Food For Thought

Dysfunctional Decision Making for War

As significance of President Donald Trump’s abort orders to strike Iran minutes before H-Hour, reportedly out of concerns for about 150 expected causalities, is beginning to sink in, disturbing questions have arisen as to how modern armies arrive at decisions to go to war. In an interview to Der Spiegel Magazine, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, when asked to comment on the report, responded that if true, then decision making process at the White House for initiating military actions against other countries is grossly flawed. From his experience, he was categorical that estimation of casualties is factored in by defense department fairly early in the discussions and once the President has made up his mind, then the decision is not changed.  
Why is U.S. creating more chaos by scrapping the 2015 nuclear accord and now planning to attack Iran to advance Israel’s agenda? Why is Iran encouraging instability in the region through proxies and indulging in tanker warfare? Clearly it is not aliens from Mars who are attacking oil facilities and sea transportation system in its neighborhood. The most probable answer could be that, in steady drift towards war, they are calculating risks in their own ways and obviously only one of them could end up being right. It will be interesting to know how the Iranians view Saddam Hussein as a regional case study. Do they see him as someone who was not irrational or suicidal since he was deterred from war in the past or as unreasonable risk-taker who made colossal mistakes which resulted in his and the country’s destruction?  
It is safe to assume that nation states go to war in order to impose their will on others, or because there are political and economic stakes worth the war for the combatants. A certain level of ‘gung-ho’ impulses, as such, will always be there in their hostile and violent actions. With revolutionary advances in intelligence gathering, secure communications and lethality of weaponry, which former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld once famously referred to in somewhat torturous English as ‘known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns’, it is expected that countries intending to embark on destruction of fellow mankind, must have a ‘full cycle of rationality’ – starting with aims and objectives and concluding with what the ‘end game’ would look like once they are done with it. 
These burning questions are becoming pertinent as studies based on data from Correlates of War (COW), Militarized Interstate Disputes (MID) and National Material Capabilities (NMC) reveal that prior to 1900, war initiators won over seventy percent of the time, but since 1945, only about one-third of initiators of wars have been able get an upper edge in a conflict. Thus, if the prospects of winning wars are decreasing empirically, it can be argued that utility of war in contemporary times is declining. It thus makes a strong case for introspection into causes of miscalculation and misperception.    
Recent examples of interventions in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Sudan and Somalia suggest that major upheavals and destructions are caused with insufficient thought going into the whole business of wars. In Afghanistan, first the Soviet intervention in 1979 and then U.S.’ so called war on terror, both cannot be justified in any manner for casualties and destruction of an entire country. 
Afghan War has also thrown up another lesson: that the asymmetrical advantage in power or the size of an alliance doesn’t necessarily determine the outcome of a conflict. This war has had different names from time to time like ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ and ‘Operation Freedom’s Sentinel’ and at one time the coalition comprised 40 countries including all NATO members but today U.S. is alone and still struggling with Rumsfeld’s ‘known/unknown’ formulations first stated in 2002. 
This is not the first time U.S. has dumbfounded the world in its appetite for going to war. In an interview, in 2007, retired U.S. General Wesley Clark narrated how after 9/11 there was raw excitement in Pentagon to destroy seven countries (named above) in five years starting with Iraq and ending with Iran. The nexus between U.S. foreign policy and its strong military-industrial complex is understandable, but for the rest of the world it appears that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem naturally looks like a nail.      
The broader question for students of military history is: Are wars more often caused by miscalculation and misperception or is there a rational, well-calculated methodology to it? In recent skirmish with India, the miscalculation and misperception factor was clearly evident when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered his Air Force to irresponsibly venture into Pakistan’s airspace. The consequences and the outcome of his actions most likely missed Modi’s imagination by miles. 
On our side, did Prime Minister Imran Khan give enough thought to his speech a few days earlier when he declared with added emphasis that in the event of any misadventure by India, Pakistan will not just consider responding, it WILL physically act. With such language, did he leave any room for Modi not to act when he was already itching to put to test the ‘under nuclear over-hang’ horse manure, sold to him by his military? 
When Imran Khan cautioned Modi for the second time about firing three times the number of missiles if India ventured any further, did India realize how quickly they would climb up the escalation ladder and that de-escalation would then only be in the hands of external powers. If nothing else, one hopes that India has learnt that these days, relative power is not a good predictor of outcomes.  
In the nuclear paradigm and with miniaturization of nuclear warheads in weapons deployed on land and at sea, these miscalculations and misperceptions are likely to occur at tactical level, because the command and control is passed down from political to the field level.  In the Cuban Missile Crisis, captain of the Soviet submarine and the politburo representative had misperceived intentions of U.S. naval task force hovering above on surface, as threatening to their safety, and all but decided to fire a nuclear warhead, which would have initiated a nuclear war, but for the Executive Officer of the submarine who declined his mandatory consent for firing.  
The rationality versus miscalculations and misperception debate about causes of war has spanned over a long time with no last word on it. It can be said that WWI started because of deliberate German policy, or by a web of misperception. There is also a view about miscalculation as Great Powers wanted only a limited war but the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor changed it all; gripped as it was in militaristic hyper-nationalism. India, without a doubt, was also under a total spell of militaristic hyper-nationalism after the Pulwama incident. 
Assumptions about causes of war being miscalculations and misperceptions can broadly be parsed in two groups: the realists in rationalist camp, who believe that decisions to initiate wars are rational and deliberate so deterrence works well. Contrarily, the political psychologists and students of bureaucratic politics are of the view that militarism and hyper-nationalism are rooted in miscalculation and misperception and are the cause of war. Judging by the track record of U.S., there is strong evidence to suggest that miscalculation and misperception strand is dominant for initiation of wars. 
If this argument is accepted, it will be a harbinger of more trouble, as then the very raison d'être of deterrence will be called into question or at the very least, deterrence will become hard to achieve and maintain at any credible level.  

The writer is a retired Vice Admiral. 
E-mail: [email protected]

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