Peifer on Schadlow, 'War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory'

Nadia Schadlow
Douglas Peifer

Nadia Schadlow. War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2017. 344 pp. $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62616-410-9; $64.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62616-409-3.

Reviewed by Douglas Peifer (Air University, Air War College) Published on H-War (August, 2017) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Nadia Schadlow, a senior adviser in the International Security and Foreign Policy Program of the Smith Richardson Foundation, first began to write about the challenges of military occupation and governance in 2005. The Coalition Provisional Authority set up by the United States in Iraq in 2003 had transferred governmental authority to an appointed Iraqi Interim Government the previous summer, and the George W. Bush administration had high hopes that the elections of January 2005 would demonstrate that Iraq could become a stable, multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. Yet the election of 2005 did not result in the onset of a peaceful political transition of power, as the Iraqi insurgency escalated toward ever higher levels of violence over the course of the next year. Troubled by the failure of the United States to translate its military, economic, and other forms of power in Iraq and Afghanistan into desirable political end-states, Schadlow analyzed earlier experiments in US military governance as part of her dissertation at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. War and the Art of Governance builds on this earlier research, concluding that US military and civilian leaders have generally paid insufficient attention to the challenges that come after military victory. Unclear lines of authority and insufficient resources have been the norm rather than the exception, with Schadlow labeling this attitude toward military governance and SSTR (Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction) operations as an “American Denial Syndrome” (p. 14).

Schadlow argues that the “American Denial Syndrome” grows out of long-established American attitudes toward the military, governance, and war. Four main currents foster an ambivalent attitude toward military governance and occupation duties. First, Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of the US military taking the lead in political activities, an attitude that traces back to the fear of standing armies prevalent during the early Republic. Second, a segment of the American public has always been leery of colonial and imperial ventures, viewing military governance at best as something that should be transitional and brief. Third, both presidents and military leaders have internalized the idea that civilian agencies can and should take the lead in occupation and governance operations. As a result, a persistent pattern emerges of trying to offload governance responsibilities onto the State Department or civilian-led occupation administrations as soon as possible. Lastly, Schadlow argues that the US military establishment has “emphasized the centrality of battle and the defeat of enemy military forces,” relegating the post-conflict mission to a second-tier priority that can be handled by “special skill” experts (p. 19).

The US experience in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired this study, with its findings contributing to contemporary debates about nation building versus counterinsurgency, FM 3-24 and its shortcomings, the concept of a “light footprint” and counterterrorist operations, and an emerging literature on the concept of jus post bellum. But Schadlow seeks to do more, analyzing whether there are patterns, lessons, or insights from the past that persist or need to be overcome should the US military again face the prospect of fighting a war that entails regime change and the imposition of American values and democratic forms of government overseas. The book examines fifteen cases that illustrate the US Army’s central role in the reestablishment of political order during and after combat operations. Organized chronologically, the book examines four cases of US military governance in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Spanish-American War, and World War I), four cases from World War II (governance and occupation duties during and after the war in Italy, Germany, Japan, and Korea), and three from the Cold War (the Korean War, the Dominican Republic, and Panama), and concludes with an assessment of the “lessons ignored” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each case study is from ten to twelve pages long, allowing the author to go into some detail about when the army began to prepare for governance responsibilities, how the army balanced wartime necessity with postwar political objectives, and what sort of tasks the army performed in order to leave behind institutions compatible with US interests.

The major strength and contribution of this study is its bold effort to bring together the insights and lessons of US military governance and occupation over a broad spectrum of time, ranging from the Mexican-American War to Afghanistan. While the causes of war and the political objectives varied widely, the same issues and concerns crop up each time the US military is faced with the burdens of governance and reconstruction. Should there be a separate authority responsible for governance in the areas behind the frontline, and to whom should that authority report? Why does there seem to be a pattern of parallel structures and overlapping authority in the governance structures the United States sets up after military victory? When should governance responsibilities be transferred to civilian authorities, and how realistic are military expectations of offloading these responsibilities to other departments, agencies, and bureaus? This book addresses these questions for each case study, providing a wonderful resource for those looking to compare present performance to past experiences. Its strength is a careful analysis of whether and when civilian leaders gave instructions to the military regarding governance and political goals, which elements of the army were designated to take on governance duties, how they interacted with the fighting armies and Washington, and when and how the military turned over governance responsibilities to other authorities.

If the strength of the study is its comparative analysis of how the US military organized its occupation and governance duties, its weakness lies in its inattention to the social, cultural, and political dynamics shaping defeat, occupation, and political transformation. While Schadlow notes, for example, that General Otis and his successor, Major General Arthur MacArthur, faced challenges in attempting to create a functioning government in the Philippines while fighting an insurgency, the section on the US military role in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War gives no sense of the savagery and costs of the US counterinsurgency campaign. Likewise, those familiar with the postwar occupation of Germany will find little reference to the cigarette economy, the social interactions between GIs and Germans, nor the issue of sex, rape, and military justice. Lastly, given that the main theme of the book is the challenge of consolidating combat success into political victory, one cannot help but wish that the author had addressed the perceptions and attitudes of the occupied. The study seems to imply that better organization, more resources, and clearer lines of authority are the keys to converting military victory to political objectives. Yet as Carl von Clausewitz cautioned, “even the ultimate outcome of war is not always to be regarded as final.”[1] Those wishing for a deeper assessment of why the North eventually abandoned attempts to reconstruct the South after the Civil War, why the United States rejected the Versailles Treaty and withdrew its occupation troops from the Rhineland in 1923, or whether George W. Bush’s hope for a stable, multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian Iraq was ever realistic will need to delve into fuller studies focused on these particular conflicts and transitions.


[1]. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Eliot Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 80.

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Citation: Douglas Peifer. Review of Schadlow, Nadia, War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory. H-War, H-Net Reviews. August, 2017. URL:

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Glad the Review mentions Clausewitz, since his formula is more likely central to the subject matter. His recognition that politics is the bete noir for war, as theory and practice, points directly to the return to non-violence being restoring political practice; usually one thinks, different than that which brought about the war[or combat].

Governance is those mechanisms by which political practice takes place. That the US would fall short in this area does deserve more attention and WW II certainly is a model or cases for what, how, when these central tenets to non-violent political life need be achieved. Democracy is that value politically, to which the US subscribes as superior to all other forms of political values and practices. Its efforts and role are most important for the kind of law and order which needs to emerge from war[or combat]. How to bring it to those who have been denied it or not used to its practices remains a major, central post-war issue.
The author and the Review indicate at least two main starting points. One is civilian rule, and State Dept. would certainly be a major source as suggested, and rightly so. The second concerns military applications of Democracy and its rule. Organization within military forces specific to restoring domestic life and political practices are found in groups whose mission is civil-military relations. Sufficient attention to plans and resources can be part of any successful occupation and should be part of all over all war plannings.