War is the ultimate political sanction, used to achieve aims that peaceful means will not produce and it is reasonable to accept the truism that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”[i]. The objectives of war are often deliberately obscure and through the duration of the conflict the aims may change.
The genuine war aims of belligerents in any conflict can be open to almost endless speculation which fuels an extensive publishing industry. At various times there has been speculation that Churchill wanted the second world war to start so that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia could destroy each other which doubtless contains a large amount of truth and that Roosevelt wanted Japan to attack in order to have unlimited American hegemony across the Pacific which is certainly false. The Allies made their objectives in World War ll explicit: total victory and destruction of the Nazi state without condition even though this was done well after hostilities began.
Even in the far murkier conflict of the Cold War, the aims of both sides were clear: The Soviets wanted nothing short of adoption of their state communist model and the West wanted the triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism.
There is a body of writing which aims to establish that America won the Vietnam War. Similarly there are claims that America and the UN actually lost the Korean War. Both are demonstrably false since South Vietnam fell to the Communist north and South Korea did not. The victors in these wars were not defined by battles won and numbers of enemy killed, but by whose political aims triumphed. War is about the achievement of aims. Like all human endeavor it is about getting things done. For this reason there is no real focus in these pages on individual actions, battles or even campaigns since war is not the result of any points system. America lost most of the battles of the War of Independence, and won the war, it won virtually every engagement in Vietnam but lost.
The rebellious colonists’ aim in the War of Independence was to remove Great Britain from having any say in the running of their political affairs. The aim in that war of the French government of Louis XVl was to inflict as much pain and cost on their British nemesis as possible, largely in revenge for their humiliation in the global conflict which was known as the French and Indian War in the American theater and elsewhere are the Seven Years War. In these aims they were both successful, although the cost to France would soon lead to national bankruptcy and savage revolution.
The American colonists had no desire to invade Britain, overthrow the King and create a pan-Atlantic republic. Republicanism was an American objective and probably a global ideal, but it was not necessarily for export and was certainly no constraint to having an absolute monarch such as Louis as a paymaster and military ally. Once the British government recognized that the war was unwinnable and brought their troops home, no American voices were raised demanding that a vengeful US navy should follow the British troopships to Portsmouth. Having achieved their war aims, the citizens of the new republic turned their attention to the healthier pursuits of making money and political wrangling.
If these “big wars”, wars of conquest and survival have any benefit it is the clarity of their aims, but what of the situations where national or political continuation is not immediately at stake? What if there is no compelling obligation which forces a nation to come to the defense of an ally such the one which forced France and Britain to declare war on Hitler’s Germany in an attempt to save Poland from invasion in 1939?
The 18th century “War of Jenkins’s Ear” between Britain and Spain is a good case in point. It had little to do with the wound suffered by a British naval officer during an inspection by a Spanish coast guard ship. No one then or since gave Capt Jenkin’s pickled ear much of a thought but the desire to break the Spanish Empire in the Americas had strong supporters in the British House of Commons. Similarly, Vietnam could have been called the “War of USS Turner Joy” after one of the two American ships allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese forces 1964, but Vietnam was not about the Tonkin Bay Incident. President Johnston needed a reason to enter the war in defense of South Vietnam. The reasons produced may have been both shallow and false, but their real aims were serious and clearly understood, both by themselves and their enemies.
Were America’s 1812 war aims those stated by Madison or were they a sham for murkier objectives? Why did America attack?
[i] On War, von Clausewitz, 1832