Articles

The step-by-step guide to how the US goes to war (and how it's changed)

Going to war is never an easy choice, but the U.S. has a step-by-step guide that helps military and civilian leaders make that decision.


The sting of the Vietnam War affected America and its culture for a very long time. Not that we lost in Vietnam but it sure didn't feel like a win, either. It was so devastating to the American psyche the public felt the stigma of the perceived loss until the success of Operation Desert Storm, almost two decades later.

The U.S. military's failure to rescue the hostages in Iran only added to the problem — making American leaders significantly less cavalier about sending ground troops into combat. This continued even under President Ronald Reagan, whose campaign rhetoric in 1980 made voters fearful he might start World War III (but not fearful enough to keep him out of office).

Reagan's Head Start policy was much different from other his predecessors. (photo via Ronald Reagan Library)

Contrary to what some may have thought, Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger — a veteran of the Pacific War in World War II — was a careful student of the lessons of Vietnam and was wary about civilian leaders with no military experience using troops as a policy tool. He devised his own doctrine to serve as a guide for policy makers who want to send the U.S. to war:

  1. The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the United States or its allies are involved.
  2. U.S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed.
  3. U.S. combat troops should be committed only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives.
  4. The relationship between the objectives and the size and composition of the forces committed should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.
  5. U.S. troops should not be committed to battle without a "reasonable assurance" of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress.
  6. The commitment of U.S. troops should be considered only as a last resort.

Weinberger specifically advised Reagan not to send Marines to Beirut in 1983 and after the barracks bombing in October, successfully lobbied against a massive retaliation against Iran. According to Weinberger:

"You have to have a mission, you have to know what you want to do; you have to use force as a last resort after everything else has failed; that when you use it, you have to use it at overwhelming strength, and win your objective and get out."

In 1983, Maj. Gen. Colin Powell was one of Weinberger's assistants. In 1991, though Reagan had been succeeded by President George H.W. Bush, Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Though in this role, he did not have operational command, he was the chief military advisor to the President and his Cabinet.

Fun Fact: Colin Powell and Dick Cheney have also shared the same pair of glasses for the last 30 years.

Powell updated the Weinberger Doctrine in 1992, based on lessons learned from the Gulf War, writing in a 1992 article in National Military Strategy:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

The idea is, if a policy maker can answer no to any of these questions, then U.S. forces should not be committed to a conflict. If the answer to all eight is yes, then U.S. troops can and should be committed. Further, Powell adds:

"Once a decision for military action has been made, half measures and confused objectives exact a severe price in the form of a protracted conflict which can cause needless waste of human lives and material resources, a divided nation at home, and defeat.  Therefore one of the essential elements of our national military strategy is the ability to rapidly assemble the forces needed to win—the concept of applying decisive force to overwhelm our adversaries and thereby terminate conflicts swiftly with minimum loss of life."

Pictured: Decisive Force (Desert Storm Propaganda Leaflet)

In the years following Powell's tenure as Chairman, the Powell Doctrine slowly lingered on in the new millennium, dying a slow death until a 2010 speech by Admiral Mike Mullen discussed how the use of U.S. troops is seen by policy makers in the post-9/11 era.

"We must not look upon the use of military forces only as a last resort, but as potentially the best, first option when combined with other instruments of national and international power.

We must not try to use force only in an overwhelming capacity, but in the proper capacity, and in a precise and principled manner. And we must not shrink from the tug of war — no pun intended — that inevitably plays out between policymaking and strategy execution. Such interplay is healthy for the republic and essential for ultimate success."

NOW: 15 Unforgettable Photos from Operation Desert Storm >

OR: This pilot earned his dream shot by tweaking a General >

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