Twenty Years of War: What Have We Learned? Conclusions

            By way of concluding this brief discussion on military lessons learned from the last two decades of conflict, I will limit myself to three main points, followed by a call to action. These points will have to do with the limits of U.S. power, the responsibilities of military and national leadership, and (again, with a personal note) the human costs of any war.

U.S. Power, Limited

            Some of the reasons for our precipitous involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan may be traced to a prevailing idea, after the fall of the Soviet Union, of America as a sole superpower that could do what it liked. In this view, America was an empire that encompassed the entire world. It had the right and responsibility to police the globe, in effect confirming gains that were already falling into place, since the triumphs of American-style capitalism and democracy were inevitable. The attacks of 9/11 were a galling interruption in this victory march, one that, given our might, we could easily crush and consign to the past along with other failed, upstart uprisings. We now know, and must not forget, that our power is more limited than it has appeared. This is a lesson that should have been learned from Vietnam, and perhaps was, but was unlearned after the Gulf War and some other arguably successful if limited American military interventions. Remaking a country based mostly on the application of military force, with scant cultural and political understanding on our part, is generally a recipe for defeat.

Taking Responsibility

An appreciation of this fact of limitation among Americans and military officers especially goes against the enterprising “can do” spirit that still permeates our culture. A “no can do” corrective is needed. To put it another way, a former battalion commander of mine would sometimes curb the enthusiasm of his eager subordinates by saying, in effect, that we were Marines and could do anything, but that we needed to ask what this latest proposal would cost in terms of other areas neglected, of troop burn out and the expenditure of resources.  If it had been wartime and not peacetime training in Camp Lejeune, he might have asked about the cost in dead, wounded, and traumatized Marines, in wrecked buildings and decimated local families. In answer to the call to action, perhaps we can, but ought we? This ought invites an ethical question as well. The senior military and national leadership especially must ask what kinds of acts we will be drawn into in case of war, or of a particular war willingly entered upon. It might even be asked at what point a struggle will descend into barbarism, since nearly all wars seem to reach this point if they go on for long enough. Recalling his service as a mathematician for the RAF in World War II, Freeman Dyson says that he and his fellows retreated from one ethical position to another until it seemed they had no ethical position left. This is what happens, in some cases more quickly than others, but deferring this moral “culminating point” (to borrow some doctrinal terminology) should be one of the considerations entering into a struggle. Ordering people to fight in such a struggle can only be justified as a well thought-out, assiduously prepared last resort, and not treated as a great adventure or noble cause, the sheer righteousness of which silences all doubt.    

Who Pays?

            The pride of America in its armed forces, and of military members in their own services’ capabilities, must not translate into an eagerness for conflict or a diminishment of its difficulties. Americans are not wrong to think that some of the best of every generation enter the armed forces for noble and idealistic reasons. It is also the case that many of the best of these men and women find themselves at the tip of the spear, in combat with an enemy. The fact is that the personal qualities of these individuals are often exploited or expended in the service of a conflict that might have been avoided or curtailed. War may bring out the best in some, but all too often it ends up destroying them. As Thomas Hobbes wrote, the two cardinal virtues in war are force and fraud.

            I was reminded that it is often the best who pay the highest price by the recent death of Major Ian Fishback. Major Fishback was a special forces officer who exposed the lack of guidance and encouragement of brutal methods by military personnel conducting interrogations. His principled stand likely helped to drive him out of the Army, and the moral injury that resulted from his rejection by the institution which he loved almost certainly contributed to his death following a mental breakdown. In war, it is the sensitive and intelligent who often suffer most; the losses are highest among those whom the nation and world can least afford to do without, whose intact survival is most needed if the human species is to advance and to survive. The lesson must not be forgotten that in war it is our humanity we risk as much as our lives.     

Twenty Years of War: What Have We Learned? Part 2

A Politicized Military

The pressures of the long war and the extraordinary political climate in the country have raised the specter of a politicized American military of a kind that we have never seen. For a time, it seemed possible that the armed forces might be called on to overturn a presidential election, even to impose some version of martial law. The numbers of veterans and military members involved in the January 6 insurrection raised fears of military involvement in an attempted coup d’état.  It may be (this has yet to be established) that federal troops were held back from intervening in the insurrection by people in the chain of command who hoped that it would succeed in overturning the election. It also appears that an intervention by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was precipitated by his concerns over the possibility of an eleventh-hour, unprovoked attack by U.S. forces.

Retired colonel Andrew Bacevich, among others, has argued that the relations between civil and military authority in the United States have not been as stable as many suppose. Since the armed forces have eschewed the coups and king-making of other militaries, we believe that all is well in this area. The events leading up to the transfer of power after the last presidential election suggest that Bacevich may be right, and that more consideration needs to be given to the place of the military in the national life. The Constitutional oath is sometimes invoked as a guarantor of a stable position of the armed forces, but the oath itself is too little discussed or understood, and it may not be enough. An explicit commitment to the rule of law, to the electoral process and principles of a liberal democracy may be required to avert even the possibility of a “seven-days-in-May” scenario.            

The Human Factor

            The American wars of the 21st century have surely been a reminder of the human costs of war. First among these is loss of life. The total fatalities from these conflicts runs at half a million. The second are those wounded, physically and psychologically, and this number runs into the millions. Finally there is the physical destruction: of bridges and buildings, of goods and supplies, of rolling stock and other forms of civil and military machinery and equipment. This cost ran into the trillions of dollars of unrecoverable losses, and this in a region and world of scarce resources, of material want in all parts of the globe.

            By the “human factor” I am also alluding to war as an enduringly and even uniquely human activity. Wars are fought by people operating under intense conditions that may test them physically, intellectually, and ethically as perhaps no other activity. It is not fought by machines or by technology, but by those who carry, maintain, operate and adapt the machines and technology to a warlike purpose. There is, however, a danger that the encroachments of technology will make war even crueler than it has been. In a recent book co-authored by Henry Kissinger, the authors warn of the ruthlessness and inhumanity which AI involved in strategic calculation often displays. Writing about computers as decision tools as long ago as 1951, German philosopher Hans Blumenberg warned of the ability of computers and other technology to “silence all questions regarding…meaning, humaneness, and justifiability” (Times Literary Supplement, Dec 17, 2021). A symptom of the “Next War-itis” referenced in my last post appears to be a preoccupation with technology and its putative ability to bring quick and clean victory. But the human factor will intrude. The fighting will react to the usual forces of atavism and entropy, coming down to the gunfight or hand-to-hand combat in a drone-wrecked building or by the wreckage of a million-dollar vehicle destroyed by an improvised device built in a basement.  And the cost of war will remain high.           

Next: Conclusions

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