It strikes me that one of the principal challenges the Army faces is to regain its traditional edge at fighting conventional wars while retaining what it has learned – and relearned – about unconventional wars – the ones most likely to be fought in the years ahead.
One of my favorite sayings is that “experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.”
In the years following the Vietnam War, the Army relegated unconventional war to the margins of training, doctrine, and budget priorities. Consider that in 1985 the core curriculum for the Army’s 10-month Command and
This approach may have seemed validated by ultimate victory in the Cold War and the triumph of Desert Storm. But it left the service unprepared to deal with the operations that followed:
The work that has been done to adapt since has been impressive – if not nearly miraculous. Just one example is the transformation of places like the
Put simply, our enemies and potential adversaries – including nation states – have gone to school on us. They saw what
Indeed, history shows us that smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – have for centuries found ways to harass and frustrate larger, regular armies and sow chaos. As one officer recently told the Washington Post, “the toys and trappings have changed,” but the fundamentals have not.
We can expect that asymmetric warfare will remain the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time. These conflicts will be fundamentally political in nature, and require the application of all elements of national power. Success will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behavior – of friends, adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.
One of the challenges facing the Army will be how to incorporate the latest in technology without losing sight of the human and cultural dimensions of the irregular battlefield. For example, we have spent billions on tools and tactics to protect against IEDs. Yet, even now, the best way to defeat these weapons – indeed the only way to defeat them over the long run – is to get tips from locals about the networks and the emplacements or, even better, to convince and empower the Iraqis to prevent the terrorists from emplacing them in the first place.
In addition, arguably the most important military component in the War on Terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries. The standing up and mentoring of indigenous armies and police – once the
The same is true for mastering foreign language – a particular interest of mine – and building expertise in foreign areas. And until our government decides to plus up our civilian agencies like the Agency for International Development, Army soldiers can expect to be tasked with reviving public services, rebuilding infrastructure, and promoting good governance. All these so-called “nontraditional” capabilities have moved into the mainstream of military thinking, planning, and strategy – where they must stay.
Finally, there is a generation of junior and mid level officers and NCOs who have been tested in battle like none other in decades. They have seen the complex, grueling face of war in the 21st century up close. They’ve lost friends and comrades. Some have been deployed multiple times and want to have a semblance of a normal life – get married, start a family, continue their schooling.
These men and women need to be retained, and the best and brightest advanced to the point that they can use their experience to shape the institution to which they have given so much. And this may mean reexamining assignments and promotion policies that in many cases are unchanged since the Cold War.