Grenada, the Evacuation of Afghanistan, and the Future of War
Last month, our graduate students taught us an important lesson about the future of war. We examined the 1983 invasion of Grenada, in which one of us participated as a 29-year-old Ranger company commander. Our class includes about a dozen U.S. military officers, and after listening to the first-hand account of the confusion and missteps that characterized the operation, many of them were shocked. As the discussions continued, we realized that during the past two decades of war, the U.S. military did not experience a large-scale operation marked by such intense chaos, confusion, and near failure until the evacuation of Kabul in August. We also realized that the wars our students will fight in the future will look far more like the invasion of Grenada and the chaotic evacuation of Kabul than what most members of the U.S. military have come to expect.
Our students sat rapt as one of us shared his vivid experiences of the Grenada invasion. He began by saying, “Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.” Launched on very short notice to rescue American medical students stranded on a tiny Caribbean island amidst a bloody Marxist coup, the invasion was mounted by a quickly assembled, all-service pickup team that immediately ran into trouble. On the first day alone, three U.S. helicopters were shot down by enemy fire, and numerous others were so badly shot up that they were no longer flyable. The complex choreography of initial landings that were supposed to take place under the cover of darkness unfolded during daylight instead, with deadly results. Special operations forces failed to reach several of their objectives, and were cut off and surrounded at another objective by surprisingly aggressive enemy forces. Army, Marine, and special operations forces could not communicate with each other or with Air Force aircraft overhead, since their radios were either incompatible or required frequencies and call signs that had not been shared. And each service used different tourist maps of the island because even the most basic intelligence information was not available. By the end of the first day, many important objectives remained in enemy hands, and the rapidly cobbled-together U.S. invasion force had suffered over a dozen killed and over three dozen wounded at the hands of an unexpectedly capable enemy. By nightfall, that young company commander thought, “This is what losing feels like.”
As we fielded questions from our class about this brief and nearly forgotten episode of Cold War history, we were particularly taken aback by the reactions of our military students. They were astonished by the vividly described litany of failures and screw-ups, and they found it inconceivable that the U.S. military could have undertaken such a poorly planned, and often badly executed, operation. It was simply unimaginable to them. Most were unaware that the countless military foul-ups in Grenada provided one of the key reasons why Congress enacted the Goldwater-Nichols reforms in 1986, which completely transformed U.S. military operations.
As professors with a slightly longer view of U.S. military history, we were surprised at these reactions. But then we realized that this generation of military leaders has simply never experienced large-scale battlefield failures. Unlike their predecessors from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, these officers have only participated in campaigns in which the United States consistently had the upper hand. Make no mistake, there was plenty of bloody, hard fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the courage and tenacity shown by the troops that fought there rival that of any other American conflict. But throughout both wars, U.S. forces operated with impunity in the air, in space, and in cyberspace; relied upon responsive and effective U.S. firepower in emergencies; and could quickly receive enough reinforcements to bail out any unit that got into trouble. During 20 years of war, no U.S. units were ever overrun and defeated by insurgents, even at the platoon level. The idea that a significant U.S. military operation like the Grenada invasion could be so badly conceived, chaotically executed, and nearly result in an embarrassing failure was just unthinkable to our students who had served in the recent wars.
Suddenly, we better understood the pain and anger that exploded among many veterans and those in uniform during the evacuation of Kabul in August. The visceral shock and outrage over the botched evacuation extended far beyond the normal professional criticism of a difficult mission. It was widely described as an unconscionable failure that was ineptly planned and led to a feckless abandonment of allies, rather than as a plausible outcome of a mission that was planned and executed within nearly impossible constraints of time, force size, and geography. Those reactions suggest that the past two decades of war have conditioned many Americans, including those in the military, to expect that sound planning and smart choices about troops and timelines will prevail whenever American forces are committed — and that chaotic, confused, or even desperate missions should never be one of the potential outcomes.
There is plenty about the evacuation from Kabul that deserves criticism (as does much in the Afghanistan war writ large). In no way are we excusing the failures of intelligence and anticipation that contributed directly to the painful outcome. But the outrage over the evacuation suggests to us that today’s military, and even the broader American public, have been conditioned to believe that clever design, astute planning, and well-trained troops can overcome the fog, friction, chaos, and confusion that are inherent in war. Such a belief — whether conscious or not — implies that a highly trained, professional military should always be able to set conditions that assure success, to maintain enough control over its circumstances to avoid being heavily disadvantaged, and to remain largely shielded from battlefield failure. It overlooks the fact that wars almost always require militaries to fight in deeply unfavorable circumstances, with grossly inadequate intelligence, and with insufficient time for detailed planning, thorough coordination, and effective execution. Moreover, those are exactly the types of conditions that the U.S. military is likely to face in any future great-power conflict.
As the U.S. military looks to the future, wars fought on terms that are heavily disadvantageous to the United States are very likely to be the norm, especially at the outset. The chaotic experience of the Grenada invasion and the tumultuous planning and disorganized execution of the Kabul evacuation are not simply unhappy exceptions to the dominant American way of war — they are powerfully revealing glimpses into the future. In both operations, the nearly insurmountable constraints of time, intelligence, troop numbers, and political sensitivity suddenly placed the U.S. military in a perilous position fraught with uncharted risks. In both operations, the United States could not control the initial circumstances on the ground or quickly shift the dynamics in its favor. And in both operations, the objectives were put at risk because they involved so many poor decisions, miscalculations, and outright failures.
The wars of the future are far more likely to resemble the invasion of Grenada and the evacuation of Kabul than the two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. They will provide many unexpected setbacks and defeats, uncertainty and random chance, surprise, and repeated battlefield shocks. Highly capable adversaries will initiate many of these conflicts on their own terms, thus requiring the U.S. military to fight from positions of deep disadvantage under sometimes devastating circumstances. As we have written before, the services need to invest in the ability to adapt and build the organizational, material, and psychological resilience needed to sustain brutal shocks. The military must retain the ability to fight effectively when communications don’t work, plans unravel, data is corrupted or spoofed, and wartime clashes spiral out of control. And it must steel itself to dealing with wartime parameters that are seemingly impossible — such as wholly inadequate time, the lack of critical capabilities and resources, and the immutable tyranny of geography and distance — while most or all of the advantages belong to the enemy.
Chaos, uncertainty, and lack of control over wartime circumstances are the new normal. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has noted, the conditions of future wars will be “extremely austere,” with troops expected to “be comfortable with being seriously miserable every single minute of every single day.” The compressed timelines, lack of resources, and disruptive confusion of the Kabul mission are exactly what Milley’s world may look like in practice. Yet despite his warning, the shocked reaction within the military to the Kabul evacuation suggests that this message has not been fully received or internalized. The U.S. military has grown accustomed to fighting battles where it holds almost all the cards, and the enemy is the underdog. Those days are now almost certainly over. Unexpectedly, our class last month taught us that today’s military forces may not fully understand how much future U.S. wars will differ from their experiences in the most recent ones.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.