The Continuing Irrelevance of William Lind
William Lind in a recent article in “The American Conservative” laid out the proposition that after four defeats - Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan - America’s military officer corps is intellectually stagnant. (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/an-officer-corps-that-cant-score/)
This is utter nonsense.
Still coming from William Lind, the “self-professed” inventor, or re-inventor, of the concept of maneuver warfare it cannot be lightly disregarded.
It is first worth taken note of some of the historical pointers Lind employs as examples of when armies “crapped in their own mess kits” and then went on to get it right. His first example deals with how Scharnhorst reinvented the German Army, after its embarrassment at the hands of Napoleon in 1806. Not a bad example, as far as it goes. For the Germans did create an incredibly proficient army at the tactical and operational levels of wars. In the hands of a strategic genius - Bismarck – it was potent force, in support of German (Prussian) policy objectives. In the hands of a strategic idiot though, that army started and was crushed in history’s two most destructive wars.
His next example is the French after 1870. This is an odd choice indeed. For the French answer to their 1870 defeat was adoption of the “Spirit of the Offense,” which led to horrendous losses in the first weeks of World War I, and almost cost France the war. Remarkably the French persisted with these asinine methods until the rank and file mutinied in 1917. The final example is Japan after 1945. As remaking our entire society and forgoing warfare for all time is not currently a viable option, I believe it safe to discount this example. In fact, all of his examples are pretty horrendous given the point he is trying to make. That is the problem with historical analogies, in most cases; one only has to probe an inch below the surface to demonstrate their utter worthlessness. Much can, of course, be learned, from history, but not when it is sloppily applied, as it is here.
But let’s examine why Lind believes the officer corps is intellectually sterile. His first reason is that “officers live in a bubble” where they are constantly fed “swill” about how great they are, and get angry if they hear anything else. If that is truly the impression Lind has of today’s officer corps then, one may argue, that he is the one in a bubble. One wonders if he has ever visited Small Wars Journal, or any of the other sites where military officers are continuously arguing about the points Lind states are being ignored. Moreover, the truth is that most military officers are developed in an environment of almost constant competition, where through a variety of means they are critiqued, often brutally, on everything they do. One has only to witness an after action review at one of our training centers to see how leadership and unit foibles are exposed to all the world before those involved are sent off to fix them.
But, my guess is that Lind’s real problem is with our military repeatedly telling itself that it is unmatched fighting force. For, as Lind is the first to state, our military is clearly is not as good as it thinks it is. His argument is ridiculous on two levels. Even if our military was not an unmatchable force it believes itself to be, of what benefit is it to ever admit such a thing. Can anyone picture a football coach telling his team the day before the big game, that their chances would be much better if only they were as good as their opponent? Similarly, what would the troops think of a military commander who constantly reminded them that they were not as good as their foes? That would do wonders for morale.
The second is even more telling, once it is fully considered. Arguably, the US military has not lost a tactical fight in over 70 years (Task Force Smith in Korea), and has not lost an operational level fight in 150 years (and that depends on what side you were on during the Civil War). For decades, the US military has been absolutely unbeatable on the battlefield. Even in those fights where we were most hard-pressed (Ia Drang, Somalia, Wanat) our Soldiers and Marines delivered at least an order of magnitude more casualties than they took. The simple truth is that by every empirical measure known the US military is the best in the world and remains capable of overmatching any foe on the near-time horizon.
Lind then calls attention to the senior officer bubbles, which are maintained by ”vast, sycophantic staffs that rival Xerxes’ court.” As an historian of the Greco-Persian Wars, I would bet that Lind has little conception of what Xerxes court was like. Hint: it was most assuredly not as he imagines it. But, I assume that he true meaning is that our 4-star commanders are kept in the dark by well-meaning staff officers who have to tell them how great things are to avoid terrible and unspeakable fates. Lind even states that he knows this for a fact, from having personally told these “god-kings” the truth and suffered for it. One must ask two questions; what “courtier” allowed him to penetrate the bubble, and how has Lind suffered as a result. Most would not consider his cozy think-tank position as suffering. Though one does wonder how his position in The Center for Public Transportation allows him the opportunity to access the actually state of today’s military. Possibly, his suffering revolves around at his continuing irrelevance to the crucial debates of our time. Possibly he is offended by not getting as many invites to military conferences or wargames as he used to. If that is the case, it is because he no longer has anything worthwhile to say. In fact, he was last relevant in 1985, and his contributions then were of rather paltry substance.
Lind goes on to state that our military officers are “merely craftsmen” and not professionals. His standard for this comment is that most officers do not read military history, which he proves through two anecdotes; one each from a Marine Corps and Army school, where the students supposedly read only 1 or 2 pages a night. Well, I teach at the Marine Corps War College and I assure Mr. Lind that the students are usually reading over 100 and closer to 200 pages a night. I do, however, lament that there is not more time given over to teaching military history at the various War Colleges (though there are ongoing measures to fix that). Still, at the lower course levels, students are immersed in military history, particularly those students with an aptitude for the material, who are often given a second full year of immersion into military history.
If our students are returning to the military education system not as well read as one might hope, that reflects the fact that they have been at war for over a decade. Given a choice between a bit more time learning their craft, and thereby keeping the men and women charged to their care alive, or reading Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, which would Lind advise a young officer to do. Moreover, if there really is a professor at an Army school who believes “We are back to drawing on the cave wall,” then I submit that his comment reflects his own failings, and it is time for him to move on.
Lind does not hold the officer corps totally culpable for their own failure. Rather, he views their professional handicaps as a result of three institutional failings. First up, is Lind’s claim that there are too many officers for the organization. To prove his point he compares the leanness of a German Panzer Division in World War II to our division headquarters that he claims are the size of “cities.” Let’s overlook the hyperbole, and note that Lind is comparing apples and oranges. During the invasion of Iraq the 3rd Infantry Division went from Kuwait to Baghdad in 21 days, destroying half a dozen Iraqi divisions along the way. During that time, the division was maneuvered by Brigadier General Lloyd Austin from the back of a couple of vehicles, and he was supported by a staff of less than a dozen officers. Moreover, when I visited the 101st Airborne Division headquarters during the invasion, it was working out of two tents.
Only during the occupation did headquarters begin to grow. This was not a result of needing more officers to coordinate the combat side of the equation. Rather, division headquarters were given diplomatic responsibilities, told to establish local economies, and help establish civic government (the list is almost endless). The reason military officers handled these positions is that, for the most part, the government’s civilian agencies failed to show up in anything near the numbers required to do the job. As the amount of jobs that military was asked to undertake grew, so did the staffs responsible for them. In the event, if those same divisions were called to fight another maneuver war, let’s say in Korea, they would rapidly abandon that excess infrastructure and slim down for combat… as they always have.
According to Lind the Army is also weighed down by too many briefings that give the “illusion of content.” First, what the @*#$& is the “illusion of content.” I suppose Lind is allowed to apply meaningless buzz-phrases out of some business textbook, but, in truth, briefings are important. Why? Because that is how information is conveyed. Every officer can, of course, list any number of briefings he really did not need to attend, or relate a story about the PowerPoint presentation from hell, but one fails to see how this equates to intellectual sterility. Does Lind think that Napoleon’s staff officers, or Eisenhower’s, did not spend much of their time preparing and attending briefings?
At this point, Lind launches into a screed about our military’s personnel policies having created an “emasculated, morally deficient, ass-kissing, conformist, officer corps.” Really? It is too bad Lind, while dealing with transportation problems all day, apparently has no time to visit with serving military officers of all ranks. He would discover that his comments are far removed from reality. I recently had the opportunity to witness a 4-star general talking with a group of captains about the state of the Army. If these captains were holding anything back I could not imagine what it was. In fact, my impression was that if wanted to demonstrate “talking truth to power” she could do no better than use that meeting as an example. So, what is Lind talking about? The best I can guess is that he is rehashing many of the points he was making in the 1980s (and they were wrong then), without having any knowledge of our current military. I, for instance, am a mere professor at the Marine Corps War College. The odds that the Commandant of the Marine Corps - General Amos - knows who I am, are slim (at least until he reads this). Still, if I sent him a note, out of the blue, telling him the corps was making a terrible mistake in how it educating its future leaders (it’s not), I would bet a month’s pay I could get on his schedule. I would bet another month’s pay that after venting my feelings my job would remain secure and I would, in fact, feel no negative professional repercussions. Lind is imaging an American military that does not exist, and possibly never existed. It is sad, indeed that persons have to take the time beating down his straw men.
Lind finishes with this reprehensible close: “If American military officers want to know, or even care, why we keep losing, they need only look in the mirror. They seem to do that most of the time anyway, admiring their now-tattered plumage. Behind them in the glass, figures in turbans dance and laugh.”
So, let’s get a few things straight. First… and this is crucial, the American military does not lose. As I pointed out above, it has a nearly unbroken record of battlefield victories dating back into the 19th century. And, that in the final analysis, is what our military is paid to do: keep the peace, and failing that to win on the battlefield. Unfortunately, as was pointed out to Colonel Summers after Vietnam; in strategic terms, winning on the battlefield is often irrelevant. So, as our military ends over a decade in combat, it comes out with its head held-high, its valor proven, and its capacity to win any engagement unchallenged. Still, the nation again failed to achieve the strategic success it hoped for. By and large such failure cannot be laid at the feet of the military. Our forces did all that was asked of them and more. It is, therefore, hard to see how even another hundred tactical victories could have altered the strategic result. The answer to this strategic dilemma is not going to be found in telling officers to read more history. Rather, it must be found in making sure our policymakers are better prepared to understand and react to the strategic conundrums that surround them. The nation’s military instrument is as close to perfect as any in history, what it needs a statesman of Bismarckian genius to direct when and where it deploys… and to achieve what result. But, blaming the politicians has always been a step to far for Lind and his ilk, as it is much always easier to fault those who fought, bled and died then those who sent them.
In summary, Lind has diagnosed the wrong aliment and offered the wrong cure, and worse, is trying to treat a patient that does not exist. In the process, he has demonstrated that he has lost contact with the realities of our current military. In truth, the real officer corps, particularly our senior officers, are always and everywhere looking for worthwhile suggestions and help. The pity is that Lind has demonstrated that he has nothing in value to offer them. He would much rather, insult and berate, as he demands the officer corps reform itself according to his vision. What that vision consists of, besides reading more military history, remains unfathomable. It is time for Lind to return to his dark corner, and stop bothering the adults who are doing the serious work of reinvigorating the force that will defend this great nation for another generation.
Still, on the off chance Lind truly desires to contribute to the ongoing debate, and not just cast stones, may I recommend a little reading. Each of the services is busily working on their ideas for the future - Expeditionary Force 21 for the Marines, Vision 2025 for the Army, Air-Sea Battle for the Air Force and Navy. May I suggest that Lind take the time to review the documents relating to these new plans and directions, and then publish a commentary on his thoughts.. Rather than attack the military for not thinking about the future force, which is demonstrably false, Lind could make himself relevant in the current debate by carefully analyzing the pro and cons of the myriad of debates that he has somehow currently has convinced himself are no longer taking place.