Powerful democracies have often experienced frustration in fighting small wars, particularly against opponents employing unconventional strategies. The explanation for their
limited success is well known: wealthy, industrialized democracies tend to pursue capital- and firepower-intensive strategies. The real puzzle is the problem’s venerability. Given the ample opportunities for learning, why then have democracies not adopted a more effective means of counterinsurgency (COIN) in small wars? If domestic constraints prevent democracies from spending
blood rather than treasure to fight insurgencies, why fight them in the first place?
In almost every investigation of this puzzle, the Vietnam War looms large as
a pivotal case. The U.S. failure in Vietnam, according to these accounts, epitomizes
the inability of democratic militaries, in general, and the U.S. military, in particular, to adopt an effective approach to overcoming an insurgency. The Vietnam War is especially significant for two generations of American military intellectuals, who regard it as the paradigmatic case of organizational and cultural inertia within the military. John Nagl describes the U.S. failure as “the triumph of the institutional culture” in the U.S military, which counterproductively
relied on “firepower and technological superiority.”
Vietnam case to exemplify a more widespread apolitical and “machineminded” culture pervading all of American society.3 A less culturally oriented explanation identifies simple democratic cost aversion in Vietnam as the root cause of U.S. failure to pursue an effective COIN strategy.4 The current unconventional conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have spurred a renaissance of military-intellectual thought on both COIN and the myopia of the U.S. military that prevents its successful application. Works in academia, the military’s professional journals, and the popular press employ the Vietnam War not simply for theory development but as an analogy for these two conflicts.5 This approach raises more questions than it answers. Why has the
U.S. experience in Vietnam, sufficiently searing to have a “syndrome” attributed
to it, failed to inform the subsequent conduct of counterinsurgency? If the U.S. military is predisposed toward ineffective COIN, why does the civilian leadership not step in or avoid such wars altogether? Why do voters fixate on reducing costs, while ignoring the reduced benefits that result from such a strategy? Why would democracies, supposedly the most prudent of regime
types, choose these risky wars and fight them in such an unconstructive manner?
This article answers these questions by arguing that to reduce the costs of
conflict for the relatively less wealthy voter, democratic leaders shift the burden
of providing for the nation’s defense onto the rich by employing capital as
a substitute for military labor. Because the costs of fighting an insurgency with
firepower are relatively low for the median voter compared to a more effective
but labor-intensive COIN approach, she will favor its use despite the diminished
prospects of victory. This condition of moral hazard makes supporting a
capital-intensive military doctrine and small wars of choice rational policies
for the average voter.