When Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling recently published “A Failure of Generalship” in the Armed Forces Journal, a tipping point was reached in the long-brewing fight between the U.S. military’s “big war” and “small wars” factions.
The big-war crowd wants to write off Iraq as an aberration, preferring instead to focus on conventional war with rising powers like China. The small-wars faction envisions a future in which messy insurgencies are the norm.
The initial clash naturally involves issuing blame for Iraq because, from that dominant strategic narrative, all future ones must flow. Yingling’s small-wars faction points accusingly to a generation of senior officers who should have logically foreseen the emergence of such intra-national warfare as the primary threat to global stability in the post-Cold War era. All the signs were there, including a plethora of U.S. military interventions across the 1990s that involved such conflict.
For our military to be unprepared for counter-insurgency operations going into Iraq, argues Yingling, is a profound failure of leadership. That we’re still struggling to master such techniques years into our occupation is even worse. The colonel forcefully condemns the don’t-rock-the-boat mentality of senior flag officers, and here is where the blame game grows immensely more diffuse.
The U.S. military emerged from Vietnam decades ago with a firm desire to avoid counter-insurgency operations and nation building. America’s historic preference in war has always been for the complete annihilation of our enemies: We come; we kill; we leave.
To that end, counter-insurgency operations were subsequently reduced to a niche skill, ghettoized within Special Operations Command along with much of the civilian affairs expertise.
Our larger strategic rationale was ultimately codified in the Powell Doctrine: If America were to intervene anywhere, it would be with overwhelming force for very limited objectives. The American public has no patience for long fights, it was decided.
The Powell Doctrine utterly failed us in the post-Cold War era: We went into Iraq only to return to Iraq, we “stabilized” Haiti only to return — yet again — to Haiti; we intervened in Somalia only to return there last January. Our “treat ’em and street ’em” mentality achieved nothing save to schedule our next visit years down the road.
But the Powell Doctrine did accomplish this: Our military continued to buy and train for big war while ignoring the inevitability of small ones, thus earning Yingling’s righteous condemnation.
We all share blame because we all bought into the Powell Doctrine’s seductively simplistic view of our role in the world: America kills bad guys. Our military is not on the hook for the postwar. It’s not our government’s duty to leave the country more connected and stable than we found it.
If that failed state or dictatorship continues to produce bad actors and widespread strife, our forces may re-enter it to kill more bad guys, but that is the limit of our objectives, our responsibility and our morality. Americans can stomach the killing; they just have no patience for the healing.
That is what foreign policy experts call “realism.”
And so we went into Iraq with the Army that we had, not the one our troops on the ground wanted in terms of personnel, equipment, training and doctrine. Was this all Donald Rumsfeld’s fault? Hardly. We went into Iraq with the force that our Army had desired and purchased over the previous three decades. It was an army designed to fight other armies in major combat. It was an army specifically designed not to be prepared for counter-insurgency operations and nation-building.
As our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan accumulate, and as the list of failing states grows longer, a chorus of young Army and Marine officers emerges to call for change. Their arguments are countered, to no one's surprise, by senior Air Force and Navy officers who see their cherished rationales for continued focus on major war contingencies threatened, along with all the associated aircraft and ships they’d prefer to buy in coming years.
This intra-military debate should focus America's attention on the real question at hand: Do we see a future world full of messy Iraqs and Somalias and Haitis? Or should we pull back from that long war focus and prepare for conventional conflict with China?
Given the course of events since 9/11, which pathway seems more realistic to you?