By Jason Dempsey
A little over two years ago Gen. David Petraeus received the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute. Following the ceremony, columnist David Brooks went home and hand-stitched a "Mission Accomplished" banner for the general in the form of an op-ed in which he breathlessly declared that the military "[had] been transformed in the virtual flash of an eye" -- from its Big Army past to a more nimble and nuanced counterinsurgency force.
This victory dance was woefully premature, and other journalists should have seen it as a worrying sign. The military never did break past institutional inertia to fully embrace counterinsurgency. Yet the media, a profession that once decried the "5 O'Clock Follies" in Vietnam, has morphed in a generation into an overly deferential and only superficially informed body, willingly buying into pleasing narratives about the military that correspond little with reality.
Brooks, of course, was not alone in his treatment of the military. The default setting for reporters and the public alike for the past decade has been one of deference. Faced with exceedingly complex conflicts and a lack of clear goals and metrics by which to measure success, combined with a military establishment that is increasingly foreign to the average American, they have found it far easier to express support for the troops and move on with daily life than to try to actually understand what the troops do and where they might be falling short.
For these reasons we should welcome the work of Thomas Ricks, whose reach and timing may finally spur a rigorous and public discussion about the future of the U.S. armed forces. It is unfortunate that the discussion will be clouded with the unfolding details of the moral failures of some of the military's brightest stars, but if there is a silver lining to this tragedy, it may be a recognition that these men are human and that time is better spent on the finer details of personnel policy than in the risky world of hero worship.
To be sure, there are problems with Ricks's approach. The book sometimes reads as an uneven collection of war stories, loosely tied together with an argument over the merits of swiftly firing underperforming generals. This is an unfortunately thin reed for carrying the weight of a call for a comprehensive reassessment of military personnel policies. And in choosing this approach, Ricks ultimately misses the opportunity to directly address the fundamental dilemma in the military personnel system, which is that its operational and strategic leaders are drawn from a system in which tactical proficiency is the primary, and often only, focus of officers for the first 20 years of their careers. More importantly however, this book should spur us, military and civilian, to collectively address and integrate the lessons learned from these wars into the way we approach future conflicts.
For the generals in the first half of the book, tactical and operational proficiency were paramount. The tasks facing U.S. leaders in World War II and the Korean War were herculean, but fairly straightforward: defeat the Germans; halt the Chinese onslaught. A focus on previous experience and combat leadership therefore made sense. When Ricks criticizes the Army for sending leaders with little experience in front-line combat into Korea, the reader can only scratch his head in puzzlement at the Army's decisions.
The Vietnam War and the wars after, however, present a different story. Particularly in Vietnam, the path to victory was not always clear, and Ricks rightfully takes the Army to task for its reliance on "search and destroy" missions when a more nuanced and population-centric approach was called for. It is therefore puzzling that one of the criticisms of Gen. William Westmoreland is that he did not attend enough military schools. Given Ricks's well-known disdain for the Army's in-house education system, one is left wondering whether he really believes that more time at Fort Benning would have broadened Westmoreland's perspective on the war in Vietnam.
It is at this point in Ricks's book that a basic tension becomes clear. In the epilogue, Ricks highlights the need for generals who are better able to interact with the country's political leaders. He also wants "adaptive, flexible military leaders" better able to wade into an uncertain security environment and offer more nuanced solutions than "search and destroy." Unfortunately, there is a tension between this goal and the development of tactical proficiency.
Military leaders have not only not forgotten the lessons of Korea, but often remember these at the expense of all else. The Army is nothing if not tactically proficient, and the strength of Ricks's book is in highlighting how the combat effectiveness of the Army at the small-unit level has enabled a widespread tolerance for stalemate and the rudderless puttering that has often passed for strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Along with this strength, however, comes the primary weakness of Ricks's proposed solution. In not directly addressing the primacy of tactical proficiency at all levels of officers' professional development, Ricks's proposal that the Army could solve its problems with more frequent firings meets nicely with the definition of insanity. Firing a general unable to grasp the complexities of modern war at the strategic level is not likely to solve the problem when all of his or her possible replacements have spent their careers equally focused on tactics.
To be sure, the Army's singular focus on developing tactical expertise among its leaders is not the result of ill intent but rather the desire to keep soldiers alive. This concern for soldiers' lives is something that Army leaders and Ricks notably share, but so long as the purpose of the Army is to fight and win the country's wars, not merely survive them, tactical proficiency remains a necessary but not sufficient condition for success.
Acknowledging how and why the military has fallen short in moving beyond a focus on tactical proficiency is therefore necessary to improve the ability of the armed forces to appropriately serve the needs of the country. More importantly, we must acknowledge that there are valid arguments for the status quo and that to effectively rebut them one has to move beyond talk of individual heroes and villains to an understanding of the strengths, and inertia, of the Army's tactical focus on the way the country prepares, or fails to prepare, officers for modern war.
Ricks is correct to point out that a good portion of the Army has already moved past the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least intellectually. He also highlights how many senior leaders have recently declared that the Army needs to refocus on the basics, as if a lack of proficiency in small-unit tactics was somehow the primary factor undermining U.S. success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such declarations, coming on the heels of over a decade of war with muddled results, should bring home the urgency with which a comprehensive discussion of the Army's future is needed and which this book will hopefully spur. These declarations should also highlight the need for greater participation from the public the Army serves. Institutions don't turn on a dime and rarely do they transform on their own, despite the wishes of pundits to the contrary.
Jason Dempsey is the author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics and American Civil-Military Relations and is serving as a combat advisor in Afghanistan. The views presented here are his own.