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LEARNING LARGE LESSONS FROM SMALL WARS
February 5, 2014 · in Commentary
Not long after America’s withdrawal from South Vietnam, Harvard Professor Stanley Hoffmann observed that, “Of all the disasters of the last decade, the worst could be our unwillingness to learn enough from them.” The same appears true today. For all the ink spilt and bytes used, it is hard not to want to paraphrase Dr. Hoffmann and apply his witticism to America’s policy elite. So here goes:the greatest disaster about Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom is our abject inability to draw critical lessons from them.
I find myself in mild disagreement with Mark Stout’s comments on the counterinsurgency debate. The debate is certainly useful. However, it masks a larger and more important debate on the effectiveness of American policy and the strategy community, and another about the utility of force in the 21st century. We should not be distracted from these larger debates, which depend on our ability to be reflective and properly draw upon history to establish lessons.
Drawing clear lessons from post-mortems and “after action reviews” is a delicate matter because they can be politicized too readily. But it can and must be done. For an example, see the admirable Joint Staff assessment titled The Decade of War . But the military drew only operational lessons in that report. Its strongest lesson was about the “Big War” mentality that blinded the U.S. military from studying and preparing for insurgencies or small wars.
Several contributors here at WOTR have touched on the need to draw lessons carefully. Dr. David Johnson of RAND has reflected on his own experience in the post-Vietnam Army. Others, like Army Strategist Nate Finney, have also commented on the challenge, saying:
As I noted in my review of Dr. David Ucko’s and Robert Egnell’s searing but scholarly critique of British policy and strategy making , someone in the United States needs to conduct a similar assessment of U.S. decisions and the processes that supported them. This analysis cannot just be about “President Bush’s Generals” or “Mr. Obama’s Lieutenants.” Modern conflicts, so called “wars amongst the people,” are not purely military in character, and thus we should not limit our learning and subsequent adaptations to just military lessons. American strategic performance (policymaking, bureaucratic processes, integration capacity, assessment mechanisms, Congressional oversight/advice, etc) needs the same level of dispassionate scrutiny, professional assessment, and learning as COIN theory or doctrine.
Best-selling author Tom Ricks has written about his unease with the military’s ability to deal with its shortcomings. However, the next assessment should go beyond just a study of military generalship or military issues. The challenges of modern warfare are just as pertinent to U.S. policymakers and elected officials as they are to senior military leaders. We need to ask harder and more critical questions. The critical question is not “Can the military learn from its mistakes?” We need to expand that question beyond just the military community to the entire policy and strategy making community. Thus the ultimate question is “Can American policy makers and civilian strategists learn anything from the past?”
Learning is not for the Timid
There are major lessons to be drawn out and carefully analyzed from conflicts, large and small. Yet, as Dr. Joe Collins of the National Defense University noted in the aftermath of Desert Storm , “The sages rarely remind us how difficult this learning process is. A full disclosure would show that decision makers, uniformed and civilian, often fail to learn effectively from experience.”
Our ability to learn from recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq has been hampered by a culture reticent to critically understand its own experiences and foibles. Hard-earned lessons from prior conflicts are often tucked away by our preference for more romantic regimental histories or stories of great valor. Our lack of preparedness for an emergent insurgency in Iraq in 2003 was shaped by the distorted lessons we took from the sour experience of Vietnam and the triumphalist narratives from the Gulf War, as well as our collective failure to learn fromOperation Just Cause . This coup de main was a great example of a military profession that perfected an American Way of Battle at the expense of obtaining assigned political objectives.
We can and should learn from these conflicts, but we need to be aware of the abuse of history by institutions and the pervasive Masks of War worn by each of the armed services and our political camps. As Eliot Cohen has observed , “Political and military institutions can no more escape the molding hand of history than an individual can escape the influences of memory.” Each of our Services imprints a mental model of warfare on its institution and its Officer Corps. Similarly, political and academic schools of thought imprint models or lenses on civilian policy elites. We will need to “unmask” these influences and uncover the real lessons if we seek to improve our strategic performance.
Applying the Historical Mind
We need to use history very carefully when searching for lessons. Because lessons are the product of interpretation, and since history can be skewed by prejudice and parochial blinders, great care must be taken in drawing and validating lessons. Like any form of comparative analysis, case histories can be enormously insightful, but only if one is ruthlessly objective and rigorous in the development of the underlying conditions, the granular context of each case. These histories can also expose in glaring light the biases, erroneous assumptions, and poor decisions made by participants.
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