing the consequences of war. At best, the American public can write to their Senators and protest against war in open demonstrations.
But what is the truth? The American public can sense that the Pentagon can win wars (the USA has the best military), but the Politicians cannot win the war in the long term. The USA had no goals for Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Arab Spring, the Kurds, Bosnia, Yemen, or the Insurgency except to "Close with and destroy the enemy," harking back to the Vietnam days of Body Counts and vehicles destroyed. The American public is more intelligent than that—Refugees, rebuilding the country, generations of hatred towards Americans, lives and dollars lost, wear and tear on the weapon systems, USA dollars going overseas, Recession, lost of popular support and International condemnation, and the fact that the USA has to often "Go about it alone."
The Pentagon won the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they could not hold the peace. Soldiers didn't know the customs, the tribal warfare, the language, the tenacity of the enemy, and the danger of IEDs. The civilian leadership was slow to counter IEDs and now the threat of Hypersonics, new nuclear weapons, Cyber, peer nations, Arctic expansion, debt-trade-deficit, COVID, etc. loom large, not to mention Unemployment, poverty, Homelessness, Sex Abuse and Harassment, DACA and Deportations, bad PR, Racism and riots, crime, etc.
The American public isn't so much "War Weary" as they are fed up with wars with no objective goals beyond the generals…wars that the civilian Leadership misinterpreted or misconstrued, or didn't have the vision to see beyond the beans, bullets, and the money.
Is America safer after these wars? Is the world better after these wars? The war on COVID (Biological) is a classic example and things fared worse for the USA with Lockdowns and closed businesses…and Congress stalled and can't agree on Stimulus, payment, votes, etc.
MWI talks of the War Machine, but behind that is a Washington DC Political Machine that is sometimes to often old, cranky, not Bipartisan, and perhaps cheap and tight on budgets and spending with lots of Pork, jollygagging, finger pointing, grandstanding, favoritism…the normal usual stuff. The Facebook Panel was a classic example of how many Senators knew what Social Media and Facebook was.
"Rather, it would be to soberly make the case for why, for example, certain small, faraway countries are worth fighting for."
A case that no one ever seems to make, nor even really attempts to make, beyond a sentence or two about how the Baltics or Taiwan are vital to American security – without deeper explanation. The reason is simple – there is no case to be made. You can't convince the American people of a lie – or you can, for a while, and then you reap what you sow. There was American resolve to exact retribution for 9/11, but not to engage in the prolonged and fruitless ambition to remake either Iraq or Afghanistan into things they simply are not – stable, liberal societies.
Our military is hamstrung by feckless politicians, and always will be, because that is by and large the representation the American electorate chooses. Since war is inherently political, and our political power is supreme to the military, all plans and exercises will always be provisional. The Louisiana Maneuvers would be no more than an interesting footnote to futility had Nazi Germany not declared war on the United States. We were not going to enter that theater on our own, despite the military preparation for it.
Please provide the opportunity to forward .
This approach follows the logic of national security the US has followed for generations, where the defense establishment concerns itself with the threat envioronment and determines what should be done, then goes to Congress to ask for whatever permission and appropriations necessary to carry out the fight.
If you read your Clausewitz a bit more carefully, it become apparent that this is an inversion of the roles of military and political leaders. Conflict, armed or otherwise, is a matter of will based on an evaluation of the aims of all the parties and how each values the ultimate outcome. Civilian leaders decide what's worthy fighting for or against, and how hard — not military leaders. We in uniform may have strong opinions — we are citizens just like everyone else, and we're the ones with physical 'skin' in the game! — but our profession does not give us any special ability to commit the nation to one thing versus another.
Clausewitz would certainly approve of the Constitutional framework giving Congress the authority over the armed forces, to control the resources we can use, to decide on matters of war and peace. Congress is (in theory, more below) the body that expresses the will of the nation as to what we are for or against, and how hard we as a nation are willing to fight to achieve a particular end state.
All that said, going back to the Second Continental Congress, its members have been more committed to acting as arm-chair generals to second-guess military decisions while leaving all the heavy-lifting to the President and executive branch officers. For many reasons they apper to pay more attention to press coverage than intelligence reports (at least that's what I see in the news), and all too often base policy on fantasy — like a plan to divvy up Iraq into three zones based on an utterly ignorant view that Iraqis are either Sunni, Shia or Kurd and that by parsing them into pure ethnic/demoninational enclaves the fighting would end. Too ignorant for words — but too common a practice among politicians, academics and theoreticians. Hubris, friends, hubris…
But our task should be to deflate that hubris, to figure how ways to force Congress to face the real world and make mature, responsible decisions on what is important to the United States and what we as a nation are willing to commit to decision by arms, if the situation demands. If we make decisions for them, as suggested here and as has been done for generations, and then simply get them to sign off on it, we're acting like the enabler to the drunk rich kid — they're not going to sober up if we simply make do and let them get by.
Is the South China Sea worth fighting over? Taiwan? Cyber sabotage and terror? Subversion of maturing states? Do we, the people of the United States of America care? These are not questions for the profession of arms to decide — no matter that the Marines are willing to rip themselves apart and put themselves back together in a new form in anticipation of a fight, or that the Air Force sees the need to have technology that could defeat the Klingons, or 'near-peer competitors' who aren't NATO members.
Only Congress can commit the nation's will and resources to a fight. Only Congress can decide what is worth fight for or against. As is obvious to everyone on the face of the planet, we see them to be drunk with egotism and defiantly ignorant of the real world — so our task must be to sober them up, get them to face the world as it is, to make decisions and provide guidance that we need and that the world can depend on.