Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Bush Era
by Andrew Bacevich
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.
In sum, an officer corps bloodied in Iraq and Afghanistan has seen the future and it points to many more Iraqs and Afghanistans. Whereas the architects of full spectrum dominance had expected the unprecedented lethality, range, accuracy, and responsiveness of high-tech striking power to perpetuate military dominion, the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know better. They remain committed to global dominance while believing that its pursuit will require not only advanced weaponry but also the ability to put boots on the ground and keep them there. This, in turn, implies a plentiful supply of soldiers and loads of patience on the home front.
Were the Civilians of the Defense Department Responsible?
Viewed from another perspective, however, the post-9/11 wars teach an altogether different lesson. According to this alternative view, echoing a similar complaint during the Vietnam era, the shortcomings of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan have little to do with the actual performance of American forces in the field and everything to do with the meddling of bumbling civilians back in Washington. In its simplest form, fault lies not with the troops themselves, nor with their commanders, but with the likes of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, who prevented the troops from doing their jobs.
The charges leveled by Major General John Batiste, who served in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon but subsequently retired in disgust and became one of the defense secretary’s loudest military critics, are representative of this view. "Rumsfeld’s dismal strategic decisions resulted in the unnecessary deaths of American servicemen and women," Batiste declared in September 2006. The former general held Rumsfeld personally "responsible for America and her allies going to war with the wrong plan." But that was just for starters. Rumsfeld also "violated fundamental principles of war, dismissed deliberate military planning, ignored the hard work to build the peace after the fall of Saddam Hussein, set the conditions for Abu Ghraib and other atrocities that further ignited the insurgency, disbanded Iraqi security force institutions when we needed them most, [and] constrained our commanders with an overly restrictive de-Ba’athification policy."
Nor was the problem limited to Rumsfeld himself. It included his chief lieutenants. According to Batiste, Rumsfeld surrounded himself "with like-minded and compliant subordinates who [did] not grasp the importance of the principles of war, the complexities of Iraq, or the human dimension of warfare." The overall effect was tantamount to murder: Rumsfeld "tied the hands of commanders while our troops were in contact with the enemy."
Here lies the second preliminary lesson drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, one that appeals to disgruntled military officers like Batiste, but also to Democrats eager to blame the Bush administration for any and all sins and to neoconservatives looking to absolve themselves of responsibility for botched wars that they had once cavalierly promoted. The corrective to civilian arrogance and misjudgment is obvious: It requires tilting the civil-military balance back in favor of the generals, untying the hands of senior commanders.
From this perspective, the most important lesson to take away from Iraq and Afghanistan is the imperative to empower military professionals. The Petraeus moment of 2007, when all of official Washington from President Bush to the lowest-ranking congressional staffer waited with bated breath for General David Petraeus to formulate basic policy for Iraq, offers a preview of how this lesson might play itself out.
Is a Draft the Answer?
There is also a third perspective, which blames the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan on a problematic relationship between soldiers and society. According to this view, the All-Volunteer Force itself is the problem. As the military historian Adrian Lewis observed, "The most significant transformation in the American conduct of war since World War II and the invention of the atomic bomb was not technological, but cultural, social, and political — the removal of the American people from the conduct of war." Only after 9/11, with the Bush administration waging war on multiple fronts, have the implications of this transformation become fully evident.
A reliance on volunteer-professionals places a de facto cap on the army’s overall size. The pool of willing recruits is necessarily limited. Given a choice, most young Americans will opt for opportunities other than military service, with protracted war diminishing rather than enhancing any collective propensity to volunteer. It is virtually inconceivable that any presidential call to the colors, however impassioned, any PR campaign, however cleverly designed, or any package of pay and bonuses, however generous, could reverse this disinclination.
Furthermore, to the extent that an army composed of regulars is no longer a people’s army, the people have little say in its use. In effect, the professional military has become an extension of the imperial presidency. The troops fight when and where the commander in chief determines.
Finally, a reliance on professional soldiers eviscerates the concept of civic duty, relieving citizens at large of any obligation to contribute to the nation’s defense. Ending the draft during the waning days of the Vietnam War did nothing to heal the divisions created by that conflict; instead, it ratified the separation of army from society. Like mowing lawns and bussing tables, fighting and perhaps dying to sustain the American way of life became something that Americans pay others to do.
So the third lesson of the Iraq War focuses on the need to repair the relationship between army and society. One way to do this is to junk the All-Volunteer Force altogether. Rather than rely on professionals, perhaps it makes sense to revive the tradition of the citizen-soldier.
Proposals to restore this hallowed tradition invariably conjure up images of reinstituting some form of conscription. In place of a system based on the principle of individual choice, those unhappy with the AVF advocate a system based on the principle of state compulsion.
The advantages offered by such a system are hardly trivial. To the extent that Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed the operational, political, and moral problems produced by relying on a small professional force, a draft seems to offer one obvious way to alleviate those problems.
For those who worry that the existing army is overextended, conscription provides a mechanism for expansion. Triple the size of the army — in essence restoring the structure that existed during much of the Cold War — and the personnel shortages that constrain the prosecution of ground campaigns will disappear. Sustaining the military commitment to Iraq for ten or twenty years, or even a century as Senator John McCain and many neoconservatives are willing to contemplate, then becomes a viable proposition.
War planners will no longer find themselves obliged to give short shrift to Contingency A (Afghanistan) in order to support Contingency B (Iraq). The concept of "surge" will take on a whole new meaning with the Pentagon able to dispatch not a measly 30,000 reinforcements to Iraq or another few thousand to Afghanistan, but 100,000 or more additional troops wherever they might be needed. Was the problem with Operation Iraqi Freedom too few "boots on the ground" for occupation and reconstruction? Reconstitute the draft, and that problem goes away.
Creating a mass army might even permit the United States to resuscitate the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine with its emphasis on "overwhelming force."
For those distressed by the absence of a politically meaningful antiwar movement despite the Iraq War’s manifest unpopularity, the appeal of conscription differs somewhat. Some political activists look to an Iraq-era draft to do what the Vietnam-era draft did: animate large-scale protest, alter the political dynamic, and eventually shut down any conflict that lacks widespread popular support. The prospect of involuntary service will pry the kids out of the shopping malls and send them into the streets. It will prod the parents of draft-eligible offspring to see politics as something other than a mechanism for doling out entitlements. As a consequence, members of Congress keen to retain their seats will define their wartime responsibilities as something more than simply rubber-stamping spending bills proposed by the White House. In this way, a draft could reinvigorate American democracy, restore the governmental system of checks and balances, and constrain the warmongers inhabiting the executive branch.
For those moved by moral considerations, a draft promises to ensure a more equitable distribution of sacrifice in war time. No longer will rural Americans, people of color, recent immigrants, and members of the working class fill the ranks of the armed forces in disproportionate numbers. With conscription, the children of the political elite and of the well-to-do will once again bear their fair share of the load. Those reaping the benefits of the American way of life will contribute to its defense, helping to garrison the more distant precincts of empire. Perhaps even the editorial staffs of the Weekly Standard, National Review, and the New Republic might have the opportunity to serve, a salutary prospect given the propensity of those magazines to argue on behalf of military intervention.
Reconfigure the armed services to fight "small wars"; empower the generals; reconnect soldiering to citizenship — on the surface each of these has a certain appeal. But upon closer examination, each also has large defects. They are the wrong lessons to take from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Drawing the Right Lessons from the Bush Era
If gearing up to fight "small wars," deferring to the brass, and scrapping the All-Volunteer Force are the wrong lessons to be drawn from our recent military experience, then what are the right ones?
The events of the recent past offer several lessons that illuminate these questions. The first concerns the nature of war. Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that war is not subject to reinvention, whatever George W. Bush and Pentagon proponents of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs may contend.
War’s essential nature is fixed, permanent, intractable, and irrepressible. War’s constant companions are uncertainty and risk. "War is the realm of chance," wrote the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz nearly two centuries ago. "No other human activity gives it greater scope: no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder…" — a judgment that the invention of the computer, the Internet, and precision-guided munitions has done nothing to overturn.
So the first lesson to be taken away from the Bush administration’s two military adventures is simply this: War remains today what it has always been — elusive, untamed, costly, difficult to control, fraught with surprise, and sure to give rise to unexpected consequences. Only the truly demented will imagine otherwise.
The second lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan derives from the first. As has been the case throughout history, the utility of armed force remains finite. Even in the information age, to the extent that force "works," it does so with respect to a limited range of contingencies.
Although die-hard supporters of the Global War on Terror will insist otherwise, events in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated definitively that further reliance on coercive methods will not enable the United States to achieve its objectives. Whether the actual aim is to democratize the Islamic world or subdue it, the military "option" is not the answer.
The Bush Doctrine itself provides the basis for a third lesson. For centuries, the Western moral tradition has categorically rejected the concept of preventive war. The events of 9/11 convinced some that this tradition no longer applied: old constraints had to give way. Yet our actual experience with preventive war suggests that, even setting moral considerations aside, to launch a war today to eliminate a danger that might pose a threat at some future date is just plain stupid. It doesn’t work.
History has repeatedly demonstrated the irrationality of preventive war. If the world needed a further demonstration, President Bush provided it. Iraq shows us why the Bush Doctrine was a bad idea in the first place and why its abrogation has become essential. For principled guidance in determining when the use of force is appropriate, the country should conform to the Just War tradition — not only because that tradition is consistent with our professed moral values, but also because its provisions provide an eminently useful guide for sound statecraft.
Finally, there is a fourth lesson, relating to the formulation of strategy. The results of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that in the upper echelons of the government and among the senior ranks of the officer corps, this has become a lost art.
Since the end of the Cold War, the tendency among civilians — with President Bush a prime example — has been to confuse strategy with ideology. The president’s freedom agenda, which supposedly provided a blueprint for how to prosecute the Global War on Terror, expressed grandiose aspirations without serious effort to assess the means required to achieve them. Meanwhile, ever since the Vietnam War ended, the tendency among military officers has been to confuse strategy with operations.
Here we come face-to-face with the essential dilemma with which the United States has unsuccessfully wrestled since the Soviets deprived us of a stabilizing adversary. The political elite that ought to bear the chief responsibility for crafting grand strategy instead nurses fantasies of either achieving permanent global hegemony or remaking the world in America’s image. Meanwhile, the military elite that could puncture those fantasies and help restore a modicum of realism to U.S. policy fixates on campaigns and battles, with generalship largely a business of organizing and coordinating matériel.
The four lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan boil down to this: Events have exposed as illusory American pretensions to having mastered war. Even today, war is hardly more subject to human control than the tides or the weather. Simply trying harder — investing ever larger sums in even more advanced technology, devising novel techniques, or even improving the quality of American generalship — will not enable the United States to evade that reality.
As measured by results achieved, the performance of the military since the end of the Cold War and especially since 9/11 has been unimpressive. This indifferent record of success leads some observers to argue that we need a bigger army or a different army.
But the problem lies less with the army that we have — a very fine one, which every citizen should wish to preserve — than with the requirements that we have imposed on our soldiers. Rather than expanding or reconfiguring that army, we need to treat it with the respect that it deserves. That means protecting it from further abuse of the sort that it has endured since 2001.
America doesn’t need a bigger army. It needs a smaller — that is, more modest — foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capabilities. Modesty implies giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 gave rise. It also means reining in the imperial presidents who expect the army to make good on those illusions. When it comes to supporting the troops, here lies the essence of a citizen’s obligation.
Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of colonel. This piece is adapted from his new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (Metropolitan Books, 2008). He is also the author of The New American Militarism, among other books. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal. A TomDispatch interview with him can be read by clicking here, and then here. For part one of Bacevich’s two-part series for TomDispatch, "Illusions of Victory," click here
From the book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich, Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Bacevich. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an Imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.