Twenty Years of War: What Have We Learned? Part 1

        The United States armed forces have been involved in conflict for the past two decades. In fact, the fighting is really not over yet, but the withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the end of the latter of the two major conflicts in which we have been engaged. This marks a useful milestone, and one that is being neglected. As noted in a recent article in The War Horse, military culture may be suffering from a case of “Next War-itis,” a preoccupation with the next war that may be distracting the armed forces from a careful consideration of our recent wars and the lessons to be learned from them.

Why Not?

            Another reason not to succumb to Next War-itis is that the record of prediction of next wars has been spotty at best. For decades of the Cold War, military culture, training, and equipment were based on the expectation of a confrontation with the Soviets in Europe that never came. The Gulf War fed the expectation that conventional war was the most likely, but the wars of the last two decades have been largely counterinsurgent. In fact, it could be argued that America was sometimes trying to fight a conventional war in what was really a counterinsurgency. Leading up to World War II, America thought that it would be fighting Germany first and was unprepared for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Navy Admirals, trained in the school of Mahan, then expected a battleship war in the Pacific, but the aircraft carrier became far more decisive. American military planners are now turning again to the Pacific, hoping that enough conventional naval strength will be a deterrence against China.     

            Even if American military powers of prediction are superior to those of the past, it is unwise and unseemly for us to turn too quickly to the imagined future, forsaking the sacrifices and lessons of the last twenty years. To a degree, after all, war is war, and even if future wars are fought in another part of the world, with different methods, weapons, and for different reasons than those of our recent conflicts, we have surely learned lessons in the past twenty years that would be valuable in any war.          

        What are these lessons? In this post and next few that will follow, I will state very briefly what I think some of these are. Ideally, this question will continue to be a topic of conversation among the military, national security community, and the nation at large.

Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS)/Moral Injury (MI)

            We have learned much about PTS/MI in the last twenty years, and this knowledge must not be lost. It should also be emphasized that this knowledge is not for medical professionals alone, but should become part of the equipment of every military leader. Military leaders can help to prevent PTS/MI by being aware of the conditions that may bring them on, and by ensuring that their own conduct and that of subordinates is not creating the conditions for PTS/MI. PTS/MI may be brought on by unnecessary of illegal acts of violence, by acts that demonstrate callousness towards the death of soldiers and  noncombatants, and by a failure to address concerns about the mission. They may also be caused by participation in an unjust or unnecessary war.

Strategic Guidance

            A failure of strategic guidance is one of the shortcomings that have been associated with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. A lesson of the recent conflicts is that no amount of tactical skill or superior technology can redeem a strategy that is flawed or frankly AWOL. The mechanism for creating and communicating strategic guidance seems to be flawed and even broken. The lack of effective strategic guidance not only impedes the chances for success, it relates to the incidence of PTS and especially MI, as noted above. Soldiers sent into a struggle the purpose of which has not been clearly laid out are far more prone to psychological trauma than those who understand what they are fighting for. This imposes an obligation on the most senior military officials to ensure that the armed forces are not committed to dubious battle. If the purpose of a war, campaign, or operation cannot be explained in fairly simple terms, the question of “is this trip really necessary” must be asked forcefully and, if necessary, repeatedly.

Next: A Politicized Military


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