The Buzz

Boots on the Ground: Why America Must Invest in Dominant Infantry Forces

There is an old saying that generals and admirals are like bass…they’re drawn to bright shiny objects. The same holds true in spades for politicians. America has sought to win its wars by investing huge sums on big shiny objects that float and fly in the hope that our wars can be won by expending materiel rather than men.

To avoid bloodshed in battle we plan to fight our wars by assuming (or hoping) that our allies will substitute their soldiers for ours; that we will fight using “non kinetic” forms of national power such as diplomacy, information and economic leverage; that tomorrow’s warriors will fight in cyberspace and that if any killing is necessary it will be done by armed drones.

Unfortunately throughout the “American Era of War,” that period of conflict since the end of World War II, America’s hopes for bloodless battle has rarely been realized. Our great fleets are intended to sink enemy fleets. But America’s last major ship-on-ship battle was fought in 1944. Our expensive flights of fighter jets are designed principally to shoot down enemy planes in air-to-air combat. But the last time the air services fought against a serious aerial opponent was the Christmas bombing offensive over North Vietnam in 1972. We have yet to bury the first cyber soldier on either side.

Why don’t our enemies fight us like we want them to? Simple. Over the past seventy years they have learned and adapted. Here’s what they’ve learned: First, spot the Americans the air and the sea (and space). Our enemies have proven that they can win on the ground alone. Second, they win by making the war last and by just killing Americans. They want to kill Americans not as a means to an end by as an end in itself. They know that our great national vulnerability is public opinion. The surest way to affect public opinion is to kill Americans as publicly and dramatically as the global media will allow. A useful corollary is to highlight to the media our killing of innocents through mistake and miscalculation.

And it seems to be working for our enemies. The score for non-western enemies who use western-style, conventional weapons against western militaries is 0 and 6: four Arab Israeli wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973), and two against the American military—Desert Storm in 1991 and the March to Baghdad in 2003. These same former colonial subjugates are (arguably) on the winning side when fighting western militaries their way…on the ground, using unconventional tactics and means: against the United States in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan; against Israel in Lebanon, against the French in Indo China and the Soviets in Afghanistan. 

So if a football coach were virtually undefeated on the ground it would make no sense to switch to a passing game. The same holds true for our adversaries.  There is absolutely no reason for any future enemy to deviate from this winning strategy. So if the enemy will continue his ground game and if his end state is to kill Americans what should the next Administration do differently? The answer to that question and the secret of future victories is embedded in three numbers: 81-4-1.

Let me explain: in wars fought in the American Era, since the end of World War II, eighty one percent of all Americans killed at the hands of the enemy (not resulting from accidents or disease) have been infantrymen, not Soldiers and Marines but infantrymen, a group of men numbering four percent, or about 50,000 out of 1.2 million men and women on active duty. Most men and women in uniform perform jobs no different from their civilian counterparts. They fix trucks, cook meals, punch away on computers and do routine administrative tasks.

Infantrymen are different. This small band of brothers is our intimate killers. They go out every day to close with and kill enemy infantrymen. In combat an infantryman lives an animal’s life. The primal laws of tooth and fang determine whether he will live or die. Killing is quick and close. A typical firefight in Afghanistan is fought at less than three hundred meters. Experience with close combat in Afghanistan reinforces the lesson that there is no such thing in close combat as a “fair fight”. Infantrymen advance into the killing zone grimy, tired, confused, hungry and scared. Their equipment is always dirty, dented or worn. More than half of American infantrymen die by surprise while trying to find the enemy. They die on patrol in ambushes, sniper attacks or from booby traps and IED’s.

Pilots, artillerymen and missile crewmen also kill to be sure. But they kill from a distance. An infantry soldier and marine looks into his enemy’s eyes as he shoots him and watches as the life pours out of his body. The “one” in 81-4-1 is the shocking part. All together this band of brothers who collect together in small units, squads and teams, receives less than one percent of the total defense department budget allocated to pay for equipment and small unit training. IF our greatest vulnerability is dead Americans and IF infantrymen are the ones most likely to die then wouldn’t it make sense for the richest country in the world with the world’s most expensive military to try to do all it can to keep these men alive?