Revolutions

4. Revolutions

Late in the summer of 1997, John Nagl returned to West Point to teach in the Social Sciences Department, as he’d committed to do when he went off to grad school at the Army’s expense. As a cadet a decade earlier, Nagl had loved hanging out with the officer-PhDs on the Sosh faculty, all of them fast runners and voracious readers who’d fought the pretend wars in the California desert and could hold forth on the relative merits of German beers and quaint villages, which they assumed they’d be exploring through the coming best years of their lives. Now he was one of them, and while the banter about things German had faded along with the Cold War, the cultish swagger still swayed.

Sosh had always fostered a climate of critical inquiry, even benign insubordination. But the air of scrutiny and rebellion was thickening in the years of Nagl’s return. He and his new colleagues had spent the past few years in real firefights, and Nagl was far from the only one who came back with doubts about the judgment of his superiors.

Nagl had fought in Desert Storm, which the Army chiefs regarded as a “major combat operation,” however brief. But some of his colleagues had fought, or faced hostile fire, in Haiti, Somalia, Central America, or the Balkans, in the sorts of small wars that Nagl foresaw as dominating the coming post-Soviet era.

One of Nagl’s closest colleagues, Isaiah “Ike” Wilson, who’d graduated West Point a year behind Nagl and now cotaught a course with him on American foreign policy, had been company commander of an Apache helicopter unit, flying missions in support of civilian-evacuation operations in the Balkans. He’d faced daily threats from shoulder-mounted Stinger antiaircraft missiles, at least a thousand of which were circulating in the world, many of them in the hands of hostile militias and terrorists; but the Army’s chiefs didn’t define what he’d been doing as “war.” A soldier whose career-sheet showed a check mark next to “combat experience” had a good chance of steady promotion. But since these kinds of wars weren’t regarded as combat, there was no such check mark for Wilson or for the other soldiers who’d risked their lives in similar settings.

The Army had a new term for these kinds of armed engagements, a term that made LIC, for low-intensity conflicts, seem macho by comparison. It was “military operations other than war,” or MOOTW, widely and derisively pronounced “moot-wah.” There were signs that a few high-ranking officers were taking these operations seriously. A new Army field manual stated that regular soldiers—not just Special Forces and CIA agents—might sometimes be allowed to participate. A few especially imaginative officers also managed to set up a Peacekeeping Institute at the Army War College, in recognition that the soldiers who’d been sent to Somalia in the early nineties had no idea how to deal with humanitarian crises in the heat of a civil war. The Army also created the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, a complex modeled after the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, except that, instead of big head-on battles against the Krasnovians, the scenarios involved dirty little wars in which US forces were deployed to support the fictitious third-world nation of Cortina against the Cortina Liberation Front, an insurgent group assisted from across the eastern border by the People’s Democratic Republic of Atlantica. And instead of driving tanks on a vast desert plain, the troops sent to the JRTC—light infantry, Special Forces, and occasionally marines—went out on foot patrols in mock villages, where they had to distinguish bad guys from innocent bystanders (all played by hired actors), defeating the former while protecting the latter.

Nonetheless, the signals from the top made clear that the official attitude toward these kinds of conflicts had barely changed. Army General John Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and thus the highest-ranking officer in the entire US military, was widely known to have muttered, “Real men don’t do moot-wah.” The Peacekeeping Institute was funded at less than $1 million a year, and, in the five years of its existence, only congressional support had kept the Pentagon from shutting it down. Even the field manual that allowed regular soldiers to fight in these operations contained a caveat—which top generals had demanded—that no Army units could be trained for these missions unless and until they were expressly ordered to go take part in one. Which meant that if they ever did receive such an order, they’d have almost no time to learn what they needed to do. This, of course, was not an oversight; it was deliberate; the higher-ups didn’t want the Army to “do moot-wah,” and the best way to ensure it never did was to keep soldiers from learning how.

These were the issues that Nagl, Wilson, and other Sosh professors discussed with cadets in their classes and, more intensely, with one another afterward in their offices or nearby bars. They, too, uttered “moot-wah” with a smirk, but their sarcasm was directed at the absurdity of the term, not at the seriousness of the conflicts it described. These were soul-searching discussions about their personal experiences in “the ‘other-than-war’ wars of the nineties” (another snarky phrase they’d coined to describe the conflicts that felt like wars to them) and what these wars meant, both for national security and for their own prospects in the Army.

They strode the cusp of a generational shift, and they saw themselves as the elite of their generation, the new centurions manning the vanguard, plotting the course of change from within.

Change was coming, and sooner than they anticipated: in less than a decade, ushered in—as agents of change often are—by the widening awareness of a looming disaster.

•  •  •

Meanwhile, a competing vision of future warfare was taking hold in high-level policy circles, a vision that would push the American military in a very different direction. Its enthusiasts called it a “revolution in military affairs,” even turning the phrase into an acronym, RMA, as if to make it official. It foresaw, and advocated, a style of warfare that relied not on human contact or ground troops but on high-tech sensors and “smart bombs,” thus relegating the Army’s budding COIN factions to still more distant sidelines.

The revolution in military affairs began with a model airplane and a lawn-mower engine.

John Foster, a nuclear physicist, the Pentagon’s chief scientist, and a former director of the Lawrence Livermore weapons laboratory, was a devotee of model airplanes. In 1971 he proposed adapting the stuff of his hobby into a new type of weapons system. The idea was to develop an inexpensive, unmanned aircraft and to equip it with a camera pointed down toward the ground. The plane would fly reconnaissance missions over enemy targets; if a bomb could fit inside the plane’s belly, the same plane could be used to destroy those targets, too. Within two years, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s experimental weapons center, built a prototype. Weighing seventy-five pounds and powered by a modified lawn-mower engine, it could stay aloft for two hours while carrying a twenty-eight-pound payload.

Around this time, the Vietnam War was grinding to its grim conclusion, and the military was refocusing on the balance of power in Europe, where it seemed that the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies outnumbered the United States and NATO. If the Soviets invaded West Germany, and if NATO couldn’t hold the line with conventional forces, America was treaty-bound to respond with nuclear weapons. Yet that would be suicide: over the previous decade, the Soviets had built up a nuclear arsenal of their own; if America nuked them, they could nuke America.

So DARPA commissioned a secret study to “identify and characterize” new military technologies that might give the president “a variety of response options”—including “alternatives to massive nuclear destruction”—in the event of a NATO–Warsaw Pact war. An unstated purpose of the study (as anyone who had ever done Pentagon contracting would intuit) was to make a case for throwing a lot more money at some of DARPA’s own high-tech projects.

DARPA’s drawing boards held several programs that fit the bill, including Foster’s unmanned plane, which could conceivably be fitted with high-tech bombs and missiles capable of hitting a target with uncanny accuracy. The idea, as laid out in the study, was that these weapons could destroy military targets deep behind enemy lines—air bases, supply depots, follow-on echelons of tank formations—and thus disrupt and delay the Soviet offensive, giving NATO a chance to reinforce, regroup, and fight back.

In 1978, as a direct result of this study, DARPA and the Army conducted the first tests of a weapon called Assault Breaker, which was modeled after the study’s concept almost exactly.

One year later, a Pentagon official named Andrew Marshall—who had worked on the DARPA study—started noticing signs that the Soviets were in a panic. Marshall was director of the Office of Net Assessment, where one of his jobs was to monitor Soviet military journals. In several of these journals, a number of prominent Soviet generals were portraying Assault Breaker as a serious threat—the harbinger of a “military-technical revolution,” as they called it, which their own scientists might be unable to match.

It was a bit strange. Assault Breaker wasn’t in production yet; its early tests were uneven. But if it worried the Russians, if they believed it not only worked but revolutionized warfare, Marshall took that as an argument for the Pentagon to speed up its development, and, when it was ready, to build lots of them, in order to reinforce the Russians’ worries, to persuade them that they couldn’t win a war in Europe and therefore shouldn’t start one.

By the mid-1980s, as microprocessing technologies advanced, all the branches of the US armed forces were developing new weapons along these lines: laser-guided bombs, radar-guided missiles, high-resolution surveillance gear, and high-speed communications networks to link them together.

In the summer of 1986, Marshall began work on a follow-on report, this one unclassified and eventually presented with fanfare at a Pentagon press conference. The result of a fifteen-month study, it concluded that the Russians were right: that, over the next two decades, these new American weapons really would change the face of warfare. Marshall was loath to copy a Russian term, the “military-technical revolution,” so he came up with one of his own: the “revolution in military affairs.”

A shrewd, gnomish intellectual, Marshall carried far more weight in the defense world than his obscure title suggested. He used his office—which he’d managed to continue directing since its creation in 1973—to build a network, funding small projects that intrigued him, cultivating smart staff assistants and installing them in influential places afterward, talking behind the scenes with powerful legislators who felt smart when they talked with someone as smart as Marshall, and sponsoring conferences to which all these increasingly important people were invited. As a result of Andy Marshall’s mere utterances, RMA—the term, the concept underlying it, and the weapons systems needed to turn it into reality—rose to the top of the agenda in congressional committees, party caucuses, private think tanks, and blue-ribbon policy panels.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Five days later, Don Rice, the secretary of the Air Force, called a meeting of his staff. The US military had been focused for decades on the threat of a war in Europe; now the continent’s great divide seemed on the verge of mending. What would this new world look like? What threats would America face? These were the same questions that creative officers in the Army were asking. But to Rice, the most important question was how the new world would affect the United States Air Force.

Rice’s job was a civilian post, and usually a decorative one; most of its occupants had done little more than kowtow to the generals. But Rice was more engaged and knew more about the subject. Through most of the seventies and eighties, he had been president of the RAND Corporation. He’d since kept in touch with Andy Marshall, who’d been a RAND analyst in the fifties and sixties, and knew about his study on the revolution in military affairs.

What Rice was really asking in his staff meeting was what role these revolutionary new weapons would play in the new world, keeping in mind the fact that the most potentially impressive of these weapons—the super-accurate “smart bombs”—were Air Force weapons.

Rice assigned a like-minded and extremely energetic major named Dave Deptula to write the staff paper. The final version was finished the following June, under the title “Global Reach—Global Power.” It argued that as the Cold War wound down, new threats would emerge from as-yet-unknown quarters; that America might have to respond to these threats on short notice with massive force; and that the modern Air Force uniquely possessed the required traits: “speed, range, flexibility, precision, and lethality.” The last traits, “precision and lethality,” fit the RMA template. Rice circulated Deptula’s paper widely. The Air Force public-affairs office adopted the title as the service’s new slogan. Commanders scheduled a military exercise in August 1990 to demonstrate the concept.

On August 2, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. President George H. W. Bush decided to fight back. The Air Force demonstration would be a real war.

Operation Desert Storm, the US and allied war against Saddam’s Iraq, marked the high-profile debut of the new laser-guided bombs. A few had been dropped toward the end of the Vietnam War, with impressive but isolated results. In Desert Storm, they were used in far greater numbers, against targets not only on the battlefield but also in the heart of Baghdad, and the most spectacular effects were televised—and rerun over and over—on the worldwide Cable News Network.

Deptula had drawn up a chart before the war started, to illustrate the new weapons’ potential impact. In World War II, the average bomb missed its target by more than a half mile, so a B-17 airplane had to drop 9,000 of them to score a direct hit on something like a factory. In Vietnam, when the first laser-guided bombs entered the arsenal, an F-104 or F-105 still had to drop 176 bombs to hit a specific target. By contrast, he predicted, an F-16 in Desert Storm would have to drop a mere 30 bombs, and the brand-new F-117 Stealth fighter-bomber could hit a target with just one.

The actual upshot turned out to be less revolutionary than the numbers had implied. First, these weapons were still scarce; of the thousands of bombs dropped in the Gulf War, only 9 percent were smart bombs. Second, they homed in on their targets by tracking laser beams, and since laser beams tended to reflect or refract in the face of dust and smoke (common conditions on a battlefield), an untold number of them went astray. Third and most significant, the war didn’t end until Saddam’s elite Republican Guards were pushed back the old-fashioned way: by American troops, a half million of them, on the ground.

Still, on January 24, 1991, a mere week after the air war began, Andy Marshall called a staff meeting to wonder aloud whether the revolution in military affairs was now a reality; whether the Gulf War’s opening air strikes marked a fundamental change in the nature of warfare, similar to the Germans’ blitzkrieg tactics at the start of World War II.

Marshall asked his military assistant, Andrew Krepinevich, to write a paper. This was the same officer who’d landed in trouble with his Army bosses a few years earlier for suggesting that they’d lost in Vietnam because they were fighting an insurgency war with conventional tactics. Now he was assessing whether the brass needed to change the way they fought conventional wars, too.

Krepinevich’s report agreed with Marshall, concluding, “Quality is becoming far more important than quantity, revolutionizing the nature of warfare.” It would soon be possible, he wrote, to identify an enemy’s “center of gravity”: the small number of targets that, if successfully hit, would destroy its ability to resist; and the new technologies made it possible to hit these nerve centers with a small number of bombs or missiles. The Gulf War had been a “sequential war”: five weeks of air strikes followed by four days of fighting on the ground. The new weapons would make possible “near-simultaneous operations” in the air and on land. And the land operations could be carried out by far fewer troops and much smaller numbers of traditional armaments such as tanks and artillery—heavy weapons that required cumbersome supply lines to function. The emphasis would now be on speed, not mass, as the smart bombs and missiles could destroy troop formations—even specific targets, like an individual tank—from the air.

The paper was finished in July 1992. Few in high office, civilian or military, paid much attention. Desert Storm was seen as a glorious victory for the American military. Why fix something that wasn’t broken? The Cold War was over, and we’d won that, too. Why think much about military affairs at all, revolutionary or otherwise? Some of Marshall’s friends on Capitol Hill began to worry that nobody in power cared.

In 1996, Senators Joe Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, and Dan Coats, Republican of Indiana, coauthored a bill to create a National Defense Panel, which they saw as a forum to advance what they called—in an explicit nod to Marshall—the “revolution in military affairs.”

The panel had nine members: seven selected by the Pentagon, one by the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Democrats, and one by its Republicans. The Democrats picked Krepinevich. The Republicans picked a former Pentagon official named Richard Armitage. The final report stated up front: “We are on the cusp of a military revolution, stimulated by rapid advances” in information technologies. The report, released in December 1997, was titled Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century, and prompted another addition to the lexicon. If the revolution in military affairs was the new situation, “transformation” was what was needed to exploit its possibilities.

Not long afterward, Armitage went to work on the presidential campaign of Texas governor George W. Bush. On September 23, 1999, Bush gave a speech at the Citadel, the military college in Charleston, South Carolina. The speech, written primarily by Armitage, heralded a “revolution in the technology of war,” in which battles would be won not by an army’s “mass or size” but by its “mobility and swiftness,” assisted by extremely accurate bombs and missiles.

Two days before that speech, Donald Rumsfeld was chairing a panel assembled by James Wade, a physicist, former Pentagon official, and Andy Marshall acolyte, who had formed the panel to discuss and promote a book he’d recently cowritten called Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance. It was an endorsement of Marshall’s RMA with an emphasis on the primacy of speed. The aim of shock-and-awe warfare, he wrote, was “to stun, and then rapidly defeat the enemy through a series of carefully orchestrated” strikes from land, sea, and air, launched “nearly simultaneously,” with the aim of throwing the enemy into “immediate paralysis” and “capitulation.” (Three years later, as Rumsfeld prepared for another Iraq war, he sent a copy of Wade’s book to the US commander, General Tommy Franks. Soon after the war began, Franks said at a press conference that the bombing campaign would “shock and awe” the enemy.)

Andy Marshall was a member of the Wade-Rumsfeld panel, as was John Foster, the former Pentagon scientist who’d conceived the idea of remote-control attack airplanes.

Rumsfeld had spent the last decade making a fortune in the corporate world and was ready to move back to Washington. When he read Bush’s Citadel speech, he knew, from having just chaired Wade’s panel, where its ideas came from—and their central place in the modern Republican agenda. When Bush interviewed Rumsfeld for the job of defense secretary (at the suggestion of his running mate, Dick Cheney, who’d been friends with Rumsfeld since their time together, a quarter century earlier, in the Nixon White House), he was impressed with his knowledge and enthusiasm.

Two weeks after Bush’s inauguration, Secretary Rumsfeld invited Andy Marshall—who was still director of net assessment—to lunch. He’d known Marshall from his first tenure in the Pentagon, renewed the acquaintance at Wade’s shock-and-awe conference, and now wanted him to write a paper on the ideas of RMA and transformation, a paper that would help him shape new US policy. Marshall was nearly eighty, but this was the paper that he’d wanted to write for well over a decade. He wrote the first draft in a few days.

Every four years, by congressional mandate, the secretary of defense had to submit a “Quadrennial Defense Review,” a document outlining the nation’s military strategy and how it related to the Pentagon’s programs and budgets. The next QDR was due in the fall of 2001. Rumsfeld decided to make Marshall’s paper the basis of that document. He brought back Andy Krepinevich as a consultant to write much of it and asked Dave Deptula, now a two-star general, to contribute sections.

Its themes were familiar to many of the document’s readers, but now they were spelled out as official policy: “the ongoing revolution in military affairs” and the need for an “ambitious transformation of U.S. military forces,” including a “transition to network-centric warfare” emphasizing “long-range precision-strike” weapons and “rapidly deployable” forces, which could deal with threats “swiftly wherever they might arise.”

On September 11, 2001, al Qaeda hijackers smashed two passenger jetliners into the World Trade Center and another one into the Pentagon, killing nearly three thousand Americans in the largest terrorist incident in the nation’s history. Bush decided to strike back at the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, al Qaeda’s base of operations. Four weeks later, the bombing began.

By this time, the first armed unmanned aircraft, the culmination of thirty years of dreams and engineering, was entering production. The Predator, as it was called, could fly for twenty-four hours at an altitude of twenty-five thousand feet, carrying a 450-pound payload. An early version of Predator, which President Bill Clinton had deployed over Bosnia, was fitted with only a digital video camera; the images were beamed to a satellite, then transmitted to a ground station thousands of miles away, where an operator, who controlled the Predator’s flight path with a joystick, could watch its video stream on a monitor in real time.

By the end of Clinton’s presidency, the Pentagon and the CIA had developed a modified version of the Predator that could carry a laser-guided Hellfire antitank missile in addition to a camera. A newer weapon still, developed by the Air Force and the Navy, was just coming off the production lines in the fall of 2001: the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM (pronounced “Jay-dam”), which was guided not by laser or radar but by more accurate signals from the Global Positioning System’s satellites.

The fusion of these technologies had three huge implications. First, a smart bomb would no longer have to follow a quirky laser beam to the target. Rather, the ground operator would punch a target’s coordinates into a computer and upload the instructions to a satellite, which would beam the data to the JDAM’s GPS receiver. The JDAM, in turn, would plunge to that specific point on earth—a designated latitude and longitude—and explode precisely on target, regardless of the weather or the environment. Second, JDAMs were cheap. The laser-guided bombs used in Desert Storm had cost as much as $250,000 each; one JDAM cost just $20,000, less than one-tenth the price. Finally, the JDAM was a kit, consisting of a GPS receiver and other electronic gear, which could be attached to the tail of almost any bomb in the US military’s inventory. In other words, JDAMs turned dumb bombs into smart ones for almost no money.

In the opening days of the Afghan War, JDAMs destroyed the Taliban’s handful of bases and runways, putting the regime’s air force out of commission. For the next two weeks, the bombing had little effect; there were few remaining targets of consequence to hit. Then, on October 15, US Special Forces met up with Afghan warlords from the Northern Alliance, the main anti-Taliban resistance group. And that’s when the revolution in military affairs revealed the extent of its possibilities.

A few miles outside Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city, an American Special Forces officer, wearing native garb and a thick beard, rode along a trail on horseback. Spotting a regiment of Taliban fighters a few hundred yards away, he pulled out a laptop computer, typed out the regiment’s coordinates, and pushed the send button. A Predator drone, hovering twenty thousand feet overhead, received the message and beamed it to the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. There, an American officer sent back a signal to the Predator, directing it to fly over the regiment. The drone’s video camera scanned the terrain and streamed the images back to the base. The officer then ordered a B-52 pilot, who was patrolling the skies, to attack the target. The pilot flew to the area, punched the target’s coordinates into the GPS receiver on one of his JDAMs, and fired the weapon, which darted toward the regiment, exploded, and killed the Taliban.

The total time that elapsed—from the officer punching in the data to the pilot dropping the bomb—was nineteen minutes. A decade earlier, in Desert Storm, the sequence would have taken three days. A few years before then, the whole idea would have been dismissed as science fiction.

Over the next few weeks, the pattern was replicated all across Afghanistan: spot-on air strikes by American bombers, followed by offensives on the ground by anti-Taliban rebels, sometimes along with small teams of American Special Forces or CIA agents. In mid-November, just five weeks after the war began, the Taliban were driven out of Kabul, the country’s capital. Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s leader, no longer had a base of operations. On December 22, an interim government, led by Hamid Karzai and backed by an international coalition, took office.

On January 31, Donald Rumsfeld delivered a triumphant speech at the National Defense University in Washington, recounting the air strikes at Mazar-i-Sharif as the turning point of the war—and as the vindication of transformation. “This is precisely what transformation is about,” he exclaimed. “Here we are in the year 2002, fighting the first war of the twenty-first century, and the horse cavalry was back . . . being used in previously unimaginable ways. It showed that a revolution in military affairs”—Marshall’s phrase again—“is about more than building new high-tech weapons, though that is certainly part of it. It’s also about new ways of thinking and new ways of fighting.”

Rumsfeld was overstating the case. Air strikes had no effect on the Taliban’s hold until ground forces were in place to follow through. Even then, the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters not only put up fierce resistance but gradually adapted to the new technology, smearing mud on their vehicles, camouflaging their movements, and taking cover along the mountainous terrain so that the cameras in the sky couldn’t spot them. By early December, they’d mastered cover and concealment so well that US Special Forces couldn’t find them and thus couldn’t beam their positions to the Predators overhead.

When Rumsfeld gave his victory speech, Kabul had fallen, but the Taliban and al Qaeda were still fighting. The war’s fiercest battle, Operation Anaconda, wouldn’t be waged until March. As a run-up to the operation, Predators and spy satellites took aerial photos of the entire Shah-i-Kot Valley, a fairly confined space of roughly fifty square miles, in order to locate every al Qaeda position. It turned out, according to postwar analyses, that the drones and satellites detected fewer than half of these positions. At the start of the battle, when American infantry troops dismounted from their assault helicopters, they found themselves almost on top of dug-in al Qaeda fighters. A battle raged all day, with the Americans pinned down until they could be airlifted out of the area that night. For the next week, US bombers pounded al Qaeda’s positions. Yet when the soldiers went back in, they still met al Qaeda fire. The Americans won eventually, but only after overrunning and killing the enemy on the ground. The feat was harder than it might have been because, after Kabul fell, Rumsfeld—thinking the war was over—ordered that not a single extra soldier or marine could be sent to Afghanistan without his personal authorization.

Meanwhile, airpower hadn’t stopped Osama bin Laden from escaping into the mountains of Tora Bora along the Pakistani border. Nor were the Taliban fighters defeated. They maintained an armed resistance against Karzai’s government and stepped it up after Bush and Rumsfeld, basking in apparent victory, moved on to their next war in Iraq.

•  •  •

Rumsfeld’s ideas about fighting in Iraq were heavily influenced by what he thought were the lessons of Afghanistan. General Franks and the Joint Chiefs came in with a first-draft plan that involved four hundred thousand American troops. Rumsfeld scoffed at the numbers as another case of “old thinking.” The Army’s plan for Afghanistan had figured that two divisions, sent in through Pakistan, would be needed to oust the Taliban. The generals had been wrong about that, so Rumsfeld thought they must also be wrong that a few hundred thousand troops were needed for regime change in Iraq.

Rumsfeld, though harsh, was a sharp, inquisitive executive, while Tommy Franks was seen, even in Army circles, as a dim bulb, the opposite of a strategic thinker, an artillery officer whose concept of war was shelling targets. Rumsfeld asked Franks lots of questions about the Iraq invasion plan: Why did each brigade need so much heavy artillery, when smart bombs dropped from the sky could smash up enemy defenses more efficiently? And if the artillery were cut back, wouldn’t the brigades need much less support gear? In transformational warfare, as he saw it, ground forces should be light, lithe, and fast. Artillery cannons and the long supply lines that went with them were heavy, cumbersome, and slow. Franks had no ready reply, so Rumsfeld plunged into the guts of the war plan and sliced away.

The invasion got under way on March 19, 2003. As some soldiers complained about the lack of adequate armor and the shortfall of supplies, Rumsfeld replied, with either cynicism or a lack of self-awareness, “You go to war with the army you have; they’re not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Still, on one level, the first phase of the war proved Rumsfeld right and the generals wrong. The Army, it turned out, did not need a few hundred thousand troops to crush the Iraqi military and topple Saddam’s regime. Nor did its brigades need as much artillery as the Army’s initial plan provided. Precision bombing and shelling from the air blasted and scattered Iraqi defenses, so that the M-1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles could punch on through.

Two factors were at play here. First was the technology, especially the smart weapons. Second (and Rumsfeld knew little if anything about this), the US Army had gone through its own transformation of sorts in the previous decade.

In the early-to-mid-1980s, a small group of creative officers, led by a colonel named Huba Wass de Czege, had revised the Army’s field manual on operations, realizing that the 1976 edition by General DePuy was too static for the fast-moving modern battlefield. Wass de Czege’s revision emphasized speed, maneuver, and taking the offensive, not just to outgun the enemy forces but to envelop them from the flanks and the rear. While preparing to write the manual, Wass de Czege had read the classics of military strategy: Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, J. F. C. Fuller’s The Conduct of War, and B. H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy: The Indirect Approach. All of them stressed the importance of surprise, shock, and maneuver on the battlefield. Wass de Czege had never read any of these works as a cadet at West Point or as a junior officer at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth. Yet in the course of his research, he’d come across an Army field manual written in 1940, on the eve of the Second World War, that read remarkably like the books he’d just been reading—the books that the Army had neglected in the decades since. Those earlier American officers had studied up on how to wage war after decades of neglect. Wass de Czege saw himself as doing the same.

There was another new element in his revised field manual: it integrated operations on the ground with those in the air. The Army and the Air Force would remain separate services with their own budgets and cultures, but they would fight jointly in a “combined-arms campaign.” The new manual reflected this fact even in its title: AirLand Battle.

After completing the manual, Wass de Czege was promoted to brigadier general and assigned to create a new department at the Command and General Staff College, called the School of Advanced Military Studies, or SAMS. Its purpose would be to instill these ideas in the elite tier of the junior officer corps—and to train these officers not to command battalions or brigades but rather to serve as planning chiefs, to devise the actual battle plans. The first group of SAMS graduates called themselves “Jedi Knights,” after the maneuver warriors in the movie Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, which was released in 1983, the year the school opened. In the early 1990s, several of these Jedi Knights served on General Schwarzkopf’s staff, planning the ground-war offensive for Operation Desert Storm. By the time of the second Iraq war, in 2003, the ideas of AirLand Battle had pervaded not just the Army but the entire armed forces. And so, for all its shortcomings and oversights, the US invasion force—ground troops and airpower, working in tandem—dashed up the Iraqi desert roads with amazing speed, roaring into Baghdad and toppling the regime in just over a month.

On May Day, President Bush, flying in the copilot’s seat of a Navy S-3B Viking jet, swooped onto the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, leapt out of the plane wearing a tight padded flight suit, and, standing before a crowd of cheering sailors, beneath a huge banner blaring mission accomplished, proclaimed, “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

But, of course, the war was just beginning.

•  •  •

Donald Rumsfeld embraced transformation not out of an infatuation with high tech but because it fit his thinking about geostrategy in the post–Cold War era: a time when budgets were shrinking, military bases were closing, and allies were drifting away, no longer joined to American interests by fear of a common enemy. As Rumsfeld saw it, the weapons of transformation—the revolution in military affairs—would allow the United States to continue projecting global power and toppling rogue regimes, unilaterally, with a small number of troops (aided by long-range aircraft firing accurate missiles and bombs), and that, therefore, it could do so repeatedly, anytime, anywhere, at low cost and with little effort.

Rumsfeld wasn’t interested in postwar Iraq because it couldn’t be shaped by transformation and had nothing to do with his broader vision of American power. Over the next several months, as Iraqi society plunged into chaos, split into sectarian factions, and sired an insurgency opposed to both the nascent Iraqi government and the American occupiers, Rumsfeld refused to call this enemy an “insurgency”; he prohibited even the utterance of the word. Rumsfeld was seventy, old enough to remember the entire course of the Vietnam War; he’d been a congressman at its start, a White House aide at its conclusion. If the enemy in Iraq was an insurgency, he’d need to fight it with a counterinsurgency, which he knew would require lots of troops to stay on the ground for a long time, at great cost. And doing that would nullify the whole point of transformation; it would sharply limit America’s ability to project power and threaten enemies elsewhere.

And so, at the outset of the war, Rumsfeld followed an age-old formula, familiar to generals and politicians wishing to avoid a specific course of action. He didn’t want to get bogged down in securing and stabilizing Iraq after Baghdad had fallen—so he didn’t make any plans to do so, and he didn’t approve any proposals for such plans from his top officers. He didn’t plan for the postwar because he didn’t want a postwar. It wasn’t an oversight; it was deliberate.

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Rumsfeld was far from alone in this failure.

During the Second World War, the Army had an enormous civil-affairs apparatus, which started planning the occupation of Germany two years before the war ended. Over the next few decades, postwar planning dwindled to a lost art. There was no chance to practice it: Korea was a stalemate, Vietnam a rout; wars in the Western Hemisphere were minor and manageable.

But this lapse was also deliberate. During the Cold War, officers were promoted on the basis of their performance in combat training exercises or their success at managing big-ticket weapons programs. Joining a civil-affairs battalion or the military police was no way to get ahead, so the best officers steered clear.

By the time of the Iraq invasion, the topic of postwar stability had diminished to the point where few senior officers even saw it as a topic. When Baghdad fell in early April, General Franks proclaimed that most of the troops would go home by summer and that the occupation would be down to thirty thousand troops—about one-fifth the size of the invasion force—by the fall.

A year earlier, in the spring of 2002, the Army had held a weeklong war game called “Vigilant Warrior” at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The game started on a Monday morning, with several officers, active-duty and retired, paired off into a Blue Team (representing the US side) and a Red Team (playing the enemy); the game’s managers set the scenario and refereed the moves. Like most of these games, it was scheduled to end on Friday, when senior officers would show up and get debriefed. Though billed as a game to help the Army set its requirements over the next two decades, it was, in fact, a rough rehearsal for the coming war in Iraq. In its scenario, Blue was invading a fictitious country called “Nair” (an anagram of Iran), the terrain of which resembled a composite of Iran and Iraq.

Wass de Czege had retired from the Army in 1993, but he’d kept in touch with old colleagues and frequently took part in these games. In Vigilant Warrior, he played a Blue Team officer. The United States won, as usual. But Wass de Czege was disturbed because, to his mind, the game skirted the main issue.

In a memo that he wrote and widely circulated afterward, he noted that these games “tend to devote more attention to successful campaign-beginnings than to successful conclusions.” They “usually conclude when victory seems inevitable to us (not necessarily to the enemy).” But winning a war, he went on, didn’t mean simply defeating the enemy on the battlefield; it meant—as Clausewitz had observed in his classic tome—achieving the strategic goals for which the war was fought in the first place. In the game he’d just played, the Clausewitzian question—how to achieve those strategic goals—hadn’t been addressed, much less answered, because the game ended too soon. Winning battles is important, Wass de Czege allowed, but “it is just as important to know how to follow through to the resolution of such conflicts.” If the game’s managers had followed through and kept playing after the enemy’s army had been defeated, they might have realized that they—and, by extension, the commanders getting ready to fight a real war—were underestimating “the difficulties of ‘regime change’ and the magnitude of the effort required to achieve strategic objectives.”

Grasping these difficulties, and overcoming them, would require a change in strategy and the ascension of a different type of strategist. The first step in this change would be an acknowledgment that just because the tyrant had fallen, the war wasn’t necessarily over; that it might now evolve into an insurgency war; and that, therefore, the new strategists should know something about counterinsurgency.

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