Sunday, August 17, 2008

Is Perpetual War Our Future?

Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Bush Era

To appreciate the full extent of the military crisis into which the United States has been plunged requires understanding what the Iraq War and, to a lesser extent, the Afghan War have to teach. These two conflicts, along with the attacks of September 11, 2001, will form the centerpiece of George W. Bush's legacy. Their lessons ought to constitute the basis of a new, more realistic military policy.

In some respects, the effort to divine those lessons is well under way, spurred by critics of President Bush's policies on the left and the right as well as by reform-minded members of the officer corps. Broadly speaking, this effort has thus far yielded three distinct conclusions. Whether taken singly or together, they invert the post-Cold War military illusions that provided the foundation for the president's Global War on Terror. In exchange for these received illusions, they propound new ones, which are equally misguided. Thus far, that is, the lessons drawn from America's post-9/11 military experience are the wrong ones.

According to the first lesson, the armed services -- and above all the Army -- need to recognize that the challenges posed by Iraq and Afghanistan define not only the military's present but also its future, the "next war," as enthusiasts like to say. Rooting out insurgents, nation-building, training and advising "host nation" forces, population security and control, winning hearts and minds -- these promise to be ongoing priorities, preoccupying U.S. troops for decades to come, all across the Islamic world.

Rather than brief interventions ending in decisive victory, sustained presence will be the norm. Large-scale conventional conflict like 1991's Operation Desert Storm becomes the least likely contingency. The future will be one of small wars, expected to be frequent, protracted, perhaps perpetual.

Although advanced technology will retain an important place in such conflicts, it will not be decisive. Wherever possible, the warrior will rely on "nonkinetic" methods, functioning as diplomat, mediator, and relief worker. No doubt American soldiers will engage in combat, but, drawing on the latest findings of social science, they will also demonstrate cultural sensitivity, not to speak of mastering local languages and customs. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it in October 2007, "Reviving public services, rebuilding infrastructure and promoting good governance" had now become soldiers' business. "All these so-called nontraditional capabilities have moved into the mainstream of military thinking, planning, and strategy -- where they must stay."

This prospect implies a rigorous integration of military action with political purpose. Hard power and soft power will merge. The soldier on the ground will serve as both cop and social worker. This prospect also implies shedding the sort of utopian expectations that produced so much confident talk of "transformation," "shock-and-awe," and "networkcentric warfare" -- all of which had tended to segregate war and politics into separate compartments.

Local conditions will dictate technique, dooming the Pentagon's effort to devise a single preconceived, technologically determined template applicable across the entire spectrum of conflict. When it comes to low-intensity wars, the armed services will embrace a style owing less to the traditions of the Civil War, World War II, or even Gulf War I than to the nearly forgotten American experiences in the Philippines after 1898 and in Central America during the 1920s. Instead of looking for inspiration at the campaigns of U. S. Grant, George Patton, or H. Norman Schwarzkopf, officers will study postwar British and French involvement in places like Palestine and Malaya, Indochina and Algeria.

Continued . . .

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