“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. And it’s an unreliable guide to the future.” – Bill Gates, “The Road Ahead”
Conventional wisdom holds that the past decade-plus of combat has forged a group of Army leaders as good as any our country has ever produced. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went further in 2010, calling today’s Army “the most professional, the best educated, the most capable force this country has ever sent into battle.” Can this be true? Or is it hubris?
In fact, the military conditions under which we’ve operated for the past two decades have been historically atypical. They have allowed too many in uniform to believe the hype. What happens when men whose whole professional life has known only success meet real challenges and the threat of defeat?
Most of today’s senior generals – division commanders up to four-stars — got their first taste of battle in 1991’s Desert Storm. Brigade-and-below commanders typically deployed first to Bosnia or fought in Iraq or Afghanistan soon after 9/11. All of these military operations were hailed as unequivocal tactical successes. But all military success is not alike.
The level of difficulty and set of challenges the Army has faced since 1980 isn’t comparable to those faced by uniformed leaders during World War II, Korea, and even the initial stages of Vietnam. Our senior leaders have spent virtually their entire careers in environments where they were able to schedule “war” as if it were a training event. They had the luxury of establishing deployment schedules, often times years in advance. Next-to-deploy units had predictable flight schedules, shipping timetables, and arrived in the combat theater to mature infrastructure. Troops frequently had on-base shopping malls (post exchanges), restaurants, coffee shops, and all-you-can-eat military dining facilities (typically featuring weekly lobster and steak nights).
Throughout Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, leaders at Regional Command and below have been able to conduct tactical engagements throughout their deployment window against Iraqi and Afghan insurgents with unprecedented certainty. Before the first boot hit the ground, leaders often knew exactly when their units would return. American troops were able to conduct tactical missions at a time, place, scope, and speed as they saw fit. If any conditions didn’t favor employment, U.S. leaders could choose to alter the fight timelines or cancel the mission altogether. The only time the enemy took the tactical initiative it was at something like platoon-level or below, and action of that nature was rare. Since the Vietnam War, no American combat leader above the position of company commander has faced a situation where his unit was at risk of defeat by an unexpected enemy attack.
In fact, never since Vietnam has any enemy formation had any chance of inflicting a tactical defeat on U.S. forces. Not in Grenada, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, the conventional phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, nor any phase of counterinsurgency operations since 9/11.
Not one of our combat opponents over the past four decades has had a capable air force, effective tank, artillery, or infantry force, helicopter fleet, missile force, anti-air capability, or an effective logistic and supply chain. Owing to the overwhelming capability we have in all those same categories, any operation we undertook – whether the tank fights in the deserts of northern Kuwait in 1991, the drive to Baghdad in 2003, or every COIN-related mission in Iraq and Afghanistan – could only result in a tactical success. Whether the plan was satisfactory, brilliant, or outright foolish, it didn’t matter (at least tactically). The U.S. was ordained to win.
To be sure, a cursory look at U.S. casualty lists since 9/11 shows that more than 6,700 Americans were killed and more than 45,000 wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in contrast to the major battles of World War II, Korea, and even Vietnam, the vast majority of these casualties were caused by improvised explosive devices during mounted and dismounted patrols, sniper fire, hit-and-run ambushes, accidents and “friendly fire” from some Afghan troops. Only the few weeks of the conventional phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom offered any opportunity for a fight above company level (such as the “Thunder Run” by 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division that captured parts of downtown Baghdad).
As a result, we have convinced ourselves that all our plans, concepts, and methods of employment have been validated as effective. It is rare to consider how any given plan or action might have fared against a capable foe. The virtual absence of such critical thinking and the dearth of experience in true crises – those forced upon us by unexpected (and effective) enemy action — has created several levels of senior leaders of uncertain mental agility. Like the French and British in 1940, we may be mentally and physically unprepared for an enemy with tough and surprising tactics.