“America’s Greatest Weapon”

The views in the essay below are not original, but well worth repeating.  The authors describe these traits as a “weapon” — and I agree — but they are rooted in the American character and are some of our greatest strengths. -Here is an excerpt; the full essay is well worth reading.

America’s Greatest Weapon

Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr. (USAF) and Lt Colonel John Nagl (US Army, retired)
At the Small Wars Journal, 23 May 2008

The ability to think, learn, and adapt is what makes America’s military the finest in the world. Though it does not use these words, the Army exploits conferences like that at Carlisle to, in effect, tap into a concept from the Nation’s powerful engine of change, its free enterprise system.

Free enterprise triumphs as an economic system because it respects and empowers competition. Competition breeds efficiency and innovation. Unfortunately, the competitiveness outsiders may see in military debates can be misread as mere parochial squabbling. Sometimes that’s true, but more often the rivalry reflects honestly-held but differing beliefs as to how to use the military instrument most effectively in today’s very complex environments.

The good news is that those differences can make the U.S. military a devilishly difficult problem for our adversaries.

… The finest military leaders want, indeed, demand, that differing ideas be ruthlessly explored. They expect and encourage vigorous debates. Can that process go awry? Sure. When it devolves into personal attacks and gets mired in finger-pointing, progress ceases. Accountability for the past may have its place, but it is vastly more important to look to the future. The stakes are too just too high.

… The American way of war is renewing itself. Our most powerful weapon – the competitive analysis of security issues by America’s military – is taking the field. Our enemies ought to beware. And update their wills.

Lt Col Nagl was one of the principal authors of FM 3-24, the Army/Marine Corps’ new counterinsurgency manual; Maj Gen Dunlap is the author of “Shortchanging the Joint Fight?” a critique of that same manual. These are their personal views.

I have many times said something similar, although not as well.

I believe that we need not fear the future. America’s strength lies not in our wealth or power. We are strong because of our ability to act together, to produce and follow good leaders. We are strong due to our openness to other cultures and ability to assimilate their best aspects. We are strong due to our ability to adapt to new circumstances, to roll with defeat and carry on.

Many posts on this blog discuss our weaknesses, the dangers facing us.  Those should not obscure the fewer in number but equally important ones that describe our strengths and past accomplishments.

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Other posts with good news for America

  1. Good news: The Singularity is coming (again)  (8 December 2007) — History tends to look better over longer time horizons.
  2. Some good news (one of the more important posts on this blog)  (21 December 2007)
  3. Some good news (one of the more important posts on this blog)
  4. A crisis at the beginning of the American experiment  (27 December 2008) — Looking at the problems looming before us, it is easy to forget those of equal or greater danger that we have surmounted in the past.
  5. An important thing to remember as we start a New Year  (29 December 2007) — As we start a New Year I find it useful to review my core beliefs. It is easy to lose sight of those amidst the clatter of daily events. Here is my list…
  6. Is America’s decline inevitable? No.  (21 January 2008)
  7. Let us light a candle while we walk, lest we fear what lies ahead  (10 February 2008) — Need we fear the future?
  8. A happy ending to the current economic recession  (12 February 2008)
  9. Fears of flying into the future  (25 February 2008)
  10. Experts, with wrinkled brows, warn about the future  (2 May 2008) — Experts often see the future with alarm, seeing the dangers but not benefits. That gets attention, from both the media and an increasinly fearful public. Both sides feed this process. It need not be so, as most trends contain the seeds of good and bad futures. This post considers two examples.
  11. Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off  (8 May 2008)
  12. Good news about the 21st century, a counterbalance to the doomsters  (9 May 2008)
  13. An effective way to support our Troops: help the Blue Star Mothers of America (8 June 2008) — There are ways to support our troops, actions more effective than a bumper sticker on your car.
  14. There is no “peak water” crisis  (19 June 2008)

Click here for all posts discussing good news about America’s future.

8 thoughts on ““America’s Greatest Weapon””

  1. This appraisal is most likely correct, but I see a good reason to advise caution; U.S. Americans are also quite often very convinced of their ways, which is a powerful inhibitor to adapt foreign innovations and strengths. Several U.S. American economy branches like the prominent automotive sector clearly show that their ability to adapt had its limits. The mentioned “free enterprise system” doesn’t look so convincing at this time anyway.

    Being able to adapt does not equal to adapt in time – sometimes it needs a near-disaster to enforce adaptiveness, and the “ability to assimilate their best aspects” does not equal a job well done.
    It’s sometimes even harmful to adopt foreign methods/capabilities. Our societies and institutions are very complex and the components need to work well with each other. German attempts to copy Japanese business practices in the early 90’s were rather unsuccessful because they took components out of context. The successful innovations followed in the late 90’s when the foreign practices were better understood and a coherent new indigenous business model was developed, often tailored to the context of a specific company.

    Adaptiveness is really impressive if it’s done with own innovations, with minimal lag to environmental changes.
    Fabius Maximus replies: All good points. Free-market adaptivity is almost biological. That is to say, organic, powerful, but reactive (after the fact). Directed adaptation, led by a central government — like Singapore’s, potentially can respond to things as they happen — or event to trends projected into the future.

    The post-war history can be seen as a contest between the two forms. Our forms seems to have proved itself superior, by a large margin.

  2. Haven’t read the article yet, but I would agree with Sven, and add that careerism is just as present in the American military, and has the same non-adaptive effects, as in most institutions (see James Carrol’s House of War, e.g.). America’s huge technological/industrial sector certainly gives us an edge in innovation, but also locks is into outdated concepts of war-fighting, as in more and more sophisticated and remote delivery weapons that are inappropriate for the kinds of local insurgencies we are now fighting.

  3. Robert Petersen

    I regard Americans as hardworking and innovative people, so in that respect I agree. But when it comes to the Pentagon I am far more pessimistic. There are some basic traits that prevented the American military to win in Vietnam which has been repeated in Iraq. Like the intensive use of firepower in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps the problem is that Americans are so rich and have so much material; its very hard to explain why any GI’s or marines should die if you could call a B52 in to flatten a place. Even if it may cost you the support of the local population. The commanders in the field simply don’t have the incentive to be economic with force.

    It is also worth remembering that there is a difference between winning on a tactical or even operationel level and then winning on a strategic level. Germany won many battles between 1939-1945, but only in tactictal or operationel terms. After the fall of France it never again won a strategic victory and in the end they lost. The same story happened again in Vietnam. The Americans never lost a battle yet where forced to leave the country in the end.

    I can’t help recall old Ludendorff who during the great offensives of 1918 forbade his officers to mention the word strategy. He was only interested in operations and operationel success. He lost.

  4. I think we have just seen an example of the US’s ‘greatest weapon’. Phoenix landed on Mars. Just truely mangificent. Any country that can achieve somehting like that has so much to offer the World.

    Now that is leadership.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, but with little excitement. There is a discussion about the space program in the comments at DNI. Innovation is useless by itself, whether intellectual (e.g., 4GW theory) or engineering (NASA).

    However inspiring, American probably has received little or no benefit from most of NASA’s spending since 1960. The return on Apollo was near zero (the spin-offs are to a large extent urban legends, except for Tang). I believe this resulted from poor execution rather then something inherent in space exploration. NASA used the wrong metaphor — a race rather than opening a frontier.

    This low return looks worse when compared with that of the age of exploration.
    * Portugal’s circumnavigation of Africa and conquest of the Spice Islands.
    * Spainish and Britain’s colonies in the western hemisphere.

    Now NASA is doubling down on its failures. Instead of exploiting near-earth space — research, medical science of low-gravity, industrial use — they are going for a visit to Mars, which is unlikely to generate anything other than headlines.

  5. I have to both agree and disagree, but the relative proportions change from day to day ;)

    Abstract knowledge and pure research have no meaning within the usual corporate (6 months these days) or political (1-4 years, depending on the system you live under) time horizons, or even normal life spans. An example I often use is lasers. 50 years from Einstein’s theoretical work to the first working laser and now, used everywhere, from your CD/DVD to the supermarket. Hard even to imagine life without them.

    Plus there is the emotional or aesthetic dimension. I remember the Moon landings, for a moment the whole world held its breath and everyone felt better, more hopeful and more united.

    Referred work, the links of knowledge are complex and unpredictable who knows what one discovery in one area may trigger in another. Work on global dimming, global warming, nuclear winter, all came from studying other planets weather systems until some bright speak went … “I wonder what would happen if I apply this research and maths to Earth”?

    NASA in all its efforts, with the possible exception of the Space Shuttle, has made tremendous contributions in all these spheres, directly and indirectly. Again hard to imagine a world without NASA’s efforts, successes and, of course, failures. And at an amazingly cheap price. A true contribution to the World by the US.

    On a single pragmatic area? Gut feel, the whole integrated circuit revolution (e.g PC’s, etc) would have taken much longer to happen if NASA had never existed. Not so much the intended direction or the direct money applied, but indirectly by making a premium on smallness. That drive and the associated knowledge gained spread through the World, especially the US. Some might say that the military requirements also contributed, but that is misleading. Military needs are cloaked in secrecy (e.g RSA encryption was invented by a couple Brits decades before it was independently re-invented for the commercial sphere). NASA has always, except for a few military applications, made all its results available freely.

    And don’t forget its contribution to aerodynamics, before it was NASA it was NACA. And its contribution to fundamental work in aerodynamics has been massive and continues to this day.
    You could quite truthfully state that without it’s contribution over the decades, then designs such as the P-51, F …. etc, B- …. also etc , and more importantly commercial planes, may never have existed.

    Someone has to do the path finding, to push the envelope, to ‘go where no one has gone before’. You cannot criticise them because others haven’t followed up after the heavy lifting has been done.

    I wouldn’t criticise them for not doing more in near space, that is simple technology now, why aren’t the major corporations there? A skeptic, not like myself of course, might say that it might hit their CEO’s stock options too hard. Not NASA’s fault for their short sightedness.

    I welcome NASA’s return to going further. Yes lets go back to the Moon, yes Mars, yes etc. Forget the near space thing, that’s for the others to follow if they want, after the ground had been broken and the technology being freely available.

    Who knows what we will find, but the journey will be wonderful.

  6. Perhaps the tech spin-offs from space exploration are valuable and the glory is impressive. If so, we should have NASA seek corporate sponsorship. Perhaps the soon we will watch the GOOGLE Mars Lander land amidst the fire of its rockets sparks from its anti-grav engines (patents to GE).

  7. Not to be flippant, Cunctator, but GE probably already holds those patents.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Correction noted and the text has been adjusted!

  8. We just have to make sure that we don’t have the Microsoft Lunar lander (“Houston we have a problem, we’ve landed in Scotland”) or their Jupiter probe (“Houston, we have a problem. We have the exception error: 0ab679324xxx at location 35762aebe.” “But you haven’t even launched yet”).

    Or even the MacDonalds Martian Landing Mission (“Houston, we have a problem, we’re here, we’ve landed, but I can’t fit into my spacesuit and I think we have too much weight to take off again”.)

    And so on.

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