Frank Kaplan, in his recent Slate article ‘The post-9/11 Military’, discusses many points about the contemporary US military. Let me pick up three for further exploration.
Which way do we go?
Kaplan notes that there have been many changes in the US military since 9/11, including a (re)new(ed) emphasis on counter-insurgency. He also points out that not everybody is happy with this:
Some officers and analysts sound an alarm bell over these changes. As military personnel learn new skills and adapt to new forms of warfare, are they un-learning old skills, which might be essential if the old forms of warfare stage a comeback? Artillery and advanced air-to-air jet fighters aren’t so important now, but they might be if a large power invades or starts bombing an ally.
While he does not mention them by name, KOW readers/followers (or since we are in a kingly trope, maybe subjects works better?) will immediately see the stalking horses of Gentile and Nagl. For those who need a bit of the ongoing debate between these two, allow these extracts from a recent Joint Force Quarterly dialogue to suffice:
Gentile: War essentially is about death and destruction, its hard hand. Unfortunately, the dogma of counterinsurgency has seduced folks inside and outside the American defense establishment into thinking that instead of war and the application of military force being used as a last resort and with restraint, it should be used at the start and that it can change “entire societies” for the better.
Nagl: U.S.military doctrine…is flexible, adaptable, and well suited to the broad spectrum of threats Americafaces today. It frees the military from a misguided belief that there is a single U.S.way of war that is essentially “about death and destruction.” Instead, it teaches that the Army, and the Nation, must be able to fight and win along the entire spectrum of conflict, from conventional war against a conventional enemy to training and equipping the security forces of our friends and partners around the globe before an insurgency reaches a degree of virulence that demands a substantial U.S. troop deployment to subdue.
As this debate raged on, then-Secretary of Defence Robert Gates in an pragmatic, umpire-like move, famously declared: “”I have noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called ‘next-war-itis’…” He didn’t want the intellectual attention of the military and its attendant supporting community to become distracted with dreams (and nightmares) of tomorrow. The focus should be on today, and places like Iraq. “That is the war we are in,” Gates said. “That is the war we must win.”
For all intents and purposes, though, that war, and along with it the one in Afghanistan, are over. Even the most pragmatic must agree that the time has come to discuss what comes next.
Ahh…but there’s the rub: There is no consensus on what tomorrow might bring. Events in the Arab Spring have not clarified matters. On the contrary, they have served only to muddy the waters, providing ‘proof’ of everything from the necessity of stability no matter what political stripe it may wear; to the unstoppable power of popular will; to flexibility of airpower; to the utility of military alliances; to the wisdom of leading from the rear.
One thing is clear: the will of the International Community is fickle—intervention happens, but not necessarily coherently or consistently. We intervened over (and in) Tripoli, but left Damascus more or less on its own. The militaries of countries prone to lead or join such interventions will not be given a road map for the future, but rather a story book from Dr. Seuss:
Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
You’ll be on your way up! You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.
You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.
And in the West, in societies where the paradigm of civil-military relations is ruled by the principle of civil control, the military will have to be prepared to go where they are told.
Preparing, to my mind, will not be about choosing one path over another, of deciding between Gentile or Nagl. A bit of both will be required, as will a resignation to the fact that mistakes will be made and lessons learned will be lost and then relearned.
The key struggles will be two:
- The future means less. Defence budgets will decline. Period. White elephants will need to be sold, sacred cows sacrificed and iron rice bowls broken.
- ‘Keeping your powder dry’ will mean needing to come to grips with the temptation of becoming so well rounded that you no longer have a point.
If war today and tomorrow are about risk management, as many believe they are and shall be, then we must understand that risk management always entails balancing costs with benefits, making priorities, and perhaps counter-intuitively, taking (or at least accepting) risks. We cannot do everything and what we cannot do we must accept as being a vulnerability. The aim is to try and reduce that vulnerability, or at least comprehend it. We may not be able to predict the future, but we can anticipate some of things that are likely to happen in it.
The dangers of Post-Heroic Warfare
Kaplan also raises the important point about the use of UAVs. A segment of the military of today has changed from being made up of people being drones to people flying drones. The most critical aspect of the use of UAVs, especially armed ones, is not technological, but rather ethical.
This is not entirely as new a question as it sounds, of course. There have been other technological advances in warfare that have greatly challenged the ethics—and the ethos—of warfighting, the advent of atomic weapons being only the most extreme example. Writing in 1996, Edward Luttwak wondered if the post-Cold War, post-Gulf War military reality would lead to an increase in bellicosity, as technology and overwhelming supremacy across the spectrum of conventional war lead to something approaching what the Australian academic Christian Enemark calls ‘risk free killing’.
If the cost to Us is so slight, in comparison to the price we impose on Them (and the statistics of casualities, intentional and accidental alike inflicted by the West since 9/11 illustrate this to be undeniably the case), do we now fight war free from one of its most powerful restraints?
If so, many believe that this would have the most profound effect on our understanding of war. Christopher Coker, for example, believes that war has been a fundamental component of the human condition:
war – though it may seem paradoxical to claim this – can create a common community of fate in which it is possible, often for the first time, to see that the traditional differences of tribe, religion, race or custom are unimportant compared with similarities all human beings share (pain and humiliation, for example).
If we remove from one side of the war equation such things as pain and humiliation, does that mean we lose our ability to relate to each other, to share ‘a common community of fate’?
How many colours is your parachute?
The final point that Kaplan touches on that I would like to discuss revolves around an intriguing question that he poses:
Not all athletes are pentathletes. Can all soldiers be full-spectrum operators? Can all Marines be three-block warriors?
If it is true that, as it says in Line 1, Chapter 1 of the New Testament of Warfare (FM 3-24) “Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man’s warfare–it is the graduate level of war,” are we up to the challenge? Even if the future is not COINeriffic, few would deny that today’s soldiering bears anything but a passing resemblance to granddad’s soldiering, replete as it is with technical advances and legal considerations of, if not graduate level, then certainly community college complexity.
This line of questioning raises some other very interesting questions:
- Should we head for a two-speed army? If all soldiers cannot be all things to all people for all situations for all time, then is there wisdom in creating specialists or even specialized units/formations for stability/COIN operations, as separate from conventional forces? This idea was mulled around early in the post-9/11 period.
(Perhaps this is a decision that can only be contemplated by large armies, such as that of theUS. Smaller armies tend, by necessity, to be more general purpose. The British Army, for instance, prided itself on being able to operate equally effectively in the Central European Plain and on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere besides. In a post-Basra world, though, I detect a lack of confidence now.)
- Are we recruiting the right people and developing them properly? If we need pentatheletes, are we getting them? How have we changed the standards, the templates, and the marketing campaigns in order to get them into the military, across the board? Once we get people into the military, what are we doing to ensure that they gain the necessary training, education, and exposure, so that they might be able to think and fight the way we want them to in the future? Once we return to the ambiguity contained in the earlier part of this post (scroll up…waaaay up), it is apparent that if we don’t know which way we are heading, it is unlikely that we can prepare ourselves to get there in one piece.
What happens if we look to both of these questions at the same time, while keeping in mind the seemingly post-Heroic nature of contemporary and future war? If preparing for war is increasingly risky (at the macro level) while at the same time waging it is becoming less and less risky (at the micro level), why do we have to be constrained by warriors at all? Why do we need a pilot to fly a drone? Why can’t a civilian do it, tucked up nice and safe in a bunker outside Las Vegas?
One risk management strategy is that of risk transfer. Why not simply outsource the problem to contractors, at least for those tasks that we cannot or do not want to have our soldiers doing?
Taking this extension even one step further, why have humans do it at all? Just as Christopher Coker pondered before he wrote The Ethics of War, will a post-post-9/11 army end up Waging War without Warriors? Will machines help take even more risk out of war?
Summing Up: I am not as optimistic as Kaplan
The subtitle of Kaplan’s article is “Our soldiers and generals have adapted well to the post-9/11 world.” That may or may not be true. It depends on the scorecard we use. What is more, it is another matter altogether to ask whether or societies and our politicians have adapted well.
What concerns me is not whether or not if we have succeeded so far (let the Historians have their say), but if we are able to do so as we enter the second decade after 9/11 and our third since the end of the Cold War. If I am sure of one thing it is that many questions remain.