October 1, 2007  

Washington’s war

The human and material cost of America’s occupation of Iraq is reaching a climax. The ongoing “surge” of ground combat troops into Baghdad and its surroundings is producing higher U.S. casualties, exacerbating intersectarian violence and draining the last reserves of American patience.

Like the French Army in Algeria and the British Army in Ireland, the generals in Baghdad are discovering that soldiers and Marines in Iraq control only what they stand on, and when they no longer stand on it, they don’t control it. Meanwhile, the Army grinds itself to pieces while the national military leader¬ship stands by watching, clinging to the promise of more troops for a larger ground force in the future — a promise that is irrelevant to the challenge we now face: getting out of Iraq.

Like so many tragic events in human history, the occupa¬tion of Iraq could have been avoided if military and political leaders in Washington had recognized the tectonic shift in international relations created by decolonization after World War II. This shift made any occupation, with the exception of very brief American or European military triumphs over non-Europeans, especially Muslim Arabs, impossible. But the deci¬sion to occupy and govern Iraq with American military power was driven by ideology, not strategy. And, when ideology mas¬querades as strategy, disaster is inevitable.

The U.S. needs a new national military strategy, a strategy designed to enhance America’s role as the world’s engine of prosperity, making the American way of life attractive, not threatening, to others. However, for a new, more effective national military strategy to emerge that can rationalize the structure and content of the armed forces for operations in the aftermath of Iraq, both policymakers and the flag officers who command our forces must reorient their thinking to a strategy that exalts economy of force in expeditionary operations and rejects plans to optimize the Army and Marine Corps for any more misguided occupations. This is a strategy that deliberate¬ly limits the commitment of U.S. military resources to attain¬able goals and objectives consistent with U.S. strategic inter¬ests and avoids the kind of open-ended ideological warfare that nearly destroyed Western civilization in the 20th century.

With another presidential election just around the corner, it’s time to begin answering the all-important questions of “What is the strategic purpose for which the U.S. armed forces will fight in the aftermath of Iraq?” and “How should a new president and secretary of defense define strategic objectives for U.S. forces?” How these questions are answered will deter¬mine whether our forces and their missions are aligned with the nation’s security needs.

Soon after the terrorist attacks against New York City and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush invoked the images of World War II, demanding total victory over a new, demonized enemy: Islamist terrorism. Those who were not with us in the new ideological struggle to democratize the Middle East were suddenly against us. When American forces intervened two years later in Iraq, they did so not in search of indigenous friends and allies in a country tyrannized for a gen¬eration, but in search of new enemies to destroy.

With the passage of time, politicians imbued military action to destroy Islamist terrorism with a meaning it never had, equating the unnecessary and destructive American military occupation of Muslim-Arab Iraq with America’s special mis¬sion to spread freedom throughout the world. Worse, Iraq’s forced democratization unleashed reactionary forces Americans did not anticipate. These forces strengthened Iranian regional power and influence, precipitating a danger¬ous anti-American backlash abroad and creating economic vulnerability at home. We cannot easily reverse the outcome in Iraq, but we can avoid repeating the pattern of behavior that made the Iraqi quagmire inevitable.

In the xenophobic, tribal and desperately poor populations of the Middle East and much of Africa, occupying Christian armies from the U.S., United Kingdom and other European states are unlikely to win significant numbers of hearts and minds. Moreover, the kind of secular democracy the Bush administration sought to export to Iraq through military occu¬pation is synonymous in most of the Muslim Arab world with massive corruption, widening gaps between rich and poor, and moral decadence as seen inside Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates. Where democracy does prevail, Islamism tends to govern. And, where Islamism governs, as seen in Iran — a state that is, in practice, the most democratic in the Islamic world — democracy is subjugated to Islamic Shariah law. This outcome is hardly in the interest of U.S. national security.

Avoiding occupation

These points do not argue for after-the-fact preparation or trans¬formation inside the Army and Marine Corps to fight future insurgencies that arise from unwanted U.S. military occupations. Unwanted occupations should be avoided, not repeated. Many point to the British success in Malaya as a reason to persist in delusions of success in counterinsurgency in developing regions. However, there is a vast difference between a British Army in Malaya commanded by Sir Gerald Templar in 1952, whose pub¬licly stated goal was to end British occupation of Malaya, and the open-ended American military occupation of Iraq that pre¬cipitated a popular Sunni Muslim-Arab revolt against an unwanted American military occupation. From the moment we occupied central Iraq with no plan to leave, we were at war with a population humiliated by our presence; it is the kind of conflict the American military should not be asked to fight.

If performing counterinsurgency campaigns against ene¬mies created by the overbearing presence of U.S. ground forces is not the strategic purpose for which U.S. forces should fight, then what is the purpose? As they begin to contemplate the use of American military power after Iraq, policymakers should consider the following points:

First, interventions to remove genuine threats to U.S. and allied security interests should not involve U.S. military occu¬pations that have no chance of altering cultures, societies or peoples fundamentally different from us. America cannot financially sustain open-ended military interventions in failing or failed societies with the object of imposing cultural change through military occupation to convert developing societies’ social, political and economic structures into modern Western institutions. Not only do these operations involve expensive, long-term military garrisons on foreign territory, but the prob¬ability of success for these interventions, as seen throughout most of the 20th century, is very, very low.

Second, the principal strategic purpose for which the U.S. armed forces must be ready to fight in the 21st century is not the forcible installation of Western-style democracy in soci¬eties where the conditions conducive to the rule of law and democratic development do not exist. Rather, the use of American military power will involve guaranteeing commer¬cial access and, if the president and Congress deem it neces¬sary, extending American influence to geographical areas vital to U.S. and allied prosperity and security.

Owing to the geographical positions of those areas most important to American economic interests — the Persian Gulf, West Africa, the Sea of Japan, the South China Sea, the Caribbean basin, the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean — any strategy to preserve access to these areas is exceptionally well-suited to the use of air and naval power. Moreover, unchallenged American control of the oceans and the air gives the U.S. the opportunity to wage war on its own terms, at places and under conditions of its own choosing. Whatever we undertake on land should exploit, not ignore, this enormous strategic advantage.

Third, the security interests beyond America’s borders that prompt U.S. military intervention rarely justify the mobilization of the nation’s entire military power. In fact, the strategic imper¬ative that emerges from this analysis is the avoidance of total war along with the mobilization of America’s human and indus¬trial capacities that total war entails. This will not eliminate the need to guarantee access by occasionally disembarking ground forces from the sea and the air at points along the Eurasian, African or South American periphery — potentially hundreds of miles away from the target — and then moving these forces rap¬idly over land to the strategic objective.

However, the ongoing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will make the massing of large ground forces extremely dangerous. Consequently, future expeditionary forces must mobilize organic combat power that is dispropor¬tionate to their size and numbers and execute mobile, distrib¬uted, yet coherent joint operations. This description points toward joint expeditionary forces designed for operations of limited duration and scope, forces that can be organized, trained and equipped at far lower cost than mass armies creat¬ed for long-term territorial conquest and occupation.

Fourth, military transformation must be viewed in the con¬text of the strategic, operational and tactical problems the joint force is being asked to solve today and the problems it is likely to face in the future. Once these problems are under¬stood, the joint force can begin changing the way it operates and fights, and initiate the process of selecting the most prom¬ising technology options to achieve the desired capabilities.

The challenges to transformation might end there, except that the nation’s flag officers tend to operate with single-serv¬ice frames of reference that define the questions about mili¬tary power and preordain the answers that they find accept¬able. Officers who want to become generals or admirals buy into what questions are acceptable to ask, as well as what answers their superiors will tolerate. The consequence of this cultural environment is that spending on defense guarantees nothing, civilian control of the military is negligible and a host of military structures and supporting institutional concepts of warfare with their roots in World War II and the Cold War per¬sist into the present, even though they are no longer congru¬ent with the nation’s strategic needs. The Army’s Future Combat Systems , the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle , the Air Force’s F-22 and the Navy’s DD1000 collective¬ly exemplify the problem. On the grounds of cost overruns and strategic irrelevance, all should be canceled.

Understanding the combined power of a massive, perma¬nent defense establishment and defense industry together with a political system that relies on millions in donations for elections makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Congress to exercise effective oversight. This is why the president and sec¬retary of defense must hold flag officers accountable for the readiness of their forces to deploy and fight, for the results — good and bad — that they produce, and how much blood and treasure they spend to achieve their aims. They must demand that flag officers conduct military operations with an apprecia¬tion of the direct impact of their actions on the nation’s fiscal health and the government’s political fortunes and keep in mind that “military” decisions must not be made in isolation from political realities, as Carl von Clausewitz cogently demonstrated long ago.


Who should command? Is the commander successful, and how should he fight? These questions should be asked before, during and after military operations. In retrospect, the answers always seem self-evident, because for victory to occur, the winning commander and his force must do most things right, while the losing side must do many, many things wrong.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., stunned the Washington commu¬nity by having the temerity to question the competence and truthfulness of America’s senior military leaders in Washington and Baghdad. For some reason, questioning the decisions and actions of senior officers who decide the life or death of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines made Reid a target for attack from his political opponents. This was unfortunate, because Reid sent a powerful but belated message that profes¬sional competence and character under fire should trump fluff and PowerPoint briefings in wartime, the stock and trade of too many flag officers.

The quality of performance must count even when the results are not always the ones originally intended. This is why it is a measure of the frightening disengagement of civilian leadership that the president and the secretary of defense have never acted to relieve a single general officer of command for failure to perform in Iraq or Afghanistan, despite an impres¬sive record of failure in each case.

Indeed, the principal overseer of American military forces in Iraq for much of the occupation, Gen. George Casey, was pro¬moted to Army chief of staff after his strategy failed miserably. One cannot help but make the comparison to Gen. William Westmoreland, who was made Army chief of staff after the strategically disastrous Tet Offensive in 1968. Since the civil¬ians in charge were obviously not happy with developments in Southwest Asia, they must have thought that it was not their role to interfere, a mind-set that seemingly contradicts the whole concept of civilian control of the military. Again, the comparisons of Casey and Westmoreland are instructive.

The bad news is that experience in Iraq has not fundamen¬tally changed the thinking, organization or equipment of the Army and the Marine Corps. While the lethality of every weapon in ground combat continues to rise, as seen recently in the fight between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, the level of armor protection, firepower and off-road mobility for soldiers and Marines continues to fall based on a warfare mentality that is delusional — a mind-set that exalts the dismounted rifleman inside communication networks based on the false promise of perfect information.

As repeatedly demonstrated in the towns and cities of Iraq, dismounted riflemen sent against insurgents, rebels or terror¬ists who use improvised explosives, mines and anti-armor weapons are doomed to fight the enemy’s war on the enemy’s terms. They are effectively denied surprise and security, their tactical intelligence is extremely limited, and they have no sig¬nificant edge in armored protection, mobility or firepower. In the 21st century, the goal is to destroy the enemy, not hold ground. Attrition battles that pit Americans with rifles against enemies with rifles favor the enemy, not us.


In time of peace or war, civilians who command America’s defense establishment must not allow the nation’s military leaders the freedom to develop military strategy in isola¬tion, to define their own programs and priorities, control their own funding lines, and then rate their own effective¬ness. Clemenceau’s dictum, “War is too important to be left to the generals,” applies with equal force to the conduct of military operations and, in particular, spending for military modernization.

Today, unity of effort in military operations is more vital than ever and the importance of minimizing losses in our ground forces cannot be overstated, but the initiative to change the way conventional forces organize, train and equip will not come from the ranks of the flag officers. Flag officers in Washington love to talk about change in warfare so much that embracing military transformation becomes a tired cliché. Modernization is not rationalized for new strategic settings. In reality, preserving existing command structures and career patterns, papering over internal bureaucratic inefficiencies, deflecting serious questions about spending, and maintaining as much of the organizational and institutional status quo as possible are the pre-eminent goals of the military bureaucracy.

In a fiscally constrained environment, the nation must re-examine the roles and missions of its armed forces, especially its land warfare services — the Army and Marine Corps. Both are required to deliver ground forces by air and sea to crises and conflicts. Together, the active components of these forces number roughly 675,000, an impressive total by any standard. However, these numbers are not very meaningful with¬in the current organizational structures as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both services remain organized and equipped to execute operations in accordance with their long and distin¬guished histories. Today, any enemy that attempts to defend a beach will be targeted and destroyed from the air. The more likely scenario involves area-denial operations that capitalize on sea mines and unmanned systems to pro¬tect critical approaches from the sea, while dispersed enemy forces (nonstate or state actors) defend from positions inland. Yet, the Marine Corps remains focused on the conduct of single-service “force entry” amphibious operations against defended beaches.

Contrary to its public claims, the Army remains wedded to the massive application of men and firepower inside large division and corps struc¬tures with their roots in World War II, structures that include airborne, armored and motorized divisions that have no useful purpose in the modern era. In a strategic setting where tech¬nology and threats are causing mis¬sions to converge, the fundamental structures and purposes of these two services must be re-examined and, ulti¬mately, reinvented.

Reorganizing the manpower and capabilities in these large forces within an integrated, joint operational frame¬work to provide a larger pool of ready, deployable ground forces on rotational readiness that can perform a range of missions is essential. These missions include striking inland from points along the periphery of Eurasia, Africa, and Central and South America to destroy enemy regimes, WMD and long-range (strategic) weapons, or temporar¬ily seize key facilities or points on the ground; carry out armed reconnais¬sance operations, and train and support allied forces; and seize or liquidate ter¬rorist cells and carry out non-combat¬ant evacuations.

These reorganized ground forces would be mobile, armored forces with significant organic firepower and inte¬grated infantry, not light infantry-based forces. How fast ground forces deploy is less important than what they do after they arrive and the tactical skill with which they are employed. Ground forces that capitalize on mobile armored firepower can take punches and keep fighting without taking heavy casualties, provided these forces are not road-bound and not committed in ways the enemy can easily predict. Ground forces operating in a manner within the strategic framework presented here would also allow for the economic maintenance of a credible nuclear force, as well as the security of the nation’s borders, coasts and air space — a mis¬sion set that must involve more of the nation’s military capability than it has to date.


If we do not abandon the current strate¬gy of intervention, destruction and occupation to spread democracy, America will end up like the circled wagon trains of the Old West — sur¬rounded by hostile Indian tribes, but with no U.S. cavalry riding to the rescue, because they’re also behind the wagons. Fortunately, there is another way.

Politicians can accept America’s eco¬nomic and military limitations and reorient the direction of U.S. national security policy to the traditional English-speaking policy of making the American way of life attractive to oth¬ers. However, harnessing American mil¬itary power to this approach will still require more change. This change involves a new attitude among civilian leaders in all American branches of government. All branches must hold commanders of U.S. forces around the world accountable for what happens, and replace commanders who do not produce results. In addition, Congress must be far less willing in the future to go along with any aggressive military action an over-eager president decides to conduct.

In warfare, as in wrestling, the attempt to throw the opponent without first weakening his foothold and upset¬ting his balance results in self-exhaus¬tion. Without a coherent military strate¬gy or attainable political objectives beyond the vague desire to transform non-European societies and cultures into replicas of English-speaking democracy, American ground forces will fall into the trap of brutal raids, patrols and checkpoints, forgetting that no local government can be legitimate and tolerate foreign occupation for long.

Today, any insistence on simplistic formulas that see the world in terms of good and evil will reinforce the blatant disregard for the cultures of people dif¬ferent from us, and the driving forces of state interest and power. This men¬tality has worn out America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, along with most of their fighting equipment. The next president and secretary of defense will have to cope with the fall¬out and make fiscal caution an execu¬tive fixation.

Selecting, educating and cultivating the right officers within a professional framework based on merit, not nepo¬tism, is vital. Winning combinations of policymakers, military leaders and for¬mulas for military success along with the conditions of unchallenged military superiority they create do not emerge suddenly or swiftly. They are never per¬manent.

Like international systems, military leadership and thinking should be dynamic. Technology is perpetually changing. The demand for new oper¬ational concepts and innovative organizations for combat is never-ending. Thus, decisions that deter¬mine the senior leadership, organiza¬tion and equipment of military estab¬lishments, and that occur in the 20 or even five years leading up to the wartime collision, are decisive factors in the complex calculus of victory, often more decisive in their impact than what happens when the fighting takes place.

With the right senior officers and selection system in place, and civilian leadership able to distinguish careerism from professionalism and willing to punish the former and reward the latter, the next president can resolutely implement a new mili¬tary strategy. Most important, doing what every presidential administration has done since 1945 — going to war with the senior leadership and the force they found on taking office — is no longer an option. If the next admin¬istration repeats this mistake, as did the Johnson and the Bush administra¬tions, we will continue to muddle through trying to buy everything and win nothing.

Inside defense, there is far too much management and committee work with diluted and dispersed authority and responsibility, and far too little leader¬ship with centralized and delegated authority and responsibility. This is espe¬cially true for the civilians, but the criti¬cism applies to many of the flag officers in the higher headquarters, as well. The next president and his secretary of defense should routinely remind them¬selves of Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s advice to Theodore Roosevelt when he assumed his duties as assistant secretary of the Navy: “Sir, no service can or should be expected to reform itself.”

Douglas Macgregor is a retired Army colonel and a decorated Persian Gulf War combat veteran. He has authored three books on mod¬ern warfare and military reform. His latest is “Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing the Way America Fights.” He writes for the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are entirely his own.