War: What If?

Anson Burlingame, fellow blogger, retired Navy Captain, ex-nuclear-submarine skipper, has proposed an online discussion of the nature of war, with the context being America’s controversial strategy for the Afghan War.

As an opening post for a continuing discussion of indeterminate length I

Colin Powell, Secretary of State.

Image via Wikipedia

now ask what I believe to be a pertinent hypothetical question:  If the United States had followed the Powell Doctrine after WWII, how would that have changed the nation’s war experience up to the present time? I am hoping that some agreement on this aspect of war might facilitate further discussions.

For convenience I list here the questions required to be answered affirmatively by the Powell Doctrine before taking military action (as found on Wikipedia):

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

I will omit questions in each war where I believe the answer to be YES, and will list only the “NO” answers, along with a brief rationale:


Korean War.  [36,000 U.S. KIA, 92,000 wounded]

Republic of Korea (ROK) and United States (U.S...

Image via Wikipedia

  • 3.  Risks and costs fully analyzed?  No.  (Red China, USSR)
  • 5.  Exit strategy?  No.
  • 6.  Consequences fully considered?  No.  China, USSR
  • 7.  People support?  No.  Not attempted and no declaration of war.

Vietnam War.  [58,000 U.S. KIA; 153,000 wounded]

Vietnam war mermorial

Image via Wikipedia

  • 1.  Vital national security interest?  No.  The Domino Effect, relative to communism, was later discredited.
  • 3.  Risks and costs fully analyzed?  No.  Strong support for North Vietnam by both the USSR and Red China should have been evident, especially after the experience of Korea.
  • 5.  Exit strategy?  No.
  • 6.  Consequences fully considered?  No.  The capabilities of North Vietnam for guerilla warfare were badly underestimated and the potential for conflict with two nuclear-armed super-powers not adequately considered.
  • 7.  People support?  No.  The war was entered into gradually, finally being justified on a bogus naval attack, the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
  • 8.  Genuine broad international support.  No.  Throughout the conflict there were only relatively-small contributions from allies.

Gulf War.  [240-392 U.S. KIA; 776 wounded]

  • An A-10A Thunderbolt II aircraft flies over a ...

    Image via Wikipedia

    7.  People support?  Uncertain.  There was open discussion in the press and diplomacy before the war.  Congress acceded, but there was no declaration of war.

Iraq War.  [4,739 U.S. KIA; 32,244 wounded]

  • 2.  Clear, obtainable objective?  No.  Had our objective been limited to destruction of specified military capabilities, it might have been, but the complete subjugation of the country left us with no plan for the “peace”.
  • 3.  Risks and costs fully analyzed?  Obviously not.
  • 5.  Plausible exit strategy?  Obviously not.
  • 6.  Consequences fully considered?  Obviously not.
  • 7.  People support?  Yes, but.  The national mood was warlike because of 9/11, although it was determined later that there was no direct connection between Saddam’s regime and 9/11. There was open discussion in the press and diplomacy before the war.  Congress acceded, but there was no declaration of war.

From the above opinions, which are entirely mine, I submit that, had the Powell Doctrine been followed, all of the conflicts except for the Gulf War would have been avoided and as a result, so would have 98,000 American or Coalition combat deaths.  South Korea would now look like North Korea, economically and politically and Saddam would still be in power, but in an Iraq seriously weakened.  Otherwise the world’s national boundaries and conditions would be pretty much as they are.

I invite any and all readers to comment on this straw man for discussion.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Ethics / Morality, Nuclear weapons, Terrorism, War and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to War: What If?

  1. Jim says:

    This is no straw man. It is a discussion of a hypothetical.

    “A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.” – Wikipedia

    This hypothetical, “… how would that have changed …” implies correctly that the Powell Doctrine would have made a difference. You asked the interesting question, ‘how?’. Compare the Powell Doctrine to one randomly selected alternative – for example, Benevolent Global Hegemony. Its list of questions:

    1. Can we kick some butt?

    [ Reference: ‘Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy’ by William Kristol and Robert Kagan, Foreign Affairs magazine, July/August 1996 ]


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Jim *,

      Interesting and instructive. BGH inspires thought of powerful people with short-term jobs sitting in a room debating how to re-make the world according to their own inclinations. Somewhat similar to the scenario in Woodward’s book, except in that case the complexities have gotten out of hand, changing the proactive to reactive.

      You are right about “straw man argument”, although the post may eventually evolve in a direction that makes it applicable. As always your comments are perspicacious. Thanks.



  2. ansonburlingame says:


    As we have discussed before, the Six Principles enunciated by SECDEF Winberg after Vietnam were the precursors to the Powell Doctrine. They should be listed as well to broaden the discussion.

    While not in you dictionary definition of the Powell Doctrine I continue to believe that the assembly of overwhelming force at the point of attack remains a vital element of General Powell’s approach to FIGHTING a “war” however one defines it.

    Certainly such warfighting ideas play key roles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Equally as well such a “theme” or doctrine WAS followed in the Gulf War under the leadership of General Powell.

    Given all the “NOs” above particularly regarding Iraq and Afghanistan we STILL could have “won” in either or both places had we followed General Powell’s warfighting doctine. Actually we did just that in BOTH Iraq and Afghanistan initially and kicked lots of butts. We simply did not realize the “war” was still going on after initially “securing” areas as part of our misguided COIN approach.

    Using Powell’s famous question as a guide, we clearly “broke” both Iraq and Afghanistan. It was and is the “fixing” afterwards that was and remains all screwed up. As you suggest and I agree use of “your” Powell doctrine would have required answers to those issues beforehand.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      The subject of my post was about starting a war, not about fighting it, which is why I didn’t mention that part of the Powell Doctrine. I would be the last person to refute that “there is no substitute for victory”, complete, overwhelming and ruthless. But, the fighting part was outside the context of the post. The whole point is that, if the Powell Doctrine governed, there were steps OMITTED in planning America’s wars, steps that should have been required before unleashing the dogs of war.

      You said:
      Given all the “NOs” above particularly regarding Iraq and Afghanistan we STILL could have “won” in either or both places had we followed General Powell’s warfighting doctine. Actually we did just that in BOTH Iraq and Afghanistan initially and kicked lots of butts. We simply did not realize the “war” was still going on after initially “securing” areas as part of our misguided COIN approach.

      Will you admit that a rigorous review of the 8 questions should have revealed the flaws in those wars, or for that matter in the other wars mentioned, that we later did not “realize” (your word) would happen? Would we not have DECLINED to undertake those wars at all had we followed the Powell Doctrine’s 8 question requirement? If you answer is no, which you imply, then the obvious conclusion is that you do NOT accept the 8 questions as reasonable requirements. Therein lies the heart of our disagreement.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Anson, can you give me a reference to Weinberg’s Six Principles? I am having trouble finding them. Thanks.


  3. ansonburlingame says:


    Go to http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1992/MCF.htm. It is a great discussion of both the principles and why they were developed. You will find close similarity between the “six principles” and the Powell Doctrine you have referenced.

    And of course I agree that IF EITHER of those “doctrines’ had been followed with either would NOT have engaged in EITHER Afghanistan or Iraq OR the manner in which we engaged would have been very different, particularly the commitment to “stay the course” after our intial surge of quick “victories’ at the beginning of both conflicts.

    And THAT is exactly why I believe a return to constitutional mandates for entering WAR are needed. Those types of questions need to be addressed in full and public debate BEFORE we send in the troops. Afterwards and IF we indeed send them in there would be absolutely no excuse from anyone for “bailing out” or “cut and run” unless we really got our assess kicked in a real military defeat.

    Considering our military power today (who knows in the future) the liklihood of a military defeat would be remote as long as the “will” or commitment of AMERICA, not just a President essentially acting on his own, remained strong.

    I suppose that is an essential and underlying theme to my “trilogy”.



  4. ansonburlingame says:


    If the above link does not “work” just Goggle Casper Weinberger’s six principles”. I found the above article in that manner. There are others listed therein as well.

    Incidently, check out my most recent comment is “Simply Wow” at my site. We got about as “heated” as we have been in that exchange over the veterans letter to the President. My last comment provides a better explanation why I think the veternan needs to be considered in his views.

    We will still disagree probably, but for sure my intent is not a PERSONAL attack on the President. It IS however a disparagment of the RESULTS of his actions/policies.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      I didn’t find it because I used “Weinberg” and not “Weinberger”.

      There is, as you say, great similarity between the two. I like Powell’s list better because it is more succinct. I find Weinberger’s list wordy and pedantic, but certinly seminal on the subject. I find three items on Powell’s list that do not come through clearly on Weinberger’s: 3. Costs, risks; 5. Exit strategy; 7. International Support. Of these, I submit that exit strategy is the most important.

      I’m glad we found something to agree on here. I was beginning to wonder if we could.



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