November 1, 2011  

The danger of military success

Planners cling to battle-tested doctrine, but the world is changing

Most American military specialists know about Stonewall Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant, but not many study the Duke of Wellington and his campaigns on the Spanish Peninsula. They should, because the British experience on the peninsula and afterward is a case study in how military success can actually be detrimental in the long run.

In six years of war against superior French forces (1808-1814), Wellington fought 15 battles without a loss and won two of three major sieges (he abandoned one). He used sea power effectively to support his war on land. He was a master of logistics and operated effectively with his allies, both Portuguese and Spanish. He understood “war among the people,” paid for what his army needed and used the Spanish guerrillas effectively as an arm of his intelligence. He often was better informed of French movements than the French were themselves.

He was a great tactician. He trained his steady troops to lie down on the reverse slopes of gentle hills, safe from the cannonade that preceded the feared, charging French column with its enormous mass. When the Frenchmen crested the hill, the redcoats stood and blasted the column with disciplined, murderous volleys until even the French flinched away.

Wellington was a master of using the material at hand. Of Napoleon at Waterloo, he said: “He came at us in the same old way, and we beat him in the same old way.”

But years later, when Grant, Jackson and Robert E. Lee went to West Point, they studied Napoleon, not Wellington. The real “revolution in military affairs” of the era was French, after all.

Though Wellington remains Britain’s greatest general, the peninsula was really a sideshow; the decisive theater was Europe and Napoleon’s ill-starred decision to invade Russia. After his abdication, and the return that culminated at Waterloo, in the defeat and confusion of postwar France, the French army turned to a re-examination and enlargement of the lessons of the Napoleonic wars while the British remained comfortable in “the same old way.”

While revolution roiled Europe and huge changes in government and politics shook thrones, the French army grew in professionalism and expertise by encouraging meritocracy supported by professional military education and the incorporation of new technology into the military mainstream.

The British, however, reverted to their historic dependence on promotion by purchase, made dramatic cuts in the army’s size in the economic turmoil that accompanied the Industrial Revolution — demobilized British troops spread around the world and played major roles in revolts in South America, for example — and remained quite satisfied with the old way of warfare, resisting innovation and generally holding to the convictions and beliefs of the British upper classes.

Wellington remained commander in chief of the British army until his death in 1852, and his conservative attitude pervaded Britain’s military establishment. By the time Britain and France allied against Russia in the Crimean War (1853-1856), French professionalism was clearly ascendant. British logistical support for its army was so poor that soldiers died by the thousands from disease and exposure outside Sevastopol, while French logistics and tactics were superior throughout the campaign.


Is there a story here for the U.S. military? One big lesson is that nothing subverts military reform like success. Military planners carry the ideas and mindsets of previous wars forward even if conditions have changed. Had the Germans not revolutionized mobile warfare with the blitzkrieg in 1940, the U.S. Army would have entered World War II with the tactics of World War I. Battleship losses at Pearl Harbor ended the era of the “battleship admirals” and marked the ascendance of the carriers. The Korean War was fought as a miniature of World War II, and U.S. forces fought the early years in Vietnam with a strong World War II-Korea orientation. No surprise because many of the senior leaders were World War II and Korea veterans.

Even though many warned that the 1991 Desert Storm campaign was a unique circumstance, the momentum of American success put rapid deployment and fast, blitzkrieg-like tactics supported by precision airstrikes at the center of military planning, as opposed to the “war among the people” that we encountered (predictably, with the advantage of hindsight) after Baghdad had fallen and we made some egregious political decisions.

Likewise, the U.S. experience fighting the Iraqi and Afghan insurgencies over the past decade has had a profound effect on American military thought. Lessons inculcated in Mosul and Helmand province are liable to be around for a long time, along with the rapid-deployment and blitzkrieg scenarios that remain beloved of military planners. Like the British, who grew too satisfied with the “same old way,” and despite intense programs of professional military education, high-level interest and think tanks under practically every rock, American military planning for the future remains caught between counterinsurgency and conventional war extremes of thought, with little consideration that the world has changed in major ways while we’ve been fighting two wars.

We have years of conflict ahead of us in Afghanistan and in other parts of the world. These wars will turn, slowly, into wars of advisers, small special operations teams, and military assistance trainers and specialists — all functions that the ground-fighting services still consider on the fringes of their professional mainstreams. There is a certain pressure, unstated but very much present, to get back to Marine expeditionary forces afloat and tank battles at the National Training Center, much like the British Regular who said at the Armistice in 1918, “Thank God all this is over and we can get back to real soldiering again.”

On the other hand, four factors militate against returning to business as usual. First, there is no guarantee, as Afghanistan winds down, that we won’t enter another, overlapping conflict elsewhere. It’s an understatement to observe that the international scene is unsettled, particularly in the Middle East, and whatever the next conflict becomes, it won’t be like the ones we’re now familiar with. The military services must maintain the elasticity of mind and doctrine to handle the next war, hopefully without the delay and denial that marked the war in Iraq for the first two years.

Second, if the Afghanistan war continues on its present course for several more years, an entire generation of the services’ leadership will have known of no other kind of warfare than that practiced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Conventional warfare of the Cold War variety will be found only in the history books. Divisional and corps maneuver and all that entails will have become a lost art. While this does not necessarily mean the ascendance of the counterinsurgency school, it does mean that the Army and Marine Corps will be highly skilled in brigade-level operations but not in maneuver or warfare at the higher levels — almost precisely the British experience after the end of the Napoleonic wars. The art of high-level planning and operations must not be lost.

Third, the magnitude of defense budget cuts headed toward the services will require the Defense Department and Congress to face some hard choices of which capabilities to retain and which to drop. The old false choices between maritime and land-based strategies will almost surely come up, as if history has not moved on since the 1970s. In a convoluted and painful way, the magnitude of the defense cuts may force a realistic examination of American security strategy on a scale not seen since the end of World War II. Then the challenge becomes to sell the results to Congress, with all the budgetary and home-district implications. This is a multifaceted challenge that depends on getting the sequence right: first strategy, then cuts, then salesmanship.

Finally, we can never forget the central problem that neither Wellington nor Napoleon could have foreseen: the proliferation of nuclear weapons to unstable states or terrorist groups. Mere possession of a nuclear arsenal vaults otherwise inconsiderable countries into the first rank of international players. A nuclear detonation in New York, Stockholm or Moscow would be a global game-changer, the aftereffects of which are simply not predictable. International norms are in a state of great change in practically every sphere — in finance, business, culture, warfare and other areas. In previous periods of flux, governmental institutions had time to adapt, even in the decades of European unrest that followed the French Revolution. Changes come faster now. A nuclear attack would change the course of the 21st century. We can never forget the central aspect of nuclear weapons to defense planning.

It’s a long way from the battlegrounds of the Peninsular Wars to today — a route through Gettysburg, the Somme, Normandy, the Chosin Reservoir, the Central Highlands of Vietnam and Helmand province. While the nature of war never changes, its conduct changes constantly and the pace of change is accelerating. We can never again be comfortable with “the same old way.” AFJ