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Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure

Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure ed. Leo J. Blanken, Hy Rothstein, and Jason J. Lepore. Georgetown University Press, 2015.

Assessing War makes a valuable contribution to the literature on wartime assessment through the theory, cases studies, and alternative frameworks found within. To understand the book, the definition of “wartime assessment” and the broad analytical framework for comprehending wartime assessment and its role in strategy formulation are required. The editors define wartime assessment as “the act of gathering information to update one’s belief about a war” (p. xi). The purpose of wartime assessment is to answer the question: “Are we winning?” (p. xi). To answer the question, the “theory of victory” is offered as an analytical framework. The theory of victory is the concept for how to achieve national objectives. Using a positivist approach to science, the theory produces hypotheses that can be tested through experimentation. If the evidence resulting from the experimentation, evaluated through assessment measures, supports the hypothesis, the theory of victory is also supported. If the evidence fails to support the hypothesis, the theory is insufficient and must be changed to better reflect reality. Wartime assessments are used to evaluate empirical evidence gathered from military action. If assessments fail to support the hypothesis that specific military action would produce desired effects, and therefore victory, then the theory of victory must be changed and tested through additional military action. The strategy is the theory of victory. The role of wartime assessment is to determine if the current strategy is effective. While it is an academic framework for what is often the most dramatic, violent, and consequential experience for the participants, conceiving of strategy and its adjoining wartime assessment as a scientific experiment may allow for a mindset for innovation and adaptation required to make the changes necessary to win at the lowest cost possible. In the broadest sense, Assessing War is designed to better educate readers on the importance of wartime assessment to designing superior strategies in a variety of contexts.

The editors set out to accomplish three goals: (1) “generate recommendations to assist in establishing future policy, strategy, and doctrine”; (2) “compile a rich set of in-depth historical accounts of a crucial, yet neglected, aspect of military history”; and (3) “refresh our current understandings of the assessment problem in an academic sense by refining our general models in light of the evolving wartime environments we observe today and are likely to see in the future” (p. ix). The three goals serve as the criteria for this assessment of the book’s success and failure.

The first goal is primarily achieved in the concluding chapter through the consolidation and generalization of the lessons learned in the individual chapters. The conclusion focuses on the challenges to effective wartime assessment, challenges that collectively highlight the necessity for commanders, strategists, and assessment teams to acknowledge the profound intellectual challenge of constructing realistic, unbiased assessment measures that will provide data and information necessary to answer the question “are we winning?” The second goal is clearly satisfied through the presentation of historical and contemporary case studies that illustrate instances of success and failure in wartime assessment. The third goal has two parts: to better understand the problems associated with wartime assessment and to refine models for wartime assessment. The first part of this third goal is essentially a restatement of the first goal and is satisfied through the book in its entirety and consolidated in the conclusion. The second part is satisfied in the theory chapters and some of the contemporary context-specific models presented in the last section of the book.

Despite achieving its stated goals, the book has weaknesses. The quality of the individual chapters varies greatly throughout the volume. At least one chapter makes claims with only thin evidential support, making it difficult to understand the precise assessments made and the impact of those assessments on strategy. Another addresses how conflicting political goals can detract from the truthful communication of wartime assessment without actually providing information on the actual assessments made and their impact, or lack of impact, on strategy. Incoherence manifests itself in two ways. First, the introduction and conclusion are inconsistent. The introduction identifies three major themes from the case studies. One might expect those themes to be used as a construct within the conclusion for providing larger lessons the reader should draw from the book, but this is not the case. Instead, the conclusion provides a new framework for drawing lessons from the chapters by focusing on challenges to wartime assessment. Both the introduction and conclusion are effective on their own but lack clear connections to each other in presenting analysis. Second, each chapter follows its own format, which hinders cross-case comparison. As stand-alone analysis, each chapter servers a useful purpose with varying degrees of effectiveness. However, it is difficult for the reader to compare cases from chapter to chapter, a comparison that would enhance comprehension of the challenges inherent in wartime assessment.

Some exceptional chapters demonstrate a clear connection between strategy, military action, and assessments, which serve as gems. Analyses of particular merit are those from Michael Richardson; Brian McAllister Linn; William C. Hix and Kalev I. Sepp; and Alejandro S. Hernandez, Julian Quellet, and Christopher J. Nannini. Richardson demonstrates the clear congruence and connections between the strategy, operations, tactics, and assessments that led the US cavalry to success in its campaign against the Plains Indians in the 1860s. Linn effectively highlights how senior leader biases can influence wartime assessments by exploring the various leaders involved in the US-Philippine War. Hix and Sepp lay bare Gen George W. Casey Jr.’s process for developing and refining wartime assessment processes as the commander of Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF-I) and clearly demonstrate how assessment results drove important changes to MNF-I strategy during 2004–5. Hernandez, Quellet, and Nannini provide a framework for integrating assessment plans and methodologies into the planning processes at the strategic and operational levels of war. In addition to the case studies, all three theory chapters are particularly effective in presenting models for structuring wartime assessments. No one model is sufficient on its own, but having several to draw from allows the strategist and assessments planner to construct assessment methods appropriate for evaluating strategy and operations for the specific context, or character of war, the contemporary challenge presents.

To improve future editions, which this reviewer encourages because of the criticality of effective wartime assessment to developing dominant strategies, perhaps two changes are in order. First, to improve the consistency in quality of chapters, the editors could provide each case study author with a framework for presenting the case. If all chapters followed a similar structure, cross-case comparisons will be more effective for the student of wartime assessment. As one of several options available, each chapter could be constructed to include the historical background, strategy pursued, the specific measures or data collected for assessment, the resulting assessment(s), the change in strategy due to the assessment (if any), and the effectiveness of the strategy change. Second, rather than organizing the book in chronological order, as if the book were solely an historical account, the editors might consider organizing the chapters along the levels of war. Five current chapters focus on the strategic level of war, five on the strategic-operational bridge between levels, four on the operational level of war, and one that crosses the operational-tactical bridge. The chronological organization forces the reader to range randomly among the levels of war. Organizing along the levels of war will make comparisons of strategic wartime assessment easier for the reader and better highlight the successes, failures, and the reasons for each. The same is true of wartime assessment at the operational level. Implementing these suggestions will provide more structure to the analysis while retaining individual author freedom to analyze their case and develop conclusions.

Designing effective and meaningful wartime assessments is a difficult and uncertain enterprise. In the concluding chapter, Anthony Cordesman and Hy Rothstein provide an exceptional and concise explanation of the “theory of victory” concept and the importance of wartime assessment in the process of testing the theory of victory and its accompanying hypotheses. Ineffective assessments produce ineffective tests of the theory—and thereby inferior strategy. Inferior strategy typically leads to defeat; superior strategy typically leads to victory. Assessing War is an important addition to the literature on a critical element of strategy. National political leaders, defense and interagency senior executives, operational military leaders, and future military leaders will be well served to read Assessing War as a means of expanding their comprehension of strategy as the connection between political objectives and specific tactical actions and the risks and pitfalls that challenge assessment planners in their search for effective means of measuring success and failure.

Lt Col Michael Martindale, USAF (PhD)

Associate Director, Institute for National Security Studies

United States Air Force Academy

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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