Summary: This is a 2012 analysis by Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired) describing how our military came to its current sad state. It remains true today (a pitiful reality). We have vast military power with little wit, bought at great expense in terms of national wealth and the blood of our brave troops. Failure to reform it might have catastrophic consequences.
A look at our military.
By Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired). Originally posted in 2012.
Is experience in combat essential or just nice to have?
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 “aftermarket” jobs (as GI Wilson – Colonel, USMC, retired – calls it). But there is no substitute for being shot at. 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, both 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 had combat experience, as did Patton, Harmon, and Wood. It’s one of the key reasons why Marshall acted swiftly to replace people who were not effective. He replaced 39 division and corps commanders in the 34 months after March 1942.
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 a 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 proved to be more capable in action than any of its contemporaries, most of which had lots of experience in “small wars.” The German military demonstrated that experience shrinks to insignificance next to technology, organization, training, leadership, and education when its national military culture that supports it cultivates the right attributes.
As for the combat ‘seasoning’ that 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 that 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 its maximum effective range – against our dug-in positions. Usually, our combat soldiers and marines are so happy to experience fire they cut loose with their own heavy machine guns (which are not out of range), TOW missiles, mortars (with precision warheads), 105mm howitzers, and then AH64 gunships and F16 fighter-bombers. All that firepower against perhaps 6 or 8 Taliban fighters!
We have not experienced an enemy attack stronger than us since Korea (1950-52).
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.
In the years after WW II, America’s “civilian leaders” became the repository for most military thinking on the strategic and operational levels (e.g., Bernard Brodie, the Rostows, Warner R. Schilling).
Senior officers who demonstrated the ability to think, such as James Gavin, were sidelined in favor shameless sycophants like Maxwell Taylor and Earle Wheeler. 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 An Essay on Naval Tactics (1779 – 1804), 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 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.
How we got to where we are today.
Today, people tend 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 the importance of how we organize our forces and equipment, how we train and educate to fight miss the point. 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 Delbrück 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 remained a high tech job in the Soviet Army until 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: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich, is worth reading).
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 that 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: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II 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.
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.
“We make ourselves the servants of this cause, but it is no use espousing a cause without having also a method and a plan by which that cause may be made to win. I would not affront you with generalities. There must be the vision. There must be a plan, and there must be action following upon it.”
— Winston Churchill speaking before the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 9 May 1938.
Conservatives often hope for an (unlikely) economic crisis to produce reforms that should come from the work of Americans. Officers often say that military defeat is the only other likely path to military reform. This is unfortunate, since America’s citizens count on America’s officer corps to assume responsibility for the operation of our military. Who else will do so? Its officers’ disinterest in doing so is the essence of its weakness.
Perhaps Macgregor and others like him can change this. But more likely reform will happen only when Americans demand it.
Rumors of good news!
There are rumors that Trump might appoint Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired) to a senior post in his national defense team. That would be great news. Macgregor advocates having a strong military applied to its traditional role of keeping America safe. That means protecting the borders and deterring military adventures by other major powers. This strategy has served America well, when we have applied it.
To learn about his views, see his website, Future Defense Visions. Here are some of his articles, advice that America should heed.
- “A Radical Plan for Cutting the Defense Budget and Reconfiguring the U.S. Military” in Foreign Policy, April 2011 – Total savings: $279.5 billion.
- “Five Rules for Defense Spending” at Breaking Defense, January 2015.
- About the Army’s next spending binge: “Why Are We Buying The Army’s Big Six? What Will They Do?” at Breaking Defense, June 2018 – “The last time the US Army tried to modernize it spent $20 billion buying the Future Combat System, which was canceled as it foundered. Is the Army repeating the same mistakes with its Big Six?”
- A bold harsh question: “Mr. President, who’s really in charge of our defense?” at The Hill, November 2018 – “No one in the senior ranks has the experience to prepare him or her for war with the Russian or Chinese armed forces, let alone defending Southern border with Mexico from the lawlessness and violence sweeping into America.”
- “Warns against US involvement in Venezuela” on Hill TV’s “Rising”, January 2019 – “Whenever we go into these countries in Latin America, we create enormous bad blood and we create refugee flows.”
- “Why Do We Fight? How Do We Fight?” at The American Conservative, May 2019 – “The military spends billions on programs and missions that have no basis in reality. This is why we fail, again and again.”
- “John Bolton is the problem” at The Spectator, May 2019 – “Trump’s national security adviser is getting dangerous, particularly to the president’s ideals.”
About Douglas Macgregor
He was commissioned in the US Army in 1976 after one year at VMI and four years at West Point. In 1987 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in international relations. He retired as a Colonel in 2004 after a distinguished career with notable successes as a squadron operations officer in the Battle of 73 Easting during the Gulf War and as a planner and leader of other operations. In 1991, he was awarded the bronze star with “V” device for valor under fire.
He is a strong advocate for reform of the US Army, which froze his career. Events in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that was correct about the need for fundamental change in the US military. See his Wikipedia entry for details.
Now he is an Executive Vice President of Burke-Macgregor Group LLC, a consulting and intellectual capital brokerage firm.
Macgregor has testified as an expert witness on national security issues before the House Armed Services and House Foreign Relations Committee. He is a frequent guest commentator on radio and television. His books have influenced the Army’s strategy and tactics.
- The Soviet-East German Military Alliance (1989) – His doctoral dissertation, published by Cambridge University Press (1989).
- Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century (1997).
- Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing How America Fights (2003).
- Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting (2009) – About the US Army’s largest tank battle since World War II.
- Margin of Victory: Five Battles That Changed the Face of Modern War (2016).
See his tweets at @MacgregorDoug. And especially see these posts about his work…
- What does the future hold for the US Army – and America?
- A look at our military threats – and at our greatest foe.
- Wouldn’t it be great to win a war, occasionally?
For More Information
Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our generals, about our officer corps, about ways to reform the military, and especially these about our officer corps …
- The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders – A horrific insight.
- Overhauling The Officer Corps to build a military that can win wars – by David Evans (Lieutenant Colonel, USMC, retired).
- Officers can reform our military and make America stronger! – Only the will to do so is lacking.
- Admiral Rickover’s gift to us: showing that we can reform America’s military.
- Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done – by Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).
- Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military – by G. I. Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
See Macgregor’s latest book
Five Battles that Changed the Face of Modern War.
See my post about it. Also, see the publisher’s description…
“In Margin of Victory Douglas Macgregor tells the riveting stories of five military battles of the twentieth century, each one a turning point in history. Beginning with the British Expeditionary force holding the line at the Battle of Mons in 1914 and concluding with the Battle of Easting in 1991 during Desert Storm, Margin of Victory teases out a connection between these battles and teaches its readers an important lesson about how future battles can be won.
“Emphasizing military strategy, force design, and modernization, Macgregor links each of these seemingly isolated battles thematically. At the core of his analysis, the author reminds the reader that to be successful, military action must always be congruent with national culture, geography, and scientific-industrial capacity. He theorizes that strategy and geopolitics are ultimately more influential than ideology. Macgregor stresses that if nation-states want to be successful, they must accept the need for and the inevitability of change.
“The five warfighting dramas in this book, rendered in vivid detail by lively prose, offer many lessons on the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war.”