Ignoring the Army’s Recent Past Will Not Help it Win Future Wars

February 2, 2016

The Future of the Army report is part of a broader pattern of a denial of the significance and relevance of the Army’s recent experiences.

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After the First World War, Hans von Seeckt, the commander-in-chief of the small German army that remained from the Versailles Treaty, established numerous small committees of handpicked officers to study the war. The German army had suffered tremendously in the war. With the Versailles treaty, shame was added to defeat. It would have been easy for the army to turn away from the experience of the war, to reject the past as an anomaly, or to blame the army’s failures on the strategic miscalculations of the political and military leaders of the Prussian Empire. But Seeckt refused to take the easy way out. In his studies of the German army, he tasked officers with addressing the following questions: What new situations arose in the war that had not been considered before the war? How effective were the army’s prewar views in dealing with the above situations? What new guidelines have been developed from the use of new weaponry in war? Which new problems raised by the war have not yet found a solution?

In exploring these issues, the German army began its transformation into the titanic force that would advance Hitler’s awful vision. The specter of Nazism is so dark that it is awkward to suggest we may learn anything good from the interwar experience of the German army. But let us remember that the German army’s innovative foundation was well established long before it came under Hitler’s control.

Today, the United States Army is taking stock of itself. The difficulties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have prompted persistent and painful debates inside and outside the Army: What is the Army for? How should it prepare for conflict? What are the greatest risks for which it should prepare? The release of the report of the National Commission on the Future of the Army (NCFA) gives us occasion to ask (yet again) what the Army and the nation have learned from recent military experiences and how the Army should move forward. The answers that the commission offers are both familiar and disappointing, and the contrast with Seeckt’s studies is telling. Whereas Seeckt focused relentlessly on seeing the past clearly, the NCFA report exhibits a sort of strategic amnesia.

The single greatest challenge for the U.S. Army is maintaining a force that is capable of accomplishing two missions: first and foremost, defeating a capable adversary in large-scale land operations; second, conducting effective stability operations in areas in which governance is weak or nonexistent. Not only does the NCFA report offer no insight as to how the Army can maintain this balance, but it also virtually ignores stability operations altogether.

The necessity of the first mission — what the NCFA calls “deterrence and assurance” — is beyond question. The commission writes that effective deterrence “depends on partners and adversaries believing that the U.S. military has the capability and capacity to win in combat.” Implicit in this statement is that the Army must maintain that capability and capacity. No one denies this. Many of the commission’s recommendations seek to reduce perceived risks in the Army’s ability to fight conventional war, such as increasing armored brigade combat team capacity, and modernizing field artillery and short-range air defense.

In contrast, the second mission — stability operations — is barely discernible in the report. The term “stability operations” is omitted from NCFA section describing the Army’s core missions, despite its remaining one of the twelve Joint Force Prioritized Missions of the 2015 National Military Strategy, one in which the Army has a unique responsibility. The commission vaguely alludes to stability operations when it writes that the Army’s counter-terrorism activities and efforts to counter violent extremism “could include sustained land operations for a gray area.” What does that mean? One gets the sense that the commission wanted to say stability operations or counterinsurgency (COIN), but could not bring itself to use terms that have fallen out of favor. Indeed, the phrase “stability operations” occurs only three times in the report and never in the discussion of the Army’s core missions, or in connection with any recommendation. Other words connected with stability operations are absent or barely register. The terms “wide area security,” “counterinsurgency,” “guerilla,” “irregular,” and “asymmetric” do not appear anywhere in the report. “Unconventional” is used twice. The overall impression is of an expurgation of the language in an attempt to forget painful experiences. This is a mistake. Seeckt pointed the German army to an innovative future not by ignoring its recent past, but by studying it.

Within the Army, three fallacies are employed to justify treating recent stability operations with damnatio memoriae, the ancient Roman practice of blotting out the names of traitors to the state to effectively eliminate them from history.

The first is the fallacy of residual capability, which posits that an Army capable of defeating a high-end adversary will have the time, space, and ability to learn what it needs to about other kinds of warfare. Experience suggests otherwise. The 2006 Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency manual asserts, “Western militaries too often neglect the study of insurgency. They falsely believe that armies trained to win large conventional wars are automatically prepared to win small, unconventional ones.” In an April 11, 2003 briefing, the Central Command spokesman was asked what the U.S. military was going to do to restore order amidst looting and increasing anarchy in Baghdad. His unfortunate response epitomized the problems of transitioning an army to stability operations without preparation:

We seek to create conditions of stability where people can walk the streets safely without looting, without violence, without exploding vehicles. That hasn’t occurred yet. So we’ll play a role in that, a military role inside of that to achieve that purpose. In some cases it may require shooting machine guns in downtown. At no point do we see really becoming a police force.

The second is what we call “the curveball fallacy.” A baseball player who has great hitting success until he faces a pitcher who can throw a good curveball cannot be successful simply by refusing to swing at those pitches. Until he learns to hit the curve, pitchers will know how to strike him out. The Army cannot eschew developing and retaining capability in stability operations simply because such operations are hard or because the American people do not like them. The COIN manual states:

Most enemies either do not try to defeat the United States with conventional operations or do not limit themselves to purely military means. They know that they cannot compete with U.S. forces on those terms. Instead, they try to exhaust U.S. national will, aiming to win by undermining and outlasting public support.

We should assume that our adversaries are intelligent and will pursue ways of war that exploit their advantages and minimize their disadvantages.

The third is the fallacy of policy failure. In this view, the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan are discounted because both wars were failures not of the military, but of policy. In this vision, Iraq was an unjustified war of choice in which the military suffered as the instrument of an administration that was willfully blind to the realities of the war and refused to prepare for the huge governance project that the invasion would entail. Similarly, the invasion of Afghanistan — while more justified — has failed to achieve its objectives because of a combination of limited resources (due to the Iraq War) and a misconceived federalist project. Thus, the hard military lessons of both wars are dismissed as the results of policy failures. But this view oversimplifies the cause-and-effect relationship between stability operations and policy. While prolonged stability operations may sometimes be the consequence of bad policy, they may also result from good policy. Indeed, stability operations are an enduring military requirement for the United States, independent of whether policy is good or bad or whether a war is one of choice or necessity.

A country can satisfy the political objectives of its wars in two ways: by replacing the government with another effective entity that accepts and enacts these objectives, or by compelling the existing government to accept and enact them. In the first Gulf War and Kosovo, the United States and its allies used the compellence approach: After achieving limited objectives, the United States allowed hostile regimes to remain in power. By contrast, the United States pursued regime change in Japan and Germany after World War II and in Iraq and Afghanistan in the modern day. Compulsion allows military operations to coerce or compel through purely destructive or punitive operations, but requires that the United States accept the continued rule of an enemy regime or other status quo government. However, such acceptance is sometimes impossible, either because the United States cannot accommodate an enemy regime or because the existing government is too weak to enact a political settlement. In such cases, some other entity for enacting policy and establishing favorable governance must be found or created. This cannot be achieved without robust ground forces.

The effectiveness of ground forces in stability operations derives from their ability to create space for governance. U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis famously instructed Marines under his command, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” The value of ground forces is most evident if you change the order of that statement: You start with the plan to kill before transitioning to being polite and professional. Only ground forces possess this capability, which can see soldiers start the day running a checkpoint and end the day running a clinic. The sad legacy of the Iraq War originated in the U.S. military’s success in utterly destroying the mechanism by which the Iraqi government had compelled its citizens for decades without a realistic approach to replacing that mechanism. This was a conceptual failure to understand the demands placed on ground forces in creating governable space, and both policymakers and military leaders shared in the failure.

The NCFA report is part of a broader pattern of a denial of the significance and relevance of the Army’s recent experiences. Nowhere is this denial more evident than when the commission asserts that the Army needs “to recover readiness from the past fourteen years of war.” Clearly, a unit that is deployed fighting one kind of war is probably not ready to redeploy immediately to a different kind of war. However, given the low number of soldiers currently deployed in combat areas, the “recover readiness” assertion makes sense only under the assumption that the Army’s experience during the past fourteen years is irrelevant to the wars the Army will fight in the future. The recommendation that the Army subsidize expansion or modernization in other areas by cutting two infantry brigade combat teams underscores this point. Damnatio memoriae, indeed.

The commission does note that “under current strategic guidance, the Army and other Defense components are directed not to size themselves for large-scale, long-duration stability operations,” and suggests that this guidance should be revised. Yet it makes no recommendations about what this revision would entail. Nor does it comment on how the Army’s current approach to assessing readiness essentially abandons stability operations capabilities.

While the Army cannot be sized for prolonged stability operations (a capacity issue), it can prepare for stability operations with the vigor and creativity that it applies to preparation for major combat operations: by thinking about the challenges of that environment, planning for how to deal with them, and practicing what it plans. Thomas White, former secretary of the Army, was asked in January 2004 about the lessons of the invasion of Iraq. He said, “In the world that we face, the combat phase may be the easiest part. … What follows the combat phase is where most of the strategic objectives will be achieved or not achieved and, therefore, it deserves as much planning and attention as the combat phase does. … Until you’ve done that, don’t start the operation in the first place.”

Physicist Richard Feynman once wrote, “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” Unpleasant and challenging as it is to stabilize and build institutions for governance, this mission will remain necessary for the foreseeable future, a fact attested to by renewed commitments in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Success in war requires bringing the right kind of force to bear to achieve the political objectives of the nation’s conflicts. This requires an efficient and effective Army — one that is better prepared for the future because it has learned the right lessons from the past.


Andrew Hill is the Professor of Organization Studies in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College. He received his doctorate in business administration at Harvard Business School. The views in this article are his own and do not represent those of, the US Army War College, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Spc. Joshua Grenier, U.S. Army

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9 thoughts on “Ignoring the Army’s Recent Past Will Not Help it Win Future Wars

  1. American Military should create administrative Division / Brigades as part of the overall structure – but the way the Military is being gutted since end of Iraq War – that is not going to happen EVER.

  2. The NCFA Report has many strengths and it has weaknesses too. However one of its most important strengths is the opposite of what this article by Dr Hill has to say. I commend the NCFA report for focusing its recommendations on what the Army needs to do in the future to fight effectively high end wars against a sophisticated foe, even at the expense of paying relatively little attention to counterinsurgency and stability operations.

    Contrary to what this article by Dr Hill posits, counterinsurgency at the tactical level of war is actually easy compared to combined arms operations against a sophisticated foe in a highly lethal combat environment: read against the Russians in the Baltics or even ISIS in the ME. The proposition that an American army that is prepared to fight high end combined operations can step down to conduct the easier counterinsurgency operations—contrary to what this article argues—is actually quite true.

    Dr Hill’s use of von Seeckt is a flawed historical analogy because the German army during the interwar years was solving a difficult operational problem against a future foe that would involve major combat operations. Comparing the possibility of the US Army facing down another insurgent foe—a non-existential threat– sometime in the near future as comparable to what the German Army faced in all cardinal directions in the 1920s and 1930s—a true existential threat—is deeply wrongheaded.

    Lastly I am thankful that the NCFA report did not adopt the tired old Nagl-esque cudgel beating, berating and lecturing the Army not to jettison the so called “lessons” of coin as it supposedly did after Vietnam (didn’t we get beaten down enough by that cudgel with the FM 3-24 Paradoxes section and the Coindinista movement that surrounded it?).

    Instead the NCFA report correctly chose to focus on important capability gaps that the Army faces today and in the future and with recommendations to close those gaps.

    Again there is certainly room for criticism of the NCFA report, but the direction that Dr Hill takes in this article is not one of them.

    Gian Gentile

    1. “what the Army needs to do in the future to fight effectively high end wars against a sophisticated foe, even at the expense of paying relatively little attention to counterinsurgency and stability operations.”

      Who are these sophisticated foes? First on the list these days is Russia. Russia doesn’t have an economy that can sustain the industrial production needed for war against the US and NATO. It’s one of the many drawbacks of running a kleptocracy. What is needed to deal with Russia is forces that are strong enough to operate as a deterrent. Deterrent in this case doesn’t mean having everything on hand to force unconditional surrender. It means having enough to show that any war will be a costly and drawn out affair. The US has about half as many tanks as Russia. We are not going to make up the difference. What will stop Russia politcally is defense in depth. That requires the other NATO nations to fund their militaries at reasonable levels.

      Then there’s China. Where will we be fighting the Chinese on land? Pray that it’s not in Asia because we wouldn’t have a chance of winning. Building an Army around the idea that we can stop China in Asia makes absolutely no sense. We would be severely outnumbered and operating a prohibitively long supply chain. There is also the fact that Beijing’s biggest concern is holding the nation together in the face of enormous economic problems. China will continue to show the flag and probably build more sand islands but it has shown no interest in direct expansion since taking over Tibet.

      World War II is 70 years past and we have to stop preparing for it. Or, at the very least, prepare for the wars we are most likely to face. The US military has steadfastly refused to learn anything from its defeats. Our experience in Vietnam alone should have made us experts at counterinsurgency and stability operations. It should also have made the military push back anytime someone tries to give them a “nation building” mission.

      If the military can’t handle wars against these non-sophisticated foes why do we think it will do well against bigger and better-armed ones?

    2. I’m unsurprised at your response to Dr Hill’s take on the matter. You can’t have it both ways, however. In an article you wrote that was published in the Autumn, 2009 issue of Proceedings, you absolutely contradicted yourself on two of your points:

      To be fair, it is not that COIN or conventional warfare is the harder or easier. All warfare is demanding and difficult, that is why it is called war. In the 1920s, the German Army, as it thought its way through the lessons of the First World War, understood this point. Under the leadership of the brilliant German General Hans von Seeckt, they believed that the nature of war was essentially unchanging even if the means, machines, and milieu of it do change. -Gian Gentile, Proceedings, Autumn, 2009

      It was ungentlemanly to refer to someone else as “wrongheaded” when they make the exact same point that you have made in reference to the same dead German general. You simply did it at different times, and with a different appreciation for what the German experience of the 1920’s and ‘30’s means to us now. Except he didn’t insult anyone’s mindset. You repeated this ungentlemanly behavior in your left-handed reference to John Nagl, as well. Bad form.

      It’s a good thing to be focused on being able to win any war that we are told to fight. Winning is a successful end state. No end state is unstable. What can we learn from two engagements that have not been completed? Stability is shaky in Afghanistan and Iraq has nearly collapsed. No one can call either stable. Those fights are not really over, because we really can’t ignore that they exist, nor that the outcome matters. But, we can set that aside and still ask the question about what the next fight will be. CurseYouKhan makes some fairly reasonable points below on why the combined arms peer-to-peer fight is not potentially likelier than less… symmetric… fights. Remembering that no end state is unstable, and that we have done poorly with stability operations in the past (two for two in the currently unstable column), why would we ignore this weakness? You’re saying that it’s one or the other. That we are not professional enough to accept an aspect of any mission.

      Lastly, Desert Storm was history’s most tremendous display of combined arms prowess. It was a devastating victory brought about by a combination of air, sea and land superiority in every area except numbers, which made the overwhelming victory truly fantastic. The most devastating engagements of that war involved major muscle movements, carefully coordinated, across vast spaces. Vast, open spaces. Spaces devoid of one aspect that you will find on any other battlefield other than the desert; people. Civilians. Civilians trapped between and among belligerents in a fight. Civilians with feet, hands and opinions who can interfere with your offensive or defensive operations at any level from sabotage to simply getting in the way. DeGaul’s forces were broken up, delayed and run out of fuel by hordes of fleeing, unplanned-for, un-managed civilians. He had better tanks. He had quite a few of them. But his tanks were slower and delayed even further, rendered strategically moot in part by their own countrymen. You can make a lot of arguments about all of the other reasons why DeGaul’s counterattack was ineffective, but civilians getting in the way of the Allies and consuming fuel they needed had an impact. It was an unplanned-for aspect of the battlefield that was more under the control of the Germans, who drove the civilians to panic, than the Allies. It favored the Germans. Anticipating the most likely and most dangerous civilian response to a combat operation… and having a plan to deal with it or avoid it… may be the edge between victory and defeat. We ignore this aspect of combat at our peril. And we do ignore it. That ignorance should not be applauded.

      The ability to consider the stability aspect of any operation is important. Unfortunately, there is a school of thought which would applaud it’s lack of attention. That school of thought finds its capitol in the Army, sadly. For an example of a service getting it right when it comes to integrating stability planning as part of overall operational planning, look into what’s going on in the Marine Corps, especially at the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group (MCTOG). They are training staffs what that little rectangle that says, “Stability,” means when it’s the smaller part of the “Offense” or “Defense” operations… and how consideration of those aspects may keep your offensive or defensive operation from being derailed by unanticipated civilian reactions/responses to combat operations in their proximity. The Marines are light years ahead of the Army in this respect. People like Dr. Hill, in reminding us that this aspect of war will come up again because it is a part of any likely future operations, do us no disservice. Certainly undeserving of the term, “wrongheaded.”

  3. In the abstract, Professor Hill is absolutely right. Since the Army can’t control the tasks to which it might be committed, it can’t afford simply to abandon stability operations as a requirement, hence has every reason to learn what it can from its experience of the past fifteen years. That said, given our consistent lack of success in those operations, perhaps the best contribution of such an examination might be to depress political expectations that they’ll be any more successful in the future than they’ve been to date.

  4. A symptom of a larger problem, and this article misses the mark. We’ve simply lost the emphasis in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting our own military history, all essential to calling ourselves professionals of arms (we have a symbiotic relationship with military history). In the recent wars, this would involve war journals at all levels of command, mandatory collection of unit reports, the embedding of bona fide military historians at the BCT level, all followed by the debriefing by military historians of all company level commanders and above immediately upon redeployment. As it stands, we’ll learn nothing from these wars in the long run. So called “Lessons Learned” and CALL manuals are not primary sources.

  5. Well done Prof. Hill. Spot on. ALL of these tasks- the offense, the defense-stabilization…are the responsibility of all military professionals- especially Soldiers and Marines. We will be called upon to execute stabilization tasks as part of EVERY conflict we are involved in. In some- I would argue most- these tasks will be THE decisive ones. We ignore them at our extreme peril.

  6. The article presents a powerful argument. But it has a blind spot.

    ‘Defense’ means defending the homeland against existential threats. This can and sometimes does mean offensive operations away from the homeland. It does not mean accepting any trash mission assigned to our military forces where an existential threat does not exist.

    The stability of certain allies is important to deterring existential threats. But the chief lesson of our regime change and counterinsurgency operations conducted in dozens of countries over the past twenty years isn’t that we need to handle stability and counterinsurgency better. It’s that such operations only work under specific and limited circumstances, they are expensive missions to perform (far more expensive than we had anticipated), and they should be undertaken only when existential threats appear.

    The United States has wasted treasure and lives on missions where no existential threat existed. It has conducted regime change and counterinsurgency operations where those operations could not succeed and in fact made for greater instability than if we had never attempted those missions in the first place. These are not tactical problems. They are strategic in nature.

    Asking ourselves how to fine-tune our tactics for occupying foreign lands and suppressing those who oppose our presence in those foreign lands misses the strategic questions entirely: where should we apply force, and for what reasons?

    Those questions are not properly addressed in the Army’s self-analysis. This is OSD territory, the State Department’s and the National Security Advisor’s. And academia’s, of course. If the Army had clear strategic direction that made sense (e.g. linking its core missions to deterring or countering existential threats), then it could address the tactics required to succeed at missions assigned to it. But that strategic direction doesn’t exist, and the Army today is engaged broadly on missions which have nothing at all to do with existential threats. The Army’s efforts constitute a strategic overreach and will dilute its ability to act when real existential threats manifest.

    Absent clear and pertinent strategy driving decisions at the top, it’s unhelpful to criticize Army for failing to improve its tactics, whether by fresh thinking or evaluation of lessons learned.