If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Any Road Will Get You There

Perhaps the most urgent lesson of any war is exactly the need to learn from the conflict. Combat is a harsh teacher but always offers precise tutorials in how, exactly, things can go wrong. Needless to say, Iraq has re-proven that adage. The organizations most eager to learn those lessons are the military services themselves. They always believe that they will have to fight another war, sooner or later. The cliché about “generals being ready to fight the last war” is true but not actually a criticism. Militaries must take the lessons where they can find them; what they do with them is the critical part.

It is thus interesting to follow the U.S. Army as it tries to figure out how things went so catastrophically wrong in the war in Iraq. Within the army, the Center for Army Lessons Learned produces immediate analyses of military campaigns, focusing primarily on the tactical level (soldiers on the ground). Then, decades down the road, the Army’s Center for Military History puts together the official history of a given conflict. Neither of those seemed ideal for a conflict shaped by so many more contexts than the ground level of warfare, and one in which all the lessons were crucial for an army remaking itself on the fly to fight a war for which it was unready. The result was the On Point series, a look at an immediate contemporary history of the conflict in Iraq. The first, On Point , came out in 2005 and looked at the conventional campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in March-April 2003. It ended its account in April 2003, with the conventional campaign over and “Mission Accomplished” the phrase of the day. As a result, On Point was the story of a military victory, and an overwhelming one at that.On Point II: Transition to a New Campaign, the second volume in the series, has just been published by the Army. It looks at the eighteen months after April 2003 and watches the conventional war turn into an unconventional fight against a growing insurgency. In many ways, this is the most important period of the war, when a triumph was, if not lost, at least let slip into abeyance. The question, the authors ask, is how did this happen? Why wasn’t “military victory” transformed into “strategic success”?

The report does not pull its punches. The situation that arose in the 18 months after the end of the conventional war came because both the military and the administration failed to plan effectively, to understand the situation, and to question their own assumptions. “Most senior civilian and military leaders failed to review the historical records of military occupations and of Middle Eastern and Iraqi history, and also failed to listen and evaluate outside views about potential weaknesses with their planning assumptions.” Those leaders wished to fight a quick and easy war to topple Hussein. Their vision did not extend beyond and “lacked…overarching operational and strategic visions appropriate to the new Iraq and the myriad national resources to carry out those visions.”

Though the report is delicate about naming specific leaders, the ideas that those leaders championed are not spared. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s visions of a small invasion force powered by a new-age networked military? “The tailoring of ground forces to the minimum believed necessary to achieve relatively limited military objectives provided no flexibility for an uncertain and unpredictable environment in Iraq…. Force level of troop density calculations must not simply be an exercise in minimalist thinking based on an alleged revolution in military affairs.”

Nor is the Army itself spared. Counterinsurgency before Iraq was “neglected” by the service. The Army was not effective at intelligence operations in Iraq, it was not ready to handle detainees, train indigenous forces, or operate effectively on a “360-degree threat environment” in which an attack could come from any direction on any kind of unit. The Army, officers and soldiers alike, lacked the kind of “cultural awareness” that would have helped them navigate Iraqi society. Few spoke Arabic. Few understood the history, religion, or ethnic groups of Iraq.

And it is here, breaking away from On Point’s conclusions, that we emerge to a larger critique of how the United States wages war. American society is technologically-driven, uncurious and unknowledgeable about the rest of the world, and prone to see definitive value in simplicity and lack of complication. Unsurprisingly, the government and military that emerges from our society echo those characteristics. On Point’s focus on the army, though valuable, thus misses a much larger cultural picture. To rephrase a remark that has gathered a share of controversy: you go to war with the country you have. In examining American wars, it is not enough to look at the military and political context. Instead, it is necessary to understand a much broader national and global context. Wars are waged by nations, using the tools of state and military. Not having a clear picture of that relationship and of the strengths and weaknesses of the nations involved, simply invites more situations like those crucial 18 months that so defined the war in Iraq. The Army needs to learn. So does the nation.