Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen outlines a more restrained art of war

Adm. Mike Mullen told troops in Iraq on Dec. 13, 2010 that the danger of hostilities is rising on the Korean peninsula.
Adm. Mike Mullen told troops in Iraq on Dec. 13, 2010 that the danger of hostilities is rising on the Korean peninsula. (Orlin Wagner/associated Press)
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By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined a new U.S. approach to war in a series of speeches this week that replaces overwhelming firepower with more restrained use of force to safeguard civilian lives.

The speeches, delivered at Kansas State University and the Army's Fort Leavenworth, amount to a formal effort on the part of the chairman to codify how a decade of combat is changing the military's understanding of its role in battle and, more broadly, its place in U.S. foreign policy.

"In this type of war, when the objective is not the enemy's defeat but the people's success, less really is more," Mullen said. "Each time an errant bomb or a bomb accurately aimed but against the wrong target kills or hurts civilians, we risk setting our strategy back months, if not years."

Embedded in Mullen's new doctrine is the somewhat controversial notion that troops should assume greater physical risk in order to protect innocent civilians in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. "We protect the innocent," Mullen said. "It is who we are."

Some critics of the new military thinking on war have argued that it amounts to a recipe for endless battles amid hostile populations in remote outposts. Backers of Mullen's new vision characterized it as the best approach to countering radicalism in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan.

"In a time like today, we need a very different doctrine for our military," said John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, which has been a powerful force in Washington touting the need for a military capable of grinding out victory in grueling guerrilla wars.

In a nod to critics, Mullen acknowledged that U.S. victories, in current and future wars, would not be quick or decisive. He also avoided passionate language about spreading democracy or vanquishing an evil foe. "We will win, but we will do so only over time," Mullen said. "Quite frankly, it will feel a lot less like a knockout punch and a lot more like recovering from an illness."

In many ways, Mullen's speech represented an attempt to update and replace the principles of war laid out by one of his predecessors, Gen. Colin L. Powell, after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Powell doctrine, which grew out of the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, argued that military force should be used only in cases in which there was broad popular support for military action and overwhelming force could be used to ensure a quick victory.

Mullen also suggested that the line between war and peace had blurred since the Powell doctrine was articulated. "Defense and diplomacy are no longer discrete choices, one to be applied when the other fails, but must complement one another throughout the messy process of international relations," he said.

The country's top military officer skirted any declaration of a Mullen doctrine. But the tenor of his remarks seemed to acknowledge that the military had entered a new era. "This is very much Mullen's thinking about the American way of war today," a senior defense official said. "He wouldn't call it the Mullen doctrine. But it is basically what it is."

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