Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently told West Point cadets that any future defense secretary advising a U.S. president to send a large land army into Asia, the Middle East or Africa, "should have his head examined," quoting General Douglas MacArthur’s reported advice to President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Gates was stressing the need for strong strategic over tactical thinking, says Col. Gian Gentile, a West Point military historian, who notes that some have criticized the military for being too preoccupied with counterinsurgency tactics and nation building and insufficiently focused on strategy. "If you get the strategy right the tactics will fall into place," says Gentile. That means an army "premised on fire power, protection, and mobility, and not one that is optimized mostly for small wars, for training local indigenous forces, and those kind of things," says Gentile. The winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will free the military to focus on building a range of competencies, he says. One kind of potential conflict the U.S. military needs to prepare for, says Gentile, is a collapsed North Korea and a "messy occupation by South Korea" that would necessitate U.S. assistance.
Gates’s speech has been interpreted by some as suggesting that the United States made a mistake sending large numbers of troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. What is your analysis?
The secretary is suggesting that, if a future secretary of defense advises an American president to send a significant land force into a foreign country to do nation building, the analysis has to show that that kind of effort, that kind of endeavor, is worth the costs. This is the essence of strategy. He’s saying that if you are going to do something like this, it darn sure better be worth the costs, because it will be a costly and long-term endeavor.
One can make the argument over the last eight or nine years the American military, especially the American Army, has become consumed with its tactical operational framework of counterinsurgency and nation building, which has perhaps eclipsed better strategic thinking.
He also seemed to be upset that there has been so much redeployment of the same troops and that the army just doesn’t have the ability to keep doing this.
There is plenty of evidence that the U.S. Army after more than nine years in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq is wearing down. He did say that now with the winding down of Iraq and Afghanistan one benefit is going to be that the army will be able to focus on a range of operational competencies and not just on small wars and skirmishes.
When the Afghan war started back in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, the initial U.S. forces there were quite small.
Special Forces, a couple of battalions, and the 101st Airborne.
That would have fit Gates formula. How did we get to the current 100,000 in Afghanistan?
Here again, I’ll go to this question about strategy. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese author of "The Art of War" has this classic formulation on the relationship between tactics and strategy. He said, "strategy without tactics is a slow road to victory, but tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." The point is really a simple but profound one. If you are going to do one thing right in war throughout, it should be strategy. If you get the strategy right, the tactics will fall into place. One can make the argument over the last eight or nine years the American military, especially the American army, has become consumed with its tactical operational framework of counterinsurgency and nation building, which has perhaps eclipsed better strategic thinking.
Would a proponent of counterterrorism be annoyed at Gates’s remarks?
In the American army, we have a force that can do that and is trying to do that. That’s the army’s Special Forces. This is where the secretary’s speech was hedging and very careful. I think there is a role for an army that is premised on fire power, protection, and mobility, and not one that is optimized mostly for small wars, for training local indigenous forces, and those kind of things.
Gates cited the career of Russell Volckmann, class of West Point 1934, who, at the outbreak of World War II, was attached to the Philippine army, went into the bushes with the Philippines after the Japanese occupation, and ended up with a guerilla force of over 22,000 men.
He’s the original Green Beret. It wasn’t just Volckmann in the Philippines. The army was doing this with Special Services forces that went into France to help the French resistance deal with the Germans.
Do they still wear the green berets?
Yes, the Special Forces still wear the green beret. In the army right now, our standard headgear is the black beret. The Rangers wear the tan-beige berets. If I was writing the secretary’s speech, especially thinking about what kind of capabilities and competencies the American army needs for the present and the future, I would have suggested other military figures than Volckmann. I would have perhaps cited World War II outstanding leaders, General George S. Patton or a General Joseph L. (Lightning Joe) Collins. [Or], if we are looking for historical figures, General Matthew Ridgeway, who turned the Korean War around. All three of those figures, in order to be successful, had to develop combined-arms competencies within themselves and within their organizations, whether it’s tactical or operational or even strategic. For an army to do the wide range of missions that our army is certainly going to have to do in the future, I would much rather have an army built on combined-arms competencies rather than an army that is optimized and focuses itself on small wars [and] training indigenous forces
You mentioned Patton. When I think of Patton, I think of marching big tank armies into Germany at rapid speed, which seems to be counter to what Gates is talking about.
The secretary did point out that the army needs to be a learning and adapting organization. It needs to have leaders who can adjust and adapt to all kinds of situations. He did acknowledge the need for the army to maintain its combined arms competencies. He noted the importance of mechanized forces. He used the recent examples of Fallujah and Sadr City in Iraq. My point is that if you want an army that can do a wide range of missions and operations, you need an army that can do combined arms. It’s premised on firepower protection and mobility. If you can do those things, then you can do the kinds of missions Volckmann did in the Philippines. If we build an army largely focused on training indigenous forces and small wars, and if it has to go fight somewhere else, that kind of army might run into problems.
Michael Howard, the eminent war historian, says that an army or military will never get its doctrine perfect or correct. What’s important is that it doesn’t get it so wrong that it’s completely ill-prepared for future conflicts.
You didn’t see this speech as saying it was a mistake getting into Afghanistan and Iraq?
Certainly his remarks could be interpreted as a repudiation of any future secretary of defense that advises his president to do another Iraq or Afghanistan, but he didn’t explicitly say those wars were a mistake.
He didn’t mention President George W. Bush’s decision to attack Iraq. I suspect the Iraq War will be debated for many years.
Of course it will. The war’s not over yet. Some people think it is. Some people have proclaimed that the United States has achieved victory there. [But]There are still bombs going off routinely.
The other striking developments are these tectonic shifts in the Middle East. They are just breathtaking. It seems to me that that is the real significant development in the Middle East. When we look back on this period thirty to forty years from now, it’s not going to be al-Qaeda, it’s going to be these things that we are witnessing right now.
It’ll be interesting to see how al-Qaeda comes out of all of this.
Many analysts have been caught offguard. This is not the kind of change in these countries that they saw happening. They didn’t foresee any of these mass democratic movements, but instead thought change would occur through violence and terror.
Gates did say in the speech that virtually every recent military involvement was unpredicted beforehand. He said "when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never gotten it right."
This is where, if I had written the secretary’s speech, I would have cast it in a different direction. Even though he repudiates the idea of doing another Iraq or Afghanistan, much of the text of this speech embraces the whole counterinsurgency movement in the American army. Michael Howard, the eminent war historian, says that an army or military will never get its doctrine perfect or correct. What’s important is that it doesn’t get it so wrong that it’s completely ill-prepared for future conflicts. The classic example of course is the French between the end of WWI and the start of WWII. The U.S. Army has got to do a lot of things. Is the army going to go into China to do a major land operations? No. Is Russia going to reestablish the Soviet Union again? No. But one can imagine lots of different contingencies where the army is going to have to know how to do combined arms operations. A collapsed North Korean state, a messy occupation by South Korea, which would require U.S. Army assistance. There are all kinds of scenarios in the future.
What do you mean by messy occupation?
I mean a collapsed North Korean state with parts of its military and structure that remain in place and remain defiant. In occupying the North, the South has to fight and be able to do that. It’s arguably possible that the American army will assist the South in doing that.