Semiotic Implications of Battle: U.S. Concepts of War and Interest in an Uncertain International Order

Oliver Thomas

Once the location of brutal warfare, the Pacific Command (USPACOM) region is at a point of relative peace. On June 23, American and Japanese service members gathered to pay their respects to lives lost at the Battle of Okinawa seventy-two years ago. As the region enjoys relative stability, it is a time to reflect on fundamental questions concerning America’s notion of “national interest,” the structuring the international order, and the changing role of the US military in East Asia. These questions are necessary if we want to avoid more tragedy and bloodshed like that which occurred during the island hopping campaign in World War II.

My interest in these topics has arisen out of a concern that the United States is no longer sure of the political ends it wishes to reach by means of warfare. Continuous oscillation, indecision, and opacity muddle our intentions and affect our ability to sustain a real conception of political order. Without a clear polar adversary – or perhaps due to an over abundance of potential enemies – the U.S. lacks a coherent, pointed grand strategy in Asia.

I argue that, due to misplaced symbolism and anachronistic conflation of adversarial characteristics, the US is falling prey to presumptuous behavior set in place by an international order

Our deployment of such grand strategic myths and metaphors, as Tom Mahnken rightly calls them, comes from America’s past attempts to define its national identity and role within the international space.The intense love for applying grand strategic symbols is apparent in our historical rendering of conflicts and war.

Thus, it is important to first understand the purpose of war in American memory. Post-War American literature provides an interesting lens through which we can better understand shifts in the American idea of war’s function in statecraft and political dominance.

In Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Caine Mutiny (1951), sailors aboard the dilapidated World War II minesweeper brought various life experiences, interests, and expertise that affected their perception of Naval warfare and decision making. The novel examines change and continuity in sailors’ mindsets aboard the ship, and drills down into the bedrock of life at sea.

Omens, signs, and symbols wield influence in the open space of the ocean, especially as cognitive dissonance takes hold. Lt. Thomas Keefer, an intellectual aboard the ship, extrapolates upon the unfortunate state of the destroyer as well as its ironic name. “This ship is an outcast, manned by outcasts, and named for the great outcast of mankind. My destiny is the Caine.

The unmistakable reference to the book of Genesis is telling of America’s love for symbolic resurrection and eschatological conceptions of war. In other words, war, at least in the causal sense, must be waged for a grander purpose. Our soldiers fight not simply for treasure or glory but for a philosophical, political ideal. When we consider war as an extension of teleological development, we assert that war is a crucible through which we are brought to a heightened level of social, philosophical, and economic clarity.

War conceived of in this fashion is messianic in nature: we are pushed along a track toward either a materialistic or mystical conception of perfect (i.e. what is most virtuous, what is good, what we deem as progression). However, to have such an idea of systemic perfection, we must orient ourselves within the international order and judge the extent to which nations can bend political forces to their will.

That being said, we must answer the following questions: To what extent can nations’ bend each other’s’ wills, and how has this question been answered in American grand strategy? Since World War II, American notions of the international space and coinciding strategic doctrine have shifted drastically. The world has experienced bipolarity, US unipolarity, and global multi-polarity over the  past century. Each of these stages altered paradigms of America’s role in the world.

After an Allied victory in 1945 and the eventual capitulation of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States found itself in a position to significantly alter global trends. American leadership, it seemed, had the foresight to read international structural shifts, guiding the United States to the top. Yet strings of political victories without supplemental military triumph pulled apart the symbiotic relationship between American martial dominance and the order manifested in its wake.

In other words, the professions of warfare and policy making developed parochial interests that undermined the clarity of the other. In an age that desires peace more and more, we cannot separate the art of war from the art of policy making.

Carl von Clausewitz defined war as an “act of violence intended to compel opponents to fulfill our will.” The “will” Clausewitz refers to is primarily political in nature and encompasses a degree of objectivity. Simply put, war is the means by which we achieve political ends. Indeed, Clausewitz’s philosophy of war has gained traction among top military leaders and officials within the Trump administration. The Neo-Clausewitzian strain of thought strives to realign and clarify American participation in international affairs.

Since what has been dubbed as America’s “Unipolar Moment ” began, the US now faces a strategic hinderance. This is especially true in the wake of the US’s inability to consolidate necessary resources, information, and logistical connectivity to deal with the increasing variability of war along with war’s myriad structural political implications for preserving peace and order. War along with its political and human components have been lost to a wave of abstractions, signs, symbols, and relativism. This trajectory must change.

America’s fatal conceit lies in an inability to reconsider the realities of war that Clausewitz outlined: War is not an isolated act. The result of war is never absolute, and our knowledge of surrounding circumstances is incomplete and imperfect.

Most importantly, war will never be finished as long as the global order is continued to be contested. In Asia, where lines dividing allies and adversaries remain unclear, abstractions and taking for granted American unipolarity is misguided and dangerous. As Clausewitz wrote, “[t]heory must take into account the human element; it must accord a place to courage, to boldness, even to rashness.”

Why is this claim relevant for security in East Asia?

We must consider the roles of perception, history, and memory as each continues mold national interests and contemporary security situations in the PACOM region. As North Korea continues to develop the sophistication of its ICBM systems, the US must choose whether to utilize absolute force or commit unilateral diplomatic action to defuse their antagonism. As we have seen, decades of inaction, sanctions, and hopeful reliance upon China has only exacerbated tensions.

Though fragile peace frames current trends in the Pacific, we must not forget the possibility of a recurrence of Okinawa, which will prove only to be far more costly in the nuclear age. To deploy useful strategic reflection, American leaders should reject positivism and dogmatic relativism while considering the political order it hopes to uphold or achieve with the use of military force.

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