A HISTORY OF MODERN WARS OF ATTRITION, By Carter Malkasian, Praeger, $ 64.95
Military philosophers have always emphasized the necessity of conducting lightning mobile campaigns for winning the war. This is roughly categorized as the philosophy of manoeuvre warfare. American theorists think static warfare caused the failure in Vietnam. In contrast, speed and surprise gave the US its victory in Iraq.
However, Carter Malkasian raises a voice of dissent against such an overarching interpretation. He argues that the war of attrition is no less significant and needs to be carried out in certain situations.
Von Clausewitz, the father of manoeuvre warfare had once argued about the necessity of concentrating all possible forces to hit the schwerpunkt (centre of gravity) of the enemy. It could only be possible through a pocket battle. While manoeuvre war aims for total victory over opponents, the war of attrition promises a gradual and piecemeal process of destroying the enemy’s capability. This is because the objective of the war of attrition, says Malkasian, is to prevent a rapid decision in the field of battle.
Malkasian writes that in the present nuclear age, attritional strategy is more useful. This is because der totale krieg or total war aimed at complete destruction of the enemy state could not be followed. No nation could pursue it. For a nation threatened with destruction, would push the nuclear button. The only type of war possible was the limited war.
Unlike total war, limited war does not demand total mobilization of society and economy because such war had limited objectives. Border skirmishes of the kind that occurred in Korea in 1953 is an example of such warfare. In the nuclear era, all nations had to guard against rapid escalation of violence. Conflagrations had to be slow and gradual in order to allow diplomats and third parties to intervene for de-escalation of tension. Hence, conduct of limited wars and post-war survival demanded the application of attritional theory with its emphasis on wearing down the enemy gradually.
Though Malkasian deals with the genesis of the war of attrition from 1900 onwards, it would have been useful to trace its origin backward in time. After all, the cardinal point of the war of attrition is to avoid decisive battles. And this point could be traced back to both Sun Tzu and Kautilya. Again, scholars like Geoffrey Parker and V.D. Hanson write that total war, with its emphasis on rapid campaigning and decisive battles, have been integral to European military culture. Further, the philosophy of decisive battles, aiming at the total annihilation of the enemy gave the Western military superiority over the non-Western armies from the Hellenic age onwards. So, the question remains if the war of attrition has borrowed from the non-European military cultures'
Though Malkasian does not posit his attritional strategy within a wider historical matrix, it is difficult to find fault with his theory. He has done sound archival research. He deserves praise for showing that the future lies with the war of attrition with its minimalist goals rather than the manoeuvre theory’s wider goals which give more space for negotiations. Hence the former seems to be the mode for future warfare.