Summary: As we begin yet another cycle of wars, we owe it to ourselves and even more to our soldiers to ask why the best soldiers in the world keep losing? Here is one answer, stark and contrarian.
FM Laws #1: all discussions of 4GW, the wars we actually fight, get derailed into discussions about hardware for theoretical conventional wars. More fun! Less scary!
- Fallows describes the problem.
- Are we the cause?
- Rephrasing the problem.
- Another example.
- Other post in this series.
- For More Information.
(1) Fallows describes the problem
I consider James Fallows to be one of the most perceptive journalists of our day. So when the Jan/Feb copy of The Atlantic arrived with his article on the cover, I eagerly turned to it. The provocative title, “The Tragedy of the American Military“ predisposed me to like it, as I’ve written much about this during the past decade. Much of it presented — brilliantly, as usual, the critique developed by the military reform community during the past 20 years (with nil effect on the Pentagon). Here’s the core problem, shown in this excerpt…
Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. … Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion …Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned.
(2) Are we the cause — the reason why America can’t win these wars?
So what causes this inability to win wars in the 6 decades since Korea? Fallows gives a compelling analysis of the problem (with which I agree) then blames the American public.
Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1% under fire in our name.
America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts. This distance also means that we spend too much money on the military and we spend it stupidly, thereby short-changing many of the functions that make the most difference to the welfare of the troops and their success in combat. We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory, and with the economic interests and political influence of contractors. This leaves us with expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants, while unglamorous but essential tools, from infantry rifles to armored personnel carriers, too often fail our troops…
The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy. At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.
That struck me as quite wrong, so I wrote Are we chickenhawks and so bear the responsibility for our lost wars since 9/11? in rebuttal. But that did not answer the vital question Fallows implicitly asked. Why do we lose so often in our modern wars?
(3) Rephrasing the problem.
So I asked someone who knows about these things: G I Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired). He immediately gave the answer. It was on the cover (Fallows probably didn’t write the headline). We consider the US military the finest soldiers in the world because we judge them by the criteria important to us.
Once pointed in the right direction, the rest was easy. They look good: tall, strong, good teeth, healthy. They are well-educated: most enlisted men have high school degrees, many of the NCOs have some college, almost all the officers have undergraduate degrees (and many have advanced degrees). Most have a long list of certificates showing completion of training courses; many of the officers have written papers on highly theoretical aspects of the military or social sciences.
Our troops wield weapons that Buck Rogers would envy, fighting small wars backed up with a supply train more capable than that supplying the entire Wehrmacht in WWII. Contrast that with the people we fight. Often poorly educated, lightly trained, in poor health, wielding simple weapons. We’re better, QED.
Unfortunately War has its own calculus, not ours. The only relevant measure is an army’s ability to win in a specific time and place. And we don’t, and to believe that we are the best has ill effects.
Our soldiers are brave, but they fight people with literally suicidal bravery and determination. We Were Soldiers Once describes the first major combat by American troops in Vietnam at Ia Drang. That 34 day campaign saw a kill ratio of 12 North Vietnamese soldiers for every American. General Westmoreland and his staff in Saigon saw this as a success, showing that we could win. So did his counterpart in Hanoi. Time proved who was correct.
Our officers write academic papers about military theory, but the Darwinian ratchet guarantees that our foes’ leaders understand 4GW. Our officers have MBAs but our foes ruthlessly employ the most brutally effective management methods through lethal trial and error. As a result they develop new methods faster, and so maintain an edge in performance. For more about this see this analysis by GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired): The strengths of our 4GW foes; above all they learn faster.
So it has gone in most of our wars since then, except for Saddam’s mad conventional war with the US in the first Gulf War. Perhaps this will change in the future.
Nowadays the medium and senior personnel of all modern armed forces undergo extensive school education. Nevertheless, even in today’s technological world the view that war is the best teacher of war still holds much truth. … Over the last 40 years in particular, professional militaries have suffered any number of defeats at the hands of guerrillas and other practitioners of low-intensity conflict — who do not in the ordinary course of things undergo staff- and war-college training but have instead the authentic daily experience of combat.
— Martin van Creveld’s Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance (1990).
(4) Two other examples
Overconfidence is an infection capable of destroying the strongest army, and ran like epidemic through our forces during the 9/11 wars (and perhaps still does today). For a stunning example, see this by one of the top intellects on our side — Australian army officer David Kilcullen. He published “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency“ in the May-June 2006 issue of Military Review. The advice was fantastic — when used by an insurgent. It was horrific if adopted by us. Look at article #1.
Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district.
It was vital for a company commander to know that the world expert on “his” district already lives there and probably was born there. An American officer on 6-12 month rotations could not develop comparable knowledge about the area, especially in so foreign a culture. It might be difficult for some of them to quickly do so in Watts or Harlem. Despite its bad advice, the article was a big hit. No surprise that both wars were expensive busts in both money and lives. See my review for more from this fascinating vignette of our mad wars.
Also see this simple but brutal statement of the truth from a 2016 article by Fred Reed:
“The military of Vietnam wasn’t very good at fighting, and neither is the military of today. GIs in Asia would assault a hill, usually of no importance, and, after three days, with the aid of helicopters, helo gunships, napalm, artillery, and fighter-bombers, would capture it. This would be called a triumph. The astute observed that if the Americans had to fight on equal terms, without overwhelming material superiority, they would last perhaps ten minutes.
“This is now a recognized pattern. Note that numerically superior and hugely armed American forces have been outfought for years by lightly armed Afghan goat herds. Since neither the wars nor the soldiers in them are of much importance, this doesn’t matter.”
See the next chapter: Why we lose wars so often. How we can win in the future.
(5) Other posts in this series: why does America keep losing?
These matters are more extensively discussed in the previous posts in this series.
- Are we chickenhawks and so bear the responsibility for our lost wars since 9/11?
- Does America have the best military in the world?
- Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?
- Why we lose so many wars, and how we can win — a summary at Martin van Creveld’s website.
- A powerful new article shows why we lose so many wars: FAILure to learn.
(6) For More Information
- Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done.
- So many scandals in the US military: signs of rot or reform?
- Overhauling The Officer Corps to build a military that can win wars.
- How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
- A step to getting an effective military. We might need it soon.