Home inSight Lessons for an Army During War

Lessons for an Army During War

Shoshana Bryen
SOURCEDefense News

Once again, the U.S. Army is trying to learn lessons from the last war and apply them to future situations. Recent exercises at Fort Polk, La., emphasized short deployments with limited objectives: defend a consulate (!), secure the flow of energy resources and similar situations.  “My premise is that the world is going to get more complex, it’s going to get more difficult,” Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters. “We’re going to need leaders who can be very adaptive.”

The United States has had adaptive leaders since the Christmas rout of the Hessians at Trenton, but the real lessons of the past 11 years are not about the troops.

The United States has ceased to use military force as an instrument with which to enforce its will. The military has become an element of American diplomacy designed to change minds or behavior, and the door is always open, including to the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood. The civilian population — the sea in which non-conventional armies swim, to paraphrase Mao — is the object of intense and expensive American courtship.

Adversaries of the U.S. and the West are not defined by time or territory, though they have more of both than we do. They do not see defeat in either as definitive. Al-Qaida knows the game intimately. It rises, declines, moves and morphs, leaving the U.S. and its allies to play a sort of “whack-a-mole” game across other people’s countries and lives.

Contrary to President Barack Obama’s assertion, al-Qaida is not “vanquished” and “the tide of war” is not receding. Plans should account for the continuance of the war in the absence of U.S. forces and with only the remote possibility of a U.S. return.

The essential corollaries for the troops and the commanders, therefore, have more to do with American behavior, less with tanks, drones and planes. Consider these guidelines:

  • Speak the language; know the culture. Apologize when you offend, but not too much.
    • Some people were just waiting for you to do it.
    • They will not only not forgive, they will kill you.
      • They do not turn the other cheek.
  • Certain principles that Americans celebrate are anathema to others — and vice versa (see cheeks, above).
    • Never be entirely sure your principles are better, but be very clear on the differences.
  • Your allies know how you’ve treated other allies.
    • Vietnam is long ago and far away; Iraq is not.
  • “Building” a country during a war provides more targets for the enemy.
    • The idea that Americans are “building” a country insults the locals who thought they already had one. Americans are often perceived as arrogant for this reason and others.
  • People often want what Americans have — clean water, medicine, the Internet, weapons — without wanting to be like Americans.
    • Being “like Americans” means different things to people, including to Americans.
  • Democracy and elections are two different things and are sometimes mutually exclusive.
  • When you tell your friends the exit date, you also tell the enemy.
    • They’re staying; you’re leaving — probably permanently.
  • In many cultures, losing a war is a temporary setback. There is no “War to End all Wars”
    • They like it that way because they retain the hope of victory next time.
      • See the Battle of Kosovo Poljie 1387 for insight. Having held Kosovo from the Albanians for almost 700 years, they lost it to the Turks, but recovered it in 1918, although they lost it again to independent Kosovo in 2008.
        • They still believe it is part of Serbia.
  • Know the history of alliances and enemies. The same players will be your allies and enemies — sometimes concurrently, sometimes sequentially
    • The enemy of your enemy is not your friend; he is only closer to you than your enemy, and only for now.
    • If you have two enemies, they may dislike each other, but they may agree that they dislike you more.

“The war” is far from over, but for the foreseeable future, the military will be asked to protect the United States, its allies and its interests with declining troop strength and enormous budget cuts (whether $92 billion a year for 10 years under sequestration, or “only” $40 billion a year for 10 years in previously established “voluntary” cuts).

It behooves the military’s leadership to ensure that it fights with the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the drone wars firmly in hand.