Since September 11, the U.S. military has expended an enormous amount of spirit, blood, and treasure on battlefields halfway around the world. In Iraq and Afghanistan, 979 of our soldiers have been killed; and another 5,600 wounded. More than a quarter of a million young men and women have been exposed to the horrors of combat. The abuses at Abu Ghraib have damaged America’s moral credibility, and that of our armed forces, around the world, hampering our ability to win hearts and minds in the war on terrorism. The Bush administration’s foreign policy decisions have been expensive both in dollars–$149 billion in taxpayer money to date, with billions more yet to be spent–and in material, having all but depleted the Pentagon’s stocks of pre-positioned vehicles, equipment, and ordinance. Our enormous commitment of resources to Iraq has emboldened our enemies, including North Korea, and has forced us to neglect other crisis spots such as Haiti and the Sudan. And it has pushed American soldiers to the breaking point. Even when our commitment in Iraq ends, it will be several years before our forces have recovered enough to take on a military venture of similar size.
But the stresses of war–and in particular the aftermath of defeat or failure–have historically spurred the most profound and lasting revolutions in military affairs. During World War II, Gen. George Patton used the Army’s trouncing at the Kasserine Pass as an excuse to whip our poorly- disciplined, poorly-trained, and poorly-led forces into shape. Out of the ashes of defeat in Vietnam, a cadre of officers, including Colin Powell and Anthony Zinni, turned a dispirited draft force into a volunteer body that became the most powerful military the world had ever seen. And only after the debacle of Desert One–the failed 1980 Delta Force raid to rescue American hostages from Iran–did the military get serious about special operations and joint warfare.
Today, the pattern appears set to repeat itself. Though we don’t yet know whether historians will judge the second Gulf War to have been a victory or a defeat–America decisively won the battle of tanks and artillery, but has yet to win the peace–the searing experience of Iraq is already inspiring the U.S. military to reshape itself for the better.
The spring 2003 march of American forces on Baghdad was arguably the fastest and farthest military assault of its kind in history, and was a resounding success. But the brilliance of the Iraq war’s combat phase was matched by the ineptitude of Pentagon planning for the post-war period. When Saddam’s statues began to fall, U.S. forces lacked the manpower, training, and resources to combat the chaos that followed or launch the peacekeeping operations that would be necessary to establish security and order. These early failures permitted former regime loyalists and a flood of new insurgents to establish a foothold in Iraq, one they have yet to surrender. Even today, there are too few men and women on the ground trying to perform the many operations which they have been assigned, from protecting our bases and forces to guarding power plants to conducting nighttime raids on suspected insurgents.
In large part, this is the consequence of a deliberate–and ill-considered–choice by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his civilian deputies, who were determined to send in an invasion force with many fewer ground troops than uniformed officers had asked for. Programmatically, Rumsfeld, an opponent of nation building and an advocate of joint warfare, special ops, and air power, wished to prove that the military could get by with a smaller ground force than it had during the 1990s. Ideologically, he and his neoconservative advisors believed that Americans would be greeted as liberators in Iraq, obviating the need for a large occupation force.
But the problem wasn’t simply that the neoconservatives weren’t interested in planning for a postwar Iraq; the Army, too, retained an historical reluctance to embrace counter-insurgency and peacekeeping as major roles. For obvious reasons, the Army has always seen its mission as fighting wars, not keeping the peace (let alone providing homeland security). From the late 1940s until the end of the Cold War, the Army had arrayed itself to fight one massive land battle in Europe; post-conflict reconstruction was little more than an afterthought, something best left to State Department planners. This attitude began to change during the 1990s, when Army forces were dispatched to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo to deliver relief supplies, enforce peace accords, and stop ethnic cleansing, among other non-combat missions. Some high-ranking officers, most notably Gen. Eric Shinseki, the last Army chief of staff under Bill Clinton, tried to change the service’s culture to reflect his experience running peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.
Despite a mostly successful record on these deployments, however, the Army never embraced non-combat operations as a crucial part of its mission. Two of the Army’s three major training centers–the Combined Maneuver Training Center in Germany and the National Training Center in California–focused primarily on major combat operations, with peacekeeping exercises occasionally added on as a sideshow limited to military police and civil affairs units. The third, known as the Joint Readiness Training Center and located in Louisiana, began incorporating large-scale “operations other than war” scenarios, but limited participation to the Army’s light infantry formations, which make up less than half the service’s combat strength. When presidential candidate George W. Bush–whose national security guru, Condi Rice, famously opined that the United States didn’t “need the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten”–won the election, many tradition-minded officers breathed a sigh of relief. And in 2002, citing budgetary pressures, senior Army leaders decided to shut down the Peacekeeping Institute located at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
But Iraq seems to have taught Army leaders that planning for the peace is as vital as planning for war–and, indeed, that failing to do so may ultimately lead to strategic defeat. The success of American efforts in Iraq will be judged not only by how quickly our tanks fought their way from the Kuwaiti border to Baghdad, but by the success or failure of Iraq’s transition from tyranny to democracy. And while the new government in Baghdad faces many challenges, very little progress will be possible unless American forces can maintain the security necessary to let Iraqis rebuild their country’s infrastructure. One sign that Army officials may embrace peacekeeping more than they have in the past: In July 2003, the Army reversed its earlier decision to close the Peacekeeping Institute, in part due to our current need, given our extensive presence in Iraq, to maintain a center to study this issue. Additionally, the Army’s service academy at West Point may soon require that its cadets spend a semester abroad, immersed in a foreign language and culture. Meanwhile, the National Training Center has bulked up the training it provides for stability and support operations. And even Rumsfeld has adapted: His plans now call for the Army to shift major peacekeeping assignments–chiefly civil affairs, engineer, and military police units–from reserve to active-duty units.
Of course, it is one thing to know how to keep the peace and to dispose of the resources to do so–it is quite another to be good at the job. Counter-insurgency and nation building have been called the two toughest tasks for any army, likened by Lawrence of Arabia to “eating soup with a knife.” But next time around, the Army will at least bring a knife.
The Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, likes to call the March 2003 ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company–during which Jessica Lynch was taken captive–part of the Army’s “report card.” He doesn’t mean it as a compliment. That engagement revealed an unfortunate truth about many of the Army’s support units: They were poorly-led, badly-equipped, and unready for the brutal rigors of combat. The 507th suffered more visibly than most, losing nine soldiers killed in action and six taken prisoner. But in fact, similar failures have affected nearly every non-combat unit in the Iraqi theater. Before the war, an average support battalion consisting of roughly 1,000 soldiers was equipped with as many heavy machine guns as a typical military police platoon of 30 soldiers. And those support troops who had the guns didn’t get much time to practice with them, because the pre-Iraq Army allocated less than half the amount of training ammunition to support units as to combat units.
Those who must fight on the run and move quickly–as Rumsfeld’s dictates required–find that their supply lines frequently are their frontlines. During the first weeks of the war, the rapid advance on Baghdad stretched these supply lines vulnerably far. Though Iraqi insurgents couldn’t beat American armor and infantry units in head-to-head battles, they mounted devastating guerrilla attacks on lightly-armored and -armed convoys like the 507th, forcing American commanders to deploy entire combat brigades to guard our supply lines. Nor did matters improve after Baghdad fell. U.S. troops dispersed across Iraq to enforce the peace, focusing on such major cities as Fallujah, Tikrit, and Baghdad, all hotbeds of insurgent activity. Ever since, in order to conduct resupply operations, move casualties, report for meetings, and rebuild bombed-out power plants, soldiers have had to drive or fly between them, providing the insurgents plenty of opportunities for hit-and-run attacks and forcing American commanders to devote a great deal of manpower to force protection. During the war, American supply lines ran along major highways through often unpopulated areas; today, the supply lines run in and around cities. The Iraqis know not to target heavily armed and armored combat vehicles that patrol in the cities, and why would they? They have a plethora of “soft” targets to hit: lightly-armored Humvees, ambulances, fuel trucks, and more.
The enemy’s second favorite tactic has been to direct mortar and rocket fire upon fixed U.S. bases, often in hit-and-run fashion. Both tactics have focused on U.S. Army logistics units and command centers, because of their weakness in relation to “hard targets” like U.S. infantry units. Here too, the bases are vulnerable because of the Army’s traditional Cold War mindset. According to Army doctrine, support bases are to be located outside the range of tank and rifle fire. In theory, that’s supposed to keep them safe from all but minimal guerrilla activity–but Iraqi fighters have rejected this paradigm, deliberately targeting these bases because of their relative weakness to combat units. In response, support bases have hardened themselves, acquiring more crew-served weapons and armored vehicles, deploying radar that can detect incoming mortar fire, and training squads of soldiers to conduct combat patrols in the bases’ vicinity. Today, the insurgents fight a cat-and-mouse game with these base camps, harassing them as much as possible before scurrying away into the night.
It is by no means unprecedented for the American military to face this form of combat; the Marines fought a series of “small wars” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to retain American possessions in the Far East and Latin America, and the Army has fought them, too, in Somalia and Vietnam. But in those battles, combat units did the fighting, while support units–mechanics, truck companies, medics, and so forth–stayed out of action in fortified compounds. Because American troops in Iraq must both beat back the insurgency and rebuild a war-torn nation, they can’t stay behind barbed wire. And unfortunately, the Army doesn’t have enough troops to both take the offensive and secure logistics units that can’t protect themselves. So, it has returned to the old maxim, long embraced by the Marines, that every soldier–regardless of occupational specialty–must be able to fight as an infantryman. In practical terms, this means that every soldier must be physically fit and tactically competent enough to fight his or her way out of a firefight when necessary, to patrol on foot when necessary, and to kill the enemy when necessary.
This new training regimen has yet to reach all 482,000 soldiers in the Army, but there are more tangible signs of progress. Before Iraq, support units often did not participate in large-scale, live-fire exercises with real bullets the way their combat brethren did. Now, every support unit preparing to deploy to Iraq goes through a convoy-ambush exercise with real bullets. Before Iraq, support units lacked enough war-fighting equipment–heavy machine guns, truck-mounted grenade launchers, night-vision goggles, and GPS devices–to protect themselves. Now the Pentagon has shipped these items to support units in the field and revised plans so that future deployments include the right equipment as a matter of course. Before Iraq, most Army Humvees and trucks had nothing but canvas and thin aluminum for armor–which keeps out the rain, but not bullets. Today, the Army is rushing thousands of armored Humvees into the field, and retrofitting other vehicles with armor plates and sandbags.
Iraq has pushed the Army to be much more flexible with its frontline units, too. Traditionally, the Army’s combat “branches”–infantry, armor, and artillery–have jealously guarded their purity, even when the situation on the ground demands flexibility and adaptation. Despite the global trend towards urbanization, and proof in places like Mogadishu and Sarajevo that urban combat was where armies would live and die in the 21st century, the Army’s armor branch for years clung to the notion that tanks didn’t belong in cities. This notion was finally put to rest on April 7, 2003, when an armored task force from the 3rd Infantry Division dashed into the heart of Baghdad, occupying the presidential palace grounds and several other key sites. Many military experts think this “thunder run” may have shortened the war by weeks or months, despite the fact that the plan had no foundation whatsoever in traditional Army doctrine. Since then, tanks have played a key role in counter-insurgency operations, sometimes to back up infantry with firepower and sometimes with simple intimidation. (The ground actually trembles when an M1A1 tank drives nearby.) Likewise, manpower demands in Iraq have given commanders more leverage to transform units that aren’t much needed into new capabilities that are. Active-duty artillery units–a capacity provided in Iraq by the Air Force–have been converted into ad hoc infantry units that now patrol Baghdad and Fallujah. Back at home, the Pentagon has dispatched two artillery brigades from the National Guard to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for MP training.
No one expects machine gun-equipped logistics troops or retrained artillery units to execute complex combat missions. But the changes have allowed the Army to overcome some of the limits of its old-fashioned force structure and add manpower or capability where shortages exist.
Moreover, a willingness towards on-the-fly retraining moves our Army, over the long term, that much closer to a 21st century force adapted for asymmetric warfare. Army Maj. Donald Vandergriff, a noted reformer in the ranks, agrees, saying that he finally sees signs the Army is preparing “for the type of wars we are going to fight–expeditionary wars of rapid, no-notice deployments” where the missions could include peacekeeping, war fighting, and everything in between. Should our Army deploy to, say, the Sudan, it’s possible that soldiers will find themselves as relief workers and truck drivers one minute, and infantrymen the next. Making sure every soldier can fight–and fight where needed–maximizes the prospects for every soldier coming home.
Such added flexibility, of course, has been borne of necessity: Lack of significant allied support has forced the United States to cycle the vast majority of its combat units through Iraq. Nearly every combat formation in the Army, save those now deployed in Korea, has seen action, with many soldiers serving multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. (Most Marine combat units have likewise served in one or both countries.) But though the overstretch imposed by the war in Iraq has its costs, it also has benefits: Most notably, it has increased our troops’ familiarity with the rigors of combat.
War, as the saying goes, is hell. It alters men and women in ways that modern psychiatry can only begin to describe. The American and allied soldiers who fight in Iraq will all return changed by the experience, each in their own way. But every man and woman who survives will come back with one thing in common: They will have seen the horror of combat and lived to fight another day. Historically, commanders have called this the “blooding” of a force, a term that deliberately mixes the metaphors of first combat and first sexual experience. Veteran commanders consider any unit that has not been blooded to be unreliable and untested, because even the most disciplined and well-trained soldiers can react unpredictably to the horrors of combat. From inclement weather to faulty radios and impenetrable dust storms, the fog and friction of war make even the simplest things–like driving 50 miles in a straight line through the desert–complicated. The finer points of military planning sometimes get lost at the lowest levels of command, but as long as leaders learn to do the things that matter most, the mission still usually gets accomplished. And it is during war that officers learn those things they must do in order to be successful: Issue clear battle plans; conduct rehearsals; perform pre-combat checks and then have someone else perform them a second time; ensure soldiers’ weapons are clean and that they have enough ammunition; know the casualty evacuation plan. In short, combat teaches soldiers and commanders alike what matters and what’s chickenshit.
Today, a larger portion of the Army and Marines has seen combat than at any time since the immediate aftermath of Vietnam. Some units, such as the Army’s elite Ranger battalions, have repeatedly deployed to several different theaters of war in the three years since September 11. Before these units saw combat, commentators, politicians and commanders could say they were the best-trained force in the world, but no one really knew for sure. Now that they have a combat tour–or two or three–under their belts, these troops can rightly stake their claim to combat readiness. They know what matters in combat for mission accomplishment, and for survival. So do their leaders. The best lieutenants today will be generals tomorrow, and long after enlisted soldiers depart for civilian life, these officers’ experience with asymmetric warfare will shape how the Army organizes, fights, and deploys.
It’s true that, when they come home, the Army’s veterans will need months off to rest, reacquaint themselves with their families, and have a few beers. When redeployment looms on the horizon, commanders must put their unit back into fighting shape: repairing equipment, replacing casualties, rotating old and new soldiers through the unit, and retraining for expected mission tasks. But past combat experience will have left them sharper and readier than before. Should they be called for duty in North Korea, the Sudan, or even another tour through Iraq, they will know what matters and what doesn’t. They’ll need less time to train for new missions. And when the first bullets fly on their next deployment, these soldiers’ valor will be bolstered by experience.
The reserves will also benefit from the experience of Iraq. For the moment, of course, the reservists remain as overstretched as active duty forces. Since September 11, U.S. reservists have done more duty than at any time since the first Gulf War. The Guard and Reserves clocked about 63 million duty-days in 2003, five times as many as were typically put in during the late 1990s. Reservists comprise about 40 percent of the American troops now in Iraq, with that ratio scheduled to grow over the next few troop rotations–in part because many of the specialties in highest demand, such as civil affairs, intelligence, and military police, are “stored” primarily in the reserves. (That term encompasses both the Army Reserve, which is comprised chiefly of non-combat support troops, and the National Guard, which is divided equally between combat and support units.) Indeed, many reservists with much-needed specialties have been called up more than once since September 11, with deployment tempos approaching those of soldiers who signed up for active-duty service.
All this has been hard on reservists’ families, who probably never expected them to be away so often, and on their communities, for whom every reservist called up for duty is a police officer, fireman, or employee who won’t be showing up to work for at least six months and who cannot be replaced in the meantime. (Federal law strictly prohibits public and private employers from taking adverse action against deployed reservist employees–although the Department of Labor still logged some 2,500 complaints in 2002 and 2003 from reservists who came home to employment problems.) And the massive call-up of reservists has also exposed major deficiencies in training, equipment, and personnel. But in doing so, the Iraq war has forced the Pentagon to acknowledge and confront these chronic problems for the first time in more than a decade. Much as a weight-lifter might emerge stronger from the gym after a tough workout, a net assessment of the reserves reveals that they have emerged tougher and more combat-ready from the Iraq and Afghanistan operations than they were before.
For example, since September 11, a sizable number of Army reservists have earned the right to wear their unit patch on their right shoulder–the mark of a combat veteran. Such experience does even more for the reservists’ readiness than it does for their active-duty counterparts. Active-duty troops, after all, train frequently when not actually in combat. Reservists train only 39 days per year during peacetime, and they often go years between major exercises like those conducted at the National Training Center. Lt. Gen. James Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, has announced that every reservist can now expect to deploy one out of every five years. This will exact a toll from the troops concerned, and from their families and employers. But in the long run, it will help these units by laying a foundation of real operational experience. Most importantly, it gives those units’ officers crucial leadership experience which they would otherwise might never obtain on their way up the ranks. It’s hard to raise young lieutenants to be effective captains and colonels with just 39 days of training a year. The regular experience of deployment–for combat, peacekeeping or homeland security–introduces a much-needed element of natural selection into the reserves’ promotion ladder, making it more likely that those selected for advancement have the experience to warrant it.
Despite dire predictions about recruiting and retention, the Army Reserve has largely met both sets of targets since 2001, even with the extremely high operational tempo. If anything, today’s deployment pace has been a reality check for prospective recruits and those already in uniform; they now know that joining or reenlisting is not a good idea if you’re hoping to avoid deployment overseas. Over the short term, the reserves will suffer shortfalls as some soldiers who’ve been dispatched to Iraq choose not to reenlist. But over the next five years, the Army predicts that the ranks of the reserves will actually swell–because the many active-duty soldiers who choose to leave after Iraq tours will still owe the Army between two and six years of reserve duty. (Most will choose to serve this in the Individual Ready Reserve as inactive reservists, still subject to recall in an emergency.) In the long term, if predictions hold, the reserves will absorb many thousands of troops who choose not to re-enlist for active duty, giving the reserve force a bumper crop of seasoned soldiers with extensive training and combat experience.
Quantity matters, but Iraq may also be forcing the reserves to improve the quality of their average soldier, too. For years, the reserves have been plagued with “deadweight” personnel: thousands of soldiers still on the roster despite poor health, an inability to complete required military training, lack of potential for promotion, or criminal convictions for domestic violence (which under federal law prevents them being issued weapons). Lax oversight has allowed such reservists to be carried as deployable soldiers on unit readiness reports, furthering the illusion that a unit is at full strength when in reality it can only muster a fraction of its force for duty if called. This became abundantly clear last year, when the Army tried to mobilize large reserve units for combat in Iraq. During earlier, smaller-scale deployments, like those to the Balkans, units could play a personnel shell game, moving dead weight soldiers around and replacing them with good ones. That didn’t work with last year’s mass mobilizations, which meant that large numbers of allegedly deployable soldiers reported for duty suffering from such maladies such as rotting teeth, amputated limbs, and severe obesity. At Fort Stewart, Ga., so many unfit soldiers were detected during pre-deployment screening that there weren’t enough military doctors around to treat them all; the backlog left hundreds of reservists sitting around, waiting for medical care (and someone to decide whether or not they should be sent out to fight or sent home with a discharge). Media reports described this as an example of command failure; Fort Stewart, the press charged, had failed to take good care of soldiers. But the real problem was poor leadership in the reserves , whose officers had allowed these reservists to stay on duty even though they were no longer physically fit for service.
Calling up large numbers of reserve units for Iraq has forced the Army to make sure those troops are ready for duty. During the Cold War, America’s military reserves became fat and bloated because they never had to deploy anywhere or do anything; they could afford dead weight–literally and figuratively–because there was little chance they would actually have to fight. The National Guard, technically the modern-day equivalent of state militias, came to see its main mission as domestic disaster and riot response; the Army Reserve focused on support for pre-scheduled military exercises. World War III always loomed in the background, but no one gave much thought to the prospect of regular combat missions overseas like those being handled today by the reserves. Now, they cannot avoid it: The prospect of quick deployment to a hot combat zone like Iraq has made readiness a matter of life or death for reserve commanders. Units have trimmed their ranks, getting rid of those who can’t cut it. The post-Iraq reserves are not only blooded, but also much leaner and meaner than they were before the war.
In addition to improving their personnel structure, the reserves have also been forced to get serious about their equipment. Today’s reserve units typically drive trucks older than most of their soldiers and operate radios so ancient that they cannot be used for secure communication with active-duty units. During the war, most of them lacked the kind of survival equipment that is standard among active-duty troops, such as GPS equipment and Kevlar body armor. As more reservists began to die because they had second-rate body armor, the Pentagon belatedly swung into action, buying Kevlar protection for every soldier and Defense Department employee in Iraq. Logistics specialists moved mountains of equipment to the Gulf in order to outfit reserve and active units with as much of the latest gear as possible, significantly upgrading the chronically under-equipped reserves in the process. Reserve units have also gotten access to spare parts and a level of maintenance support unseen in peacetime, enabling them to bring some of their older vehicles up to fighting trim. The reservists will have to leave a lot of this gear behind when they leave Iraq, or return it to the pre-positioned stocks from whence it came. But even if they go home empty-handed, these reserve units have identified their equipment shortfalls. And perhaps more importantly, the Army now knows what happens when you deploy reservists with old equipment: Combat operations get screwed up, and people get killed. So, the Army has started allocating money to upgrade the reserves’ gear, based on knowledge from Iraq about what they’ll need for the next fight.
But for all the innovations and updates of the military’s operational capability, perhaps the most important changes have taken place at the top, as the most senior uniformed commanders have begun to reevaluate their plans for their services’ next generation. In journal articles, at symposia, and on e-mail lists, these officers have begun to describe a post-Iraq doctrine for when, how, and why the United States should to go war. After their experience at the hands of civilian ideologues at the Pentagon, some have begun to argue fervently that the United States should only use force when clearly required by the national interest, and only where the parameters for victory are clearly defined so as to create a natural exit strategy. If that sounds familiar, it should. In essence, these officers are advocating a renewed emphasis on the Powell Doctrine, and all that it signaled for the exercise of U.S. military might abroad.
The Powell Doctrine, of course, was developed by former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and current Secretary of State Colin Powell. Influenced by the experience of Powell’s generation in Vietnam and later by military thinkers in the Reagan administration, the Powell Doctrine holds that America should only go to war to defend her vital interests–and then only in those circumstances, as Powell wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1992, “[w]hen the political objective is important, clearly defined and understood.” Defining the objective was paramount, the Powell Doctrine held, because it also defined the conditions for victory–and ultimately, for a military exit.
When Powell chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the early 1990s, this doctrine was virtual law–sometimes, it must be noted, to the detriment of good policy. During the first years of the Clinton administration, Pentagon generals resisted White House plans to deploy troops to Bosnia because such a mission didn’t fit with Powell’s insistence on a clear exit strategy. They were right about the exit strategy–we’re still in Bosnia today–but wrong on substance, as the relative peace that reigns in the Balkans would be unimaginable without the presence of U.S. soldiers, deployed there after Powell retired in 1993.
But by the time Powell returned to power as this President Bush’s secretary of state, his ideas were less influential, and flatly rejected by the neoconservatives who dominated White House national security decision-making after September 11. White House officials offered an ever-shifting array of rationales for invading Iraq, the most important and Powellesque of which–Saddam’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction–has since proven bogus. Moreover, Pentagon planners ignored what would prove to be the most prescient part of Powell’s doctrine: always send in enough troops to do the job. Ever since the Iraq war began, American troops have been relearning the lesson they should have taken home from the engagements in Mogadishu and Port-au-Prince: America’s high-tech, highly mobile military can scatter nearly any enemy. But it’s not so easy to win the peace. Every war the United States has fought since Vietnam has required more troops for peacekeeping than for fighting. And the initial deployment of a too-small ground force to Iraq has forced the Army to play catch-up ever since.
Hence, the part of Powell’s original doctrine that resonates most strongly with today’s officers is his insistence on “decisive means and results”–that is, overwhelming force at the beginning of a conflict. “When the ‘surgery’ is over and the desired result is not obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of just a little escalation–more bombs, more men and women, more force. History has not been kind to this approach to war-making.” The last 17 months have revealed that this approach doesn’t work for peace-making, either. As today’s lieutenants and captains mature into tomorrow’s colonels and generals, their advice to civilian leaders will reflect their experience in the Iraqi desert. And while it is right and necessary that those leaders should have the final say over when and why to deploy our military–after all, sometimes the brass is wrong, or too risk-averse–in the future, one can only hope that when a U.S. president does decide to go to war, he or she listens to the uniformed officers, who know what it takes to win.
Some years from now, the bulk of our forces now in Iraq will leave, and begin to rebuild themselves for the next war. That war may look like the one fought in Iraq, with major combat operations followed by protracted and bloody peacemaking. But America’s soldiers and Marines might find themselves distributing humanitarian aid in North Korea or the Sudan. Or worse yet, the next battle might be fought here on U.S. soil, against a terrorist enemy using weapons of mass destruction requiring a massive military response of the kind only seen in Hollywood movies. The lessons of Iraq will matter then–because in many ways, the lessons of Iraq are timeless.
In 1759, Major Robert Rogers issued a set of standing orders to his Rangers fighting the French and Indian War on behalf of the English crown: “Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, sixty rounds powder and ball, and be ready to march at a minute’s warning” and “Don’t ever march the same way. Take a different route so you won’t be ambushed.” And especially, “Don’t ever take a chance you don’t have to.” Warfare has changed a great deal over the intervening two-plus centuries. But Rogers was right then–and still is.