Blogs > Cliopatria > The Historian as Soldier: Shadows and Fog (2)

Jan 16, 2006 7:36 pm

The Historian as Soldier: Shadows and Fog (2)

Chris Bray, a member of HNN blog, Cliopatria, is a graduate student in history at UCLA, now on duty in Kuwait with the US Army. This blog entry is one in a series recording his reflections on his experiences. Click here to read the introduction to this series. Click here to read part one.

Last September, American and Iraqi troops swept through the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, killing and capturing insurgents in a strike launched under the name"Operation Restoring Rights." It was the most successful attack on the insurgency in that city, USA Todayreported, since"American forces ran insurgents out of Tal Afar a year ago." Before the month was over, a female suicide bomber had launched another attack in Tal Afar, killing six men at an Iraqi Army recruiting center. More recently, insurgents fired mortars at polling stations in Tal Afar during the December elections.

You can tell that story in other Iraqi cities; in a much-quoted op-ed piece in the Washington Post early this month, Paul Schroeder noted that his son, a marine, had died in a familiar town:"Augie was killed on his fifth mission to clear Haditha." A few days before, the news pages of that same paper reported that American soldiers were preparing to hand over the city of Samarra to Iraqi police -- for the third time in three years. American military leaders quoted in the piece were urgently hoping the hand-over would stick the third time.

The unblinking cheerleaders for the war in Iraq like to make comparisons
to WWII: Imagine if we'd left Europe before Hitler's army had been defeated. To which I say, imagine if nine landings at Normandy had led to four liberations of Paris, followed by a series of as-yet-unfinished marches on Berlin.

Why can't the U.S. military -- unquestionably the most powerful in the world -- clear insurgents out of Iraqi towns for good? Because (troop levels aside) the structure and direction of American military force does little to address the structure and direction of the insurgency, a problem that was decades in the making. We went to war with the army we had, and it was the wrong army. To illustrate the point, or begin to, I'm going to try to develop and compare two sets of images.

First, the insurgency. On his blog, Global Guerillas, security consultant and former Air Force officer John Robb has discussed the importance of systems disruption in Iraq and elsewhere. In December, Robb noted that Iraq -- with the world's second-largest oil reserves -- was"importing $200 million a month in gasoline," as insurgents targeted petroleum infrastructure in that country [emphasis added]. Successful attacks on Iraq's ability to tap and distribute its own oil have not been the product of the kind of force-on-force attacks of a typical military campaign. Rather, the December disruptions were built around two things: First, the destruction of remote and unguarded sections of pipeline, and, second, the use of threatening letters directed to oil truck drivers. Robb concludes:"Cost of the attack (letters and potentially phone calls) = $0 (another example of global guerrilla efficiency)."

And so, in this and other insurgent efforts, a campaign of"infrastructure disruption," implemented without direct exposure to the firepower of U.S. military forces,"has kept Iraq in continuous economic failure." Economic failure generates and perpetutates political crisis, as the state appears to be unable to provide order; for the American occupation, the peristent failure of oil, water, sewage, and electrical infrastructure in Iraq leads Iraqis to ask the question so often noted by Anthony Shadid in his book on the war: If this is a superpower, why can't they keep the lights on? (There's much more to say about Robb's view of emerging forms of warfare, and it's well worth the time to click through a sampling of posts at his blog.)

War by infrastructure attacks and systems disruption, which cause substantial harm to a military enemy without engaging the enemy militarily, have significant roots in recent thinking about war. In 1999, for an example I've previously noted elsewhere, two colonels in the People's Liberation Army published a book, Unrestricted Warfare, describing potential avenues for waging war against a militarily superior United States. Such a war could be waged, they suggested, by at least some means that wouldn't look like military means:

"...[W]hatever provides benefits to mankind can also be turned around to be a weapon to harm mankind. That is to say that there is nothing in the world that cannot become a weapon. This smashes our conception of just what a weapon is. Just as technology is multiplying the number of different kinds of weapons, new thinking breaks down the distinction between weapon and non-weapon. To our way of thinking, a planned stock market crash, a computer virus attack, making the currency exchange rate of an enemy country erratic, and spreading rumors on the Internet about the leaders of an enemy country can all be thought of as new concept weapons. This new way of thinking puts weapons into the daily lives of civilians. New concept weapons can make of war something that even military professionals will find hard to imagine. Both soldiers and civilians will be disturbed to see items in their everyday lives become weapons that can attack and kill.

So there's the first image: War that doesn't look like war, that isn't fought by soldiers, that possibly involves"weapons" that aren't weapons, that centers on systems disruption and targets the political legitimacy of the enemy through social and economic disruptions. (A note, however: Some tactics of Iraqi insurgents are not so new. As Bernard Fall noted in Street Without Joy, the French Army in Indochina lost 398 armored vehicles to roadside bombs between 1952 and 1954. Of course, the fact that a tactic is old and well-known doesn't mean that the military leaders of a superpower can't still be strangely surprised by its reemergence, as we have seen in the last few years.)

For the second image, I turn to two personal experiences. The first took place at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where the Army trains reserve and National Guard troops for deployment to Iraq and Kuwait. I was assigned to the tactical operations center (TOC) of an infantry battalion, at the time, and so was sent to a three-day class on a piece of software designed to allow battle staff to track events in combat. The class opened with a videotaped introduction: Uniformed actors in a make-believe TOC gathered around a set of video monitors, frantically tracking developments on a nearby battlefield. A narrator broke down the events as they happened, showing how easily the commander overseeing the battle was able to track the fight. The video cut back and forth between the TOC and the battlefield as enemy tanks and helicopter gunships raced toward American forces, were spotted and tracked, and died in the face of American firepower. After the video ended, we spent the rest of the class sessions making neat templates showing the locations of friendly and enemy assets: Air assets here, air defense assets here, armor assets here, infantry battalions massed here, here, and here for the attack. After one of the classes, I turned in the general direction of the major sitting next to me and mumbled,"Well, sir, at least we'll always know where the insurgency's fighter planes are." He sighed, shook his head, and spit Skoal into his old water bottle.

A few months later, I stood on a forward operating base in Kuwait and watched as a heavy division loaded up to move north into Iraq. (I hasten to mention that this is a long-completed movement, and so no longer of use to anyone hoping to attack a U.S. convoy. I am mindful of operational security rules, and of the general idea that information carelessly placed online can be used to kill American troops.) In one convoy after another, long lines of armored HETs stacked up along the staging area, loaded with Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks and Paladin self-propelled howitzers.

It was particularly striking to watch all of the Paladins lining up; as the manufacturer notes, the Paladin's features"include an Automatic Fire Control System with onboard ballistic computation and automatic weapon pointing, an integrated inertial navigation system with embedded GPS processing, NBC protection with climate control, hydraulics system segregation, and secure voice and digital communications." It is a massively sophisticated, spectacularly powerful piece of weaponry, firing an enormous 155 mm. shell at targets up to 30 kilometers away. And all of these Paladins, loaded onto the backs of the still-more-massive HETs -- all to be managed under the control of operations centers staffed with highly educated military professionals, working with exceptionally complicated systems of software and hardware -- were headed to a war where they would face insurgents who mix with the civilian population, attacking with anonymous letters, dead-of-night infrastructure sabotage, and hidden bombs snuck out onto the roadside, dodging the Army's massive assaults against their hiding places by slipping out of town as American forces slowly mass for the attack.

The image I have is that of a man being bled slowly to death by thousands of biting flies. He's well armed, and he's sure he can stop the swarm from biting him, so he raises his shotgun again -- the flies flitting away from the slow-moving barrel -- and fires another load of buckshot. And then is being swarmed and bitten again, and chambers another shell to put a stop to it. Because how can a fly hope to stand up to a shotgun?

And those are the competing force structures: Heavy and powerful versus small, distributed, quick, and swarming. This is a much-discussed -- much-discussed -- dynamic, but not one that has yet apparently penetrated the operational consciousness of the fighting Army.

Finally, a brief discussion about the decisionmaking structure of U.S. land forces. The most remarkable examination of this topic is Sean Naylor's recent book on Operation Anaconda, an American effort in 2002 to trap and destroy a force of hundreds of al Qaeda warriors in a valley in Afghanistan. Naylor's book, Not a Good Day to Die, is far too detailed to come close to summarizing here. But two themes reappear throughout Naylor's narrative.

First, the American military has grown higher headquarters like weeds in rich soil. Meetings over Operation Anaconda, a single operation planned for three days and thought to be aimed against 200 enemy, involved absurd numbers of competing organizations -- and, therefore, competing operational styles and agendas. Here's a typical laundry list for a single meeting:"Representatives from K-Bar, the CIA, Task Force 11, CFLCC, the Coalition and Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force, and Task Force Rakkasan had been invited." And this list is hardly a complete reflection of all the different headquarters involved in Anaconda. As Naylor summarizes:"For a battle that would involve perhaps 2,000 allied troops -- less than a brigade's worth -- in combat, CENTCOM had cobbled together a force that drew elements from eight countries, two U.S. Army divisions, two Special Forces groups, a hodgepodge of aviation units, and a variety of clandestine organizations." Each piece of that stew had its own leadership, with its own agenda and intent. A critical American military effort had become wildly and pointlessly complicated. Four-star generals reviewed plans down to the platoon level.

Second, the coordination of those many different elements and agendas meant that painfully negotiated plans became locked into place simply because they were painfully negotiated. After members of a Delta Force team pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of walking up the side of a mountain in the Afghan winter to get a firsthand look at the valley, operation leaders received reports that there were somewhere around 1000 enemy, not the 200 the American plans had called for -- and then they learned further that the enemy was not in the valley, where the plans put them, but were instead on the high ground around it. Leaders of the battle decided to go ahead with the plan as written, reluctant to throw out weeks of hard-fought staff work on the word of Lt. Col. Peter Blaber's Delta operators. The plans trumped reality, because the plans had come with political and institutional costs.

Finally, one of the ways that Army officers managed the problem of ignoring the Delta Force intelligence showing 1000 enemy on the high ground was to regard the special operators who delivered that intelligence as out-of-control and untrustworthy. Leaders ridiculed the Delta team reports, and"mocked the independent role that Blaber had carved out by calling him 'Peter the Great' and 'Colonel Kurtz.'" The enforcement of institutional orthodoxy allowed leaders to ignore realistic bad news. Today's U.S. Army in a nutshell, right there.

There's much more to Naylor's book, which is so far one of the very few critical pieces of insight into the current American wars. (The battle, by the way, went poorly.)

To summarize, then -- sorry about that -- a too-hierarchical, too-orthodox U.S. Army, and U.S. military in general, leans heavily on lumbering equipment, high technology, and major ground offensives against an enemy that relies on tactics that are often not even conventionally military in nature; we mass artillery against threatening letters and infrastructure sabotage. In equipment, doctrine, tactics, and leadership structure, we're organized for the wrong enemy, in ways that can't be easily or quickly changed.

I recognize that this is a scattered narrative -- and it was written on my bunk, so cut me a break -- but I hope it makes sense. I'll try to bring everything together in a final post at the end. Meanwhile, tomorrow or the day after, I'll have a post on the American effort to measure progress against the insurgency in Iraq. A final post (I think) will cover uses of history in framing the war, and then a final final post will summarize and synthesize. And I say again what I hope I've made clear elsewhere: I'm a sergeant in Kuwait. My perspective is enormously limited. I'm aware of it. The point is that I'm trying to work through the events I'm involved in, at least peripherally; the point is not for me to issue Grand Pronouncements. This is how the war looks to me from where I sit. It's not a great seat.

The obligatory disclaimer: This essay presents my own views alone, and does not represent the views of the Army or the Department of Defense.

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More Comments:

Barry DeCicco - 1/30/2006

Oscar, that is good news. However, Chris wrote about his training last summer, and it wasn't so good.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/21/2006


You may find this article interesting and, perhaps, heartening.

Frederick Thomas - 1/19/2006

My experience was in another war, 35 years ago, which in my 4-province AO was almost entirely guerrilla. The opposing commander had experience going back to 1940, and was very stingy with his men.

The answer came out as adaptation. We launched no main force sweeps, instead put out LRRPs, O_10s, and sensors, and used fire support, cobras and air strikes to clobber anyone positively identified as enemy, rather like the successful drone attack on al-Quaida in West Pakistan two days ago. We would have loved to have had the sort of intel gear which is common in Iraq today.

This method was successfully used by troops trained for tank warfare in Europe. It is not hard to do, and simply is the sort of adaptation which all commanders are supposed to make in new circumstances, to use their forces most effectively, although not all are capable of this sort of common sense thinking. But using this method, we had the lowest casualty rate in Vietnam, and by the time of my rotation, a completely pacified AO. Common sense works.

I believe that infantry sweeps subject to sniping and bombing in Iraq are pointless, and subject to high casualties, and regret every TV report of more such which I see.

Chris Bray - 1/18/2006

Thank you very much for that thought.

Walter McElligott - 1/18/2006

May God watch over you, your fellow military overseas & your family at home.

David Silbey - 1/18/2006

"I think we are now at that point that Gen. DuPuy described somehwat pungently as " A plan? Any damn fool can come up with a plan. A good plan. It's the execution that get's you all f***ed up." and Clausewitz more eloquently as "In war all things are simple, but even the simplest thing is very difficult to do""

That was rather my point in our earlier discussion. Doctrine isn't just writings in a journal or classes at a war college. It's the purchase of the necessary equipment and supplies, the concentrated training of people to carry out the plans, and the commitment to those ideas at a tactical and strategic level. The Army has writings on many ways of waging war. They have many fewer that rise to the level of doctrines.

John H. Lederer - 1/18/2006

Mr. Silbey,

1. Reread my earlier post-- I reacted to "no doctrine".

2. I think we are now at that point that Gen. DuPuy described somehwat pungently as " A plan? Any damn fool can come up with a plan. A good plan. It's the execution that get's you all f***ed up." and Clausewitz more eloquently as "In war all things are simple, but even the simplest thing is very difficult to do"

John H. Lederer - 1/18/2006

I guess the obvious question is "how mixed".

The loss of popular support for Al Qaeda and its allies seems like a major item to me.

What seems to be the mideast tendency of "bargain past the last possible moment" is a severe disability for getting an effective government going promptly. There is also something daunting about what seems the growing impression that an election's main purpose is to provide additional bergaining chips for forming a governement. Franklin's admonition to "hang together or hang seperately" needs some emphasis.

Assuming that Al Qaeda's and similar foreign groups are going to increasingly lose the ability to influence events, both because of damage from the US/Iraqi military and because of loss of popular support, that leaves the Arab Sunnis and indigenous guerrillas as the main problem.

The Arab Sunnis are I think in a very difficult position. They are gradually getting over the illusion that they can and should rule Iraq. They still have as a principal goal a united Iraq, but have as the principal means of achieving that the threat of civil war...that seems inherently contradictory to me. Lincoln finessed it, but he had overwhelming military superiority. The Arab Sunnis don't.

Ideally, from the point of view of Iraq would be a Kurdish population that would swing its support from Shiite to Arab Sunni depending on which side offered the better government.

As an aside, I rather think we missed what could have been a major stabilising point. Early on it was suggested, as a matter of economic ideology, that some portion of Iraq oil revenues be directly disbursed to the population as a monthly check, ala Alaska. The issue was unfortunately treated as a matter of ideology. It could be a powerful tool for obtaining popular support-- "This month your check is for only $10 rather than $20 because the guerrillas blew up the oil pipeline and no one told us of their plans when we could have prevented it."

David Silbey - 1/18/2006

"As to the suggestion that we should have ousted Saddam and immediately withdrawn, such a withdrawal would indeed have led to civil war and quite possibly to the victory of the Baathists - who had the money and the military strength to run roughshod over the Shiites (if not the Kurds)."

Sure. And if we hadn't liked the Baathist government, back goes the U.S. expeditionary force to oust that group. The point I was making was that the current American military can fight _states_ enormously effectively. Non-state actors, on the other hand...

" personally think the Iraqi death toll would have been much higher in open civil war; so far, the atrocities have been committed mainly by one side."

Maybe. Or maybe we will get that civil war anyway, and lots of people will die in addition to those who already have. Surely fewer Americans would have died using an expeditionary model.

There's something else to consider. How plausible would our threats to Iran about their nuclear program be if there was an essentially uncommitted American army sitting in Kuwait?

"We broke it; we need to fix it." "

1. If somebody drove a car into the front of your house, should they move in until it's repaired?

2. Should the French have stayed in the new United States until we had a fully working constitution?

"but moderate success, a modestly stable multi-ethnic Iraq not ruled by jihadists, is still a possibility."

That "is still a possibility" is now the optimistic interpretation speaks more than anything I can write.

Jim Williams - 1/18/2006

I'm a retired lieutenant colonel from the Army Reserves. The army actually does have some capabilities for occupation in its numerous Civil Affairs units. Unfortunately, the Army made almost all of these units into Army Reserve units because combat units have more sex appeal. They also don't have enough of these units. A consequence is that some Reservists in Civil Affairs units I know of have been on active duty in Granada, Panama, Haiti, Kuwait, Bosnia, Kossovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq; this "high optempo" leads to burnout and the loss of valuable skilled personnel. Reservists can't hold civilian jobs if they are being mobilized every two or three years! Another problem is that the expertise of Civil Affairs personnel is not as high as it would be in an active army unit, since their civilian jobs take priority normally. The Army is even more seriously misaligned for large-scale occupation duties in the small number of military police units in the Active Army, Reserves, and National Guard.

Army planners also have studied what they call "Asymmetric Warfare". They simply haven't come up with good solutions to the problems it poses, nor does the Army have good doctrine for field commanders on how to handle it. The Special Forces are, unsurprisingly, best at it.

As to the suggestion that we should have ousted Saddam and immediately withdrawn, such a withdrawal would indeed have led to civil war and quite possibly to the victory of the Baathists - who had the money and the military strength to run roughshod over the Shiites (if not the Kurds). I personally think the Iraqi death toll would have been much higher in open civil war; so far, the atrocities have been committed mainly by one side. "We broke it; we need to fix it." What appalls me is that the naive civilian optimists so badly underestimated the forces needed to bring order to a country with millions of people of different ethnicities "who don't like each other very much" and like us even less. Colin Powell and Bush Sr. knew better! "Fools rush in ...." (Unlike Chris, I am retired and can speak my mind.)

What may not be evident to SGT Bray in Kuwait is what I hear from my buddies who just returned from a year of training Iraqi leaders and soldiers. They say the level of competence of sections of the Iraqi army increased significantly in that period. We have a slow, costly slog ahead of us until we can hand off all duties to the Iraqi Army, but moderate success, a modestly stable multi-ethnic Iraq not ruled by jihadists, is still a possibility. My friends, despite their casualties, came back upbeat; the Reserve unit I used to command has had many reenlistments.

David Silbey - 1/18/2006

By the way, Mr. Lederer, I'm shocked at what I'm reading in Mr. Bray's analysis. After all, you had reassured me that the United States Army had a well-thought-out and implemented counterinsurgency doctrine...

Chris Bray - 1/18/2006

I'm also in the cheap seats, but it seems to me that an insurgency wins if the picture appears mixed. The challenges facing each side (to reduce the conflict in Iraq to two sides) are very different: The U.S. has to steadily build, to reassure Iraqis that the occupation and the transition to Iraqi sovereignty are making steady progress; the insurgency just has to maintain some level of visible disorder. One side has to build, while the other only has to destroy, and it's much easier to destroy. Which is very different from a state-on-state war, a competition to see who can destroy the most and the quickest.

Mostly I'm just borrowing here -- from William Lind, in particular, but from also from a long line of counterinsurgency theorists before him.

In a contest between order and disorder, the tie goes to the side of disorder. Anyway, that's the way it looks to me.

David Silbey - 1/17/2006

"'We're like mechanics who have big power saws and cutting torches, but no other tools."

The problem (and where the tool analogy starts to break down) is that sometimes it's an either/or proposition. Armoring the Hummers makes them work better for insurgencies where an attack could come from any direction, but make them worse for a conventional campaign by reducing their range, mobility, and reliability.

John H. Lederer - 1/17/2006

Isn't this really a matter of speed of change? Col. Boyd, post.

Very few wars end up being fought the way they began to be fought. There is a world of difference between the tactics at First Manassas and the tactics in the trenches of Petersburg, the methods employed by Meade at Gettysburg, and by Sherman as he slaughtered the livestock of North Carolina. There is a constant cycle of change, response, change, response.

The key question is who can change the fastest and most successfully. Here from the cheap seats the picture appears mixed.

Both sides seem to be doing very well on the offense. The guerrillas are being estranged from the populace and their leadership divided, The economic infrastructure, however, is under heavy attack and the government made to seem ineffective.

Neither side seems to be doing well on defense. The twin problems of corruption and incompetence in the government are major ones for the U.S. The guerrillas, on the other hand, appear to be increasingly losing the intelligence war.

Barry DeCicco - 1/17/2006

David: "My point is that the assertion that the "Army is not designed for fighing insurgencies" is true, but also not the entire picture. The Army is a tool designed for a particular set of tasks. Asking it to do something other than those tasks risks serious problems. You can't screw in a lightbulb with a hammer, and if you try, you're going to get broken glass everywhere and probably electrocute yourself. But if you need a nail driven in..."

If the set of tasks that the Army is designed to do doesn't include occupations and counter-guerrilla warfare, then (by the same analogy) the US is in the position of being able to rip a car to pieces with great ease, but not to repair or reassemble a car. We're like mechanics who have big power saws and cutting torches, but no other tools.

Chris Bray - 1/17/2006

But anyway, I don't know, and I don't have that anyone else in the army does either. Or that we recognize why the question matters so much.

Chris Bray - 1/17/2006

From my understanding, mostly People magazine. The enemy is very disappointed that K-Fed and Britney haven't been able to work it out.

R.J. O'Hara - 1/17/2006

That's discouraging. If I were in a position to do so, I'd buy a bulk shipment and send it over there.

But I suppose an even more important question would be: what is your enemy reading?


Chris Bray - 1/17/2006

It's very curious: I haven't heard anyone mention Hackworth, or seen anyone reading any of his books, since I came back.

And this would be a really good time for a new Hackworth to come along, self-aggrandizement and all.

(BTW, I posted recently at my other blog on the strange reading choices of the day.)

Chris Bray - 1/17/2006

This question isn't at all uncomfortable (except maybe legally, just at the moment). We've successfully turned the question of what the military is into an operational question, and have left it to military professionals to try to sort out as they receive different taskings. But that question isn't an operational question; it's a political question, and it's answered by the people who vote for the military budget. We've punted a question that lies at the heart of republic.

The introduction to this series of posts ended with a brief reference to my hope that I could "to live in a prosperous, well-settled, and peaceful constitutional republic -- a republic that is fiercely but carefully defended, with modesty and restraint to balance its determination and strength." Personally, my thoughts on the shape of the military center around Federalist No. 8:

"The perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government to be always prepared to repel it; its armies must be numerous enough for instant defense. The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen. The military state becomes elevated above the civil. The inhabitants of territories, often the theatre of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights; and by degrees the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors. The transition from this disposition to that of considering them masters, is neither remote nor difficult; but it is very difficult to prevail upon a people under such impressions, to make a bold or effectual resistance to usurpations supported by the military power."

Ultimately, I wonder if we're not making a decision without making a decision, shaping a military for defense against major attack and then asking it to engage in a kind of war that we don't mean for it to be able to fight.

More about this later -- I have to run.

R.J. O'Hara - 1/17/2006

Chris, these are excellent posts, and I think everyone who is reading them appreciates their clarity and frankness.

I wonder if anyone around you is reading David Hackworth's Vietnam memoir Steel My Soldiers' Hearts. Although it probably contains a fair amount of self-aggrandizement, it does try to describe in practical detail how (Col.) Hackworth "retooled" his own unit to survive and fight in unconventional circumstances that didn't match their training, and, according to him at least, achieved success. What made me think of it in particular was your description of the excess confidence some have in the power of technological solutions; Hackworth downplays technology and emphasizes the importance of human ability and ingenuity.

I have no doubt that the military produces volumes of material on these issues, and I have no knowledge of what might be circulating out there. But Hackworth's account is well-written and easily digestible by all ranks, and I'd be curious to know if it's been a subject of discussion.

David Silbey - 1/17/2006

"but still the wrong tool for the job we're asking it to do -- then where does that leave us?"

It's an excellent question. The old saw about generals preparing for the last war is, I think, not really true. It's more that generals prepare for the war they know how to fight.

There are other thoughts percolating, too. The role that culture plays in creating a society's military seems to be critical here. That Captain in Afghanistan you quoted--about how the insurgents weren't manly for attacking and then retreating--strikes me as reflecting not just a military ethos but an American one.

There's also something about action/reaction of the two forces. We shouldn't underestimate the intelligence that the insurgents have displayed. The emphasis on using IEDs against what is the world's most mechanized army is quite remarkable. Striking at such an integral part of the force structure guarantees that the Army cannot react all that quickly or completely.

Finally, I'm trying to connect this to the idea of progress. One of the central obsessions of American business has been organizational reform and revamp (just-in-time, etc). That has gone along with an ethos of constant technological progress. It strikes me that the military buys into the first but not really into the second. There's lip service to it, but no real conviction. So you end up with those hundreds of different organizations and layers upon layers of command, as you pointed out so ably.

And there's no real way to tell what works and what doesn't. In business, if your reorganization doesn't work, you can usually tell pretty quickly. But in the military, the only real test is war, and those don't necessarily come when or in the way needed.

Lovely series of posts, by the way.

Louis N Proyect - 1/16/2006

I find Chris Bray's postings to be of a uniformly very high caliber so I don't want to sound like an ingrate by raising what might be an uncomfortable question for him. I think that the analogy of a tool is all wrong. If the USA had put together a more effective fighting force and managed to accomplish in Iraq what the British accomplished in Malaysia, would that be a good thing? At a certain point, pragmatism has to give way to deeper values about America's role in the world and the purpose of democracy on a global scale. To put it as succinctly as possible, the USA has no business acting as the world's cop. The late Eugene McCarthy made that point in his 1968 campaign to his everlasting credit and it is something that Democratic Party leaders seem to have forgotten in their fitful attempts to differentiate themselves from George W. Bush. The USA never should have gone into Iraq in the first place. It was up to the people of Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein, not outside powers--especially when those outside powers found it convenient to align themselves with the vile dictator in the past.

Chris Bray - 1/16/2006

Your comments are right on, and I appreciate the point. I think you're pointed where I'm headed, and this is why I say that the U.S. Army is unquestionably the most powerful in the world, but then also mean to say that I think it's destined to fail at the task it currently faces. (How tangled was that sentence?) The analogy about hammers and things that aren't nails is one that I think of every day, standing here watching the army at rest. (I hadn't thought of hammers and light bulbs, though, and I like it.)

So the question is, if it's a great army, but still the wrong tool for the job we're asking it to do -- then where does that leave us? This is what I'm getting at. Standing there looking at your broken lightbulb, it's no great consolation to know that you still have a really awesome hammer in your hand.

And with that, I'm off to bed.

David Silbey - 1/16/2006

Be careful not to draw too black and white a picture here. The Army is designed to fight a particular kind of war, one against another nation-state using conventional tactics. In that kind of war, it is notably effective, as the First Gulf War and the first part of the Second Gulf War demonstrate pretty clearly. There probably isn't a conventional force fighting a conventional war that could stand up to the current American military with much success (which is likely why the Chinese generals were thinking about crashing the stock market).

The response of course is to fight an insurgent campaign against that military, which is exactly what the Iraqis have done. The response to the response could be to make the Army better at fighting an insurgency. That has disadvantages, though: we become less effective at conventional war, with unpredictable consequences.

The response to the response also could have been to fight the kind of war we're good at and not fight the kind we're not. In the case of Iraq, that would simply have been to topple Hussein's government and then pull back to Kuwait. There would have been a power vacuum and civil war in Iraq and a lot of Iraqis would have died, but probably not more than are dying now. If we didn't like the government that ended up in charge, we send the expeditionary force back into Iraq and knock that state down.

The British used to do that in India and Afghanistan--sending columns of troops on flying raids through hostile territory to teach the locals a lesson. Those usually worked well from a military point of view. The occupations, by contrast, often went badly. Witness the British in Afghanistan in 1839-1842.

The other response to the response is to create two separate armies: the conventional army and the colonial army. This too the British did with the Regular Army and the Indian Army, given different equipment and doctrines, and designed for different goals.

My point is that the assertion that the "Army is not designed for fighing insurgencies" is true, but also not the entire picture. The Army is a tool designed for a particular set of tasks. Asking it to do something other than those tasks risks serious problems. You can't screw in a lightbulb with a hammer, and if you try, you're going to get broken glass everywhere and probably electrocute yourself. But if you need a nail driven in...

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