The Army finds itself in a period of profound organizational, operational and fiscal transition. How shall it process the campaigns of the past decade, which defined a generation of officers and noncommissioned officers; codify lessons; and prepare for the future?
In this article, we outline five cautionary reminders that cut through all echelons of the Army’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not our intent to recap best practices — this has been done exceedingly well over the past decade and has been instrumental to the Army’s ability to adapt to the wars we have been fighting.
Nor is it an apology for counterinsurgency doctrine. Our goal is much broader. Simply put, how do we look forward to new realities while being mindful of the hard lessons from the past decade?
1. Do not view the past 10 years as an aberration
There is a tendency among some in the Army — one that predated 9/11 — to view stability operations as somehow beneath or ancillary to the Army’s core competencies. Operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo were viewed as misadventures that distracted us from our ability to fight conventional wars and ultimately degraded our war-fighting skills. We are seeing shades of this argument emerge again today as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, and some conclude that the Army’s undeniable limitations in nation-building and the challenges of fighting protracted, asymmetric wars mean we will not engage in such missions again.
This view rests on two critical misinterpretations. The first is confusing degree of difficulty with degree of likelihood. We can acknowledge the limitations of military power in conducting stability operations but, at the same time, recognize that these will increasingly be the types of missions we are called upon to execute in the coming years, albeit perhaps not on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan. Even those who argue that China or Iran present the most grave national security threats to the U.S. are hard-pressed to suggest that a large-scale, conventional land war is imminent or even likely. If history is any guide, we will continue to be called upon to intervene in small wars that test our ability to wage stability operations.
Second, the preference for reorienting the Army back to offensive and defensive operations constitutes what we call the “false comfort zone” narrative, and it wins new believers each day. Many of our conventional war-fighting skills have unquestionably deteriorated over the past 10 years, and we will need to devote real attention to rebuilding them. In fact, a generation of junior officers and NCOs knows nothing but how to conduct stability operations. But suggesting that the difficult nature of protracted stability operation missions proves that the Army should dedicate its primary focus to traditional, conventional combat roles will only position us to make the same mistakes again.
Therefore, our first imperative is to recognize that the past 10 years, while exacting an incredible toll on the Army, is still probably a good gauge in analyzing the types of wars we will be called upon to fight in the near future. Related to this, we need to fight any tendency to return exclusively to preparing for offensive and defensive operations, even if for many it forms the Army’s natural comfort zone. In everything, we need to strive to retain balance, and stability operations must remain within our jurisdiction.
2. Do not let budget cuts define us
No one denies that the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the associated mandatory reductions in federal spending will bring a new reality for the Army. Current estimates suggest the Army will cut 80,000 troops and up to eight brigade combat teams by 2017.
Many defense commentators, noting parallels to 20th century drawdowns, are sounding the alarm against precipitous cuts. Max Boot has recently cautioned: “At the end of the day, less money results in less capability. And less capability is something we cannot afford at a time when we face a rising China, a nuclear North Korea, an Iran on the verge of going nuclear, a Pakistan threatened as never before by jihadists and numerous terrorist groups, ranging from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to the Shabab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” Boot may be correct, but we find danger if the Army echoes this line of thinking or, worse, allows itself to be defined by budget cuts. In letting budget cuts dominate the narrative about the Army’s role in the coming decades, by default we consciously stake out a narrow scope of responsibility or jurisdiction, and normally that is our comfort zone of conventional warfare.
More broadly speaking, in viewing Army capabilities exclusively through the lens of diminished resources, the Army is given a free pass when it comes to making hard choices about prioritizing training and resources. Our mission is still to fight and win our nation’s wars, regardless of what those wars may look like or when they might emerge, and we cannot use the mask of a smaller budget to ignore certain components of unified land operations. While it is entirely appropriate for our most senior leaders to face the challenges of translating strategy to finite resources and communicating risk to civilian policymakers, the rest of the Army should quietly go about their jobs. Surely, diminished resources will have clear, practical consequences for Army units, but there comes a point when we all simply need to move forward. At best, a preoccupation with budget cuts is distracting; at worst, it causes us to develop strategies based on resources as opposed to applying resources to the strategies we have developed.
3. Don’t blame the civilians
As we begin the post-Iraq and Afghanistan era and downsize the Army, we run another risk: committing a serious civil-military relations foul. Fault lines have begun to emerge, if not intensify, over the past decade. One of this article’s co-authors conducted a large-scale, random-sample survey of more than 4,000 active-duty Army officers (lieutenants through colonels) on a host of civil-military relations issues in 2009. Among the survey’s findings: About 70 percent said members of the active-duty military should not publicly criticize senior members of the civilian branch of government. In the late 1990s, the same question was posed to midgrade to senior military officers as part of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies’ “Surveys on the Military in the Post-Cold War Era.” The work compared the results of the two surveys and found officers serving today were less likely to give the normatively correct response to the question of whether active-duty military should publicly criticize senior civilians in the government. Eighty-five percent of majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels questioned in the TISS survey agreed that active-duty military personnel should not criticize senior civilian government officials, compared with 75 percent of majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels surveyed in 2009. While the majority of officers still gave the normatively correct response, a decline of 10 percentage points over the past decade is significant and may reflect the toll from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an ensuing decline in Army officers’ trust in government, regardless of which political party is in power. Whether this is the root of their cynicism does not matter. The fact that more than 30 percent of respondents (and nearly 40 percent of junior officers) feel it is appropriate for active-duty military to publicly criticize elected officials is nothing short of alarming.
A tendency to blame civilian policymakers may be emerging on two fronts. First, as we continue to reflect on both wars, but specifically the war in Iraq, some in the Army tend to blame civilian leaders for getting the nation (and the Army) involved in a war of choice versus a war of necessity. Others blame civilian leaders for the high toll taken on the institution — measured in casualties, deployments or strain on the force. A second emerging thread of blame directed toward civilian leaders regards the decision to cut nearly $500 billion from the defense budget over the coming decade.
In allowing these attitudes to go unchecked, we run the risk of revisiting the poisoned civil-military atmosphere that materialized in part from the drawdown of the 1990s during the Clinton administration. In both cases — both the retrospective blame for the wars we have fought and the impending blame for slashing the budget — blaming the civilians is a convenient way for the Army to abdicate responsibility. Moreover, as Duke professor and leading civil-military relations scholar Peter Feaver has aptly noted, “civilians have the right to be wrong” — a fact some in the Army seem to forget from time to time. Army leaders at all levels should be conscious of this growing cynicism and move swiftly to eliminate it.
4. Invest in People
One absolute truth the Army has learned over the past decade is the value of intellectually capable and mentally agile leaders. Certainly, the Army’s recent experience examining and developing operational solutions for diverse and complex problems in areas such as economic development, governance and intricate networks further illustrates the requirement for enlightened leadership at every level. One challenge the Army faces is the retention of quality junior and midgrade officers. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates captured the problem well in a speech last year at West Point: “Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging in reconciling warring tribes, they may find themselves in a cube all day reformatting PowerPoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs or assigned an ever-expanding array of clerical duties. The consequences of this terrify me.”
Junior and midgrade officers’ scope of responsibility will inevitably shrink during peacetime. Officers once responsible for an operational environment the size of Connecticut will now shift their attention to conducting marksmanship ranges, training meetings and in-ranks inspections. However, the opportunities to invest in the intellectual and professional abilities of these young officers should not diminish. Broadening opportunities such as graduate school and interagency fellowships stand the risk of being the first casualties in successive rounds of deep budget cuts. However, these are precisely the types of programs that must be preserved, not simply to challenge and retain quality officers, but to invest in our next generation of leaders. These opportunities provide our officers the ability to overcome cultural and bureaucratic differences, gain a deeper understanding for the capabilities of our joint and interagency partners, and develop the personal relationships required to conduct military operations in complex environments.
The past 10 years of war have witnessed great materiel innovation and adaptation — from mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to advancements in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms and biometric technology. These new pieces of hardware have transformed how our ground forces conduct combat operations. However, our greatest achievement has arguably been the development of a new generation of proven, adaptable combat leaders. As we look forward to this transition period, we should be mindful of the adage “humans over hardware” and fight the temptation to invest solely in new technology, often at the expense of human capital.
5. Add “understanding” to the Army values
Most of our missteps in Iraq and Afghanistan can be linked back to a lack of understanding — a failure to empathize with the very people we are there to protect. From the mistreatment of detainees to the burning of Korans, the good our Army has done can be rapidly overshadowed by the callous acts of a few. To conduct successful stability operations, all soldiers must possess a degree of understanding about the local populace — their culture, their religion and their traditions, as well as some of their more basic human conditions, their instincts, their fears and their ambitions. Over the past 10 years, the Army has exhibited great acts of personal courage, integrity and selfless service. However, none of this may have been possible without soldiers embracing the concept of understanding — their attempt to humanize a sometimes brutal and demanding enterprise.
Understanding should not be interpreted as sacrificing operational imperatives or the ability to make tough decisions. However, by embracing the value of understanding, we stop creating new enemies through ill-conceived and thoughtless operations, and we gain traction in villages and communities through meaningful interaction with the local populace. The Army Values have served us well since their inception and provided a valuable ethical framework for soldiers conducting dangerous missions. However, as we review everything our institution has done over the past decade, clearly the value of understanding merits inclusion in this treasured list that we hold true.
After more than a decade of sustained combat, today’s soldiers form the most experienced and capable combat force the Army has ever fielded. History is replete with examples of transitions managed poorly — precipitous cuts in readiness, training and capabilities. It is our responsibility to ensure that we conduct this transition deliberately, capturing and institutionalizing the lessons we have learned over the past 10 years. These five imperatives — not viewing the past 10 years as an aberration, refusing to let budget cuts define who we are, resisting the temptation to blame civilian policymakers, investing in human capital and adding “understanding” to the list of Army Values — can serve as guideposts during this critical period.