What key lessons should U.S. policymakers and defense planners take away from the last 14 years of conflict? How relevant is the recent past? What does our strategic and operational performance suggest we need to retain as core competencies? These are critical questions for the design of tomorrow’s U.S. military. Being rigorously critical about our campaigns is a healthy and necessary intellectual exercise. We should not deceive ourselves, nor should we hide from a painful evaluation about the last 14 years and deficiencies in the American way of strategy. Without looking critically at the past, our own wars and others, all of the arguments about AirSea Battle, disruptive technologies, and offset strategies will be largely premature, if not largely uninformed.
Drawing upon the last several wars for insights or major principles for force design is useful, but to draw the right insights requires more than merely thinking about the recent past. We must look forward to a more complex world, one in which technological, social, and economic change produce new contexts. In his most famous essay on the abuse of history, Michael Howard noted that the military must strive to explore history to acquire lessons, but also to be able to recognize when changes in context have made doctrine and past practice obsolete.
American policymakers and strategists would benefit from a longer-range view of history to better inform defense policy and joint force design. There are calls by some for limited interventions under ideal conditions of lower cost and scale, “more El Salvadors” than Vietnams or more short wars like Operation Desert Storm instead of the protracted Operation Iraqi Freedom. Certainly, this desire is understandable, but strategists cannot plan for ideal conditions or convenient enemies. More importantly politicians cannot dictate the terms of future conflicts. The future does not bend to our illusions or our preferences. History’s furies do not respond to presidential pronouncements about the tides of war.
Recent defense policy statements suggest that the “technology optimists” are alive and well again. We must be wary of claims about disruptive breakthroughs, as a premature shift to autonomous robotic systems or unbalanced approach can generate a lot of risk without benefit. We should definitely seek advantages in all dimensions of war, and while we may be forced to consider offsets, we need not rush for silver bullets.
As former RAND analyst Russ Glenn once noted, lessons from the past are of value only if molded to the needs of the future…