On Thinking Smartly About War

W.J. Astore

I prefer peace to war, diplomacy to armed confrontation, but sometimes war can be unavoidable. At least the U.S. military sure seems to think so, given the number of wars it fights and the humungous sums of money it spends. Yet spending trillions on weaponry and destruction is no substitute for keen thinking about war. Sadly, the U.S. military isn’t exactly known for outthinking its rivals and enemies.

An analytical and quantifying mania marks U.S. military efforts in war.  The enemy can be defeated by identifying and attacking his centers of gravity, as the U.S. Air Force likes to say, as if the enemy is an industrial factory or an engineering problem rather than a human organism of unquantifiable complexity.  Societies aren’t machines, nor are they rational actors, necessarily. They are more like ecological systems, unpredictable, adaptable, variegated, and complex.

The “Type A,” “Can-do” warriors in the U.S. military are good at bludgeoning various evil doers but not at discerning how societies and war are interconnected and interdependent.  Hence the flailing witnessed in Afghanistan and Iraq, as the U.S. military tried one interventionist technique after another, with little understanding of the complex ecology of the situation.  The U.S. military hammered away without producing favorable and persistent political results.  The result in both cases were ignominious defeats disguised as withdrawals.

The U.S. military still refuses to face, understand, and absorb the humanistic complexity of war.  It still speaks of “surgical” strikes, which are routinely touted and applauded as decisive in the U.S. media.  Yet the overall effect in terms of meaningful political results is much like doing brain surgery with a chain saw.  The operation is predictably messy, the surgeons are greatly bloodied, and the patients – well, just look at the enormity of the damage the U.S. military/government inflicted on Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries that have enjoyed the “surgical precision” of American weaponry and power over the last sixty years.

Strangely, in Iraq and Afghanistan, generals tended to focus on tactics as corporals were expected to exercise the most subtle forms of political persuasion while carrying guns. (It was known as the strategic corporal concept.) When a military expects its twenty-year-old two-stripers to be savvier than its star-studded and medal-bedecked senior leaders, something is seriously wrong.

If corporals are truly “strategic,” maybe they should be put in charge and the generals demoted to the ranks, where they can focus on tactics. Given the U.S. military’s recent record of repetitive defeats, turning the rank structure upside down couldn’t hurt. It might even alleviate America’s glut of generals and admirals.

Let’s put this corporal in charge. I bet she’d do better than General Milley.