US Army: To be or not to be… (relevant to actual contemporary wars, that is)

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Officer Questions Petraeus’s Strategy – WSJ.com

Via the ever-useful Small Wars Journal I came across this super piece in the Wall Street Journal by Yochi Dreazen on the recent contributions of LCOL Gian Gentile to the on-going US defence reform battles. There’s a back story to this; if you’re unfamiliar with it you might want start with the Small Wars link; otherwise press on to the WSJ article which is excerpted below.

WEST POINT, N.Y. — When Gen. David Petraeus testifies before Congress on Tuesday, lawmakers from both parties will praise him for reducing violence in Iraq. President Bush will try to use his popularity to bolster support for the war. Some Republicans will muse about the general as a vice-presidential candidate.
[David Petraeus]

Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, a history professor here who served two tours in Iraq, begs to differ. He argues that Gen. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency tactics are getting too much credit for the improved situation in Iraq. Moreover, he argues, concentrating on such an approach is eroding the military’s ability to wage large-scale conventional wars.

“We’ve come up with this false narrative, this incorrect explanation of what is going on in Iraq,” he says. “We’ve come to see counterinsurgency as the solution to every problem and we’re losing the ability to wage any other kind of war.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, and with the greatest of respect, I think LCOL Gentile has got this completely wrong. I believe his argument rests upon a false premise and his proposals are a harbinger of the worst possible institutional outcome of the Iraq War fallout.

The false premise is the hoary-old dictum that it is easier for a war-fighter to ‘gear down’ to COIN, peacekeeping, nation-building and other similar ‘lesser included contingencies’ than it is for the COIN specialist to ‘gear up’ to high-intensity war-fighting. Indeed, it is sometimes argued that it is useless to try to have the same people in the same uniforms perform both roles. That’s rubbish. A fine illustration of this false dichotomy can be found in this prize-winning essay:

We want our nation-builders to be open, approachable, and easy to communicate with. We want nation-builders who understand and care about the locals. We want nation-builders to dialogue first and rely on force only as a last resort. . .. We want our soldiers to have none of these qualities. The US soldier should be the wrath of God, able to bring death and destruction anywhere at any time. Let the nation-builder be the good guy and the soldier the bad guy.

Gentile does not say how he feels about nation-building, whether any Americans should be doing it; clearly, however, he thinks it is not the job of the US Army at any rate, because it diminishes its ability to generate raw combat power which would be needed to fight large battles against a conventional enemy. I’d concede that point with a few caveats: A/ We aren’t fighting any wars like that right now; B/ if the major task at hand were the simple generating of raw combat power that can be done with just a handful of troops on the ground; and, C/ in the wars we actually are fighting right now nation-building has become more or less synonymous with ‘war-winning’.

It is true that it is hard to develop troops who are one part diplomat (and possess other ‘soft skills’) and one part soldier, but not impossible. It means sacrificing some combat power because there’s still only 24 hours in a day and so many days in a training schedule. But what’s lost if we do? There are always pros and cons too be weighed. Food for thought: the war in in Iraq stands as a testament to the folly of judging the likelihood of strategic success on the basis of the ability to generate raw combat power. Mistake or no (a debate for another day) it has been immensely costly in terms of treasure and blood. I don’t know if the Surge will reverse the disastrous situation enough before the political stopwatch in Washington DC clicks down to zero. Neither does anyone else; hence the massive interest in Petraeus’s testimony next week.

As will be clear by now I’m a partisan of the COIN side of this debate (a partisan of the partisans); and so I hope very much that Gentile’s views represent those of a minority. But there’s a lot at stake. It still remains to be seen whether or not the United States will draw from Iraq something like the lesson it drew from Vietnam: that its strategic and political culture and national military tradition simply ill suit it to irregular wars. Jeffrey Record has argued along these lines forcefully and convincingly, drawing the conclusion that it should therefore abstain from getting involved in them. Still, one may agree with Record’s estimation of American strategic culture while questioning the validity of a conclusion that rests on the false assumption that such wars can be avoided. ‘If this analysis is correct,’ says Record, ‘the policy choice is obvious: avoidance of direct military involvement in foreign internal wars unless vital national security interests are at stake.’

But, as Herfried Munkler writes in his book The New Wars, ‘War “smoulders on”, “spreads out”, “extends over” and so on . . . War as the subject of events will not stop at the frontiers of Europe and North America but will sooner or later move beyond them.’ In other words, fighting ‘wars amongst the people’, my preferred term, is not a sideshow or an optional extra that the Army may do or not do – this is the main event. In the words of Michael Howard, ‘The military may protest that this is not the kind of war that they joined up to fight, and taxpayers that they see little return for their money. But as I said earlier, this is the only war we are likely to get: it is also the only kind of peace.’ So, if Howard is right, the policy choice is stark: achieve a cultural change, as mammoth a task as that may be, or grow accustomed to defeat.

Right now the bulk of the land forces in just about every Western army are focused on regular, inter-state war-fighting of like against like, a task which technology is making possible to do with relatively few ground troops working in conjunction with precision fires delivered by air and naval assets; but the main threat is posed by irregular opponents, non-templatable, hybrid enemies in ‘wars amongst the people’ scenarios, the fighting of which calls for skills and mindsets that are still too often seen as a niche or separate capability. If the problem of meeting current and future threats could be solved merely by taking, holding or destroying this or that objective, then the current arrangement of forces could be continued. The problem, however, is winning ‘wars amongst the people’ and for that, the battlefield must be repopulated by soldiers whose training and mindset is inherently opposite to the ‘never put a man where you can put a bullet’ logic of the Revolution in Military Affairs and its derivative concepts. If land forces in future are going to have to fight a succession of big ‘small wars’, then the ‘big army’ is going to have to shoulder the burden of nation-building, recognize it as the core and substance of warwinning, and compose its forces accordingly. And that’s why Gentile is wrong.

For any who have read this far and wish to read on my thoughts on this issue are more fully developed in this article which appeared in Contemporary Security Policy a couple of issues back Redesigning Land Forces for Wars Amongst the People.

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3 Responses to “US Army: To be or not to be… (relevant to actual contemporary wars, that is)”

  1. Will Says:

    Max Boot has a short comment piece on the Contentions site about the Dreazen article and the Gentile vs. COIN debate. He makes a good point about the fact that, irrespective of your position on the debate currently preoccupying the US military, the fact this debate is occurring at all within an institution known for conformity should be seen as a positive thing.

    http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/boot/3239

  2. staillat Says:

    I’ve just finished your article in CSP. Nice Piece. Maybe I could add this thought regarding “war amongst the people”. This new paradigm (or perhaps the current perception of the actual context by the military) deserves to be further studied in its implication for the force at the local level. The key seems to be the imperative of gaining legitimacy at local levels, which is like squaring a circle: how being legitimate at the local level while trying to empower new State apparatus that lacks this legitimacy at national level?
    Another good point is the link between current doctrine and colonial and postcolonial practices: this raises the issue of the construction of new role and missions in the services, which would be designed for the new imperatives and that would avoid the colonial stance….
    But these are only questions…. that deserve more work to answer (That’s why there are two years left before I can write my doctoral thesis :) )
    Stéphane TAILLAT

  3. Darshana Natarajan Says:

    I definitely appreciate all the hard effort that you’ve devoted to keeping this blog around for your followers. I really hope this stays online for a nice long while.

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