Wars are ultimately about judgment and should be so regarded and defined.

During the Cold War, the phrase “war-winning strategy” was promoted at one time by Americans who asserted that a thermonuclear conflict with the Soviet Union was winnable. A Russian colleague of mine skewered that notion with a simple question: “So who’s in favor of a war-losing strategy?” The answer was self-evident. The same skewering should apply to the equally misleading phrase of “wars of necessity and wars of choice.”

In a simplistic sense, all but the most frivolous are wars of necessity. How many states believed at the time that a decision to go to war was anything but a necessity rather than a choice irrespective of the strengths of any casus belli? None. Of course, promiscuously bandying about the word “war” or using misleading descriptors inevitably leads to trouble. Remember the various American wars on drugs, crime, poverty and the like?

Seven or eight years ago, some of us advocated dropping the phrase “global war on terror” from the political lexicon. The reasons were clear. In dealing with threats, emerging or otherwise, to succeed, actions must focus on causes, not symptoms. Terror was not the strategic center of gravity. It was a symptom and a tactic. The causes and the persons using terror to seize power were the threats. The latest nomenclature of wars of necessity and wars of choice is a similar distortion.

Wars are matters of judgment, good or bad. Necessity perhaps and choice surely are superficial distinctions. A war of necessity implies responding to and being justified by a first attack. A war of choice is taken in this context to mean a pre-emptive war or war of aggression with manufactured or indeed without casus belli. Such distinctions are misleading.

While World War I, to use Barbara Tuchman’s splendid title, was a march of folly, both the Allies and Central Powers believed that not to mobilize first would have enabled the other side to win. Mobilization meant war. But there was no choice no matter the folly. And tens of millions perished in a war that should have been avoided and was hardly a necessity or a choice rather than a fatal misjudgment.

President George W. Bush regarded the invasion of Iraq as the means to change the geostrategic framework of the Middle East and to cut pre-emptively any possible links, however manufactured, between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. The lack of judgment on the part of the Bush administration – and the whole “weapons of mass destruction” episode was likewise a critical lapse of the executive and legislative branches of government – led to the failure to prepare for an occupation. If that occupation had gone smoothly, who knows how different the world might be and how that war might have been regarded.

In Afghanistan, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, America recognized that there was no alternative to a determined response to punish and eliminate al-Qaida. However, as with Iraq later, the post-war period was grossly ignored. Worse, NATO invoked for the first time in its history the Article 5 declaration that an attack against one could be considered an attack against all and was prepared to go to war in Afghanistan. The administration initially declined the help, believing the allies would only impede military operations. Hence, the Afghan war was all about judgment – judgment that was sadly lacking.

When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and set Europe afire for six years, his intent was to expand the power and influence of the Third Reich. He disregarded any allied response, correctly believing that if they did not appease him, the Wehrmacht would drive them off the continent. This was neither necessity nor choice. Had Hitler exercised better judgment and not turned against Soviet Russia in 1941 – a fatal miscalculation along with gratuitously declaring war unilaterally on the United States a few days after Pearl Harbor that led to Germany’s defeat – it is impossible to guess how that future would have evolved.

Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was predicated on the judgment that the shock of the attack would force America to capitulate and accept Japanese suzerainty in the Pacific. Hence, what some might define as a war of choice was a war based on the judgment that Japan needed access to vital resources in Southeast Asia it saw as being denied by the United States – necessity perhaps but not relevant. And here again, it was the judgment that counted.

What does this mean for dealing with the panoply of emerging threats? First, war is about judgment. Second, beware of slogans. Finally, war should be a last and not a first resort and regarded as neither a policy of necessity nor of choice.

Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University.  This essay was originally published in Ullman’s Outside View column, part of UPI‘s Emerging Threats analysis section.