Summary: Our defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan (failures to achieve any major national goals despite large expenditures of blood and money) accompanied an overwhelming victory invisible to the public. In fact, these defeats resulted from that victory — the Pentagon’s defeat of the military reform movement. The post-9/11 campaigns by defense intellectuals demonstrated their shallow roots in the Washington, just as the anti-war protests showed their shallow roots in our society. These twin defeats leave the National Security State triumphant and stronger than ever. Our defeats abroad matter not at all to its leaders.
This is another in a series of posts commemorating the 25th anniversary of the 25th anniversary of the Marine Corps Gazette article “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”, the high point of the military reform movement.
To see how we go here let’s travel back two decades, to when military reformers were strong. They found an audience interested in deep reforms to a Pentagon flush with funds from the Reagan revolution. To hear a voice from that time see Senator Gary Hart’s (D-CO) op-ed in the New York Times: “An Agenda for More Military Reform“, 13 May 1986. It’s a summary of his 1986 book (coauthored with William Lind) America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform. Excerpt:
Five years ago, military reform was the province of a small band of iconoclasts in the Senate. Now the need for broad changes in the way we train, equip and deploy our conventional forces has become conventional wisdom. Congress and the American people must not, however, let satisfaction with early gains take the steam out of the reform movement before it achieves its fundamental goal – military forces that can win in combat.
Spurred by Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, reports of $600 toilet seats and an angry public’s realization that a 40% increase in defense spending has not bought real security, national leaders have begun to recognize that in defense, costlier is not always better. The Congressional Military Reform Caucus has grown to more than 130 lawmakers from both parties. And the Administration has endorsed – in word if not yet in deed – a wide-ranging package of reforms recommended by a Presidential commission headed by David Packard, president of Hewlett-Packard, which manufactures computer technology.
Their book gave specific recommendations, each well-supported by a large body of expert analysis.
- Shift the military from attrition warfare (2GW) to maneuver warfare (3GW);
- Buy systems based on their effectiveness in combat rather than seeking the most advanced (complex) technology;
- Boost unit cohesion by keeping personnel together for many years rather than rotating them as individuals;
- Make submarines the core capital ship of the Navy, not aircraft carriers;
- Reduce the number of senior officers
- Focus officer education on the art of war, not management “science”.
The result were some noteworthy reorganizations, which streamlined the Pentagon but (like the many previous reorganizations) changed its nature not at all. Unit rotation became the rule (#3). We built both submarines and aircraft carriers (#4). Military leaders strangled other proposals in their cribs. The reform engine steamed on with slowly diminishing impact but strong intellectual heft. A good example is Military Reform: A Reference Handbook, Winslow Wheeler and Larry Korb (2007). William Lind’s review gives a capsule summary of attempts to reform the monster President Eisenhower warned about in 1961. Lind explains…
When the world was young and hope dared live in Washington, a small group of people put together something called the Military Reform Movement. Its purpose was to measure defense policies and programs by the standard of what works in combat rather than who benefits financially. Launched in the 1970s, it peaked in the early 1980s and was gone by 1990.
Why did it fail? Because in a contest between ideas and money, the money always wins.
… The book’s stronger chapters are those by Wheeler, who pulls no punches when discussing the ways various members of Congress betrayed the reform cause. The “Washington Game” is to create an image with the public that is a direct opposite to what the Senator or Congressman actually does behind closed doors, and the Caucus saw plenty of that game. Standouts were Senator Bill Cohen of Maine, who attended Caucus meetings while busily working with Senator John Tower to block any reform of the Navy (he went on to be perhaps the most ineffectual Secretary of Defense in the Department’s history); Newt Gingrich, who really “got” reform and played a big role in the early history of the Caucus, then did nothing to advance its ideas once he gained power; and Dick Cheney, who also used reform to generate an image and now, as Vice President, does nothing.
… What drew many members of Congress to the Reform Caucus was the opportunity it offered to get some good ink. When the wind started blowing the other way, those illustrious legislators blew with it.
… It may be that the Military Reform Movement remains nothing but a historical footnote, one of many vain attempts to rescue a decaying empire from its appointment with history’s dustbin. But as Winslow Wheeler makes clear … it was also the source of some important ideas on how to win wars and, for those of us who were involved in it, a hell of a ride.
That window of opportunity closed, so that the US military was gung ho for war after 9/11 — but completely unprepared for its 4GW foes. This became apparent to the Homeland only slowly, since public relations is a core competence of our senior officers. It was obvious to the remnant of the military reform community, who predicted the inevitable debacle — hoping to leverage this changes that would build a new and better military for America in the 21st Century.
The resulting flood of analysis and recommendations looks in hindsight not just brilliant but prophetic. Perhaps the best record is Lind’s “On War” columns (online here; published here), from 1/2003 to 12/2009 (begun 8 months before mine). During the next few years John Robb published Brave New War. Chet Richards published his brilliant books Neither Shall the Sword and If We Can Keep It. Perhaps most important, Martin van Creveld published The Culture of War and The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq.
Websites arouse to aggregate these voices, such as AntiWar.com.
Other groups organized public opposition to the war, restarting the machinery dormant since Vietnam. Protests, articles in the mass media, organizing coalitions, and lobbying politicians.
By 2009 it was obvious to many that these wars were expensive and futile, based largely on lies. Their hollow foundation was revealed in the rare debates (the wars’ advocates were so strong they seldom bothered to debate), such as that run by Andrew Exum at the Center for a New American Security website. At this hawks’ nest they were unable to even stage a coherent defense.
The results proved worse than I imagined possible when I first wrote on these matters in 2003. The operational reforms (moving to 3GW or even 4GW) lost their only foothold in the USMC. The wars ran to exhaustion and our defeat. Mad dysfunctional weapons programs continue (e.g., the F-35, star wars, the X-51 hypersonic cruise missile). The space program has been largely militarized (e.g., the X-37b).
The future looks even darker. The hawks appear to have rested, and now begun to build new fires on the corpses of the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and are doubling down on their failed methods (e.g., we didn’t kill enough, or with sufficient boldness). The Pentagon continues to expand in Africa, the new frontier for involving us in foreign civil wars. The new Congress will boost military funding, squash any talk of reforms to the out-of-control domestic surveillance agencies, and continue the militarization of the police.
The forces of reform have gotten crushed at every level. Most of the reformers have either given up (a rational response), retreated to trivial concerns (e.g., the fight to save the A-10 “Warthog”), or continued their failed tactics (AA: “insanity is repeating actions …”). There are exceptions, such as William Lind, Paul Pillar, and Andrew Bacevich. Outnumbered and outgunned.
We must acknowledge defeat. Nothing can happen while we respond to failure with what Wolfgang Schievelbusch calls the “dreamland”. That prevents learning. Prevents change. Closes the door to eventual victory.
Instead let’s understand what’s happened, assess why we lost, and develop new tactics for the future. The future remains open. Nothing is written.
Posts in this series about 4GW, reflecting on 25 years of 4GW defeats
- Chuck Spinney asks why we choose to lose at 4GW.
- William Lind: thoughts about 4GW, why we lose, and how we can win in the future.
- “SAS kill up to 8 jihadis each day, as allies prepare to wipe IS off the map.” Bold words we’ve heard before.
- What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?
- The battle that mattered most to America: the Pentagon vs. Military Reformers. It’s over.
- What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?.
- Understanding 4GW, the first step to winning the Long War — #1 of GI’s series.
- DoD defends itself against dangerous new ideas about 4GW. — #2 of GI’s series.
- 4GW allows ISIS to fight and win against more powerful armies. Like ours. — #3 of GI’s series.
- Using 4GW might give the Islamic State a big future. — #4 of GI’s series.
For More Information
See all posts about…
- America’s military, and our national defense strategy
- Reforming America: steps to political change
- Military and strategic theory and practice