Selective use of history should not be used to justify the status quo
The Army, like all military organizations, is defined by its culture, and the culture is defined by the history. Its culture has been defined by its overwhelming success in World War II and shaped by a perceived history of fighting grand wars. Although the culture is consistent with the per¬ceived history, the reality is the Army has been involved in sta¬bility and support operations, not grand wars, for almost 80 percent of its existence.
Grand wars, as I define them, are those military engage¬ments that pit army against army. I define stability and support operations as those in which the military is not fighting an army but is opposed either by those resistant to its occupation, passively or aggressively, or is opposed by an organized force executing disperse, nonconnected and localized opera¬tions designed to defeat the will of the occu¬piers to achieve victory.
For the Army, it is World War II that has shaped its thinking, culture and ethos. Fighting the grand war has become the Army’s be-all-and-end-all mantra.
I recently reviewed a briefing prepared by the Center of Military History, which set forth a case for preserving the status quo of cur¬rent Army organizations. What struck me was the selective use of history to argue the case for preserving the current organization¬al hierarchy in the Army — that is, divisions, corps and armies. The claim behind the argument is these are the traditional organi¬zations of the Army. To a point, they are correct; these are the organizations that the current Army is comfortable with, but they are organizations that evolved during a much different time: World War I. These organizations represent the high-water mark of the Army and its operations in World War II — in the European theater. Divisions, corps and armies are organizations for fighting grand wars on the scale of World War II. Preserving these organizations reflects the myopic nature of how the Army views its history.
Through most of the Army’s history, the missions it has per¬formed have been what we would call stability and support operations: patrolling the American frontier, protecting citizens from hostile foreign governments, being the face of the U.S. government and, more recently, guarding West Germany and the demilitarized zone in Korea to preserve the fragile peace between communism and democracy.
To perform missions such as guarding the border between West and East Germany and the Korean DMZ, grand organiza¬tions designed to fight grand wars were needed. But although grand wars make up less than 20 percent of our history, prosecuting them remains the Army’s focus long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The notion that being involved in protracted stability and support operations against an enemy fighting an asymmetric war was banned from the thought processes of the Army after Vietnam. It was left to the Special Forces to consider and ponder how to fight an insurgency.
This is not to say we should have an Army or military that is not prepared to fight grand wars; rather, we need an Army and a military capable of fighting grand wars and conduct¬ing peacekeeping operations, providing mili¬tary support to civil authority and executing stability and support operations. The reality of the near future is that no nation is going to take on the U.S. in a grand war. The threat we face comes not from other nation states but from groups bound by a single ideology that are prepared to fight the West by waging asymmetrical warfare. They do not have to defeat the U.S. militarily on the battlefield. As Iraq has shown, they can defeat us through information dominance — shaping the message the world sees, whether that message is true or not. They can defeat us by eroding the will of the nation to stay the course. The Marine Corps understands the paradox of the modern battlefield when it speaks of the three-block war. On one block, you are fighting an intense battle as violent as any¬thing in World War II; on the next block, you are preserving the peace; and on the third, you are helping the people rebuild their lives.
The current Army leaders have matured in a culture where they were taught what to think, not how to think. Except for a short period when the Air-Land Battle concept was first pub¬lished, innovative thinking has not been encouraged, and leaders quickly determined that the road to success was through thinking inside the box.
One of the pat phrases of Air-Land Battle was the imperative of agility, initiative, depth and synchronization. They were given equal weight, but over time, the ability to change (agility) and the ability to think outside the box (initiative) were increasingly de-emphasized, and the art of war took a back seat to the science of war. An outcome of the Air-Land Battle was the development of the military decision-making process (MDMP). Originally developed to provide a means for a com¬mander and staff officers to organize their thoughts in con¬ducting their analysis, it has become the be all and end all for thinking in the military. Rather than serving as an aid to analy¬sis, analysis has become paralyzed by adherence to the MDMP.
As an Army, we have been taught to think of war as a scien¬tific battle of numbers, but we have failed to understand that war is a conflict of wills — that training, motivation and the reasons for war all play an important role in the motivation of not only the U.S. military but also our enemy.
The military, like most of American society, wants an instant assessment of whether it is successful; the Army has a culture of the immediate after-action report, developed to provide immediate feedback to those participating in mock battles at the National Training Center, Combat Maneuver Training Center or Joint Readiness Training Center. The after-action report emphasizes the MDMP and a deliberate and scientific method of analysis.
Today, the Army finds itself fighting an enemy in a counterin¬surgency environment. It is an environment in which the sci¬ence of war is less important than the intangibles of culture, his¬tory and society — an environment in which the enemy enjoys both interior and exterior lines, where family, tribe, religion and common ethnic heritage link the enemy. It’s an environment in which we fight not only an indigenous enemy, but also an enemy who wishes to destroy the West because it is at odds with its view of the world. The enemy and the environment leave a commander with more questions than answers and cause him to look at war differently than how he was trained.
The commander must have a complete understanding of his environment and what the relationships for power are within his area of operation. He should view the leaders of the insur¬gency not as the enemy but as rivals for the hearts and minds of the people. Rather than focusing on the most dangerous thing the rival can do, he should ask, “What is the most dangerous thing I can do from the perspective of the counterinsurgency?” By asking this question, a commander will begin to acknowl¬edge that he has a stake and that his actions can either enhance or degrade his standing in his area of operation. It acknowledges that his actions can serve to get inside the decision cycle of his rivals and enable him to have the upper hand. Rather than focusing on what the enemy can do within his area of opera¬tions, it focuses on what actions will best serve the comman¬der’s purpose and adversely affect the counterinsurgency.
The questions a commander must ask are introspective, and the answers he seeks are not always readily apparent. The most important aspects of fighting an insurgency are patience and understanding that success is not easily quantified. It also requires a commander to thoroughly understand his environ¬ment and the relationships that exist in his area of operation. A commander’s knowledge of the society, culture and history are as important as an understanding of the capabilities of one’s unit.
The commander may find that doing nothing is the best action he can take, but doing nothing runs counter to the cul¬ture of the American military that we must do something or we are not seizing the initiative and being proactive leaders. We have grown used to instant assessment, not only in the military but also in American society. We want to know we are winning; we lack the patience to wait and allow success to develop over time.
Paradigm is an overused word in the military. It is one of those terms that are trotted out whenever one wishes to convince a skeptical audience that an idea is not just the repackaging of an old one. The Army truly needs a change in thinking. Wars of the future are going to be more like the campaigns on the 19th-cen¬tury American frontier and less like World War II. The Army is going to have to adapt to a new world order in which our ene¬mies will choose not to fight us conventionally but in a manner of their choosing. In the past, our doctrine stressed getting inside the decision cycle of the enemy. Now, the enemy knows it can get inside our decision cycle. It can strike when and where it pleases and knows that our response will be predictable. Although our actions may be justifiable, words will not compensate for the images speeding through the virtually connected world.
Some in the Army can change. I just finished reviewing the final draft edition of the Army premier doctrinal manual, Field Manual 3-0, “Full Spectrum Operations,” and reading FM 3-24, “Counterinsurgency.” What is striking about these documents is that they are revolutionary. I am a product of the Army’s Operational Doctrine, beginning with the active defense and the Air-Land Battle. The Air-Land Battle in its day was revolutionary. It caused the Army to fundamentally change the way it thought and fought. In the 20-odd years since it was first published, the Army has continued to look at the world it portrayed, a world in which the forces of good were lined up across the Inter-German Border facing the “evil empire” on the other side. The world and the conditions for which it was written are gone.
The Air-Land Battle in its day served another important purpose. It was a cathartic document that allowed the Army to rid itself of the demons of Vietnam, to rid the Army of all men¬tion of counterinsurgency operations, to focus on major com¬bat operations and to ignore the rest.
However, by focusing on major combat operations and leav¬ing counterinsurgency and foreign internal defense to Special Forces, the Army created a generation of conventional leaders who were captives to a doctrine that emphasized mass, firepow¬er and overwhelming the enemy, whereas classic counterinsur¬gency doctrine has always stressed the need for economy of force operations and working to ensure that the insurgents were not able to freely operate with impunity. Providing security to the populace will do more to undermine the validity of the insur¬gency than any other single act. Mao Tse-Tung succeeded in China in part because he was able to provide security to the peo¬ple, whereas the nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek was unwilling and unable to do so. Ho Chi Minh succeeded against the French in Indochina in part because he was able to provide security for the people during the Japanese occupation when the French were unable to exercise their colonial hegemo¬ny. At the end of World War II, the French were unable to provide security to Indochina, and Ho Chi Minh was seen as not only a liberator but also as one who would protect the people.
When I talk security, I am not just talking security from threats — clearly important — but also talking security from want, making sure that the people have electricity, fuel, food and shelter. If the insurgents are able to convince the people that their government is unable to provide succor to them, then the insurgents hold the upper hand and will have new converts to their cause. Clearly, providing security as defined above is as important or more important than military actions in defeating the insurgency.
Events have forced Army leaders to recognize that they must look to the past to conduct contemporary operations. This is not to say they have forsaken the conduct of major combat operations, but that is just one mission they must be prepared to execute. The others are stability and support oper¬ations, where the conduct of counterinsurgency operations is a distinct possibility, and peace operations, where the need to conduct both foreign internal defense and counterinsurgency operations are a possibility.
The future for the Army must truly be a future in which innovative and outside-the-box thinking are rewarded. The realities of the future are:
å We are not fighting the “Hun.” We are fighting an enemy who has the advantage of interior and exterior lines — “the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy.”
å Our junior leaders must understand the nation’s goals, the environment in which they operate and how they are linked.
å We are not fighting grand wars but, rather, are waging small campaigns from squad to brigade level hourly, daily, monthly, until the counterinsurgency is defeated or neutralized.
å The conflict requires the application of diplomatic (political), military, economic and informational elements of power by leaders at all levels.
å Whether we have it right is not immediately apparent; it is determined over time.
If we truly want to succeed in Iraq and in Afghanistan, we must embrace a future that is a radical break with our past. Merely changing our organizational structure is not sufficient. We must be willing to break with our past as we execute in the present and prepare for the future.
Video teleconferences, meetings and PowerPoint presenta¬tions are how decisions are made in the Pentagon. No decision is made without countless hours spent making slides by “action officers” and countless revisions by those above them. No decision is made until all the general officers are on board. No decision is made without total agreement. Staffing actions are routinely sent back to the drawing board because some general has a better idea, further slowing a process that already moves at a snail’s pace. The system is not designed for quick deci¬sions, as all decisions must work their way through a vast bureaucracy before the ulti¬mate decision can be made. Decisions are made in a system designed for an Army at peace, not an Army at war.
As I have mentioned, transformation is more than organizational change — it is a change to how we think of war. The greatest threats to transformation are those who would turn back the hands of time to an ear¬lier day when the Army would concentrate on fighting major combat operations or grand wars and ignore the rest.
Wars of the 21st century will not be state-on-state but rather will involve states taking on organizations and groups that share a common ideology, culture and out¬look and to whom the state, and state boundaries, mean noth¬ing. They will wage their wars, holy or otherwise, wherever they must so that they can achieve their goal, whether it be greater Islam or otherwise. They do not wear the uniforms of a state, nor do they fight in the same manner as conventional armies. The wars of the 21st century will not be fought on the open plains of Europe or in vast sands of Middle East. They will be fought in the urban sprawl of our increasingly urban planet. They will be battles for the hearts and minds of a local populace where the U.S. and the Army will be seen as the invader and occupier and not as the liberator.
To fight these wars, we must have an Army that is flexible and adaptive, an Army whose leaders at all levels understand our national goals and how they manifest themselves in the area in which they operate. Units must be capable of simulta¬neously fighting a pitched battle with insurgents in one area, maintaining peace and order in another, and providing humanitarian aid in a third area. It requires leaders and an Army capable of changing gears.
The 21st-century battlefield may look more like the American frontier and have more in common with the tribal wars of the Middle Ages, but fought with the most lethal and modern weapons at the disposal of our adversaries. The war will come to our homeland again. As an Army, we must be expeditionary and capable of quickly responding to the changing needs of our nation. To fight the wars of the 21st century, we require the sup¬port of the people of our nation. Since the end of World War II, American political leaders have determined that they do not need decla¬rations of war before sending our armed forces into harm’s way. There was a time when I believed a declaration of war was a nicety that had more in common with the 18th cen¬tury, when our Constitution was written, than the 21st century. As I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate the wisdom of our found¬ing leaders who insisted that the Congress would have the power to declare war. The act of the president asking Congress to declare war, and then Congress declaring war, serves to bind the people of the nation behind the actions being undertaken by the armed forces. Without a declaration of war, without the sup¬port of the people, without involving the whole fabric of society in the undertaking of war, prolonged military operations in sup¬port of our national interest are bound to fail.
The Army is transforming. In doing so, it must be willing not only to look to the past to shape how it is organized, but also to be willing to break with the past and forge new paths. This requires not only an adaptive Army but also a military of flexible and intellectually adaptive leaders. Whether transformation suc¬ceeds or fails will not be determined by how the Army is organ¬ized but, rather, how the leaders employ their forces and whether they are successful. That is the unanswered question — whether the Army can make a break with its past and the lega¬cies of World War II to fight the wars of the 21st century.
Col. Henry J. Foresman Jr. is assigned to U.S. Army Central/Third Army. He is a graduate of Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are his own.