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By Major Matt Cavanaugh

I received a few responses to the post I wrote about maximizing our “nano cognitive surplus” (AKA doodling time during long-winded briefings). I proposed answering the question “Why war?” using only six words…here are a couple of the best responses:

*From Major Drew Betson:

“Values, Interests, Strategic Position Threatened? War.”

*Another came via email from First Lieutenant Sarah Grant – it was so good that I asked her permission to post in it’s entirety – which is what follows:


A slight departure from thinking about the causes for which we go to war, to the mental/emotional tipping point that makes war palatable. Hopefully it still fits in the context of the thought experiment you proposed.

In response to the challenge of answering “Why war?” in six words, I propose the following, taken from the cheer originated by my alma mater and recently made famous by fans of the U.S. World Cup team: “I believe that we will win.”

What ultimately enables us psychologically to commit to war is a resolute belief that victory and the achievement of our goals is, somehow, a sure thing. Feasibility of success is a consideration in most “road to war” paradigms, from Just War Theory to the Powell Doctrine, but we don’t go to war when victory is only possible. The risks and costs of war are so severe that we only proceed with violence when we feel certain of eventual success. An absolute sense of self-assuredness is, in that sense, the tipping point between everything-other-than-war and war.

For example (acknowledging the inherently reductive nature of such comparisons), we need only to look at the extreme difference between how we responded to a hostile, ruthless dictator in Iraq in 2003, and how we responded to a hostile, ruthless dictator in neighboring Syria in 2011. Similar conditions for necessity, legitimacy, proportionality, etc. existed in both cases, but what made us hold back in the case of Syria was a nagging feeling, the residue of Iraq, that this was a no-win situation. If you’ll recall, prior to the invasion of Iraq, such doubts did not exist. Senator John McCain, circa 2002: “I believe that the success will be fairly easy. We will win this conflict. We will win it easily.”

Sober people with an average sense of self-preservation don’t start bar fights they don’t think they’ll win. The same is true for nations. When we’re not sure where we stand relative to our opponents, or when we don’t know what victory looks like or how we can achieve it, we don’t risk everything. Even in the face of moral imperatives and seeming necessity, we stick to other levers of national influence until we perceive that the cards are stacked in our favor. To put it in Marine Corps doctrinal speak, we continuously maneuver on the enemy to develop the situation and accumulate advantage. Only at the decisive moment, as determined by keen military judgment, do we commit ourselves fully to achieve a final reckoning.

The nasty truth is that victory is never certain. To quote General Mattis: “No war is ever over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.” At a rational level, we all know that. But decisions of war and peace are not ultimately rational ones. We are willing to fight, die, and kill only for causes in which we deeply believe, to defend values we believe to be right and true. Emotion, not rationality, drives us.

But even deeply rooted belief in the need to win is not enough to make us go to war or keep us at war. Look at Vietnam. We did not pull out of Vietnam because Communism suddenly started to seem less threatening; we withdrew because we lost faith in our ability to achieve victory, however defined.

We become willing to commit to war when our core values and way of life are endangered and we have exhausted all other means of eliminating the threat. In the end, though, what carries us across that line from peace to war is a familiar drumbeat: “I believe that we will win.”

Sarah E. Grant

1stLt     USMC

USNA ’11