Summary: Douglas A. Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired) looks at military history, and sees how our military came to its current state. Military power with little wit, bought at great expense in terms of national wealth and the blood of our brave troops.
- Experience in combat: essential, valuable, or just nice to have?
- Some history
- How we got to where we are today
- A Look at our military, today
- About Doug Macgregor
- For more information about paths to reform for our military
(1) Experience in combat: essential, valuable, or just nice to have?
Like most things, experience in uniform is a double edged sword. It can inform or obstruct our understanding, particularly when former military men see the future through the lens of their narrow experience, respective service or the promise of self-enrichment in “After Market” jobs as GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired) likes to call it. That said, there is little substitute for being shot at without result. At least, there is an appreciation for the life and death character of warfare, something that is often missing from today’s senior defense ranks, civilian and military.
It can be hazardous for armies when their senior leaders have no personal experience of combat. Most of our senior military leaders on the ground in WW II were “Chateau generals.” Very few operated as Patton, Harmon or Wood did. It’s one of the key reasons why Marshall acted swiftly to replace people who were not effective – 39 division and corps commanders in less than 34 months after March 1942.
The pressure from the American people to end the war was enormous and as Marshall told Eisenhower after the Bulge in January 1945, we had fielded all the forces we could afford to field. He would get no more.
As Admiral Nimitz pointed out after WW II, neither he nor his peers had any idea of the enormous, war-winning power of the submarine. Sadly, by then, it was too late to make the point that America’s submarine force could have starved Japan into submission faster and at far lower cost than the expensive and time consuming island hopping campaign across the Pacific.
On the other hand, the German Military that had practically no warfighting experience between 1871 and 1914, or between 1918 and 1939, yet it turned out to be infinitely more capable in action than any of its contemporaries, most of which had lots of experience in “small wars.” The Battle of Jutland is particularly informative in this connection. Clearly, the Germans demonstrated that experience shrinks to insignificance next to technology, organization, training, leadership, and education when the underpinning national military culture that supports it cultivates the right attributes.
In terms of the combat ‘seasoning’ the generals claim for today’s troops, it’s very much open to question. The way we now “do” war is to get together in a very comfortable conference room with plasma screens on every wall, high speed computers, and impressive graphics programs. There we plan operations knowing the enemy is so weak, he’s almost irrelevant to the planning process. In most cases, the “Islamist enemy” in Iraq was only able to plant IEDs, surprise us 2 or 3 times a month with 1 to 3 rounds of mortars or rockets fired with the precision of “that way”, or a few rounds of sniper fire.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban fighters are so poor in the few instances when they attack our bases (e.g., FOB Monti in the Kunar), all they can do is launch a few mortars and then take us under machine gun fire that is beyond the max effective range, against our dug-in positions. Most of the time our combat soldiers and marines are so happy to experience fire they cut loose with their own heavy machine guns (which aren’t out of range), TOW missiles, mortars (with precision warheads), 105mm howitzers, and then AH64 gunships and F16 fighter-bombers. All against perhaps 6 or 8 Taliban fighters! In fact, we’ve not experienced an enemy attack stronger than us since 1950-52, or discovered suddenly that the enemy we attacked was actually much larger than we anticipated.
The point is simple: experience demonstrates that depending on the quality of the enemy, “combat experience” is frequently overrated. Unfortunately, the ability to think beyond the boundaries of what is conventionally acceptable is always scarce and, sadly, seldom in demand — unless it aligns with the thinking desired in the ranks of the ruling bureaucracy, civilian appointees and influential politicians.
(2) Some history
In the years after WW II, America’s “civilian leaders” became the repository for most military thinking on the strategic and operational levels (Brodie, the Rostows, Shilling) as senior officers who demonstrated the ability to think, men like James Gavin, were sidelined in favor shameless sycophants like Maxwell Taylor and Earl Wheeler. (Admiral Hyman Rickover was a rare exception for his time.) These affable and obliging sycophants in uniform were only too ready to subordinate themselves and their thinking to the destructive influence of ideologues like McNamara and Bundy in ways similar to the senior officers of the last 20 years to ideologues like Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, Deutsch, Wolfowitz and Cheney.
Of course, there are success stories. John Clerk’s important work entitled “Essay on Naval Tactics,” written in 1779 and published in 1790, fundamentally changed naval tactics and was decisive in the hands of Nelson at Trafalgar. Clerk had never been to sea, but he understood geometry and the technology of gunfire.
As Gian Gentile has pointed out, Hans Delbrueck, (one of those who inspired me to write Breaking the Phalanx) was another who had little personal experience in uniform, but he could think. Billy Mitchell’s case is well known. He lost the first battle (court-martialed in 1925), but as George Marshall pointed out much later, he definitely won the war for airpower. Fortunately, people in and out of uniform did listen to these men; something that rarely happens these days.
(3) How we got to where we are today
Today, the tendency is to look for and find evidence for a desired policy or capability through the use of single-factor analysis.
In the United States, it’s popular to focus on technology to the exclusion of all else. The Service bureaucracies are comfortable with this approach because it models “gadgets against gadgets” in simulation. This approach treats the anachronistic organizational status quo as irrelevant and unchangeable. The possibility that command structures, organization for combat and human understanding could be at least if not more decisive is not even considered.
It’s the victory of what Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) attributes to the destructive impact of Frederick Taylor’s industrial age model. Those who dismiss criticality of how we organize our forces and equipment, how we train and educate to fight miss the point that organization in particular reflects cultural patterns that shape thinking and behavior or how we interact with the technology of war and events in action, (an argument Delbrueck made). Ultimately, organization tells you how we think about warfare. If the organizational paradigm never changes, it tells you the thinking, policies and culture have not changed either.
These points notwithstanding, change is not always possible. In 1973, the Egyptian Army’s rigid, top-heavy command structure stifled fresh ideas, tactical flexibility, and honest communication from lower levels. After successfully crossing the Suez in a carefully planned and well-rehearsed operation this military culture contributed decisively to Egypt’s defeat at the hands of the Israel Defense Force. However, in practice, Egypt’s leaders knew Arab culture demanded that every action be scripted from the top down to the individual soldier. The point is: Egyptian national military and political leadership had little choice in the matters of organization, leadership and tactics, let alone operational art. What they did was all that they could do.
A similar dilemma confronted the Soviet military leadership during WW II. The Stavka had to organize and move tens of millions of illiterate, and largely unwilling Slavic and Mongol-Turkic soldiers into battle against a highly educated, competently led German Army. (Ivan’s War is a recent work informed by the NKVD archives now closed, and worth reading on this point). As I was told during an official visit to the Russian General Staff Academy in November 2001, unavoidable tactical rigidity together with the brutal subjugation of millions who did not want to defend Stalin’s Russia produced at least 40 million Soviet dead, twice what the Soviets publicly admitted, but the communists were always great liars.
Contrary to popular belief in the West, this condition did not change as much as many contended in the years after WW II. As Bill Odom routinely reminded me as a cadet at West Point and later as a commissioned officer, Jeep Driver was and remained a high tech job inside the Soviet Army of the 1970s.
Since the Prussian-German leadership in both World Wars understood that technology would never produce perfect situational awareness, the military leadership entrusted tactical commanders with broad autonomy inside a known mission framework to seize opportunities. (Robert Citino’s brilliant book, The German Way of War is worth reading in this connection). Even in the opening years of WW II, Prussian-German battlefield opportunism created success that rested on the foundation of the German soldier’s superior education, physical fitness and cultural capacity for initiative. When Hitler suppressed these attributes in favor of unquestioning obedience to dumb ideas, he provided the Soviets with an enemy they could defeat – a rigid, inflexible force that was inured to human and materiel losses, a force fought for every inch of ground exactly like the Red Army.
Since the 1960s, we in the United States and the West have enjoyed most of the advantages the Prussian-Germans enjoyed plus a few more the small regional German power never had: scientific-industrial capacity and production. However, we do not cultivate professional competence in uniform. As was made clear to me by the NEOCONs in power when I was still on active duty in 2002, we don’t care about character, competence or intelligence in uniform because it does not matter. Anything we did against the Arabs would work or so they contended in 2002-2003.
In their desire to be egalitarian, Americans are comfortable with the illusion that anybody can do anything, thus frequently ensuring the elevation of mediocrities to high rank. (Joerg Muth’s book Command Culture along with van Crefeld’s Fighting Power are instructive.)
In much the same way, Americans blundered through the 20th Century entering the worst wars in human history, WW I and WW II, when they were in their final phases. The outcomes were far from perfect as we subsequently discovered, but our lateness kept our casualties low, at least in comparison with our allies. Our economy benefited over the long term and being on the “winning side” created the illusion of effectiveness at home that in many cases was never justified.
(4) A Look at our military, today
Today, the problem is worse. Just listen to the men in uniform, primarily Army and Marine flag officers, talk about the strategic disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. You would think we just crossed the Rhine and marched into Berlin after defeating a capable adversary. It’s frighteningly reminiscent of the public statements of Soviet leaders issued in the aftermath of intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Afghanistan in the 1980s. The general officers do so because this behavior got them where they are; the young officers who aspire to replace them are not oblivious to this reality. Unless successive generations see evidence for fundamental change in leadership, civilian and military, they will follow the model too.
Today, Chuck Spinney, Mike Sparks, along with others seeking to reform America’s military culture, all confront this old American problem in newer and more challenging forms. Sometimes it is too frustrating for words when you consider that the vast majority of American citizens are not interested in the military, at least not in much beyond the superficial gruel provided by the Military Channel.
What is clear is the disposition after January 2013 to just cut defense spending, with little attention to how we do it. If we were Germans, Japanese or Israelis we might ask how we can extract more capability for the money through reform, reorganization and a changed acquisition paradigm, but I am not sure we will ask these questions, at least not initially.
Normally, two things can change this condition either in isolation or combination: economic crisis or serious military defeat. Given the world’s disinterest in waging for just now, I am betting on an economic crisis.
(5) About Doug Macgregor
From his Wikipedia entry:
Douglas A. Macgregor PhD. (Colonel, US Army, retired) is widely recognized as one of the most influential military thinkers of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.
… Macgregor’s seminal work, Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century (1997) was the first book by an Active Duty military author since Brigadier General William Mitchell, U.S. Army Air Corps, to challenge the status quo and set forth detailed proposals for the radical reform and reorganization of U.S. Army ground forces. His follow-on work, Transformation under Fire: Revolutionizing How America Fights (2003) expands on the concepts and ideas for reform and includes a foreword by a former British four-star general, Sir Rupert Smith.
… Macgregor is now an Executive VP with Burke-Macgregor Group LLC.
… Macgregor’s newest book is Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting (2009). In it Macgregor explains how the failure to finish the battle with the Republican Guard in 1991 led to Iraq’s second major confrontation with the United States in 2003 resulting in two hollow military “victories” and the tragic blood-letting that continues today in Iraq.
Other articles by or about the work of Douglas Macgregor on the FM website:
- Colonel Macgregor sums up the state of the Iraq War, 2 July 2008
- Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars, 7 April 2009
- Powerful and insightful new articles by Macgregor, 10 October 2009
- Macgregor sketches out the global geopolitical picture for us, 18 May 2010 — Includes links to many of his articles.
- Important new articles about reforming our military, a key to balancing the Federal budget, 29 April 2011
- Reconfiguring the US military for life after The Long War, 27 September 2011
- What does the future hold for the US Army – and America?, 29 APril 2012
(6) For more information about paths to reform for our military
(a) For more articles about ways to reform our military, see the FM Reference Page America’s military, and our national defense strategy.
(b) For more information about the skill and integrity of our senior military leaders:
- The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders, 27 May 2007
- The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it, 3 July 2008
- Obama vs. the Generals, 1 October 2010
- Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership, GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired), 2 May 2011
- Rolling Stone releases Colonel Davis’ blockbuster report about Afghanistan – and our senior generals!, 12 February 2012