Recently Col. Gian Gentile USA (h/t to ZP) came out with yet another well-written short article on the dilemma facing the US military today. Which other US officer would one put in the same category as Gian Gentile? Good question . . .
In Coin is Dead: US Army Must Put Strategy Over Tactics, Gentile takes issue with the Counter-Insurgency (COIN) response to the Global War on Terror. He's done this in the past and I posted an analysis of a 2009 article he wrote. In that earlier post I dealt with Gentile's critique of COIN and expanded on that. In this one I rather leave COIN to Gentile but expand into the larger issues I see as at stake.
I organize this post the same way I did the earlier one, providing a list of Gentile's main points, but with fewer this time since this essay is much shorter. I then provide a following list of my own.
The first of Gentile's main points is that "tactical objectives have been used to define victory". This linked with the simple fact that both Afghanistan and Iraq have been "characterized by an all-emcompassing obsession with the methods and tactics of counterinsurgency".
Second, American strategic thought has lost the ability "to link cost-effective operational campaigns to core policy objectives, while taking into consideration American political and popular will".
Third, having learned nothing from the strategic defeats in both wars, "the American military has embraced the idea that better tactics can overcome serious shortcomings in strategy and policy".
The Fourth, following the third, is that the "US military is in dire need for a conversation on strategy, one that looks critically at the past 10 years of war and asks hard questions about the operational methods employed".
Fifth and finally, the future will not necessarily be like the past, unless the national political and military leaderships stumble into another incoherent war and the failure to even attempt to learn from the past will condemn "the US Army and Marines to strategic irrelevance in the years and decades to come".
Gentile is repeating an argument here he as made before, that concentrating on COIN while at the same time ignoring the political dimension in which war operates only condemns the US military to making the same mistakes they made in the past. It could be that the actual threats the country faces in the future are more of a conventional nature and thus requiring quite a different military than one well-versed in COIN, but at the same time having lost the knack for early 21st Century conventional warfare.
While I applaude Gentile's forthrightness in speaking out as a serving US Army field grade officer, I don't think he goes quite far enough in his critique. Mine is very much the opinion of a US civilian strategic theorist rather than a serving US military officer and should be taken as such. I agree with Col. Gentile's views as expressed in the article, but I make no assumption that he would in turn agree with what follows.
So from my own Clausewitzian perspective, let me add my own points which I hope will expand on and in some cases provide some possible political context to Gentile's points.
First, tactics has become the sole focus for the simple fact that the government has been loath to define what the actual political purposes/policy goals of the wars conducted were/are. This was particularly true for Iraq. The military was essentially given a list of propaganda themes (WMDs, overthrow a terrible dictator, inflict punishment for 9/11, ensure our security) and told that they were the political goals, when in reality the actual goals were the overthrow of the Iraqi government and the establishment of a US client state, bases for US force projection throughout the area, domination of Iraq's national resources and economy. That US economic interests/corporate players botched the last two goals should come as no surprise. They were too busy chasing the no-risk war $$$ . . .
So the disconnect between political purpose and military aim was intentional and reflected the rank dishonesty of the US government guided by our political/economic elite. Had the goals been more modest in nature, this might have not been a crippling problem, but given the radical nature of our policy goals (essentially the remaking of the Middle East and of various Muslim political identities) and the massive material and moral resources necessary, these military adventures were doomed to failure from the start. This was/is the fundamental reality of the situation: pre-ordained failure, if for no other reason then simply that these radical goals were not achievable through military means. Essentially instead of simply the confusion of COIN, for us the very concept of strategy (as in military means attaining a military aim to support a coherent political purpose) itself has been lost.
Second and very much related to this was/is the assumption by US policy makers that force and violence were/are the preferred means of attaining their strategic (political) goals, and with the level of force and violence the US was/is able to wield, there was/is no question of failure. I include the present tense here to indicate that this dubious assumption is still very strong in spite of the obvious reality to the contrary. It is in fact driving our current policy in regards to Iran. The assumption among a large swath of the US political elite is that violence is not only a means, but an end. Simply massive destruction is what war is about and when you have destroyed all the enemy target sets you have identified, victory follows. Warfare is simply deploying and manipulating, usually high tech and very expensive, weapons systems to maximum effect. There is no consciousness of war being a social interaction, where the enemy reacts, there is no understanding of a necessary connection between the military aim and the political purpose. "Strategy" is simply causing large explosions in the enemy's backyard while the "warriors" back home watch on TV and feel ever so proud and secure.
Back in 2003 the attitude was, hit the Iraqis hard enough, so the neocon thought went, and the US would be able to achieve anything, even the remaking of the Iraqi political identity. Would anyone argue today that that had any possibility at all of success? Yet we see essentially the same thing in regards to Iran.
There is a decidedly "Marxist" as in exclusively materialist view in all this. Political values stand for nothing in comparison to either unrestrained violence or potential economic prosperity. Make it worth their while, allow the magic of the market do its work, and the conquered peoples would become happy consumers in no time. What could possibly be their reason to resist the corporate bounty offered them? Violence as the unstoppable force, followed by simplistic notions of economics with both displacing politics.
Third, COIN provided an answer to two quite different problems. First, it was the basis of domestic propaganda/information operations whereby the war was repackaged as something quite different then it had been initially. General David Petreaus, "the father of COIN" became the "man with a plan", so the focus shifted from a lack of resources committed to "giving the plan a chance to succeed". Also the Iraqi "surge" provided the basis of the "we won" meme which has been more of less dominate among many Americans since 2007. I would argue that domestic information operations by the US military has become one of the legacies of these wars and will only become more important in the future since it in effect constitutes the military's only success story. This brings up another characteristic of the US as being "too big to fail" notion mentioned above. As long as the public supports the, that is any war, then that war continues, the US only having to worry about "us defeating ourselves as happened in Vietnam". The curious mix of a high level of material/financial resources versus a low level of moral and physical resources necessary to fight these wars particularly stands out; war as endless domestic financial shakedown.
COIN also provided for an unending operational commitment to both wars, since as long as the US was operating in the field, the reality of the strategic failures we had actually suffered could be ignored, actually discounted. COIN allowed for the "can" - and the political decision to withdraw from a couple of lost wars - "to be kicked down the road" indefinitely. In fact President Obama's decision to withdraw from Iraq leaves him open to being tarred with having "lost the war" since he ends military operations there and thus must now deal with the strategic reality (which has been there all along, as in Iran being the prime benefactor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq). This long ignored strategic reality also drives the current lurch to war with Iran, since a new war allows for another throw of the geo-strategic dice: Deep in the hole, is our political elite simply "throwing with their fingers crossed"?
Fourth and finally, while I agree with Gentile in his view of COIN, the actual strategic discussion we should be having involves not how the military should be structured, but rather how the political dysfunctions of our political system should be addressed and radically dealt with. The focus on what's wrong with the military is a symptom of a much larger and serious problem. I fear that all the discussion in regards to COIN or no COIN is a distraction from what we should be dealing with, especially regarding the 2012 election . . .
How to conclude?
Allow me to make three comments:
First, this whole time that we live in could be seen as simply the latest link in a long line of social history, that of attaining "human self-awareness" which I would define as the ability to govern and regulate ourselves without any type of ideology. Long ago our species came to the conclusion that the only way to unite large numbers of people was through a "Weltanschauung" or spiritual worldview, something that made sense of the whole in terms of existence. We've in the West essentially burned through religion, and politics and are now at economic system, which is the threadbare rag that we attempt to hide naked self interest. Consider that we do possess the capacity to negotiate, administer and salvage this planet to the adequate betterment of all. Whether we will or not is another question.
Second, be clear that this is basically a despicable betrayal. This is NOT what was sold to the citizenry as OUR country. The usurpers attempt to blind us with our own values, but they themselves are at heart hopelessly corrupt. Ad hoc structured cynical opportunism built on flimsy stands, essentially broken shards of glass pieced together collapsing before your eyes. Besides fear of not believing, what's left? 2008 came and went with no change. Still the old elite continue, but they are not anything near capable of pulling off what they are now attempting . . .
Finally, language itself has escaped us. We no longer enjoy the rather common place ability of describing our own political relations and conditions. Intricate concepts involving complex social systems/relations are reduced to one simple cause, usually dealt with by means of violence. That this stupid and self-defeating approach to strategy - or even basic existence - that this has led to consistent institutional failure does not matter in the least. Instead, we use language drained of all useful meaning. Clear communication is basic to survival of a group which makes me wonder if what we see today is predominately dead language used by essentially a dying political community blubbering its last shrieking gasps . . . Sad.
More than sad, tragic. Tragedy is something our grandparents would have understood.
On the most personal level, I, my generation and myself, imo, stand disgraced before our grandparents. They are the ones that I, for one, actually answer to, in this very specific case, since they did more to define my values than my parents did, however hard my parents may have tried.
We've lost it big time as a political collectivity somewhere along the line. "C" stands for communal. That's the very simple message of this post. If I were still a Christian, I would tell you all to pray, but since I am now an agnostic, I simply would recommend to hang on tight and hope for the best. That, and perhaps consider immigration.