Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Fighting the Next Last War

Jim Henley writes:

Fighting the Next Last War § Unqualified Offerings: Looking Sideways at Your World Since October 2001: Today’s hot article, A failure in generalship, by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, is an intriguing mix of substance and nonsense. The most quoted parts are about what Yingling views as the dereliction of senior military leadership prior to and during the early years of what he still calls, publication lead times being what they are, “the Long War.” See Cernig, and Joyner for useful overviews of that part. The single most quotable line has to be: "As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."

Here follows a series of opinionated reactions.

Yingling’s accusations can be parsed into short-term versus long-term failings. Short-term, senior leadership in the post-9/11 military failed to make clear their doubts about the practicality of conquering Iraq “with too few troops” to civilian leadership and, after that, to the public. Not enough of them were willing to sacrifice their careers for truth and duty. In fact, some of them were, Anthony Zinni and Eric Shinseki chief among them. Yingling’s real complaint is that the Rumsfeld Pentagon was able to find some generals willing to carry out what most of them recognized, per Yingling, as manifestly impractical plans.

I think I agree with Yingling on what actually happened - the Bush Administration selected for sycophants and, because the American general officer corps comprises exclusively human beings, found them. To avoid this, you either need to choose America’s generals from a purer species or have some system of, er, checks and balances to counteract the tendency of bad administrations to recreate the Army in its image. Yingling actually has a plan for this, involving - horrors! Congressional oversight.

Yingling’s longer-term j’accuse is that the US Army has actively resisted adapting itself to prosecuting counterinsurgencies despite clear indications post-WWII of their salience. Even after Vietnam the Army stubbornly rebuilt itself as a high-tech counterforce maneuver-warfare arm. My own take on this involves inferring from dribs and drabs of hints and asides: I think the Vietnam generation of junior officers who became the generals of Desert Storm and the Clinton Years agreed among themselves that getting involved in counterinsurgency warfare was profoundly unwise, and they helped build a force posture as unsuited to it as possible. “We don’t do mountains,” Colin Powell memorably said. In this I think they were correct. We’ll get to that.

In the course of this indictment, Yingling identifies a “villain” that would raise Harold Bloom’s eyebrow: An essential contribution to this strategy of denial was the publication of “On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War,” by Col. Harry Summers. Summers, a faculty member of the U.S. Army War College, argued that the Army had erred by not focusing enough on conventional warfare in Vietnam, a lesson the Army was happy to hear. Despite having been recently defeated by an insurgency, the Army slashed training and resources devoted to counterinsurgency.

Summers was the Yingling of his day! He was the young turk telling the old farts where they got it wrong. But while it’s been many years since I read On Strategy, I think Yingling’s gloss of Summers argument is unfair. Summers argument was that the Army should have focused on “conventional warfare” in Vietnam so that the South Vietnamese Army could concentrate on the counterinsurgency aspect. Summers believed that the US Army should have been used to seal the borders from NVA infiltration and resupply while ARVN concentrated on the Vietcong. Summers believed that the US lacked ARVN’s local knowledge and that anyway, the South Vietnamese government needed to be the ones to secure their own territory. You can attack Summers’ thesis at all sorts of levels, from operational to moral, but in fact he had a theory of counterinsurgency - it was better done by local clients.

After the elsewhere-blogged passages about the failure of the senior officer corps as a whole to speak out in advance of the Iraq War when it would have done some good, Yingling makes his proposals for producing a better officer corps. James Joyner calls the suggestions naive. I partly agree, but James skips some of Yingling’s better arguments about just what Congress could do, which amounts to, really use already existing oversight prerogatives. Excerpt the first:

However, it routinely confirms four-star generals who possess neither graduate education in the social sciences or humanities nor the capability to speak a foreign language. Senior general officers must have a vision of what future conflicts will look like and what capabilities the U.S. requires to prevail in those conflicts. They must possess the capability to understand and interact with foreign cultures. A solid record of intellectual achievement and fluency in foreign languages are effective indicators of an officer’s potential for senior leadership.

Cynics will note that this qualification brief describes Yingling rather exactly! But there’s a pretty good chance that Yingling has already destroyed his Army career by publishing this article and probably knows it, so I don’t think we should think he’s being merely self-serving. Leaving specifics aside, Yingling is asking for a real confirmation process.

Excerpt the second:

Finally, Congress must enhance accountability by exercising its little-used authority to confirm the retired rank of general officers. By law, Congress must confirm an officer who retires at three- or four-star rank. In the past this requirement has been pro forma in all but a few cases. A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank than one who serves with distinction. A general who fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of strategic probabilities ought to suffer the same penalty.

I like this guy! And yet. This passage can justly be called naive, and points up one of two major blind spots of the article. Yingling is very good on the institutional failings of the Army, but for a guy with a master’s in Political Science from the University of Chicago, he seems blithe about the larger institutional context in which the Army is embedded. Old soldiers never die. They go to work for defense contractors. Defense contractors lobby Congress. Congressmen babysit the contractors in their districts. The Congressmen and Senators from the regions with the biggest bases and defense plants get the Armed Services committee positions. Congressional Republicans have spent six years teaching us that a political party can put as much energy into thwarting oversight as conducting it. The relationships are all very incestuous, and beyond the iron triangle itself is a network of infantile-nationalist talk shows and bloggers who would be only to happy to demagogue against “anti-military” legislators trying to hold a general to account.

I’m sure some version of Yingling’s reforms can give us a better officer corps, even if they’re imperfectly implemented, but the truth is that the Army can only ever get so good because, at bottom it’s a bureaucracy responding to the laws of bureaucracies. (cf. the Stiftung.) This is a truth American policy needs to integrate into any grand strategy worthy of the name.

I called this a blind spot. You could argue that it’s simply outside the scope of his paper. So the other great unexamined premise of his paper. Let’s approach it by way of his conclusion:

At the Battle of Valmy in 1792, Frederick’s successors were checked by France’s ragtag citizen army. In the fourteen years that followed, Prussia’s generals assumed without much reflection that the wars of the future would look much like those of the past. In 1806, the Prussian Army marched lockstep into defeat and disaster at the hands of Napoleon at Jena. Frederick’s prophecy had come to pass; Prussia became a French vassal.

Iraq is America’s Valmy. America’s generals have been checked by a form of war that they did not prepare for and do not understand. They spent the years following the 1991 Gulf War mastering a system of war without thinking deeply about the ever changing nature of war. They marched into Iraq having assumed without much reflection that the wars of the future would look much like the wars of the past. Those few who saw clearly our vulnerability to insurgent tactics said and did little to prepare for these dangers. As at Valmy, this one debacle, however humiliating, will not in itself signal national disaster. The hour is late, but not too late to prepare for the challenges of the Long War. We still have time to select as our generals those who possess the intelligence to visualize future conflicts and the moral courage to advise civilian policymakers on the preparations needed for our security. The power and the responsibility to identify such generals lie with the U.S. Congress. If Congress does not act, our Jena awaits us.

This is nonsense. It’s as apocalyptic as any “Dhimmitude”-obsessed girlblogger, and as unjustified. The simple fact is that nobody can make the US into their vassal via insurgency warfare. The US can lose in Iraq. (The US has, indeed, already done so.) It can lose in Afghanistan. It can suffer attacks and casualties from acts of terror at home. But no insurgency can establish suzerainty over the United States.

This I think is the issue that Yingling and the rest of the Army’s “counterinsurgency insurgents” avoid. Insurgency can’t pose an existential threat to the country. Is there a single instance of insurgency warfare conquering foreign territory? Even if you consider South Vietnam and North Vietnam to have really been separate countries, it was, as certain hawks never tire of pointing out, Hanoi’s regular Army that conquered the South. The FLN could kick France out of Algeria, but it could never rule France. Hezbollah drove Israel out of Lebanon in the 1990s using guerrilla warfare. It couldn’t use the same tactics to drive Israel out of Galilee. Insurgencies can prevent foreign or local governments from consolidating control over the insurgents’ “own” territory. Guerrilla movements that get big enough have been able to take power in their own countries.

But they can’t conquer. Insurgency is fundamentally reactive and, if not always merely “defensive” . . . parochial. A guerrilla army swims in the sea of the people, like the man said, and foreigners make a lousy sea. Even if all “the terrorists” wanted to follow us home after we “cut and run” from Iraq, they could never have remotely the effect here that they manage in Iraq. Here they lack a sea.

By and large, a country like the United States only needs to commit to an ongoing posture of counterinsurgency if it is also committed to serial military domination of foreign populations. In fact, the United States is currently so committed, on a bipartisan basis. But that’s an unwise and immoral posture that will lead to national ruin in the medium to long term. The Iraq defeat offers one of those rare moments for real national reappraisal, an openness to genuine reform. Rather than work at getting better at executing an unwise and immoral grand strategy, let’s choose a different one.

In case you think the above is merely complacent, a last thought. Yingling and his school should consider the possibility that they are the ones preparing to fight the last war. (Shouldn’t we credit the Vietnam generation of officers for not doing this? What would an Army of commandos and civil affairs specialists have done during Operation Desert Storm?) “4GW” cannot pose an existential threat to the United States. It can neither wipe us off the map nor make us bend the knee. But perhaps some way of war in embryo could. A bright guy like Yingling ought to give the matter some thought.

1 comment:

josh said...

'"4GW" cannot pose an existential threat to the United States.'


The United States faces many threats, from within and without. In some cases their are sentient designs behind these threats, in which case you could call it warfare, be it '4', '5', or '6GW', but in some sense that might be semantic or representation quibbling over legitimate questions of how to represent the salient dynamics of what it is that is goin on.
In some cases it's just something like collective idiocy, or clusterfuks in the policy development culture, like the fiascos over land use, or economic devolution (cf clusterfuck nation), or the patterns of activity leading to ecological destruction or global warming; in these cases you wouldn't call it warfare, unless it was a purposeful decision. But there are coming of age some incredibly subtle and sophisticated methods for wreaking havoc on a targeted society, and I think that the lines are incredibly blurred when looking for them.
One common and not easily explained away meme has it that the nation-state really isn't the most relevant focal point for IntRel and policy discussions. . . and in light of such one starts to wonder how to develop the appropriate visualization to work from. Wither the right model? Just lots of overlapping sets, nebulous as hell, charging in and out of existence with increasing speed.
Every set a community, (a 'moral community')?
Who knows. But for real man, the Pentagon is reflective of the nation as a whole, that's why it's got so many sycophantic mediocrities. . . that is what the national talent pool can render it at this point. A postmodern Albert Speer working in DC would be trying to figure out how to get the national culture to produce more of this critical resource called 'competence'. Subtle but clearly not intangible, at least at the output. . . And I disagree with your cynicism about 'bureaucracy' too; it's just an organizational enterprise, like any other, and has no laws that aren't transcended when the average intelligence/honor /creativity levels jump an order of magnitude.
Garbage in, garbage out.