Fixing America’s Military

Something is very wrong with America’s armed forces.

Despite the astonishing competence of the U.S. military at a tactical level – where they are pretty much unstoppable, by anybody, anywhere – in terms of strategy the last decade has been one of unprecedented defeat. Our retreats in the Middle East – already in Iraq, soon in Afghanistan – are taking place under conditions well short of victory, something which no amount of political obfuscation and flag-waving can wish away. The consequences, which are barely coming into focus yet, promise to be vast.

What’s going on here? How has the greatest military power on earth singularly failed to translate its tactical awesomeness into strategic victory against frankly fourth-rate opposition? This is a deeply troubling question which historians will ponder, with greater dispassion than we can today muster, decades henceforth.

But that discussion cannot wait decades. Fortunately, Tom Ricks, award-winning journalist-cum-historian, has a new book out on American generalship which promises to be a must-read. His teaser article, General Failure, is a tour de force, elaborating just how ineffective the U.S. Army has become in recent years. Its top leadership is iffy, at best, filled with self-promotion and self-delusion, and there appears to be zero accountability for failed generals, unlike in World War Two. This is not George Marshall’s Army any longer, in any way.

Aside from failures in ethics, which are themselves considerable, it seems that the U.S. Army has forgotten how to wage war – as opposed to battles – effectively. I’m not sure that the other armed services are much better: our Navy hasn’t faced serious opposition at sea since 1944 and the Air Force hasn’t faced a peer competitor in the air since its birth in 1947. Our forces remain tactically fantastic, but how effective they are strategically remains a very open question. The United States has operated freely, on a global basis, since the last couple years of World War Two; our control of the seas and air has been basically unchallenged. How effective would we be without this dominance? I’d prefer not to find out.

Fixing the military, getting it better at winning wars, is a huge undertaking, but the easy – and true – answer is education. In the aftermath of defeat in 1918, the Germans hunkered down, with a small and underfunded military, and revamped their whole military education system, based on the harsh lessons of losing. While the military machine which emerged ultimately served a nasty regime, that does not detract from what a superb fighting force it was, and how quality education was at the center of its excellence. In some ways, the U.S. Army after Vietnam engaged in a serious rethink of how it fights wars, and how to educate officers in that subject, which bore fruit in the Gulf War of 1991 (though Ricks shows that, ethically speaking, nothing was fixed).

The U.S. is hardly coming off a 1918-style defeat now, but the centrality of education is the same. The Department of Defense spends a lot of time and money educating its forces, but to what effect? The Professional Military Education (PME) system is a complicated one and its mission is big: teaching our warfighters how to win, politically as well as militarily.

It’s pretty clear now, examining the last decade, that our uniformed leadership lacks critical skills in mastering the political outcomes of conflicts – which after all is the whole point of wars. They seem content to leave to the civilians what really is the military’s job, as Tom Ricks makes painfully evident. It’s also clear, to those who care to look closely, that a lack of rigor in PME is contributing to the problem. Simply put, our War Colleges are not sufficiently challenging students: nobody fails. The outcome of that is seen daily in the Middle East.

Fortunately there are concrete ideas out there on how to make PME work better. Joan Johnson-Freese, a longtime PME educator (and, full disclosure, a colleague) has just published a book which promises to open up a very necessary and timely debate. Educating America’s Military has already gotten endorsements more potent than mine, yet I encourage all those concerned with our military to take a look and participate in that debate. This, too, is a must-read for those concerned about our nation’s defense and security.

Joan, who is best known as an expert on Chinese space policy, has taught at a raft of PME institutions and possesses leadership experience, so her views, which she’s already given us a preview of, deserve to be taken seriously. While you’re waiting for Amazon to bring your copy of the book, here’s a good teaser from C-SPAN.

Not everyone will agree with Joan’s points – and if you disagree strenuously I especially invite you to read closely – but that’s why there needs to be a debate. Our PME system was fundamentally recast in 1986, like so much of DoD, by the Goldwater-Nichols Act, yet our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that more change is needed to ready the U.S. military for the conflicts of the 21st century. Another big recast seems overdue.

What sort of change should it be? Let’s get the debate rolling …

[Note: The opinions expressed here are entirely my own, and in no way those of the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.]


2 comments on “Fixing America’s Military”
  1. Very good post, as always. Guess I would offer two things:

    1. I don’t think our withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan under conditions short of victory necessarily indicate that the MILITARY is broken in some way. Like you pointed out, the U.S. military is extraordinarily competent at the tactical level (after crossing the line of departure in 2003, it took us, what, 21 days to capture Baghdad?). Some of the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan were attributable to poor generalship (as Ricks pointed out), but I think many more were attributable to bad policy calls by civilian leaders. (As much as I like Condoleeza Rice, I couldn’t have disagreed more with her statement years ago about our having made a thousand “tactical errors” in Iraq. Think the most serious errors were policy errors, not military errors.) The counterinsurgency strategy that we put in place in Iraq and Afghanistan wasn’t conducive to a quick, decisive military victory.

    2. A LOT of the tasks performed by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t inherently military tasks. Still, the military performed them very effectively. Gen Zinni’s talked about this a lot.

    From a purely military standpoint, tactically, operationally and strategically, I think we did pretty well in Iraq and Afghanistan (and yes, I say that in spite of how things are going there now — and yes, I acknowledge the ethical failings). I think it’s unfair for the military to take the hit for the dual absence of decisive “victory.” Too many of our failings were due to bad policy, political expediency, and diminishing resources/will at home.

  2. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    Nationalism on the rise again in Europe.

    The time when real soldier will be needed is getting closer.

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