30 August 2010

Myopia: A commentary on military vogue

Recently, a string of articles on the milblog www.smallwarsjournal.com (note 1) has unintentionally highlighted a weak-link in the philosophical chains that string together the concepts and skills of the military profession. At first glance the debate appears to be a parochial, all be it professional, dispute centered on the future of the Armor Corps of the US Army and broadly on the state of the Army's high-intensity combat skills. Written mostly by career Army combat arms officers (mostly teaching at West Point, incidentally) the debate at first glance resembles the spirit of the rather intense branch infighting that characterized the US Army of the 1930's with the introduction of the battle tank (note 2).

The tank of old threatened the primacy of the Infantry and sides were picked. There were conservative voices and liberal 'revolutionary' voices. There were also the moderate ones who seem to have won and integrated both for 60 yrs without accepting the absolutisms of the poles. The focus now is COIN, supposedly an innovation, and the effect it has on the high-intensity, heavy weapons tactical skills in the Army. Again, one side says COIN has atrophied them all but irrevocably while the other insists that the new environment is something to be embraced unequivocally as the status quo. And again, there are the moderates, like LTC Thomas J Weiss (note 3) that suggest a middle ground, a synthesis, is the way to go. Both debates seem to deal with a "newness" that was/is at once threatening the old order and yet could be on the cusp of revolution. However, the otherwise praiseworthy middle-ground article by LTC Weiss betrays the philosophical fallacy that underpins the whole debate by asking the question "...how best do we organize and train our forces for future conflict?" This assumption, that there is something new that is unparalleled and unknown. Something that is "future" is different than the "past" in some fundamental and as-yet unappreciated way, is atrophying something far more critical than a tactical skill set, the profession of arms.

In many ways it is the same mental trend that gripped the Officer Corps post-Vietnam and produced the likes of the Powell Doctrine. The idea that first, America in the future will have a say in the types of conflicts it fights and secondly (and most dangerously) that America has the ability to predict those conflicts with a certainty that will define its capabilities. In the past it led to the insistence that America will not be involved in low-intensity conflict (LIC) or insurgent actions, therefore we will only develop heavy forces. Indeed, that focus has allowed us to steam roll Iraq, twice. Instantly occupy Panama and Granada and otherwise sail and fly around the globe seemingly at will. On the other hand, that focus brought us the absolute misery of Iraq 2004-2009. We invented terminology like COIN and Asymmetrical Warfare and decided that we must win hearts-and-minds and decided that there was a spectrum to warfare to cope with our glaring deficiencies in occupation skill sets and that this is a "new, modern, future war". Yet all this simply betrayed the multi-generational failure of our Officer Corps to understand our profession and to confirm that it has not learned the lesson well at all.

The Roman army spent the better part of a millennium patrolling and administering the Empire, not fighting set piece battles. But when it could no longer mobilize for those battles it lost the Empire. Likewise, the British Empire mostly spent its time floating about and dealing with this insurgency or that, with a major war every few decades that required massive armies. History goes on ad nauseam with examples that show that perhaps 9 out of 10 man-years of the professional civilized soldier are spent patrolling and dealing with rebellion. In other words, LIC is the historical norm. The slight problem with that understanding however, is magnitude. While it may be that the US Army conducting LIC is actually the historical norm (Indian-Wars, Philippines, etc) when it is waged poorly it usually drains coffers and kills men. But in the end the failure rarely has any immediate dramatic impact on the civilization deploying those men. Fail in high-intensity, however, and you may well lose everything (a dynamic illustrated eloquently by LTC Weiss in his concluding statements).

Unlike the battle tank, which revolutionized warfare technologically, COIN is not an innovation but a technique. Read Machiavelli for examples. COIN is a technique that is available to every Prince, President and Viceroy to deal with a rebellion; one of several techniques and for our liberal, enlightened dispositions perhaps the most palatable. Pacification and more specifically control of the population is its ultimate goal however. If you are resorting to COIN it means you already have a rebellion, you already lost control.

The medical profession is expected to regard human biological welfare in all spheres to better the health of the people. The legal profession is expected to regard the interpretation and application of the law in all spheres to manage the formal relationships of the people. The military profession is and must be expected to understand and apply the “full spectrum of operations” to enforce the interests of the state it serves and this means being able to do so everywhere on the spectrum. A medical system that trains orthopedic surgeons while presuming cardiologists and neurologists to be not terribly necessary because of frequency of case types would reset 1000 broken bones but fail to save 100 lives. Would the profession be lacking in that case? I think so.

History is full of high intensity and low intensity conflict. To presume that the next 20 yrs will be fundamentally different than the last 5,000 in terms of human behavior is the height of hubris. Alexander II of Russia was assassinated by a secondary IED in 1881 after the primary failed. The Algerian rebellion used IEDs and civilian population attacks to drive out the French. The US pacified a culturally alien and hateful Japan after WWII. USAMGIK secured and westernized a culturally alien South Korea (including putting down internal, non communist, rebellions as necessary) while the Chinese tried the same in the North. And a resurgent German Army energized by a hypercharismatic leader started a world war and fought for 5 yrs against an alliance led by 3 titanic nations to the amazement of all involved. A professional Officer Corps would have recognized and internalized those lessons in order to fulfill its professional obligation to its society. Yet, these examples that are snow flakes on the iceberg of history are not taught to the Corps as a competency either pre-commissioning or post. Instead these issues are left to the musings of CGSC Colonels and academics, while the Lieutenants and Captains rarely go beyond learning how to react to running over a mine in predeployment, all the while being told that they are the ground pounding leaders of COIN.


Note 1:

http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2010/04/the-death-of-the-armor-corps/; http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/447-smith.pdf; http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2010/08/mostly-dead/

Note 2:

The Challenge of Change: Military Institutions and New Realities, 1918-1941. Harold R. Winton (Editor), David R. Mets (Editor)

Note 3:

. LtCol Thomas J. Weiss - Mostly Dead: Continuing the Discussion on the Reported Death of the Armor Corps, 26 Aug 2010

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you the medical profession is expected to regard human biological welfare in all spheres to better the health of the people.