Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fighting the Wrong War

War is undoubtedly the most prolific human activity about which its practitioners, observers, and critics have created a separate body of sayings, excuses, and justifications for why battles and campaigns were won or lost. “Serious” tomes as well as more light-hearted fare have been collected, repackaged, and reissued – with a new copyright date that “protects” the “originality” of the assembler/editor.

Sometimes – just sometimes – such a gem that has been around for decades if not centuries will come back into prominence. As chance would have it, my roommate during plebe year at West Point, the now-former Secretary of the Air Force Mike Wynne, recently noted that “the military is almost always accused of preparing to fight the last war.” Well, that “almost” finally has been found its sponsor in the person of General Sir Rupert Smith, a British Army general who retired in 2002 after 40 years uniformed service.

Sir Rupert rejects the notion that the generals and admirals always prepare to fight the last war. Instead, he accuses them of always preparing to fight the wrong war because that is the direction and the spending priorities they are given by the politicians – most of whom do not understand the changing context of war and whose education is the responsibility of the generals.

Perhaps the most important point about that context is that it never discards anything. This means that a country or a sub-national or trans-national group is able to cut into the experience of war, locate the historical activities of groups that fought oppressors or invaders or occupying armies, and draw lessons applicable to today.

But today’s dominant military powers do not look at history for equivalent conditions because – precisely as they are dominant – they assume they will remain so as long as they continue along the same path regardless of changes in context. Over time, doctrine, organizations, and equipment become less and less relevant to what others are doing until their entire structure bears little resemblance to actual conditions.

Thus as in Iraq, the “dominant” military may indeed defeat the obvious opposing structure (the Iraqi army), but that is not the real enemy or the real war – the war the generals should have warned the politicians to avoid.

But then, this would seem to make every war the "wrong war." Not a bad idea.


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