To appreciate the full extent of the military crisis into which the United States has been plunged requires understanding what the Iraq War and, to a lesser extent, the Afghan War have to teach. These two conflicts, along with the attacks of September 11, 2001, will form the centerpiece of George W. Bush’s legacy. Their lessons ought to constitute the basis of a new, more realistic military policy.
In some respects, the effort to divine those lessons is well under way, spurred by critics of President Bush’s policies on the left and the right as well as by reform-minded members of the officer corps. Broadly speaking, this effort has thus far yielded three distinct conclusions. Whether taken singly or together, they invert the post-Cold War military illusions that provided the foundation for the president’s Global War on Terror. In exchange for these received illusions, they propound new ones, which are equally misguided. Thus far, that is, the lessons drawn from America’s post-9/11 military experience are the wrong ones.
According to the first lesson, the armed services — and above all the Army — need to recognize that the challenges posed by Iraq and Afghanistan define not only the military’s present but also its future, the “next war,” as enthusiasts like to say. Rooting out insurgents, nation-building, training and advising “host nation” forces, population security and control, winning hearts and minds — these promise to be ongoing priorities, preoccupying U.S. troops for decades to come, all across the Islamic world.
Rather than brief interventions ending in decisive victory, sustained presence will be the norm. Large-scale conventional conflict like 1991’s Operation Desert Storm becomes the least likely contingency. The future will be one of small wars, expected to be frequent, protracted, perhaps perpetual.
Although advanced technology will retain an important place in such conflicts, it will not be decisive. Wherever possible, the warrior will rely on “nonkinetic” methods, functioning as diplomat, mediator, and relief worker. No doubt American soldiers will engage in combat, but, drawing on the latest findings of social science, they will also demonstrate cultural sensitivity, not to speak of mastering local languages and customs. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it in October 2007, “Reviving public services, rebuilding infrastructure and promoting good governance” had now become soldiers’ business. “All these so-called nontraditional capabilities have moved into the mainstream of military thinking, planning, and strategy — where they must stay.”
This prospect implies a rigorous integration of military action with political purpose. Hard power and soft power will merge. The soldier on the ground will serve as both cop and social worker. This prospect also implies shedding the sort of utopian expectations that produced so much confident talk of “transformation,” “shock-and-awe,” and “networkcentric warfare” — all of which had tended to segregate war and politics into separate compartments.
Local conditions will dictate technique, dooming the Pentagon’s effort to devise a single preconceived, technologically determined template applicable across the entire spectrum of conflict. When it comes to low-intensity wars, the armed services will embrace a style owing less to the traditions of the Civil War, World War II, or even Gulf War I than to the nearly forgotten American experiences in the Philippines after 1898 and in Central America during the 1920s. Instead of looking for inspiration at the campaigns of U. S. Grant, George Patton, or H. Norman Schwarzkopf, officers will study postwar British and French involvement in places like Palestine and Malaya, Indochina and Algeria.
In sum, an officer corps bloodied in Iraq and Afghanistan has seen the future and it points to many more Iraqs and Afghanistans. Whereas the architects of full spectrum dominance had expected the unprecedented lethality, range, accuracy, and responsiveness of high-tech striking power to perpetuate military dominion, the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know better. They remain committed to global dominance while believing that its pursuit will require not only advanced weaponry but also the ability to put boots on the ground and keep them there. This, in turn, implies a plentiful supply of soldiers and loads of patience on the home front.
Were the Civilians of the Defense Department Responsible?
Viewed from another perspective, however, the post-9/11 wars teach an altogether different lesson…
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Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of colonel. This piece is adapted from his new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (Metropolitan Books, 2008). He is also the author of The New American Militarism, among other books. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal. A TomDispatch interview with him can be read by clicking here, and then here.
From the book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich, copyright © 2008 by Andrew Bacevich. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an Imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.