Learning Large Lessons from Small Wars


Not long after America’s withdrawal from South Vietnam, Harvard Professor Stanley Hoffmann observed that, “Of all the disasters of the last decade, the worst could be our unwillingness to learn enough from them.” The same appears true today.  For all the ink spilt and bytes used, it is hard not to want to paraphrase Dr. Hoffmann and apply his witticism to America’s policy elite. So here goes: the greatest disaster about Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom is our abject inability to draw critical lessons from them.

I find myself in mild disagreement with Mark Stout’s comments on the counterinsurgency debate.  The debate is certainly useful.  However, it masks a larger and more important debate on the effectiveness of American policy and the strategy community, and another about the utility of force in the 21st century.  We should not be distracted from these larger debates, which depend on our ability to be reflective and properly draw upon history to establish lessons.

Drawing clear lessons from post-mortems and “after action reviews” is a delicate matter because they can be politicized too readily.  But it can and must be done.  For an example, see the admirable Joint Staff assessment titled The Decade of War.  But the military drew only operational lessons in that report.  Its strongest lesson was about the “Big War” mentality that blinded the U.S. military from studying and preparing for insurgencies or small wars.

Several contributors here at WOTR have touched on the need to draw lessons carefully.  Dr. David Johnson of RAND has reflected on his own experience in the post-Vietnam Army.  Others, like Army Strategist Nate Finney, have also commented on the challenge, saying:

If we cannot look critically at our conflicts, how they were prosecuted, what worked and didn’t work, and what this could imply for the future, all of the concept development (think AirSea Battle and Strategic Landpower) and budget battles we are currently debating will be largely premature, if not largely uninformed.

As I noted in my review of Dr. David Ucko’s and Robert Egnell’s searing but scholarly critique of British policy and strategy making, someone in the United States needs to conduct a similar assessment of U.S. decisions and the processes that supported them.  This analysis cannot just be about “President Bush’s Generals” or “Mr. Obama’s Lieutenants.”  Modern conflicts, so called “wars amongst the people,” are not purely military in character, and thus we should not limit our learning and subsequent adaptations to just military lessons.  American strategic performance (policymaking, bureaucratic processes, integration capacity, assessment mechanisms, Congressional oversight/advice, etc) needs the same level of dispassionate scrutiny, professional assessment, and learning as COIN theory or doctrine.

Best-selling author Tom Ricks has written about his unease with the military’s ability to deal with its shortcomings.  However, the next assessment should go beyond just a study of military generalship or military issues.  The challenges of modern warfare are just as pertinent to U.S. policymakers and elected officials as they are to senior military leaders.  We need to ask harder and more critical questions.  The critical question is not “Can the military learn from its mistakes?”  We need to expand that question beyond just the military community to the entire policy and strategy making community. Thus the ultimate question is “Can American policy makers and civilian strategists learn anything from the past?

Learning is not for the Timid

There are major lessons to be drawn out and carefully analyzed from conflicts, large and small.  Yet, as Dr. Joe Collins of the National Defense University noted in the aftermath of Desert Storm, “The sages rarely remind us how difficult this learning process is.  A full disclosure would show that decision makers, uniformed and civilian, often fail to learn effectively from experience.”

Our ability to learn from recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq has been hampered by a culture reticent to critically understand its own experiences and foibles.  Hard-earned lessons from prior conflicts are often tucked away by our preference for more romantic regimental histories or stories of great valor.  Our lack of preparedness for an emergent insurgency in Iraq in 2003 was shaped by the distorted lessons we took from the sour experience of Vietnam and the triumphalist narratives from the Gulf War, as well as our collective failure to learn from Operation Just Cause.  This coup de main was a great example of a military profession that perfected an American Way of Battle  at the expense of obtaining assigned political objectives.

We can and should learn from these conflicts, but we need to be aware of the abuse of history by institutions and the pervasive Masks of War worn by each of the armed services and our political camps.  As Eliot Cohen has observed, “Political and military institutions can no more escape the molding hand of history than an individual can escape the influences of memory.”  Each of our Services imprints a mental model of warfare on its institution and its Officer Corps.  Similarly, political and academic schools of thought imprint models or lenses on civilian policy elites.  We will need to “unmask” these influences and uncover the real lessons if we seek to improve our strategic performance.

Applying the Historical Mind

We need to use history very carefully when searching for lessons.  Because lessons are the product of interpretation, and since history can be skewed by prejudice and parochial blinders, great care must be taken in drawing and validating lessons. Like any form of comparative analysis, case histories can be enormously insightful, but only if one is ruthlessly objective and rigorous in the development of the underlying conditions, the granular context of each case.  These histories can also expose in glaring light the biases, erroneous assumptions, and poor decisions made by participants.

We will have to be better consumers of history and more selective in drawing analogies and insights.  We cannot simply ransack history for immediate use to justify existing policies, paradigms or programs.  In her book, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, Margaret MacMillan could have been speaking directly to Washington when she said “we only deceive ourselves, when we selectively use history to justify decisions we have already made.”

Some countries are better at the process of learning from history than others.  The German military is often credited highly with its ability to learn from itself in a professional and detached manner, as noted by the historian Williamson Murray in Military Adaptation in War. An emphasis on the value of history and critical thinking even after very successful campaigns “enabled the German army to improve on success and not be blinded by it.”  The Germans cultivated what Eliot Cohen has called “the historical mind,” which is built upon a solid historical footing and the capacity to ask good questions and search for disconfirming elements, rather than merely searching for comfortable or preconceived answers.  The historical mind requires more than anodyne “lessons learned” on tactics and procedures.   A culture of critical inquiry requires much more. What is ultimately needed is objective history with breadth, depth and context to serve as the basis for inquiry.  As Professor Cohen observed:

If strategists don’t even know what happened, they cannot be sure what succeeded and what went wrong; they cannot reinforce success or remedy failures.  There is then a desperate need for reliable histories as raw material for decision-making, as well as for the use of military educational institutions.

To that we can add civilian educational venues as well.

History generates few clear-cut answers, and usually offers the policymaker only ideas about good questions to raise. As Professor William Fuller has noted in Strategic Logic and Political Rationality, history is best employed “to hone our ability to think creatively about strategy.  But if we try to use a recent war, or even the most recent war, to deduce universal lessons about the nature of modern war, we will most assuredly fail.”  We need to understand the last decade of war, without preconceptions or political filters.  To paraphrase and update MacMillan: we only deceive ourselves when we avoid using history to understand or examine decisions we made.

The kinds of questions I envision being part of a larger strategic challenge include:

  • Policy Development Process.  How effective has U.S. policy development been at clarifying desired end states and refining policy and strategy?  Is it all driven by force of personality or dictated by unrealistic aims and untested assumptions?
  • Decision-making Structure/Process.  How well did the existing decision-making bodies and processes serve the development of clear options and subsequent decisions?  Are procedural, structural or educational initiatives warranted?
  • Unity of Effort.  How effective was the U.S. Government at integrating all instruments of national power at the strategic and operational level? How well did we define the non-military capacity necessary to execute our strategy?
  • Civil-Military Relations.  Good civil-military relations, including trust and mutual understanding, are necessary for good strategy.  How well did the interaction at the National Security Council or with the Office of the Secretary of Defense guide national or defense planning?  What can be improved upon?
  • Coalition Management and Host Nation Interactions.  What critical lessons should be absorbed about strategic partnering and coalition management?  The United States has also worked extensively with newly formed governments and host nations.  What issues were raised working with these partners?  What can we do better?  Is the United States seen as a unilateral leader or a desirable partner in complex contingencies?
  • Crafting and Communicating Narratives.  How effective was the United States at crafting and delivering its narrative, to foreign and domestic audiences?  What initiatives in public diplomacy or information/influence activities should be retained and what efforts taken?
  • National Security Reform.  The Project on National Security Reform had many proposals, but few got traction or were acted upon. What recommendations should be made to ensure that critical insights and strategic foresight are institutionalized?

We should not deceive ourselves, nor should we hide from a painful evaluation about the last 12 years and The American Way of Strategy.    To make this evaluation will require not merely thinking about the past.  We must look forward to a more complex world, one in which technological, social and economic change produces new contexts.  As former RAND analyst Dr. Russ Glenn once noted:

Lessons from the past are of value only if molded to the needs of the future.  A military that does not balance looking backward with constant glances at the future risks preparing only for the war last fought.

Likewise, a policy community that refuses to look backwards with some humility risks committing the same mistakes over and over.  We cannot avoid molding our instruments of national power to the needs of the future, and to do so we must make better use of history and avoid strategic amnesia.


Frank Hoffman is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks.  He serves as a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University in Washington DC.  These views are his own and do not reflect the position of NDU or DoD.


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