It’s too bad Stonewall Jackson was cancelled. We sure could use him right now. At least his ideas on war. Jackson was a realist. He understood war and the purpose of war better than anyone in D.C.’s leadership class.
After the tragic killing of three U.S. servicemembers at Tower 22, the United States launched retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian-backed proxies. The strikes targeted facilities in Iraq and Syria. After five days of strikes, a drone killed an Iran-backed militia leader in eastern Baghdad.
As the WSJ reports the strikes were part of an effort to deter Iran. Really? The time for deterrence was yesterday.
How did the U.S. get to this point? The long sequence of events goes back to the Iranian Revolution. The U.S. has always been in a state of conflict with the current regime since the hostage crisis that began under President Jimmy Carter. However, the immediate sequence of events began with the terrorist attack on Israel.
As Israel’s war rages, the broader Middle East conflict escalated with Houthi attacks on U.S. shipping. The military crisis continued to get worse with the drone attack that tragically killed three U.S. servicemembers in Jordan. The Biden administration vowed retaliation after the attack on Tower 22.
Retaliation is understandable. It is also predictable. Furthermore, it will not end the immediate problem at hand. That problem is a political problem and one that apparently will not be solved with anything but force. At least as the diplomatic situation currently stands. For the U.S., the immediate diplomatic problem is the Iranian proxies which are attacking U.S. forces and their allies. The U.S. political will is to operate in the region without being attacked and to support allies like Israel. The Iranian political will is for the U.S. to leave the region and stop offering economic and military support to nations like Israel.
Let’s assume that there is little in the way of compromise between both sides. This is a contest of two wills that are diametrically opposed to one another. There is little appetite for negotiation. Unless one side capitulates and gives ground to the other, we are left with a situation in which the use of force becomes the only means of diplomacy.
Thus, the situation should be clear enough. Deterrence has not worked. Moreover, the problem is not the proxies. The problem is Iran. Retaliating against the proxies does not get at the root of the problem. This brings us to the realism of Stonewall Jackson. Unless there is a diplomatic solution then we have two competing wills, each one trying to impose itself on the other. If the U.S. were serious about imposing its will on Iran, then it must display just that: The will and ability to inflict costly if not irreversible damage on the Iranian regime. In fact, Stonewall Jackson would call this “black flag” or total war.
The concept is simple. It’s the same reason a woman can’t get a little bit pregnant. When military forces is the only means of solving the political situation, then it must achieve capitulation of the enemy. Capitulation typically comes at a high cost and with unfathomable destruction. Stonewall Jackson understood this reality of war. In fact, Jackson mostly opposed war for this reason. He was not a war hawk by any means. War is incredibly destructive. Jackson understood that war is a last resort when all diplomacy breaks down.
The limited responses are just a game of cat and mouse. They are politically a way of saving face. Thus, they accomplish the political goal of managing the current administration’s reputation in an election year. However, it guarantees the continuation of these types of small-scale attacks for the indefinite future. Even the killing of a militia commander does not cause real deterrence. Real deterrence would mean that leaders in Tehran would fear for their lives. But, they don’t.
Since deterrence is not going to happen through retaliatory attacks, the best that the U.S. can achieve is to tactically stall Iran and its proxies. If the United States inflicts enough military damage on Iranian proxies, then they can adversely impact the operational tempo and temporarily check Iran’s influence. But, the strategic situation will not change. Each side simply buys time. Maybe this is really what the U.S. leadership wants. If so, fine. But, if deterrence is truly desired, then let’s turn to Old Blue Light or Tom Fool as Jackson was often known.
So, let’s say that the ghost of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson strolled into the current meeting of the national security council. He is wearing his worn-out cap from his days as a physics professor at VMI. Jackson would advise that we exhaust all diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop their attacks in the region via proxy. He would advise that the U.S. define our interests very clearly in the process. He would then advise that if all diplomatic negotiations break down and Iran will not be brought to heel then the U.S. would be willing to use force and engage in a “black flag” conflict. War imposes costs on all sides even the side that is victorious. Perhaps all sides should use reason and seek peaceful means to reconcile political disagreements. After all, war is a very serious and catastrophic political solution.
Check out the podcast on Stonewall Jackson with S.C. Gwynne.
Get the biography: Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson