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Bombs, Missiles, and Robots Don’t Drink Chai: Why, More than Ever, We Must Embrace the Human Aspects of War
Douglas A. Pryer
You can kill a man, but you cannot kill an idea.
With America’s economy groaning under staggering debt, one major conflict abroad (Iraq) finished, and another winding down (Afghanistan), the inter-service, interwar struggle for dwindling resources are well underway. The losers in this struggle are already clear.
The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance directed U.S. forces to “re-balance toward the Asia-Pacific region” and stated these forces “will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operation.” Consequently, the U.S. DoD Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 budget request gave “priority to investments” that have “direct applicability and use in the Asia-Pacific region, to include: VIRGINIA-class nuclear power submarine, the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, cruise missiles, and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms.” It also stated that “key investments in FY 2014 to implement the rebalance include: the fifth generation Joint Strike Fighter, a new stealth bomber, the KC-46 tanker replacement, the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, and investments in other future-focused capabilities, such as cyber, science and technology, and space.”
According to the DoD document, “Defense Budge Priorities and Choices Fiscal Year 2014,”The active Army will decline to 490,000 by FY 2017 . . . and the active Marine Corps will decline to 182,100 . . . a reduction of 76,000 and 20,000 respectively since FY 2010.” Meanwhile, Air Force end strength only drops “5,000 from FY 2013 to FY 2017” and “the U.S. Navy’s active rolls” actually “grow by 3,400 personnel to 326,100 by FY 2018.”
Clear in these decisions is not just a shift in our nation’s geo-political priorities but a return to America’s never-ending optimism that firepower and technology will someday prove in war an adequate substitute for some (if not all) “boots on the ground.” Also obvious is the resurrected faith that America can choose our next war and that, when it occurs, America’s enemies will decide to stay down after their organized formations are defeated and not to rise again as an insurgency.
Such faith is of course unfounded.
“The Lure of Strike”
Dr. Conrad Crane, the noted historian and principal author of the Army’s and Marine’s 2006 counterinsurgency manual, describes the danger in an essay titled, “The Lure of the Strike,” in this summer’s issue of Parameters. In this essay, Dr. Crane argues that, while some downsizing of the military is customary in the wake of war, doing so at the expense of our nation’s ability to put troops on the ground pays little heed to lessons our nation should already have learned. His thesis: “An increasingly important part of the new American Way of War has been a reliance on stand-off technology to project power, with a promise of reduced friendly casualties and short, tidy wars with limited landpower commitments. Unfortunately, this predilection has often led to strategic overreach and a dangerously unbalanced force structure, eventually costing the nation much in blood and treasure.”
As Dr. Crane points out, after World War II, the consistent claim of airpower advocates “was that new technology promised even better results from air attacks in the future.” This lure “proved especially attractive for decisionmakers trying to maintain American military power and save money.” (Sound familiar?) As a result, the Army was unprepared “when North Korea attacked south in 1950,” and the Air Force had so focused on strategic bombing that it had to “retrain and reconfigure to perform theater air missions or close air support.” He summarizes: “Concentrating on technological ‘silver bullets’ can distort any service.”
After the Korean War, Dr. Crane argues, the Air Force “claimed without any real evidence that its ‘Air Pressure’ campaign against hydroelectric plants, cities, and irrigation dams had been decisive in persuading the Communists to agree to the 1953 armistice.” President Eisenhower “believed his threats to use atomic bombs had really done that.” So, the Air Force again became “the big winner in the ‘New Look’ defense programs of the 1950s.” Again, “Strategic Air Command benefited, and again the USAF entered a limited war in Vietnam with doctrine, equipment, and training inadequate for its combat requirements.” The Army also suffered in this war from “structural deficiencies resulting from budget reductions.”
Dr. Crane contends that the “apparent success of Operations Linebacker I and Linebacker II near the end of the Vietnam War in 1972 allowed proponents of airpower to claim decisiveness in forcing enemy acceptance of peace terms.” However, these “campaigns were probably most effective at reassuring South Vietnamese leaders and obtaining their approval of the Paris Peace Accords.” (Also, though Dr. Crane does not point it out, the fact that the North Vietnamese had no intention to abide by these accords and indeed went on to win the war is clear evidence of the indecisiveness of these bombing campaigns.)
Twenty years later, after the Gulf War, Dr. Crane says, “airpower proponents like Merrill McPeak and Richard Hallion were heralding the beginning of a new era where airpower using stealth and precision munitions could defeat field armies, hold ground, and win wars on its own.”
The 1990s Balkans conflicts, Dr. Crane states, “again elicited a combination of triumphalist claims for modern technology and complaints about targeting restrictions.” But “the key element that brought the Serbs to agree to the Dayton Accords was not the brief bombing campaign, but the rampage of the Croatian and Bosnian armies into Serb-held territory.” In Kosovo, “the air campaign did very little damage to Serb forces,” and “what success it did achieve in finally forcing a settlement came from the massive destruction it wreaked in the Yugoslav civilian infrastructure.” This destruction led the Belgrade Center for Human Rights to predict, “the biggest collateral damage will be the shattered possibilities for democracy in Serbia” due to “the backlash against Western values resulting from the perceived brutality of the air campaign.” He then points out that, “While landpower can be just as guilty as airpower in causing such damage, who controls the ground controls the message, and ground forces are much more able to quickly stabilize such situations and ensure they are properly reported.”
He writes that, in Afghanistan, “the speed of the Taliban’s collapse” facilitated by air strikes “surprised everyone” and “encouraged Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his supporters” to envision “a defense establishment relying heavily on precision strikes while saving money by significantly cutting ground forces.” As a result, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, there were “nonexistent or inadequate plans for what happened after the end of major combat” and “insufficient ground force commitments.” This led to “messy aftermaths and a decade of complex counterinsurgency that no one wanted or expected.”
“If stability in a region in turmoil is deemed in our national interest,” he says, “That will not be achieved by long-range strikes.” He then adds the critical point that we must be wary of reducing manpower too much because a volunteer force cannot be grown as quickly as one that is drafted. He concludes:
Eventually, chaos somewhere will be unacceptable to national interests, and again will require significant landpower involvement. Or the lure of easy results through standoff technology might again lead to an unintended conflict in an unexpected place. When that comes, hopefully American political leaders seeking “more bang for the buck” will not have been seduced by exorbitant expectations of technology, or the nation and its allies will pay the price in blood and treasure, and perhaps even strategic failure. Those are the costs of an unbalanced force structure and a lack of the full range of military capabilities.
Dr. Crane is not arguing that landpower can or should engage in wars alone. Rather, he is arguing against an overweening confidence in technology and our military’s ability to effectively manage the ground effects of its delivery of violence from afar. He is also deeply worried about the direction this faith is taking our military.
In truth, Dr. Crane may nurse a grudge against the Air Force. After all, he doesn’t even mention the Navy’s like history of employing long-range strikes into areas without U.S. troops to little lasting advantage (such as the 1998 cruise missile strikes into Sudan and Afghanistan). But his analysis, albeit too laser-focused, accurately and incisively illuminates what it shines upon. Moreover, it is generally predictive of the outcomes our military can expect from future conflicts in which sophisticated, stand-off weapons systems are employed in the absence of sufficient troops on the ground.
I will now try to explain why this has been and will continue to be true.
Technological Silver Bullets
There are several technologies that some historians call “decisive” in the wars of their day. Among these are the following:
The Longbow. The English longbow contributed to one of the most lop-sided tactical victories in history, the battle of Agincourt. But, did this victory help the French accept the legitimacy of the subsequent English occupation? Who ultimately won the Hundred Years War? The longbow gave a temporary tactical edge to one side, that's all. Hardly decisive. More decisive were the moral intangibles that Joan of Arc's leadership and martyrdom gave the French at the end of that war.
Gunpowder. For centuries, gunpowder represented one of the great technological enablers of western expansion and colonization. Consider the Anglo-Zulu War. The Zulu warriors were brave, physically fit, and tactically proficient. However, they had no answer for the Martini-Henry rifle. Nonetheless, how would it play at home today on television and the Internet, if American troops mowed down waves of spear-carrying warriors? Could the U.S. even do that in the modern world and still expect to "win?” Or, would we be ordered home in disgrace and our nation pressured to pay reparations? It is also worth noting that, since the Zulus were not annihilated as a people and never lost the will for self-determination, they were the broader social-cultural conflict’s ultimate winners. After all, they are the demographic who rules KwaZulu-Natal Province today.
The Internal Combustion Engine and Radio. During the first years of World War II, the German Army demonstrated mastery of the internal combustion engine and the radio via their use of tanks. But the success of blitzkrieg had much less to do with early Panzer models (which were generally less heavily armored than British and French tanks) than with decentralized command and combined-arms tactics. More tellingly, how did the German Army ultimately fare in World War II? Did it emerge victorious? Or, due to poor strategy and brutal tactics, did it end up fighting a three-front war (Western Front, Eastern Front, and powerful insurgencies) that it could not hope to win? Again, in the long view, these tools hardly proved decisive.
The Atomic Bomb. When technology can utterly annihilate every man, woman, and child on an opposing side—or annihilate some and threaten to annihilate the rest—that technology can indeed “win” a war. Of course, America’s technological edge after Hiroshima and Nagasaki only lasted until the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb four years later. Today, nine countries have nuclear weapons. Fear of the physical repercussions of using the bomb against one of these countries or a nation allied with one of these countries has long prevented the re-use of this weapon. Another restraint has been the awareness of what would be the moral repercussions of such use. We could, for example, nuke certain parts of the world where al Qaeda hides (such as parts of Somalia and Sudan) and reasonably expect not to be nuked in return. However, the rest of the world would be outraged by this action, our list of enemies in the world would grow exponentially, and our list of allies would proportionally shrink. We would instantly find ourselves politically and economically isolated, under threat from even more directions.
To summarize, superior technology can indeed revolutionize the way wars are fought. It can also win wars of annihilation, whether those wars are fought on the ground or from the air and sea.
However, since World War II, political and moral constraints have prevented America from waging a true war of annihilation. In fact, we may never be able to do so again. I have posed the question before: in the age of the Internet and ubiquitous communications devices, if we were to firebomb a city like Dresden, would the shocking images of burning civilians seen by Americans at home and allied populations allow us to continue a population-centric bombing campaign? Probably not.
Of course, morale and the will to win have always been important in war. As Napoleon said, “The moral is to the physical [in war] as three is to one.” However, wars of annihilation were still very possible in Napoleon’s day. Today, the conditions that would allow the military of a mature democracy to wage such a war during the information age are unrealistic to the point of being almost inconceivable. The side that wins modern wars is the side that has the greater will to win—that is, maintaining the sense that it should fight or that it is right to fight.
It really is that simple.
More Than Ever, War is a Human Endeavor
The “human domain” of conflict refers to the non-physical aspects essential to conflict in all its phases--perceptions, ideas, feelings, judgments, morale, trust, and so on. This domain also consists of the human behavior that these invisible aspects inspire.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow famously prioritized human motivations in the form of a pyramid. Foundational needs in this pyramid included food, water, and sleep. On the pyramid’s second level were such motivations as security, employment, and resources.
What Maslow missed is the surprising, irrational degree to which moral judgment trumps these concerns. If human beings believe that it is right that they forgo food, water, and risk their own lives, they will do so. If they think they ought to, they will go on a hunger strike, blow themselves up, or charge an enemy machine gun nest single-handedly. More mundanely, it is not receiving Meals Ready to Eat or little food that typically hurts unit morale; morale suffers when servicemembers believe that they ought to be receiving more or better food than they are receiving. Many servicemembers realize the power of the “ought,” of the human spirit, when they stoically internalize that deprivation or risk "ain't nothing but a thing."
Clausewitz’s most famous dictum is that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” However, “politics”—the visible institutions and processes by which governments choose their actions—floats on a sea of deeper, broader moral forces. Today, information technology amplifies the power of this sea’s currents. Another dictum of Clausewitz should be just as well known: “One might say that the physical seem little more than the wooden hilt, while the moral factors [of war] are the precious metal, the real weapon, the finely-honed blade.”
Technology has revolutionized human conflict, just not in the way most politicians and military professionals believe it has. The most important effect of technology has been its amplification of the importance of war's moral aspects: it is harder to successfully lie; facts are revealed sooner, more luridly, and viscerally; and moral judgments cohere more quickly and powerfully in key communities than ever before.
Thus, it is not the military’s internal information pathways (Intranet), our ability to launch precision missiles at targets from the other side of the planet, or our ability to robotize traditional human jobs that has revolutionized warfare. It is the Internet that matters and the messages we send to the human beings of key communities across the world, both via our words and, as the ethicist Peter Fromm writes, “the grammar of our actions on the ground.” The side that wins the invisible moral war, that best convinces their home population and their allies that they should fight while simultaneously convincing enemy warriors and their supporting populations that they should stop fighting, ultimately wins the visible war as well.
When has technology alone improved relationships between human beings? Short of one side’s using superior technology to annihilate (or threaten to annihilate) entire societies, when has technology alone solved human conflict? At the most basic level of human interaction, if my wife hates me or she believes she ought to have a better husband, what technology would ever fix that? If my two kids hate me or, when they grow older and look back on how I treated them and judge that this treatment was not what it should have been, how could technology alone ever heal my relationship with them?
When I deployed to Iraq from 2003-4, I loved exchanging emails with my wife. When I deployed last year to Afghanistan, I loved even more talking most days on the phone with my wife and two children. Information technology allowed my family to reach out and share human intimacy despite our being thousands of miles apart. But, technology alone will never make any group of human beings a “family,” “community,” or “nation.” It will never make any human being (or group of human beings) want to live with other human beings. It also cannot force humans to choose to accept, to not want to change, what they find unacceptable.
Now, returning to armed human conflict: let us say that there is solid intelligence that the leader of a Taliban insurgent cell is the nephew of an influential village elder. This local leader is a “fence-sitter,” ambivalent but not hostile toward the Afghan governmental forces stationed nearby. If we are supporting the Afghan government, how do we proceed? Do we simply kill the nephew with a Hellfire from a Predator and move to the next target? Or, does someone (Afghan or American) talk to the elder over chai, tell him they know what his nephew is doing, ask for his help in stopping his nephew, and tell him that if he does not help his nephew will end up dead? Or, do we kill the nephew with a Hellfire from afar and then send someone by later to talk to this leader and explain why it had to be done?
Nine times out of ten, to have any chance at all of stopping the insurgent nephew and keeping the influential uncle on the fence (or better, off the fence and on our side), communication, understanding, and trust must be shared between the uncle and other pro-government human beings.
And bombs, missiles, and robots don’t drink chai.
I know, I know. There is a time and place for kinetic military action. In North Africa, Erwin Rommel and George Patton did not break bread together. However, the allied occupation of Germany was a massive endeavor that lasted nearly 11 years and initially involved two million American troops—many of whom certainly built personal relationships with Germans. And these relationships as well as the security, manpower, and skills these troops offered allowed such powerful human activity as legitimate elections to move forward.
What if technology had been such that we had destroyed Hitler’s and Tojo’s military forces with precision drone strikes while our servicemembers had stayed protected in deep bunkers on the far side of oceans? How could we have established anything like stable, pro-U.S. governments without all those “boots on the ground” in Germany and Japan, restoring essential services, rule of law, and pro-U.S. and legitimate governments and conducting all those other “lines of effort” associated with successful occupations and counterinsurgencies?
A dangerous myth that has arisen from our recent conflict in Iraq is that the very fact that U.S. Soldiers and Marines were foreign was what caused coalition troops to be targeted. Only a very few Iraqis actually held this perception. Fact is, immediately after our invasion and overthrow of Saddam, most Shi’a and Kurds were ecstatic about the American presence, and even most Sunnis had a “wait and see” attitude. Fact is, in Basrah, as British troops disengaged and withdrew to the outskirts, violence escalated when criminal gangs and Muctadr Sadr’s Shi’a militia rushed to seize power in the newly created vacuum. Fact is, in Baghdad, as U.S. troops disengaged and withdrew to the outskirts, violence increased exponentially when al Qaeda in Iraq and Sadr’s militia rushed to fill the void.
The vast majority of Sunnis fought U.S. troops and the Iraqi government because they felt disenfranchised and angered by American actions, not because we were foreigners. And, let’s face it: our actions fueled this feeling. The Coalition Provisional Authority’s decrees disbanding the Iraq Army and preventing even low-level Baathists from participating in the new government were huge, historically obtuse miscalculations, as was as our establishing the sectarian and illegitimate Iraqi Governing Council.
Compounding such grave errors were too many military units fighting the wrong kind of war. Many units relied too much on kinetic force, employed brutal interrogation tactics, detained all military-aged targets within 50 meters of a target (so-called “50 meter targets”), mistreated civilians during raids, and failed to try to improve austere and inhumane detention facilities.
The assumption that we Americans inspired insurgents just by our very presence in Iraq was fatally flawed and proven wrong by our COIN-driven successes in Mosul from 2003-4, Tal Afar from 2005-6, Ramadi from 2006-7, and “The Surge” from 2007-8.
Perhaps the most important lesson we should have learned from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is that, even if a small, technologically-advanced, combined-arms force can win the kinetic phase of a war, it cannot win the peace that follows without an adequate number of human beings on the ground—both diplomats and troops—making culturally-aware decisions, building human relationships, and nurturing the legitimacy of the government they wish to build. Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, and his supporters fundamentally failed to understand that the type of force needed to “win the peace” is a far different force in size, organization, and equipment than the one needed to defeat armored columns.
War is war, and you see in post-World War II operations basic counterinsurgency principles writ large—the use of military force to make continued warfare an unattractive option to our enemies, the establishment of a secure environment so that political solutions can be created, money and expertise applied to re-building infrastructure and restoring essential services, and so on. Thus, the decision today not to size our military “to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations” means that we are also not resourcing our military for successful, post-invasion operations.
And if we cannot win the peace that follows a war, we cannot be considered capable of winning that war.
The Hard-Earned, Practical Wisdom of a Generation of Warfighters
Early in our recent conflicts, U.S. judgment on the ground was more often poor than good. Eventually, in Iraq, “The Surge” seemed to save the Iraqi government from itself and our previous errors. However, Iraqis today suffer levels of violence not seen since “The Surge” began. If Iraq fractures or its government falls, future historians will categorize that war as they classify the Vietnam War—as a war that America lost.
The current levels of violence in Afghanistan are as high as they have ever been. It, too, is in the throes of what can be reasonably called “civil war.” What is more, the political will to support major military contributions there after 2014 probably does not exist in a single coalition partner (the U.S. included). It is hard to see the morally bankrupt Afghan government defeating the Taliban without coalition troops—or with the help of coalition troops, for that matter.
Even if, miraculously, the fledgling Iraqi and Afghan governments prevail, future historians will probably label these twin conflicts as “Pyrrhic victories” that cost far more in American blood, treasure, and prestige than victory was worth. Thus, the strong desire of senior U.S. leaders to ensure that the U.S. military is not drawn into another costly, protracted war is very understandable, laudable, and reassuring.
Nonetheless, it is wishful thinking to think that the U.S. will not soon engage in another major land intervention abroad. Our nation has been engaged in one, sometimes two such interventions every year for more than two decades. Does anyone really expect that “war weariness” will prevent our nation from waging these wars again in the future?
If they do, their expectation is reminiscent of the naiveté underlying the Kellogg-Briand pact. This pact, which outlawed war, was followed quickly by the rise of Nazi Germany. It is also reminiscent of President George Bush, Sr.’s promise in 1990 of the emergence of a “new world order” that would be “freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace” --a prediction made exactly 11 years to the day before the Twin Towers were brought down by Al Qaeda. It is easy to imagine even the current situation in Syria becoming a major U.S. ground intervention via reciprocating escalations, let alone our having to wait a few years for one.
The information age has brought gross injustice and moral outrage into the developed world’s living rooms, making such interventions more, not less, likely.
Clearly, our nation must possess enough technologically-enabled might to deter or win a war of annihilation. This does take at least some bombs, missiles, and robots. But, we must also have a military with the human capacity to win a viable, favorable peace from the vast majority of conflicts in which we actually engage. To this end, we need a military that can place adequate “boots on the ground” and that puts the quality of these troops before technological silver bullets. In fiscally constrained times, the areas cut last and the least should be the manpower of the Army, Marines, and Special Operations Forces; the quality of military professional education across the services; and our military’s ability via information operations to be “first with the truth.”
This argument is not a parochial one supporting the Army and Marines at the expense of the Air Force and Navy. I am loyal to my Army, but I am more loyal to my nation and greater military. In fact, service vanities irritate me, to include the few times I have personally witnessed them.
Moreover, it has been my experience that inter-service rivalries are strong today only among a more senior generation, and mid-grade and junior officers across the services feel this generational gap far more strongly than they feel removed from one another. The outlook of an entire generation of officers has been forged by shared warfighting experiences in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. These experiences have often been bitter ones, consisting of these officers’ leading or supporting units in nearly hopeless situations—nearly hopeless because senior leaders had failed to comprehend war’s human aspects and had thus ensured units were inadequately manned, educated, trained, organized, equipped, and employed to win the peace.
My generation of mid-grade and junior officers grew up during the long, lingering aftermath of the great trauma that was our nation’s moral collapse during the Vietnam War. Most of us watched on television as Palestinian youths used slings and stones to "beat" Israeli tanks; as the apparent triumph that was Desert Storm devolved into just the first campaign of a much longer, far more painful war; as Russian protestors stood on tanks in Moscow in 1991 and the dreaded Soviet empire dissolved; as our nation ran from Mogadishu in 1992; as the Hezbollah defeated the more technologically capable Israeli Defense Force in 2006; and as protesters again “beat” tanks during the Arab Spring of 2010-11. All of us have borne witness to the rise of the Internet, ubiquitous telecommunications devices, and Facebook, and, wherever we deployed, we witnessed first-hand the power of ideas.
Thus, my hope is that this essay will be perceived as one U.S. servicemember’s attempt to express some of the hard-earned, practical, professional wisdom of an entire generation of Marines, airmen, sailors, and soldiers. This wisdom says: until a missile-delivered aerosol spray is invented that can control the thoughts and passions of human beings (including those of Americans at home), war remains fundamentally a human endeavor. This endeavor is begun, sustained, and resolved by intangible things like perceptions, ideas, judgments, morale, and trust. Every word we say, every action we perform (to include violent ones), sends a particular message to a particular audience. And what this audience thinks about these messages can profoundly affect a conflict’s outcome.
In the end, for the militaries of mature democracies in the modern age, ideas really do matter more than the sword.
This practical wisdom points toward the clear losers in the ongoing inter-service, interwar squabble for resources. Those losing this squabble are not who you might think, the Army and Marines. They are the American people, who may soon have a military incapable of winning the peace in the overwhelming majority of wars we are likely to fight.