Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Next-War-itis, This-War-itis, and the American Military

Next-War-itis, This-War-itis, and the American Military

In a recent CBS News story, Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway stated—for at least the second time publicly—that it was time for the Marine Corps to leave Iraq and focus on Afghanistan. In the Commandant’s view, the Marine Corps is a “fighting machine,” Iraq has turned into “nation building,” and “[t]hat’s not what we do…. Where there’s a fight, that’s where the Marine Corps is needed.”[1] The subtext of this seems clear enough. General Conway feels that his Marines should focus on “real war,” where their martial skills of air and artillery strikes and violent maneuver to close with and destroy the enemy are employed to effect. The extended current counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign in Iraq is seen as a misapplication of the Corps’ core competencies and soften the force, or at least emphasize the wrong skills sets and lessons that will cause the United States to pay a steep tax in blood and treasure on some future battlefield.

These comments caused a stir in some circles. Some argue that his comments misread the source of success in Al Anbar, where patient “nation-building” by the Army and the Marine Corps was crucial. It also arguably misreads what will be most useful in Afghanistan, where U.S. strategy emphasizes more than just conventional brawn. But this is not just solely an issue of debate amongst the Marine Corps. All of the services currently are having debates about their dominant service culture and core competencies. A distilled short hand for this debate is between the antagonistically labeled schools of “this-war-itis” and “next-war-itis.” This short piece will provide a glimpse of these contemporary debates and offer opinions on how they might play out going into the Obama administration. This is an important debate because strategic success—and no small amount of treasure—is at stake.

The Other Perennial Military Culture War

Writing in the October 2008 issue of The Atlantic magazine, Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army officer and noted historian, described the contours, for land forces at least, of the this-war-itis and next-war-itis schools.[2] In order to simplify things he divided the camps between “crusaders” and “conservatives.” Crusaders consist of those who have embraced counterinsurgency and feel that Iraq had gone poorly because “rigidly conventional senior commanders, determined ‘never again’ to see the Army sucked into a Vietnam-like quagmire, had largely ignored unconventional warfare and were therefore prepared poorly for it.” Conservatives, meanwhile, “reject the revisionist interpretation of Vietnam and dispute the freshly enshrined conventional narrative on Iraq…. [and] they question whether Iraq represents a harbinger of things to come.” Many consider the writings of retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl and current Army Colonel Gian Gentile as the archetype exemplars for the crusader and conservative schools, respectively.[3]

While Bacevich purposefully uses dichotomous ideal types to drive his analysis, a better construct to examine this issue might be one proposed by another retired Army officer and defense scholar Sam C. Sarkesian. In his examination of the Army officer corps in Vietnam, Sarkesian proposed that there are in fact three groups of officers: traditionalists, transitionalists, and modernists.[4] The “traditionalists,” largely veterans of the Second World War, felt that the proper application of conventional military power would have won the Southeast Asian war. The “transitionalists,” Army officers who had their formative years in the 1950s, believed that conventional power plus some new approaches and techniques would have done the trick. Last, “modernists,” officers with formative experiences during the Vietnam era, believed that conventional techniques could not “win” revolutionary wars in alien cultures.[5] While one may quibble with this analytical slicing, it does provide an interesting structure to apply to each of the services today. What follows is meant to be provocative and will surely raise some hackles; regardless some may find it to have value in examining the current culture clash within the American military. As ideal types these classifications also may hold fluidity between age and year group cohorts.[6]

The Army. Of all of the services, the United States Army seems most affected by a profession suffering from cognitive dissonance about whether we the force should be organized, trained, and equipped for irregular (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan) or traditional (e.g., North Korea, China) threats. The current “traditionalists” were largely enculturated through the experiences of the late Cold War or Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm. For them the Army is the sword and shield of the Republic and needs to focus on large-scale ground combat against similar foes. The “transitionalists” are those officers who came of age during the peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations of the 1990s. These officers seem to see some utility in political-military approaches to the strategic environment, but still seem most comfortable with an approach heavily favoring the application of conventional military power. Last, the “modernists” are the officers who have come of age in the post-9/11 era. Mostly junior officers, they have been shaped by the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan to buy into the concept of people-oriented counterinsurgency and working with, and sometimes by and through, local forces on the ground. (Each of these age groups and cohorts described above roughly track across the services.)

The Navy. The naval service, somewhat like the Army, but perhaps not to the same extremes, has also faced some internal professional dissent. For the traditionalists the dominant view of the profession was for open ocean (i.e., “blue water”) control of sea lines of communications and precision strikes (both from carrier born aviation and cruise missile) against enemy targets. The transitionalists of the sea service saw the Navy’s role expand into the littorals (i.e., “green water”) for expanded missions such as humanitarian aid and precision strikes against non-state actors. Modernists, for their part, have embraced riverine operations (i.e., “brown water”), working on the land away from the water (e.g., working convoys, working on Provisional Reconstruction Teams, etc.), and embracing more distributed concepts on the water with smaller platforms such as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS; also derisively labeled as “Little Crappy Ships” by some service traditionalists).

The Air Force. The Air Force of the four services seems least affected by the turbulence over its professional conception. While the scale of activities have shifted from the Cold War days, particular for its strategic forces, the aerospace service still provides the same essential goods: control of the skies, strikes, and transport. Still, its traditionalists hold most dearly to aerospace supremacy (which is a vital mission) and the efficacy of air strikes to solve complex problems. The transitionalists came of age in a period where humanitarian aid missions were seen as a useful adjunct to traditional roles. Modernists, while still clinging to many precepts of the dominant professional views, seem more sanguine about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned combat vehicles (UCAVs; e.g., armed Predators), working on the ground with the sister services, and are not as invested in the idea that the air arm can solely determine outcomes.

The Marine Corps. Of all of the services, the Marine Corps would seem to be the service least at cultural drift. As the service most engrained with a common culture (“every Marine a rifleman”) this should not be surprising. Also, as the service most driven by professional paranoia over the encroachment of the other services into its turf (as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made clear, even paranoids have real enemies) and reinforced by Congressional statute to be a maritime-based, “shock force,” this further leads to a lack of surprise on this front. Still, many traditionalists of the service cling to a view that the Marines should focus on large-scale amphibious operations a la Inchon and Iwo Jima, and everything else should be secondary. A bit of this traditional kinetic view (“shock troops from the sea”) is implied in the Commandant’s message above. (Afghanistan might be off the littoral, but it provides better opportunities to conduct maneuver warfare and apply violent means than does Iraq.) Transitionalist Marines lived through the period where schools such as the Amphibious Warfare School transformed to the Expeditionary Warfare School and the ethos expanded to “doing windows” on the ground in peace enforcement environs, but with a focus more on the enforcement side of the equation. The modernists, like their kin in the Army, however, seem more at ease with the counterinsurgency role and see the Corps reliving its small wars or “Banana Wars” past.

With the above said, one might ask, so what? The answer to the so-what question is that the dominant cultural paradigms of today drive the procurement budgets of the services, how they are organized, how Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are trained and schooled to deal with the operational environment, and, perhaps most importantly, who gets selected to higher positions of rank and authority and thus can help shape the proceeding items down the road. Furthermore, as Sarkesian has pointed out, in regards to the services, “[t]he institution has a built-in socialization process which favors orthodoxy, and the danger is that the institution will capture such officers before they can capture the institution.”[7] The intensity of the fighting among the modernists and traditionalists in the Army is so heated because the stakes are so high. While traditionalists in the Air Force and Navy may not feel as institutionally threatened by their services’ modernists, such a shift in the Army is much more far reaching due to the strategic environment.  

The Rise of Hybrid Wars and Deciding on the Future Direction of the American Military

Which package of views above is correct? That is roughly the $500-billion-a-year question. Traditionalists spout forth like the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah that the current fetish for irregular threats and counterinsurgency places the Nation’s security at jeopardy on some still unforeseen conventional battlefield. They anticipate that the next war will be distinctly conventional and large-scale. Modernists, on the other hand, seem to view much of the traditionalist outlook as “old think” that has been displaced by the present and emergent realities of networked, non-state or transnational-state threats. They project a future of myriad small wars, terrorism, counterinsurgencies, and messy protracted conflicts that commingle with criminality. Transitionalists, for their part, seem stuck in the middle. For some, the writings of Frank Hoffman and others on “hybrid threats” offers a possible middle path.[8] Such hybrid threats blur conventional and unconventional modes of force employment and sometimes between state and non-state actors. The Lebanon War of 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah is seen as the most recent exemplar of such operational blurring.

But can “hybrid wars” bring all sides onto the same sheet of music? It is easy to see how such a conception might be thought to be all things to all people. Ground force traditionalists might see it as a way to focus on they heavy-end of the spectrum of force while their modernist counterparts may look to the low-end. If this is the case the concept may not be as effectual as some see it, and it could make the budgetary process more difficult by having each school of thought trying to justify its procurement wishes as “hybrid war” systems, but it would at least provide a common operational vocabulary for both sides. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, for one, seems to be a fan of the concept and sees it as part of a balanced strategy.[9] In his words, “Just as one can expect a blended high-low mix of adversaries and types of conflict, so, too, should the United States seek a better balance in the portfolio of capabilities it has—the types of units fielded, the weapons bought, the training done.”[10]

The Secretary’s endorsement, along with his continued service into the Obama administration, seems for now at least to address a fundamental issue raised by Bacevich in his piece:

The biggest question of all, [Colonel Gian] Gentile writes, is “Who gets to decide this?” Absent a comparably searching Great Debate among the civilians vying to direct U.S. policy—and the prospects that either Senator McCain or Senator Obama will advocate alternatives to the Long War appear slight—the power of decision may well devolve by default upon soldiers. Gentile insists—rightly—that the choice should not be the Army’s to make.[11]

As historical precedents suggest, this does not mean the issue is resolved for good. To be clear, none of the above suggests that any of the idealized schools have it completely right. Military professionals, like Janus of Roman mythology, need to look both to the past and to the future in order to make the best choices for fulfilling the national security requirements of the United States. But as we still remained mired in fierce wars of the present, and as the public pronouncements of President-elect Barack Obama do not seem to fundamentally alter the conduct of the present wars, and as Secretary Gates has stated his strategic guidance, the argument is moot for now. For the time being, the traditionalists, transitionalists, and modernists should stop sparring and carry out their assigned duties with a modicum of solidarity. Once we win the current wars, we can worry about “next-war-itis.”


  1. ^ Cami McCormick, “`High Time’ to Move Marines to Afghanistan,”, Dec. 31, 2008.
  2. ^ Andrew Bacevich, “The Petraeus Doctrine,” The Atlantic, October 2008.
  3. ^ See, e.g., John A. Nagl, “Let’s Win the Wars We’re In,” Joint Force Quarterly (issue 52, 1st Quarter 2009): 20-26; and Gian P. Gentile, “Let’s Build an Army to Win All Wars,” Joint Force Quarterly (issue 52, 1st Quarter 2009): 27-33. Both articles may be found online at:
  4. ^Sam C. Sarkesian, Beyond the Battlefield: The New Military Professionalism (New York: Pergamon Press, 1981).
  5. ^ Ibid., p. 85.
  6. ^ For additional insights on the service cultures of the Army, Navy, and Air Force see Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), and for the Marine Corps see Thomas E. Ricks, Making the Corps (New York: Scribner, 1998).
  7. ^ Sarkesian, Beyond the Battlefield, p. 86.
  8. ^ See, e.g., Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis and Frank Hoffman, “Future Warfare: The Rise of Hybrid Warfare,” Naval Institute Proceedings, November 2005, pp. 30-32; Frank G. Hoffman, “How the Marines are Preparing for Hybrid Wars,” Armed Forces Journal, April 2006; Frank G. Hoffman “Preparing for Hybrid Wars,” Marine Corps Gazette, March 2007; Frank G. Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Warfare, Arlington VA: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Dec. 2007; Frank G. Hoffman, “Hybrid Threats and Challengers,” Joint Force Quarterly, Jan. 2009; William Nemeth, “Chechnya and the Future of Hybrid Warfare,” unpublished Master’s Thesis, Monterey, California, 2002; James Callard and Peter Faber, “An Emerging Synthesis for a New Way of War: Combinational Warfare and Future Innovation,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Winter/Spring 2002; Michael Evans, “From Kadesh to Kandahar: Military Theory and the Future of War,” Naval War College Review, Summer 2003; Mackubin Thomas Owens, “America’s ‘Long War(s)’” FPRI E-Note, January 2008; John J. McCuen, “Hybrid Wars,” Military Review, April-May 2008, pp. 107-113.
  9. ^ Robert M. Gates, “A Balanced Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2009.
  10. ^ Ibid.
  11. ^ Bacevich, “The Petraeus Doctrine.”

You may forward this email as you like provided that you send it in its entirety, attribute it to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and include our web address ( If you post it on a mailing list, please contact FPRI with the name, location, purpose, and number of recipients of the mailing list.

If you receive this as a forward and would like to be placed directly on our mailing lists, send email to Include your name, address, and affiliation. For further information, contact Eli Gilman at (215) 732-3774 ext. 255.