The American Way of War: The Four Constraints

The Four Constraints

In Asymmetric Warfare, author Roger W. Barnett introduces the four constraints on the ability for the United States to use military force. Thus, the focus of this essay is to examine the four constraints (operational, organizational, legal, and moral constraints) and discuss how they constrain American war fighters in how they wage war in the modern battlefield.

Firstly, operational constraints derive from “the American way of warfare”, which apply to which targets might be taken under attack, how, and when. Operational constraints are a matter of political choice. Operational constraints have three sources: those which are strategically defensive; the relationship of military means to ways, ends, and risks; and lastly, reservations in the use of force. Our defensive strategic posturing, which seeks only to defend US territorial integrity of itself and its allies, may constrain the US in strategic decisions such as utilization of the first strike and therefore, its willingness to absorb the first blow before considering retaliatory responses. The second source relates to the means, ways, ends and risks of waging warfare which has much to do with our capabilities and willingness to utilize military means. For example, the need for military capabilities, material supply, and political support are very real constraints for strategists in conducting war operations, such as scarcity of air assets when fighting a well-defended insurgent hideout. Lastly, our reservation in the use of military force is another factor which relates to the intensity and proportionality of utilizing our armory, which defines how we react to force.  Thus, we utilize super precise smart missiles to avoid collateral damage rather than carpet bomb a whole city block to kill one terrorist with an AK-47.

The second constraint is the organizational constraint. This constraint derives from the way the US government is organized and how it chooses to conduct its military operations. The separation of powers, federalism, and interactions between the federal and state governments, both the executive and legislative branches, and the structure of our four military branches can often have a debilitating effect on our ability to fight . For example, imagine the bureaucratic structure of the modern chain of command, which limits the autonomy and speed of tactical operations. Furthermore, our democratic form of government relies on public support, which is sensitive to casualties and political propaganda (or press mismanagement), especially the 24-hour news cycle. “We won every battle in Vietnam, but we lost the war at home,” is a very good reminder of this limitation. Lastly, another organizational constraint is when an ally conducts actions or policies within their national interest that may collude with ours. For example, during the occupation of Iraq, Turkey was sensitive of US support of the Kurds and limited their involvement with the coalition.

Thirdly, a legal constraint is created from varying types of legal obstacles such as domestic laws and legal procedures; and broader international treaties such as protocols, conventions, legal opinions of international courts and tribunals, and other legal documents in which the US is a signatory. Barnett makes a point that the US creates its Rules of Engagement (ROE) based on the Just War Theory. The Just War Theory is divided into two sub-categories: Jus ad Bellum (justice of the war) and Jus in Bello (justice in war), which are traditionally based on concepts of chivalry, laws of warfare, and ideals of defensive warfare. The concept of Jus in Bellum is applied before war and its rationale is to slow or deter mobilization of state’s military for combat. There are six in number and they include a just cause, last resort, proportionality, likelihood of success, right intentions, and legitimate authority. Jus in Bello, relates to how warfare is waged and prescribes how soldiers must fight with justice in the battlefield, the two of which are proportionality and discrimination. The latter concepts, in terms of importance to asymmetrical warfare are critical. Proportionality relates to what degree an arm response can retaliate (small arms v. small arms are okay, whilst MOAB v. small arms are not okay, for example) and discrimination relates on how soldiers must discern enemy combatants from non-enemy combatants in war and hopefully avoid spilling the blood of the innocent. International treaties such as the Geneva Convention codify these concepts. A key criticism of the JWT is its obsolescence when conventional forces fight a counter insurgency mission in where enemy combatants exploit Jus in Bello protections of non-combatants and abuse of churches, hospitals, and neighborhoods for setting up ambushes and raids.

Lastly, moral constraints are directly related to the American moral presumption against the use of force – which is related to our Judeo-Christian heritage or Enlightenment values. Ingrained into our DNA is a loathing to settle disputes through violence, thus in order for us to pursue war, the threat must be directly related to the survival of the United States or they must be characterized as evil incarnate such as Fascism in WWII, Communism in the Cold War, and Terrorism during the Global War on Terror. Similar to ends, ways, and means, moral constraints also constrain what doctrines, tactics, or armaments we choose to utilize in the battle space. Thus, the US has wisely chosen to disregard militant modes of warfare such as assassination, genocide, utilizing mine-fields, naval banditry, and state-sponsored terrorism which have been flexible and quite profitable to other states such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China. To sum up this section, we conceive ourselves as the “good guys, we fight fair, and we avoid dirty fighting.”

In conclusion, I have explained Barnett’s four constraints to American usage of military force. The four constraints are operational, organizational, legal, and moral and they play an important part in how America fights its wars. Though they often put us at an unfair advantage against adversaries, they are vital to how we express our culture, democracy, and sense of justice in the context of why we fight. These constraints remind us that “war is an extension of politics by other means” and in a strategic sense, guns must be laid down when the politics call for to utilization other tools. We’re America and we hold ourselves to a higher standard.