Christopher D. Kolenda’s critical exposé of America’s blindspots when it comes to modern warfare are communicated in expert form with the release of the book Zero Sum Victory: What We’re Getting Wrong About War. Like the matter-of-fact and decidedly unsentimental titling, Kolenda is simultaneously a student of history as he is a knowledge expert of American military operations, specifically where he thinks said operations have miscalculated gravely.


“Winning, (Thomas) Schelling points out, should not have a competitive meaning. Adversaries tend to have a combination of conflicting and compatible interests. Winning in war means gaining relative to one’s aims, not in relation to the adversary. Success may be realized through bargaining and mutual accommodation and by the avoidance of mutually damaging behavior. There are, he argues, a range of variable-sum outcomes available. Viewing success in zero-sum terms closes off a range of possibilities for winning,” Kolenda writes. “Decisive victory, while highly desirable, is thus not the only possible war termination outcome and might not be realistic or cost-effective…

Some wars, for example, end in a negotiated outcome. In this case, neither party surrenders. The combatants negotiate an agreement that ends the conflict…(Prussian military theorist Carl von) Clausewitz’s insight that a combatant can increase the likelihood of success without defeating the enemy’s forces is critically important. After all, seeking an unrealistic outcome could prolong a war and heighten its costs. A combatant fixated on decisive victory might become blind to opportunities to achieve its aims through other means. Alternatively, an intervening power that seeks a favorable and durable outcome through transition could meet with unexpected success that opens an opportunity for a decisive victory. Knowing when to adopt an alternative is thus a significant decision and requires a major change in strategy.”

It’s this particular, latter quote that Kolenda is able to tie succinctly into his critique of American warfare strategy today. What he’s saying is similar to actor and activist George Clooney’s critique of the war in Iraq, in essence: “You can’t beat your enemy anymore through wars; instead you create an entire generation of people revenge-seeking. These days it only matters who’s in charge. Right now that’s us – for a while, at least. Our opponents are going to resort to car bombs and suicide attacks because they have no other way to win. . . . I believe [Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld] thinks this is a war that can be won, but there is no such thing anymore. We can’t beat anyone anymore.” Kolenda doesn’t settle for a prediction quite this dire, but it’s the presence of this being a distinct possibility seeming to fuel his sense of urgency. 


“Actors at war are engaged in continuous and competitive action-reaction-counteraction cycles,” he states in aforementioned vein. “As these interactions unfold and create new situations, paths that were open at one point in time could close…In this way, strategy becomes a continuous pro- cess of diagnosis, decision, implementation, and assessment, rather than a fixed formula. Without an authoritative language and set of concepts, the United States has repeatedly experienced problems integrating its elements of power into a coherent whole.”

Garth Thomas