About 15 years ago, I was talking to a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who’d served with the 101st Airborne as a battalion commander in Iraq. He told me his troops were well trained and packed a tremendous punch. An American platoon, given its superiority in firepower, communications, and the artillery and air support it can call on, could take on enemy units three times its size and win (easily). Yet this tremendous advantage in firepower proved politically indecisive in Iraq as well as places like Afghanistan and Vietnam.
The typical U.S. military response is to argue for even more firepower – and to blame the rules of engagement (ROE) for not allowing them to use it indiscriminately.
The U.S. military has optimized and always seeks to optimize its hitting power at the sharp end of war. It takes pride in its “hardness” and its “warriors.” But the skirmishes and battles it “wins” never add up to anything. If anything, the more the U.S. military used its superior firepower in Iraq as well as places like Vietnam and Afghanistan, the more collateral damage it spread, the more people it alienated, the more the results became retrograde.
Even as U.S. leaders cited impressive (and false) metrics to show “progress” about districts “pacified,” or how many Vietnamese or Afghan or Iraqi troops were “trained” and ready to assume the roles of U.S. troops, the truth was that U.S. military units were sinking ever deeper into quagmires of their own making. Meanwhile, elements within Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq, enabled by America’s own military-industrial complex, worked cleverly to extract more wealth and resources from a U.S. government that was only fooling itself and the American people with its lies about “progress.”
Let’s take a closer look at the Afghan War as an example. The military historian Dennis Showalter put it memorably to me. He talked of Taliban units offering “symmetry,” or fighting as American units are trained to do, only under exceptional circumstances, and typically to the Taliban’s advantage (e.g. small-unit ambushes using IEDs that drove U.S. troops to respond with massive firepower). Since U.S. troops are adept at reacting quickly and deploying massive firepower, they believe that this is war’s cutting edge. Find ‘em, fix ‘em, kill ‘em, is often the start and end of U.S. military strategy.
As Showalter put it: Like a bull the U.S. military rushes the Taliban cape as the sword goes into its shoulders. If you’re the enemy, wave that cape – just be sure to sidestep the bull’s rush.
Yes, the U.S. military has impressive firepower. Yes, no one projects force like the U.S. military. Yes, the U.S. military can charge and hit with bullish impact. But for what purpose, and to what end? The bull in a bullfight, after all, doesn’t often win.
And when you move the bull from the fighting ring to a delicate situation, a more political one, one that requires subtlety and care, things go very poorly indeed, as they do when bulls find themselves in china shops.