Lessons Unlearned: War, Occupation, and Governance

War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory
Nadia Schadlow (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2017)

Wars begin with political motives and end with political arrangements. Following the wisdom of Carl von Clausewitz, Nadia Schadlow begins War and the Art of Governance by observing that “Success in war depends on the consolidation of political order, which requires control over territory and the hard work of building local governmental institutions.” Countering the contemporary view, Schadlow tells us that this has not been principally an interagency effort but an important mission for the United States Army. In her accounting, in war after war, the United States Army and its partners have been faced not only with stability operations but also the hard task of governance “to shape the political outcome of the war.” 

Ironically, our Armed Forces and national leadership have often been in denial of the necessity to prepare for or facilitate post-conflict governance. For one, Americans do not like to see soldiers in domestic or foreign governance activities. Soldiers and civilians have never mixed well in our own streets. Second, Americans are loath to govern foreigners and are uncomfortable with the colonial experience. Third, there is a misplaced sense that civilians should lead in governance issues. There may arguably be more expertise in civilian agencies, but their capacity is inadequate, particularly in the near aftermath of battle. In recent cases, our attempts to “surge” civilian strength in Afghanistan and Iraq in the midst of fighting have been highly problematic and largely unsuccessful. Finally, Schadlow sees the US Army’s preoccupation with winning battles and campaigns as opposed to wars themselves as another dimension of the problem. Focused on tactics and the art of operations, the Army in particular has neglected the art of governance and its lesser cousin, stability operations. Post-conflict plans and goals, with one significant set of exceptions, have been driven by ad hoc decisions, often produced on the fly by local commanders. Predictably, the results have been problematic and often unsatisfactory.

The bulk of Schadlow’s instructive volume explores how Army units have dealt with the aftermath of combat in “Mexico, the American South, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Germany’s Rhineland.” Other chapters focus on the World War II experience and beyond, with the final chapter entitled “Lessons Ignored” in Afghanistan and Iraq. The most successful cases of the art of post-war governance came in Italy, Germany, South Korea, and Japan. Two years before World War II ended, the Army began to graduate military government specialists from the School of Government in Charlottesville, Virginia and other university campuses to assist commanders in efforts to organize and administer occupied territories.

Schadlow observes that the Army’s approach to post-conflict governance had been drawn from the lessons learned from World War I and study during the interwar period. The Army had concluded that it is a strategic and military imperative to control local governance in the wake of war; interagency expertise is essential; the need to transfer authority to civilian control is urgent; and, that it had to separate military government from policing within the Army. Military government activities were successful in World War II occupation efforts and “demonstrated that in cases of conventional war such operations were integral parts of strategic victory.” Sadly, despite these somewhat unprecedented successes by the victorious occupation forces, military governance and civil affairs were never integrated into the Army’s postwar “core competency,” and its Civil Affairs units were largely relegated to the Army Reserve.

While neither contingency called for the type of military government used at the end of World War II, Schadlow is rightly critical of our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Both invasions revealed the consistent problem with the American way of war:  the difficulty of integrating combat operations with the operational challenges of consolidating military gains to accomplish political goals.” According to Schadlow, these conflicts revealed “‘the missing middle’—the gap between combat operations and the steps required to achieve stability, forge a sustainable outcome, and permit the withdrawal of US military forces” What followed was poor planning and, too often, worse execution.

Sadly, these failures provoked a strong disinclination toward committing US forces to occupation or nation building activities that are often essential parts of the formula to succeed in war and win the peace. Indeed, we learned the wrong lesson. In Libya, the United States, NATO, and other coalition forces conducted a military operation to help remove the regime but did nothing to stabilize or rebuild even essential infrastructure. The coalition’s successful insurgency support operation gave way to chaos on the ground. Like a bad golf swing, it failed for the lack of follow through. 

Schadlow’s conclusions represent important guidelines for every potential use of force in our future. First, “if we are to achieve our strategic objectives in a conflict, policymakers must accept that the political dimension is indispensable across the full spectrum of war.” Second, “…unity of command is essential to operational and strategic success in war.” Third, the Army must run governance operations in war. Fourth, “kinetic means alone” will never be enough. Fifth, the Army needs “standing capabilities and organizations” to do the job.

Schadlow sees a clouded future. While the Army and joint force doctrine have caught up to reality, the Armed Forces as a whole continue to give stability and governance operations a cold shoulder. She quotes the 2015 Strategic Guidance that “US forces would no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” Once again, our leaders have delinked combat operations from their strategic objectives.

Looking ahead, Schadlow’s pessimism seems warranted. While US and coalition forces are oriented toward ousting ISIS from Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, there appears to be no plan to consolidate the gains made on the battlefield. The question of ISIS’s defeat in these two regions is not about if; it is about when.  The key question for the United States and its coalition partners is what will follow. For the US to walk away after Mosul and Raqqa fall and leave the future to the whims of fate, as we did in Libya, suggests that we have failed to learn the lesson of the past that Schadlow has so artfully revealed: “Governance operations are central to strategic success in war.”


Joseph J. Collins is the Director of NDU’s Center for Complex Operation. From 2001-04, he served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations. 

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