Understand the War We’re In

When George W. Bush was first elected president, in 2000, I was a newly commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Army going through infantry training at Fort Benning. While still in college, I had vocally supported John McCain in the primaries, but I voted for my fellow Tennessean Al Gore in the general election. The morning after election day, when we still didnt know who the next president would be, a group of us were gathered for the mornings formation, and one of the guys from Texas was kidding me about my vote.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%At that moment a captain walked byone of the instructorsand, having overheard our conversation, took it upon himself to upbraid me for my vote. While my peers stood around looking embarrassed, the captain proceeded to explain how eight years of Clinton/Gore had broken the U.S. Army and that my vote against George W. Bush was naive and reckless.

I wonder, looking back, where that officer is now and what he thinks of his vote. (I also wonder whether or not he has reflected on the illegality of admonishing a junior officer in front of his peers for his politics, but thats another matter.) What is clear, more than six years after the first election of George W. Bush, is that the Army was not in fact broken in the 1990s but certainly is now. The mismanagement of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has taken a heavy toll on the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, and they will need years to recover.

The destruction of the Army and Marine Corps stemmed from a failure of the Bush administrationits greatest failure: the inability to articulate or even understand what kind of war were fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. As any student of Clausewitz can tell you, if you fail to understand the nature of the war youre fighting, youre doomed before the first shot is fired.

Writing in the journal Survival, Australian David Kilcullen, now a senior adviser to David Petraeus in Iraq, eloquently described the kind of global insurgency against which not only the United States but the established world order finds itself struggling to defeatfrom the bled of Algeria to the streets of London. Any candidate serious about defense should carefully read Kilcullens article. (And theres another lesson here: while men like Kilcullen and Petraeus and James Mattis of the Marine Corps came to prominence during the Bush years, their talents owe no allegiance to a party. A Democrat in office would do well to retain their services and those of men like them.) Understanding the nature of the fight is an indispensable first step to making long-overdue policy changes.

When Republicans think of role models to follow for getting tough on defense, they inevitably think of Ronald Reagan. Democrats think of John F. Kennedy. Here the Democrats are better placed than their Republican peers. Reagan won the cold war by outspending his competitoron weapons systems, advanced aircraft, tanks, and so on. Today, there is no Soviet Union to spend into submission, and stealth bombers and nuclear submarines are hardly the weapons of choice in a counterinsurgency fight.

Kennedy, by contrast, invested in weapons that are effective against insurgencies and guerrillas, supporting the Army Special Forces and fathering the Navys SEAL teams. These kinds of weaponsnot bombers or warshipsare best suited to fight a global insurgency. This provides an opportunity to a Democratic candidate. For once, they can argue, its the Republicans who are at sea on issues of defense policy and who dont understand modern war. We get it, they can say. They dont.

Hillary Clinton, still the front-runner in the Democratic field, has worked admirably hard over the past six years to burnish her defense credentials. She doesnt look nearly as uncomfortable around generals as her husband did as president and is a careful student of defense policy. One gets the feeling that many generals would be happy enough to trade this disastrous presidency for a second Clinton administration.

Ironically, though, a young and innovative candidate like Barack Obama may be as well positioned as anyone else to articulate this new kind of conflict. The true counterinsurgency experts in the Army today, after all, are not the generalsthey are the young captains and lieutenants who have learned counterinsurgency the hard way, on the streets of Ramadi in Iraq and in the mountains of Paktia Province in Afghanistan. The older, unimaginative general officer corps, too wed to the old ways, has hardly covered itself in glory these past five years.

Regardless of who the nominee is, Ill carefully read and listen to the statements that come from the Democratic candidates. Because if they really get it, if they properly articulate the nature of the war that began on September 11, then a Democrat will earn my vote in 2008.

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