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July 22, 2013

The Lessons Of A Decade Plus Of War And Perhaps The Budget Wars Of The Future

Major General H.R McMaster is widely recognized as one of the best and most thoughtful general officers in the US Army. On the battlefield he led the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment in An Bar province and successfully implemented many of the tactics of the "Surge" before they were Army wide doctrine. Early in his career he wrote one of the definitive books on the lessons to be learned from Vietnam. In short, he's the Army's pre-eminent Warrior-Monk of his generation (and sometimes that bothers the people invested in the status-quo).

So when General McMaster takes to the pages of the New York Times to write about lessons to be learned from 12 years and counting of war, people take notice.

McMaster's first target is those who think war is easy or simple.

Our record of learning from previous experience is poor; one reason is that we apply history simplistically, or ignore it altogether, as a result of wishful thinking that makes the future appear easier and fundamentally different from the past.

We engaged in such thinking in the years before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; many accepted the conceit that lightning victories could be achieved by small numbers of technologically sophisticated American forces capable of launching precision strikes against enemy targets from safe distances.

These defense theories, associated with the belief that new technology had ushered in a whole new era of war, were then applied to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; in both, they clouded our understanding of the conflicts and delayed the development of effective strategies.

Today, budget pressures and the desire to avoid new conflicts have resurrected arguments that emerging technologies — or geopolitical shifts — have ushered in a new era of warfare. Some defense theorists dismiss the difficulties we ran into in Afghanistan and Iraq as aberrations. But they were not aberrations. The best way to guard against a new version of wishful thinking is to understand three age-old truths about war and how our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq validated their importance.

He then lays out three basic take aways:

1-"Be skeptical of concepts that divorce war from its political nature, particularly those that promise fast, cheap victory through technology."

2. "Defense concepts must consider social, economic and historical factors that constitute the human dimension of war."

3 "American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments. Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely."

He goes into greater depth on each of these points in the piece which is obviously well worth reading.

Bryan McGrath (a retired Navy officer who you can follow on Twitter ) looks at the McMaster piece through a prism I hadn't considered (thus the true value and beauty of the internet). While acknowledging McMaster's pedigree, McGrath sees a political and budgetary argument in the piece.

Read closely in his NYT piece and you see the Army's argument clearly. That is, without even mentioning AirSea Battle, he has lumped it in with the Revolution in Military Affairs, Net Centricity, and Rumsfeld's reorganization ideas as fashionable passing fancies we must not follow again. Instead, we must keep in high readiness a large powerful Army capable of combined arms maneuver AND the ability to occupy large portions of the earth's surface.

If you think that I'm wrong, and that he's not arguing against AirSea Battle, then it is not worth your time to read on. If you think he is or might be, then consider moving forward.


Look for more of these kinds of articles in the months to come. Sequestration and declining budgets are actually beginning to threaten the cozy, least common denominator approach to strategy and budgeting that has dominated the Pentagon in the Goldwater Nichols era. The gloves will come off, and perhaps we will have the debate this country has needed for two decades. I for one welcome it, and I welcome the views of General McMaster.

Now, I didn't see that McMaster piece as an artillery barge against AirSea Battle (read all of McGrath's piece for the substantive argument) but I'm not a bureaucratic in-fighter steeped in the ways of Washington.

I certainly see McGrath's point (once he made it). The fight over defense dollars post-Iraq/Afghanistan will be one by whoever wins the fight over the definition of future threats.

What I took away from the McMaster piece was a warning about the here and now...Don't go crazy thinking we should be getting involved in Syria (which has a number of obvious similarities to Iraq).

Even liberal voices are rising for intervention and as always, John McCain is agitating for a fight. Last week he met with President Obama to push for a more active US role in Syria and then browbeat Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey about the level of planning being conducted for possible operations in Syria.

I'd love to see Assad toppled and the Iranians (along with their Hezbollah proxies) and Russians handed a strategic defeat but I don't want to hand al-Qaeda affiliated Islamistsa win.

McMaster's lessons learned seemed to provide a very relevant set of cautions to consider before we directly commit ourselves in Syria. Sure we can drop bombs on regime assets and give the rebels air cover but what happens if we and they win? We saw the chaos into which Iraq (with tens of thousands of US troops on the ground) and Libya devolved into. Are we sure that's an acceptable outcome in Syria? And if you want to avoid that kind of vacuum then that's going to mean "peace keeping" troops (which often becomes "peace making" and involves anything but peaceful means) on the ground and then you really do need to have considered McMaster's view of war from a strategic and tactical point of view and not a budgetary one.

I don't think we should apply post-war knowledge on the never ending debate about whether or not we should have invaded Iraq but to enter new conflicts in the same region without considering them? That's unconscionable.

H/T to the invaluable Robert Caruso for the heads up on the McMaster op-ed.

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posted by DrewM. at 09:38 AM

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