“As you know, you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want.”
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been a maker of famous phrases, but the quotation above may wind up as his most insightful. It not only illuminates the plight of America in Iraq, but illustrates the problematic nature of the Pentagon reforms of the late 20th century. From the National Security Act of 1947 through the Goldwater-Nichols law of 1986 and even in the debate about post-Sept. 11 proposals for further reforms, the separation between fighting and preparing to fight, between inputs and outputs, has grown ever wider. The U.S. military is divided, as never before, between the ying of the armed services — those whom Gen. Tommy Franks regarded as “Title 10 mother-[expletive]s” — and the yang of the combatant commanders. Whether that is the perfect structure for the 21st century ought to be a more open question.
Through the latter half of the last century, the path of defense reform was marked by periodic efforts to unify U.S. military establishments through centralization of power and decision-making. This impulse largely grew out of the attempt by Gen. George Marshall to create a mechanism for implementing his strategy for World War II; his 1943 proposals for reorganization were, essentially, an attempt at unification — and, to the Navy, subordination of its traditional independence to the strategic vision of an Army general. The system created for World War II was effective enough, but it did not prevent large inter-service disputes over strategy, most notably where Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur and admirals Ernest King, Chester Nimitz and Raymond Spruance were constantly squabbling over the right way to defeat Japan.
This debate continued after the war, and when congressional oversight committees completed their assessments of the conduct of the war, the House and Senate in 1946 each offered a precursor to military reorganization by combining the separate Army and Navy committees into a defense panel. The reform movement gained urgency in light of the paradoxical nature of atomic weapons — compounded when the Soviet Union tested its own bomb — and the beginnings of the Cold War. All this set the stage for the National Security Act of 1947, creating a separate Air Force but centralizing the now-three services in a “National Defense Establishment” and creating the National Security Council in the White House.
It’s important to put these reforms in the context of their times, and most important to remember what kind of war was envisioned. World War II was a watershed experience for the American military — a global war fought with great-power allies but in a more or less conventional manner. The Cold War seemed to present much the same, but in concentrated form and in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon. The communists seemed more monolithic than the fascists had been, and indeed they were; strategic cooperation was a haphazard thing for the Axis powers, and Mao, when he first came to power, often deferred to Stalin as the keeper of the Marxist flame. And the incredible power of nuclear weapons meant that they could never be regarded as simply another weapon to be employed by commanders in the field; such destructive power could only be controlled by the highest civilian authority.
Indeed, from the start many regarded the 1947 reforms as insufficient. Not the least of the critics was President Eisenhower, who had experienced many of Marshall’s frustrations in the making of World War II strategy and who had long been close to Marshall. Amendments to the act were passed in 1949 and 1953, but the main target was the “National Defense Establishment,” which Eisenhower regarded as “little more than a weak confederation of sovereign military units.” The 1949 law created the Defense Department as an executive-branch agency, but the process was incomplete until the 1958 Department of Defense Reorganization Act, which made the Pentagon an executive-branch agency and clarified and tightened the chain of command, which ran from President Eisenhower to the secretary of defense and to the field commanders. But it also drove a wedge between the field commanders and the military departments, which were to prepare a force for employment, to “organize, train and equip” and otherwise provide logistical and administrative support.
Again, to understand the purpose of the reforms, it’s necessary to remember how Eisenhower thought about the Cold War. The centrality of nuclear weapons had, if anything, increased. Eisenhower tended to assume that a serious conflict with the Soviet Union, particularly in Europe, might naturally spark a nuclear exchange; despite the experience of Korea as a limited war, the savagery of World War II was seared into his memory. The 1958 law was as much a response to Eisenhower’s view of war as was the experimental “Pentomic” division structure for the Army.
Thus the impulse to centralization was established decades before the reforming impulse returned in the form of the extended process which led to the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The failed “Desert One” rescue mission in Iran in April 1980 generated the initial spark, but even the relatively rapid and successful Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada in 1983 added energy to the movement for reform. Air Force Gen. David Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1978 to 1982, was a constant critic of his own system. “The corporate advice provided by the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not crisp, timely, very useful, or very influential,” he once said. “And that advice is often watered down and issues are papered over in the interest of achieving unanimity. ... Individual service interests too often dominate JCS recommendations and actions at the expense of broader defense interests.”
The war in Vietnam was even cast as a failure of military advice — though Gen. William Westmoreland, the combatant commander, averred that he had always received stalwart support from the JCS. But to Jones, Vietnam “was the worst example of confused objectives and unclear responsibilities in Washington and in the field. Each service, instead of integrating efforts with the others, considered Vietnam its own war and sought to carve out a large mission for itself.” A future chairman, Colin Powell — who would capitalize upon defense reforms to become the tower of influence that Jones was not — would claim in his autobiography that the weakness of the system “explained in part why the Joint Chiefs had never spoken out with a clear voice to prevent the deepening morass in Vietnam.”
The groundswell that the U.S. military’s problems were the result of “interservice rivalries” was becoming an earthquake of reformism. Three months before retiring, Jones published an article — in a magazine called Armed Forces Journal — titled, “Why the Joint Chiefs of Staff must change.” By now, nearly 40 years into the Cold War, the debate was as much about budgeting as about fighting. As Archie Barrett, a senior staff member on the House Armed Services Committee who was instrumental in shaping the legislation, later lamented: “My biggest disappointment is the Chairman’s failure to be more involved in resource allocation. Resource allocation is what the services do 90 percent of the time. ... It is the name of the game in peacetime. I think it is time we went to a single joint [budget plan].”
Again, the spirit of reform was shaped by the understanding of war prevalent at the time. The Cold War seemed eternal — even though, by 1986, the Soviet Union was headed toward collapse. The prospect of nuclear war with the Russians was a recurring nightmare. And, as if in reaction to the defeat in Vietnam, the services concentrated on new ways of fighting the Red Army conventionally; World War III as a replay of World War II. In short, the wars were big and familiar. The reformers also had a big and familiar idea: Centralize!
In this pursuit, the Goldwater-Nichols law made three important changes. Title I of the act clarified the chain of command and elevated the influence of field commanders in budgetary and resource matters; Title II made the JCS chairman the chief military adviser and reorganized the joint staff; Title IV rearranged officers’ career incentives to promote joint duty and to demand joint military education for advancement to higher ranks. With the passage of the law, Rep. Bill Nichols, an 11-term member from Alabama and a World War II veteran who had lost a leg in combat, declared that it fulfilled the aims of Eisenhower, who said almost three decades ago, “Separate ground, sea, and air warfare are gone forever. Strategic and tactical planning must be completely unified, combat forces organized into unified commands.” Congress rejected Eisenhower’s appeals in the 1950s. Today, 36 years later, we can report: Mission accomplished.
The immediate operations of the post-Cold War era, especially the Persian Gulf War of 1991, seemed to verify the wisdom of the Goldwater-Nichols changes. Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and later President Clinton’s first secretary of defense, boasted that the act was “one of the landmark laws of American history.” In the Washington Monthly — a small but then-important magazine that championed the cause of military reform and reflected, directly and uncritically, the arguments of the reformers — reporter Katherine Boo wrote “How Congress Won the War in the Gulf.”
Other victories, like Operation Just Cause in Panama, have been tailored to fit this narrative — even though the invasion is better understood as essentially a single-service operation or a special operation writ large. And indeed so was the invasion of Afghanistan: a big special operation at a great distance. At the other end of the spectrum, the campaign in Kosovo was an air-only war; the fact that airplanes of many services — and many nations — played a part in the operation doesn’t make it a good example of joint warfare as intended by Eisenhower or Nichols; it was very much a separate air war. And even Operation Desert Storm was really a set of parallel wars — air and ground, Army and Marine — rather than a fully integrated campaign. In reality, the best example of a Goldwater-Nichols-style campaign would be the invasion of Iraq.
At the same time, the post-invasion history of Iraq may be the best argument in favor of rethinking the lust for centralization. As Rumsfeld says, the force we have is a legacy of the past. That does not make it the right answer for what we now face, or for the future.
The war in Iraq, and the fight for the future of the greater Middle East, could not be more different from the kinds of wars anticipated by defense reformers. It is, by our design and by necessity if we are to win, a “long war,” not a blitzkrieg. America’s vulnerabilities are its domestic political will and the ability of a small Army and Marine Corps to withstand a long commitment. It’s the Title 10 generals — Tommy Franks was referring to the sections of U.S. law that govern the services — who will achieve victory as much or more than any combatant commander; the need to raise, train and equip, for decades and decades, is what may tell. And this war is a classic “small war,” marked not by big-unit maneuvers but by small-unit actions.
In sum, it’s a decentralized fight, demanding decentralized direction. In Vietnam, contrary to the conventional wisdom, it was those efforts that deviated from Westmoreland’s centralized large-unit approach which produced greater success. In hindsight, it seems that American strategy in Vietnam was too centralized, rather than not centralized enough.
Moreover, the war in the Middle East could not be more distinct from the prospect of conflict with a rising great power like China. That’s a competition that will depend directly on air and naval power — if not space or information power — much more than land power. And the kind of operation against a rogue nuclear state, as imagined in the Quadrennial Defense Review, is again best understood as an outsized special operation.
All this is to say that the least useful force for the future is the kind of joint force we now have, which is essentially just an improved-but-smaller version of the force on hand at the time of the Goldwater-Nichols Act. Paradoxically, reversing the pattern of Cold War reform by empowering the services at the expense of “jointness,” should be the path of change for the future. We need more MacArthur-King style squabbling — and more generals furious to win — not less.