Drive By Shootings and Moral Influence

May 16, 1999

Comment: #274

Discussion Thread:  #s 252


[1] William Drozdiak and Dana Priest, "NATO's Cautious Air Strategy Comes Under Fire," Washington Post, May 16, 1999, Page A26.

[2] J. Bryan Hehir, "A LOOK AT . . . What Makes a War Just? NATO's Laudable Goals And Questionable Means," Washington Post (Outlook), May 16, 1999; Page B03.

[3] OWEN HARRIES, "First Kosovo. Then Russia. Now China," New York Times (Op-Ed), May 16, 1999, page 17.

[4] DOYLE MCMANUS, TYLER MARSHALL, 'Collateral Damage' Isn't Limited to the Battlefield: Yugoslavia: U.S. diplomacy and military prestige have both taken direct hits during the fight for Kosovo, LA Times Staff, May 16, 1999.


By stumbling into an escalating state of war with Serbia, without a clear sense of the stakes and goals, the United States (and NATO) governments violated the strategic maxim of preparing their populations so that they will willingly seek out and bear the sacrifices that are needed to overcome adversity and achieve victory.

The result is an elemental weakness that can be seen in NATO's refusal to commit lives, blood, and treasure to a ground offensive, as well as the Army's reluctance to release Apache helicopters for combat operations inside Kosovo because of the air defense threat (CNN, May 16, 1999).

Be under no illusions, this self-inflicted strategic wound has opened a dangerous vulnerability that is being exploited by the wily Slobo. It needs to be cauterized as quickly as possible, but recent events the mounting refugee crisis (including the possibility of a summer health crisis as well as the need to start building winter quarters), an ineffective but escalating air campaign, the refusal to consider a ground offensive, and the continued abdication of Constitutional duties by U.S. national leaders combine to suggest it is growing deeper and wider and may be approaching crisis proportions.


A decision to go to war has long been recognized as the most important decision any nation can make. Indeed, it was the subject of the first chapter of the first book ever written on the conduct of war, when in 450 BC, Sun Tzu opened his "The Art of War," with an brief devoted to eliminating the risk of stumbling into a war.

Chapter 1 of "the Art of War" sets out a rational framework for making the decision to go war. Today, in the antiseptic jargon of the Versailles on the Potomac, we would call this 'methodology' [ugh!] a Strategic Net Assessment [ugh!], or a systematic comparison of the our strengths and weaknesses to those of our adversary. Sun Tzu's first two sentences state bluntly why an informed Strategic Net Assessment is absolutely essential to success in any conflict: "War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied."

Sun Tzu laid out a framework of five comparative factors [moral influence, weather, terrain, command (leadership abilities), doctrine (organization and control)] in terms of seven related questions to compare the strengths and weaknesses of each adversary. He introduced each of these five factors IN ORDER OF ITS IMPORTANCE.

The first and most important of the comparative factors is what Sun Tzu called "Moral Influence," by which he meant "that which causes the people to be in harmony with their leaders, so that they will accompany them in life unto death without fear of mortal peril. [Samuel B Griffith's translation]." Zhang Yu, one of Sun Tzu's commentators, elaborated on the importance of moral influence by saying "If the people are treated with benevolence, faithfulness, and justice, then they will be of one mind, and they will be glad to serve [Thomas Cleary's translation].

Sun Tzu's aim was to understand which adversary had the stronger political cohesion or put another way which had the stronger organized will, the stronger sense of solidarity, righteousness, and moral authority that gives the nation in arms the unified staying power it needs to overcome the costs and sacrifices of hard combat. Done correctly, this analysis gives the decision maker an idea of which side has the stronger will to fight, which is, of course, the most important question one must answer.

Now if one compares the moral influence of the brutish Serbian ethnic cleansing strategy the noble human rights-based strategy of the democratic NATO countries, it is tempting to quickly conclude that NATO has a huge advantage.

But there was more to Sun Tzu's net assessment than a simple-minded comparison of good guys to bad guys or the righteousness of each adversary's cause. A close reading of his idea of 'harmony' suggests he was deeply concerned about the roots of a nation's moral authority and how these roots are nurtured by the ideals and standards of behavior one's own government professes to practice and is expected to uphold.


Our leaders chose to ignore Sun Tzu's rationality and relied instead on short-sighted expediencies to maneuver the United States into the de facto state of war with Serbia.

At the heart of these expediencies was the idea that a quick, bloodless application of the post-Somali, risk-averse strategy of Drive By Shootings with cruise missiles and precision guided bombs would compel Slobodan Milosevic to accept the Rambouillet Accords, which he viewed, with some justification, as an ultimatum that infringed on Serbia's national sovereignty. [Interested readers might compare the effect of the Rambouillet ultimatum on Serbia authorities to the effect of the 1914 ultimatum which Austria issued to Serbia after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.] Sometimes known as the theory of 'Immaculate Coercion,' the 'drive-by-shootings' had been ineffectual in the Sudan, Afghanistan, Bosnia (where the Croatian ground offensive set the stage for the quasi-successful Dayton Accords), and Iraq. These experiences, however, did not prevent the strategy from being applied on a larger scale in a moral crusade to protect Albanians from ethnic cleansing by Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo. Fifty-three days and over 790,000 ethnically cleansed (plus another 400,000 internally displaced) Albanians later, we are bombing Serbia with an ever increasing intensity in the hope that Milosevic will cave in to NATO's demands. Kosovo is now a smoldering ruin, but there have been no body bags for NATO governments to send home the mothers of our warriors. [New readers should review Comment #252 to see how our air strategy played into Milosevic's hands.]

After an ethnic cleansing blitz in the first three weeks, the Serbo-NATO war has degenerated into a time-consuming, grinding, static battle of attrition, with Serbia digging in and trying to defend its gains, and NATO trying to roll them back by destroying the Serbian will to resist. In such circumstances, time usually favors the defender, and in this case, the draining effects of mounting refugee crisis and NATO's need to set up winter quarters for the refugees are working to the Serb's advantage.

The central strategic question is now whether NATO has the collective moral strength to hang in long enough for the cumulative damage inflicted on Serbia to compel it to accept NATO's demands.

Thus, NATO has maneuvered itself into a contest of moral strength, at the very time its strength rests on a shaky foundation of the compromised principles NATO used to get into the war. Left uncorrected, the cumulative effect of at least four compromises could introduce mismatches that fatally sap NATO's resolve, should the increasing cost of this war begin to hurt.

First, the aim of the war was to protect Albanians by bombing Milosevic into a policy reversal. But, as William Drozdiak and Dana Priest reported in today's Washington Post, the United States deliberately chose to compromise effectiveness by adopting a military strategy that, in effect, put Albanian civilians at greater risk in order to protect our combat pilots. Drozdiak and Priest describe how the computer war games affected the choice of high altitude tactics to reduce aircraft losses at the cost of reduced effectiveness and increased the probability of inadvertently killing civilians.

Second, this war is about human rights as well as human life and national interests, so it should be pursued ethically, as well as effectively, because all humans, including Serbs, have rights. But, as J. Bryan Hehir, a Catholic priest and professor at Harvard Divinity School and a scholar of St. Augustine's theory of 'Just War,' argues in Reference #2, the escalating targeting policy increasingly puts the lives and rights of innocent Serbian civilians at risk. Hehir bases his critique on three Augustinian principles: (1) noncombatant immunity, (2) proportionality and (3) the possibility of success. He says a just or morally legitimate war cannot involve the murder of civilians, cannot destroy a society in order to save it, and cannot be pursued through feckless strategies without direction or purpose. But NATO's bombing strategy is dangerously close to failure on ethical as well as effectiveness grounds. He concludes "there is a need to revise this strategy, lest a policy undertaken to fulfill human goals end in an ethical and strategic morass."

Third, not only has NATO's moral crusade been compromised by fears for the safety of our warriors and expediencies undermining the ethical principles of a 'Just War,' Owen Harries in Reference #3 and Doyle McManus and Tyler Marshall in Reference #4 show that this bombing strategy has been ineffective strategically and is now damaging the larger grand strategic interests of the United States, especially the long-term of credibility of the United States and NATO and our relations with Russia and China. Left uncorrected, sooner or later, the accumulating damage to larger grand strategic interests will take precedence over the successful prosecution of the war.

Fourth, although the United States is pursuing a moral crusade to protect Albanians, the President and Congress have compromised their moral commitment to protect the Constitution (and perhaps the principle of the rule of law). An entangling defensive alliance (i.e., NATO) has been used to by-pass the Constitution and place the United States is in a de facto state of undeclared offensive war with Serbia. But despite the fact that U.S. forces have been bombing Serbia for 53 days, the President and Congress have not fulfilled their Constitutional duty to clarify the question of whether or not the United States IS in a state of war. Nor have they explained how the NATO treaty, which is constituted legally as a defensive alliance with protocols stating that military action is subject to each member country's formal procedures for declaring war, can be used as an instrumentality to justify an offensive intervention in a civil war being fought in a country that poses no threat to any member of NATO. Nor have the President and Congress explained how offensive NATO action can be deemed legal under the terms of Article 42 of the United Nations Charter, when the UN Security Council has not even been asked to authorize any offensive action.


The late American strategist Colonel John Boyd showed why the necessarily destructive effects of a military strategy should feed and be consistent with a constructive grand strategy by (1) pumping up our resolve and increasing our solidarity, (2) draining away our adversary's resolve and weakening his internal cohesion, (3) reinforcing our allies' commitments to our cause and making them empathetic to our success, and (4) attracting the uncommitted to our cause or making them empathetic to our success.

The four compromises outlined above pose a grave strategic danger to our effort precisely because they undermine each of these grand strategic criteria. The roots of this danger lie at home, fertilized by a collective national leadership that continues to ignore the oldest and most important question at issue in the conduct of any war, i.e., the question of moral influence that Sun Tzu emphasized in the first part of Chapter 1 of the first book ever written about the conduct of war. Left uncorrected, this gaping vulnerability is setting the stage for a enervating web of contradictions between what the government says its policy is, what its policy really is, and the world our government is struggling to deal with.

Get ready to watch the Versailles blame game, because unless things change quickly, it will take a great deal of good luck to emerge from this conundrum with our national honor intact. But then, as Bismark said, God protects drunks and the United States.

Chuck Spinney

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