With the appearance of nuclear weapons at the end of the Second World War, many people who thought about warfare grappled with the implications of the unlimited power of nuclear weapons for what was now called conventional war – to distinguish it from the new form of warfare using nuclear weapons. From this effort arose the concept of “limited war.”
Discussions about limiting war’s destructiveness are an integral part of the long history of the human race. For example, Europe’s wars of the 18th Century were nicknamed “the Lace Wars” from the lace trim worn on the uniforms of the day. These uniforms were especially worn by Generals who avoided battle as much as possible and made war either through a series of sieges which ended in the surrender of the besieged party in full ceremonial splendor and regalia, or through the execution of complicated maneuvers that convinced the enemy to avoid a battle by retreating or to formally concede that the party that executed the “best” maneuvers was the victor. The armies of that day were small and expensive and often considered too valuable to actually be risked in battle.
Limited wars have been defined in various ways at various times by various experts and decision makers. The first and most obvious limit is a war fought without nuclear weapons. Another recognized limit is a war fought only with the forces immediately available without mobilizing the nation’s manpower and industries to the level of total (but still non-nuclear) warfare – sometimes called the ‘come as you are’ war. Other limits involve decisions not to use certain tactics, not to use different types of weapons, not to strike various kinds of targets, etc.
However, the definition of limits and the drawing of boundary lines around the conduct of our wars almost always overlooks the reality of war at the level of the individual soldier. For the individual infantryman, in particular, who is always at some point exposed to attack by the enemy’s weapons and in turn must look that enemy in the eye or at least look at him (or her) through a weapon’s sight, there are no limits upon war. The individual soldier (and this really includes many people beyond the infantryman or Marine rifleman) is exposed to lethal harm whether or not the U.S. fights within limits.
In some cultures, both historically and still today, the decision to expose oneself to the enemy’s weapons on a battlefield is a demonstration of how important to you is the issue at the root of the conflict. A perceived reluctance to personally hazard the dangers of combat is interpreted to indicate at the least a lack of serious commitment to the issue at contest. This is in part why those who would have it so have so often claim that the United States is unwilling to risk combat or does not have the will to sustain a bloody and/or prolonged conflict. Certainly an examination of American history would prove that this is not the case, but rather, Americans have to be convinced that engaging in the conflict has to be for a goal that is worth the risk to human life. The reality is that no matter how limited politicians consider their military objectives to be, the associated conflict is unlimited as far as the people charged with achieving those objectives are concerned.
An excerpt from John Brown's Body by Stephen Vincent Benet -
If you take a flat map
And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,
The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.
The science of war is moving living men like blocks.
And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.
But it takes time to mold your men into blocks
And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies
Hamper your wooden squares. They stick in the brush,
They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,
And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.
--A string of blocks curling smoothly around the left
Of another string of blocks and crunching it up—
It is all so clear in the maps, so clear in the mind,
But the orders are slow, the men in the blocks are slow
To move, when they start they take too long on the way—
The General loses his stars and the block-men die
In unstrategic defiance of martial law
Because still used to just being men, not block-parts.