“War starts at midnight!” bellows an outraged General Clive Wynne-Candy, retired (Roger Livesey) when he’s ambushed at a Turkish bath in a Home Guard exercise during the Blitz. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) goes on to relate how the world has changed since a young Wynne-Candy won the Victoria Cross in the Boer War.
The Atlantic posted an article three years ago by Kathy Gilsinan about some war games the Rand Corporation ran between the US and China. A war game is a bunch of people sitting around a table, playing roles and making possible moves. Gilsinan reported that in Rand’s war games, China could repel U.S. forces attacking by air or by sea. In other words, China could help itself to whatever territory it wanted—taking, say, Taiwan, or other contested territories.
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I think the article illuminated a larger problem. We are probably going to lose the next war.
We haven’t really won a war in more than 70 years. We keep talking about having the finest military in the world, but what we mean is that we have a good tactical military. Our soldiers and sailors are very well trained and very well supplied. Our military knows how to fight. It does not necessarily know how to win. So what we end up with is kind of a Ferrari without a steering wheel: powerful and fast, but unable to get you where you want to go.
Our military doesn’t think strategy is its job. General Tommy R. Franks, during the invasion of Iraq, thought his job was over when he took the enemy capital. Twice he prematurely declared victory—in Kabul in November 2001 and in Baghdad in the spring of 2003. In fact, the job was just beginning. He should have known that from the examples of the American Revolution and the Civil War. During the Revolution, the Redcoats took Philadelphia, then the American capital. It was a meaningless victory, and less than a year later, they left. The British encouraged Americans to rally to them but later abandoned many of them. During the Civil War, Grant and Sherman recognized that taking Richmond, the enemy capital, didn’t mean much. You needed to destroy the enemy army, and to do that, you had to destroy the Confederate will to fight.
American commanders are risk-averse. By this, I don’t mean that our soldiers are cowards—far from it. I mean that our officers, and our generals, won’t take risks. They go in for a one-year “rotation,” or tour of duty. Then they come home and someone else takes over. So they fight for the short term. Keep things quiet, move on. Don’t take unnecessary casualties.
General Stanley McChrystal was a good commander in Afghanistan. (He was a little naïve about the media, but that’s another story.) McChrystal told about watching a company commander in the field in Afghanistan. He asked, If you were here for the duration, instead of just 12 months, would you operate differently? The captain answered: “Totally different, sir.”
I was once talking to an Iraqi who was an ally of the Americans. He told me about waiting out the Americans. First couple of months, the Americans would say, We’re the new sheriff in town. Here’s how it’s gonna be, Ahmed or Mohammed or whatever your name is. Three of four months later they’d begin to talk about what to do. Recruit new police, say. They’d plan that for a few months, then do it for a few months more, but about nine months in their attention would wane. They’d start to plan for going home. Then at 12 months they’d leave—and a new American commander would arrive and say, Here’s how its gonna be…
Why does this situation persist? Public attitude is part of the problem. Our hero worship of the military means we don’t exert political pressure on Congress to change it. As a result, our military has become profoundly unadaptive. Though tactically proficient, it is slow to learn. Generals don’t fight the last war; they just fight the same one over and over, without adapting. It’s the same with the defense industry. The money is not on adapting, but in churning out the same old stuff.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world is studying our vulnerabilities. The example of the British Royal Navy provides a cautionary tale. At the outset of World War II, it was the most powerful maritime force in the world, but it ended up being almost irrelevant. That was because it had placed all its chips on battleships when submarines, destroyers, and aircraft carriers turned out to be what was needed to win the war.
The lesson was that possessing firepower wasn’t enough. It had to be the right kind, and to know that you had to understand how the war was being fought. Consider the aircraft carrier. The British actually developed it first, but they didn’t understand how to use it. They thought it would be the eyes of the fleet, launching airplanes to communicate with battleships. They thought those big surface battleships would remain the striking arm of the fleet.
The Americans and the Japanese did better. They understood that the aircraft carrier could take over the role of striking the enemy. And so in World War Two, you had a sea battle (the Battle of the Coral Sea) in which the ships of the two navies never saw each other—they fought it using airplanes at sea.
The British also failed to understand that personnel policy was essential to using new weapons. You had to create a new stovepipe to create and promote carrier sailors. They had to be present when big decisions were made to explain the role they could play and to argue for being given that role. Instead, the British used the Royal Air Force to supply pilots to aircraft carriers. The RAF had no stake in the future of the Royal Navy.
In addition, the British didn’t grasp how necessary destroyers and submarines would be to protect convoys. Fortunately, the Americans had lots of destroyers, and built a lot more, so they were able to supply them to the British.
What if American aircraft carriers today are like Royal Navy battleships in 1939? What if the Chinese develop very accurate long-range land-based missiles that can hit an aircraft carrier from one or two thousand miles away? That would make any big aircraft carrier a floating kick-me sign. But changing U.S. reliance on aircraft carriers will be hard even to consider because building them is a big business in Virginia. The state’s representatives in the House and Senate will defend carriers until reality proves them wrong. How many aircraft carriers is America willing to risk to prevent China from taking Taiwan?
Then there’s cyberwar. What if China responds to American moves by turning off the electricity in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle? Will there be rioting, chaos? If so, how long will an American government continue any confrontation with Beijing?
And what about war in space? A good opening move for an adversary would be to hit our constellation of satellites. Knock out GPS. Knock out communication. How much of that will Americans be willing to take?
These are all questions that civilians choose, understandably, to leave to the experts in the military. But it isn’t the military’s role to raise these questions; their job is to answer these questions when raised by an engaged civilian public. Unfortunately, the gulf between civilians and the military has never been wider. Civilians mumble “Thank you for your service” and think they’ve fulfilled their obligation. But we all have a stake in these questions, and in a democracy we have the means to demand answers. Until we do, that Ferrari will never have a steering wheel.
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I had always heard Colonel Blimp used as shorthand for a kind of dim, blustery military fool. Then i saw the movie and realized the (actual?) character was brave, honorable, and far from dim. Great movie. And Roger Livesey gave a great performance.
Provocative title. One remembers what happened to MacArthur when he made the mistake of thinking he was setting American Strategy, the wisdom of his thinking notwithstanding. It is a lesson not lost on military officers even today.
Having completed Naval War College recently, I can tell you that the military has a very clear view of what strategy is and how it should be developed and implemented. What flag officers do with that knowledge once they become key decision-makers, the military universities cannot account for.
Many of the issues you address in regards to our Ways and Means (in a country where we can rarely agree on what the strategic Ends are) are concerns that keep all of us awake at night. In my 30+ years of DoD experience, I have never seen an environment where uncertainty and risk are so readily accepted and embraced, with mitigations for those risks clearly identified and pursued.
I was happy to see you ended your blog post with the assessment that we are, at the end of the day, a civilian-led military, as it should be. Democracies are poor at developing Grand Strategy - consider the number of inconsistencies between our current National Security Strategy and our National Defense Strategy. We may never get it right. But an engaged public voting for engaged leaders would go a long way towards getting it MORE right than our competitors through the entire DIME-FIL spectrum.