Small Wars Journal

100% Right 0% of the Time

100% Right 0% of the Time by Micah Zenko, Foreign Policy.

... This forward-looking approach from the Pentagon's senior leadership is admirable, in that it attempts to counter the old adage that "generals fight the last war." There is just one glaring problem with this degree of certainty: The U.S. military has a terrible record of predicting where conflicts will emerge and where they will be deployed to fight...


Scott Kinner

Mon, 10/29/2012 - 9:18am

An interesting piece from Foreign Policy - not really a great piece, but interesting in that it ought to provoke some thought. The primary issue underlying the article, and one that it never really answers, is "how do you prepare for the next conflict?"

The author's main point, indeed to which the title is devoted, is the concept that we can't really predict where the next conflict will occur. Fair enough and well said.

From highlighting how the military leadership in the country generally agrees with this point, the author transitions to a critique of the planning construct of the last four decades - preparing for two simultaneous wars, nearly simultaneous conflicts, or overlapping conflicts. The author’s issue appears to be that this generic planning is wasteful and the product of “flabby” strategic thought – put another way, the weak mind just prepares for everything in lieu of serious thought and thereby squanders resources.

Perhaps. But if trying to inform the conversation on rebalancing the force, the author fails to acknowledge the subtlety of the true question in its true context.

“What must the United States military be prepared to do in the next decade?” This is an entirely different discussion then the author tries to have. Through the latter parts of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century the French knew exactly who and where they’d fighting. Beginning in the early 1900s the Japanese fully expected to fight the Western Powers, and as time progressed, specifically the United States. Indeed, Europe expected to face the Warsaw Pact in the Fulda Gaps and on the northern plains of Germany.

This is because – in all of these cases – the countries at question had a clear strategic problem set before them which allowed for a degree of certainty. That some of these countries did remarkably well or remarkably bad in execution merely illuminates that knowing you are going to get in a fight in the bar tonight doesn’t mean you won’t get your ass kicked.
But that is not the strategic problem set the United States faces. As the world’s only regional hegemon and thus a country whose long-term health is wedded directly to a certain type of world order, the United States doesn’t face “where” questions but “how” questions. “Where” is anywhere in the world that threatens the elements of our national power – “how” do we react to those threats is the question.

Which means that being prepared to fight two nearly simultaneous wars is not, out of hand, “flabby” strategic thinking. Still, the author is correct in alluding to the fact that in a austere resource environment, how we rebalance the military must be given more thought than was done in the past. We can no longer afford the all-inclusive burglar alarm system with private security force response…we must more carefully assess how vulnerable we really are, to what type of criminal, at what time of the day, in terms of how quickly we can expect the police to arrive. This requires some thinking indeed…


Sat, 10/20/2012 - 9:53am

This is such an easy fix...
Stop worrying about where the next war is going to be and start training as though it might be anywhere. Focus on skill sets and capabilities (and adding to both) this should drive what technolgy we think we are going to need. Stop paying for tech stuff that isn't going to pan out for twenty or thiry years, if ever. Start training in:
Mountains, wooldland, desert, urban, coastal, artic, riverine etc. That way when we are sure to go to Tibet, and we land in Panama, it won't matter. We don't even need to do this for the entire Army or USMC. This is a better idea than the "Regional BDE" concept and do you know why? Well the US Military hasn't been real good even once the war start of figuring out where everyones going. Example: WWII, 7ID trains for North Africa, invades Alaskan islands...

BJ Armstrong

Wed, 10/17/2012 - 7:24pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

The suggestion that "things are different now" because of economic freedom and globalization, and the suggestion that this "new" reality will eliminate conflict, isn't new. Actually, it comes around every now and then, and then a war pops up and disproves it again...

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 10/17/2012 - 10:53am

With all due respect to Mr. Zenko, I think he is looking at this the wrong way. As we know, no one can predict the future, not the military and not those in academia or in think tanks. One big difference between GEN Dempsey, Secretary Gates, GEN Mattis, ADM Mullen, and MG McMasters and those who critique them is that they are willing, without apology, to admit that they were wrong and to acknowledge that the military does not always (or perhaps ever) gets it right in terms or prediction. Who outside of the military is as self critical and self reflecting? I rarely hear from people in other disciplines or organizations that are as self critical and self reflecting and willing to state their errors in public.

I think Mr. Zenko's implied prediction in this statement is just as likely to be disproven as any of the predictions the military has made:

" era when the United States faces no plausible significant security challenges, and the world enjoys fewer violent conflicts, increased political freedom, and greater economic opportunity than at virtually any other point in human history."

And I do not think Mr. Zenko will have to pay the price in blood and treasure when his prediction is proven wrong. And I would predict with near 100% certainty that when he is wrong we will not read any self criticism or self reflection from him about what such an assumption will have cost our Nation. There is so much more to say about Mr. Zenko's "analysis" but I will stop here.