"The system of pitched battle broke down because wars like the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War were fought over high ideals, and because they were fought by republics, not monarchies. The wars of the 18th century were legal procedures, fought over carefully stated legal royal claims to territory, and were justified by carefully formulated legal briefs. They were staged in orderly ways intended to symbolize the glory and civilization of royal courts. But in the mid-19th century the two Americans republics and the French Republic began to fight more bitter and more horrible wars, in the name of grander ideals. Hard though it is to accept, democratic idealism and widespread death began to march hand in hand."Now I would begin by saying that I believe this analysis is flawed. Both the ACW and the Franco-Prussian War (along with WW1 and WW2) DID end with military victories. It's just that those wars, as did most of the industrial-era wars that followed the mid-19th Century, perforce required the "economic" defeat of the losing side (Update: or, as Sven points out in the comments section, at least in the Franco-Prussian War an period of "mopping-up" where the victor had to run around stomping out the remains of the loser's deadenders).
An industrial nation as well as a nation-in-arms couldn't be defeated by "destroying" the national army alone. So long as the economic base remained new conscript armies could be raised if the government had the political will to continue. So IMO what happened was that "pitched battle" became just part of the larger political and economic campaign to destroy the opposing nation's (or peoples') will to fight.
But I wonder...does the increasing number of inter-theological and inter-racial wars play into this increasing "complexity" and insolubility of modern war as well? Do the intractability of religious, tribal, and racial hate play into the long-simmering conflicts that seem to have troubled us so much since 1945? Is there not only just an issue of "grander ideals" but the collision of fundamental social, philosophical, and religious differences that make these conflicts nearly impossible to solve by military means short of outright genocide?
Sunni v. Shia in the Gulf region (and now Syria), Tamil/Hindu v. Sinhalese Buddhist in Sri Lanka, Israeli Jew v. Levantine Muslim in the former Ottoman Levant, Christian southern tribes v. Muslim northern tribes in Nigeria (where our old pals MEND are acting up again...), everybody and their damn tribal grandfathers in Afghanistan...it seems like we've reopened a box of very old troubles; Christian versus Muslim versus Jew, Arab or African versus Westerner, tribe versus tribe.
Our old friend Seydlitz used to like to talk about how so much of the problems faced by the United States around the world were because the U.S. had lost the ability to think cogently about national interests and how they translated into military strategy.
But...what if the biggest single part of the problem is that too many modern problems are no longer amenable to military strategy?
Or, rather, to military strategy alone?
What if, instead, the U.S. is faced with the dilemma that ancient Rome faced; an amorphously hostile "barbarian frontier" that is no more malleable over the long term to military defeat than the ocean is to bailing dry with a bucket. That there is always a sea of troubles, and that a nation that tries to defend everywhere ends up defending nowhere...in that you can end up throwing a hell of a lot of blood and treasure at problems that you can't solve without making a wasteland and calling it peace, or using nothing but complex combination of force, persuasion, bribery, treachery, local proxies...and pure indifference; picking your fights and choosing to walk away from those you can't do anything about?
So I think the question becomes...to what degree DO you expend blood and treasure overseas (or overland, in the case of Mexico where there are certainly enough elements of instability to cause at least a level of concern)? How do you calculate your "national interests" in such an environment, and determine which are amenable to diplomacy, which to a mixture of guile and force, which to force alone, and which to a combination of all?
And what are the "better options" to raw military force in places like these? Again, Seydlitz talked several times about the question of "soft power". Is such soft power an option, say, in places as different as Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Indonesia and to what degree where? What would such power look like, and what could it do? And to what degree would the velvet touch have to have a mailed fist cocked behind the U.S.'s back? Little? Much? Constantly? And what would make the application of force more useful, more directed, less likely to produce "collateral damage" and blowback?
And - MOST importantly, in my view - how do you develop a national ability to figure this all out?
I guess my thought is that this entire question is as much about "craft" as it is either the art or the science of "strategic thinking". And I think the problem inherent in the U.S. politico-military system as currently constituted is that our system a) emphasizes short-term domestic political bunfighting over long-term geopolitical thinking, and b) discourages people from staying in one place long enough to perfect their "craftsmanship"; that is, the integration of technical and intellectual learning with practical experience to develop the skills for this sort of thinking, and c) produces "leaders" that are good at a) to the detriment of bothering to pay attention to the relatively low-level craftsmen who are good a b) and thus intensifies the negative-feedback loop. The craftsmen aren't good at their craft but even when they are the "leaders" don't listen which, in turn, discourages the perfection of the craft which, in turn, reinforces the "leaders" willingness to listen to their prejudices and fears rather than the craftsmen who understand the localities...
I will be the first one to say; I don't have an answer but rather a wilderness of questions. Consider this an open thread to add your own, or anything you might have by way of answers...
But I do think that this will become an ever-increasing problem as the U.S. continues its slide back into Gilded Age oligarchy. One of the real problems with oligarchy is that the oligarchs tend to become obsessed with protecting the privileges of their class rather than the welfare of the polity as a whole. To return to the analogy of Rome, the tragedy of the Revolt of the Gracchi was that the senatorial class focused on protecting itself rather than the vitality of the Republic. That, in turn, led to reliance on long-term professional soldiers who owed their loyalty to their commanders instead of the nation.
And we all recall where the bridge across the Rubicon led.
Update: I should draw attention to Sven's post that addresses something of this subject over at his Defence and Freedom site. And the conclusion he's not afraid to draw is even more pessimistic than mine: This is 100% not going to happen, and that's a pity if not doomed to end in tragedy.