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


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