Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure

Assessing War

The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure

Edited by Leo Blanken, Hy Rothstein, and Jason J. Lepore

Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC, 2015, 370 pages

Book Review published on: March 10, 2017

“So, how’re we doing?” For those of us who either ask this question or have to answer it, Assessing War is a useful anthology of essays about the difficulties senior leaders and analysts face in judging operational and strategic progress when executing military plans. Unlike other recent related works—such as Gregory A. Daddis’s No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War and Ben Connable’s Embracing the Fog of War: Assessment and Metrics in Counterinsurgency—this compilation covers a wide swath of mostly American military history and various types of wars. Even better, it includes chapters on the theory of assessment and hypothesizes on newer aspects of conflict, such as the principle of proportionality when inflicting organized violence, concepts of justice/legitimacy in the war of ideas, issues in cyber operations, and nation-building in the midst of war.

The first three chapters on assessment theory are short enough to be interesting yet long enough to help in considering the historical cases that follow. Those range from the French and Indian War (1754-1763) to twenty-first century U.S. foreign interventions during the so-called Global War on Terror. Most striking are the chapters analyzing systemic causes leading to U.S. tendencies for strategic self-deception in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The chapters on the two world wars cover a few small retrospective case studies, but these are arguably too general and brief to be as insightful; they seemed the least satisfying. Mark Stout’s fascinating chapter on how al-Qaida assesses its prosecution of global jihad illustrates the view from the other side, with its unwavering fixation on awakening the people to the call of jihad despite high losses and significant setbacks.

Of the remaining substantive chapters on contemporary assessment concerns, the chapters on cyber and economics in nation-building seem out of place. They focus on generalized strategic environment modeling methods but with the by now expected caveats and usual observations about the unique features of these perspectives. On the other hand, the chapter on assessing ideological conflicts well complemented the one on proportionality and justice considerations.

Assessing War is implicitly a plea for widely based strategic judgments; its concluding chapter finishes with the observation, “The history of assessment shows that war can far too easily become a liar’s contest and an exercise in the worst kind of public relations.” At least in democracies such as the United States, the business of assessing progress in war properly extends beyond the military and government to involve a responsible national society and its institutions as a whole. The book is not only an excellent text on strategy, strategic intelligence, and organizational parochialism bias, but is a good foundation for discussion on civil-military relations. In his foreword to the book, Gen. George Casey recommends Assessing War not only to service staff and war colleges, but also to senior civilian policy makers supervising the military. It additionally deserves attention and serious study from our nation’s nongovernmental institutions, as well as society as a whole.

Book Review written by: Col. Eric M. Walters, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired, Fort Lee, Virginia