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Preserving the Well-Bred Horse

September 1, 1994 Topic: Security Regions: Americas Tags: BusinessGaza StripWest BankZionismSlavic Countries

Preserving the Well-Bred Horse

Mini Teaser: Skepticism ought to greet the revelation that the American military establishment has uncovered a new Rosetta Stone that bids fair to transform the subject of their profession.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

The technique has long formed an integral part of dialogue within the public square: institutions under siege embrace grandiose visions of change in order to deflect external pressures and preserve the essence of the status quo. Nowhere is the practice more widely or blatantly employed than in politics. Sensing the rising tide of sentiment that would "throw the rascals out," members of Congress hungry to retain office announce that the time is ripe for election reforms ostensibly designed to clean up politics once and for all. Yet such effrontery is hardly unique to politicians. With dissatisfaction at the inadequacy of American education grown rampant, the National Education Association finds the moment opportune to unveil bold new plans to reinvent public schools. With the cost of health care and access to treatment rising to the forefront of the national agenda, lobbyists for the American Medical Association trundle out far-reaching proposals for overhauling the entire health care system.

That duress or self-interest figure prominently in shaping such calls for change does not mean that they are without value. Nor does it mean that advocacy of such proposals is dishonest or insincere. On the other hand, neither is it disinterested. Reform springing from within reflects something other than unadulterated concern for the common good. Indeed, institutional prescriptions for change that provide certain answers are intended to preempt other answers and to keep other questions altogether unasked. In short, however handsomely packaged, institutional advocacy of change almost invariably conceals a defense of orthodoxy. For the most part, the public understands this and treats pronouncements issued by politicians and interest groups accordingly.

Precisely the same skepticism ought to greet the revelation that the American military establishment has uncovered a new Rosetta Stone that bids fair to transform the subject of their profession. Variously referred to as the Military-Technical Revolution, Military Revolution, or Revolution in Military Affairs, this concept postulates that advanced technology--micro-electronics, computers, precision guided munitions, sensors, stealth, the panoply of capabilities promised by the Information Age--has rendered traditional approaches to warfare obsolete.

That present-day soldiers are genuinely enthralled by this concept is not to be questioned. Given their way, they would enshrine it as their great organizing principle, devoting untold billions to exploring its implications. Yet left in military hands, this revolution in warfare is no more likely to produce fundamental change than is adoption of Total Quality Management likely to revitalize the Agriculture Department. Indeed, as interpreted by senior officers, the chief product of this revolution will be to perpetuate elements of the status quo most cherished by the military profession, ignoring altogether change with which the military is uncomfortable. In short, although the Military Revolution merits scrutiny, it does so primarily for what it reveals--if only inadvertently--regarding the limitations of contemporary military thought.

The Sin of Standing Still

Perhaps surprisingly, the military's sponsorship of its own revolution has thus far provoked not skepticism but approbation, garnering a more respectful response than proposals for "change" advanced by the average pol or lobbyist. We may attribute this to the fact that even today the soldier who portrays himself as reform-minded and technologically progressive plays, in a vestigial sense, against type.

In an earlier day, soldiers typically mounted their defense of military orthodoxy by alluding to secrets of the warrior's craft, those deep and immutable truths to which they alone as high priests of the military art had access. As a device for sustaining confidence in military professionalism during an age of total war this approach generally has not fared well. Notwithstanding the boost given to military credibility by the recent Gulf War, events of the twentieth century have done little to burnish the military profession's overall reputation for perspicacity and progressiveness. On the contrary, through most of this century a cavalcade of bloody disasters left most politicians and many publics wary of claims by soldiers that war is a business best left strictly to professionals. For Britain and its empire, faith in the innate wisdom of generals began to wane sometime between the Somme and Passchendaele. In France, it did not survive the spring of 1940. In Germany, it died with the Third Reich. For Americans, perhaps slow learners, its demise can be pinpointed with some precision: it corresponded with the Vietnamese celebration of the lunar new year in 1968.

In a sense, the First World War dealt generals a blow from which they have struggled mightily to recover ever since. A by-product of the agonies of the Western Front, the image of unyielding stupidity endemic among senior military officers has proven all but indelible. Insisting that all would come out well if only "the Frocks" refrained from meddling and the citizenry remained compliant, purblind commanders safely ensconced in chateaux presided over years of pointless butchery, seemingly immune to learning from the process. At least so it appeared to those on the firing line and to politicians back home who were obliged to defend the high command to their constituents.

The archetype of such a figure may well be Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the field commander who guided Britain to victory in the First World War but who is remembered today (perhaps not altogether fairly) as the embodiment of the callous and boneheaded general-in-chief. It was Haig who a year into the war could inform the War Office with utter conviction that "the machine-gun is a much overrated weapon, two per battalion is more than sufficient." Even after the war, this redoubtable cavalryman was still insisting that mechanical wonders like airplanes and armored vehicles would find use in future campaigns "only [as] accessories to the man and the horse." "As time goes on," predicted Haig in 1925, "you will find just as much use for the horse--the well-bred horse--as you have ever done in the past."
In truth, poor Haig was by no means the only source of such silliness. Indeed, generations of critics have enjoyed nothing so much as dredging up ridiculous quotations by renowned military authorities proclaiming the enduring supremacy of the battleship or insisting that if wielded with appropriate Žlan the bayonet would remain the ultimate arbiter of battle. Likewise, generations of senior officers have lived in dread of achieving dubious immortality by blurting out some Haig-like aphorism.

To avoid his fate, Haig's more sophisticated heirs have fashioned an artful protective tactic. Today's model modern major general and his subordinates have adopted the lexicon of novelty, of innovation, and of progress. No other cadre of professionals flings about concepts like change and revolution with greater abandon than American soldiers. Military publications, military briefings, congressional testimony by military leaders are all shot through with lingo communicating a determination never to fall prey to the sin of standing still. Surveying the requirements of modern war, today's officers are no more likely to favor the status quo than they are to speak out on behalf of Haig's well-bred horse. "The only constant is change," they chant, change that they almost invariably characterize as rapid, profound, and unprecedented. Harnessing all this change results in a frenetic level of activity, even in what is ostensibly peacetime. Military institutions portray themselves as in the midst of continuous transformation, redesigning, restructuring, and reorganizing in a hell-bent rush to embrace the future.

As a tangible manifestation of the military's commitment to change, nothing beats technology. Indeed, no gadget or gizmo is without revolutionary implications. High-tech rations revolutionize the way soldiers are fed. High-tech nozzles revolutionize the way trucks are fueled. High-tech dog tags revolutionize the first sergeant's approach to counting noses. When the U.S. Army put out a version of fm 100-5, its basic doctrinal manual, on CD-ROM, the army chief of staff was quick to cite this too as "proof that we have changed our thinking. This is not business as usual." No, indeed.

The military's recent discovery that war itself is being revolutionized is only another example of this compulsion to convey an image of techno-chic. Yet it is also a special case. As an overarching framework for change, the Military Revolution purports to integrate reform undertaken at many levels and on many fronts. It endows military thought with a sheen of coherence. It implies depth and spaciousness. And it makes for great looking charts and slogans.

But does all this huffing and puffing about revolution mean that today's military leaders are likely to forecast the needs of future war more accurately than did Haig and his contemporaries? Are they any less blinded by their own preconceptions? Those with a bleak view of history may be forgiven for doubting so. They may be excused for suspecting that this frantic race to discover the future is designed in part to ward off threats to the prerogatives and autonomy claimed by the military profession. The Military Revolution may indeed serve the interests of the military profession; whether it responds to the interests of the United States is another matter.

Service Parochialism

Recent books by two prominent and thoughtful soldiers illustrate the point. William E. Odom, the author of America's Military Revolution: Strategy and Structure after the Cold War (American University Press: 1993), is a retired army general with an Ivy League Ph.D. who currently teaches at Yale and is a frequent contributor to leading journals. Frederick J. Brown, author of The U.S. Army in Transition II: Landpower in the Information Age (Brassey's: 1993), had an equally distinguished military career, earning a reputation as one of the army's most innovative thinkers. On any informed short list of "brainy" military officers in our day, the names of Bill Odom and Rick Brown would surely appear.

Both authors accept the revolution in military affairs as a given. According to Odom, "The very nature of war is changing," transformed by advanced technologies in which the United States has far outpaced the rest of the world. Using virtually identical language, Brown concurs. "The nature of military conflict itself...is now changing," he declares, adding that the "technological arbiter" of war has "moved from the internal combustion engine and atom to the microchip." Both write with the professed purpose of igniting broad-based debate regarding the implications of this revolution in warfare. Yet despite such an ambitious objective--and in Odom's case a frequently alarmist tone--the analysis and conclusions reached in each case are relentlessly conventional.

Of the two books, Odom's is broader in scope. Beginning with an abbreviated global survey, the author identifies several trends that bode ill for the United States. In the aftermath of the Cold War, he believes, incentives for international cooperation have withered. Overall, the "international system is weakening in the face of new tensions and challenges," giving rise to the prospect of "many wars in the 1990s." Although American military superiority is so great that "in the rankings of all the world's militaries, the United States is not only in first place; the next dozen or so places are not even occupied," this is no cause for complacency. An accumulation of problems has left the United States government "virtually paralyzed." Indeed, the author worries that the U.S. "may have already missed the opportunity to create a new world order. Perhaps America has won the Cold War only to lose the peace." Only bold new national security policies can save the day. Time, he warns, "is running out."

Given such ominous new conditions, what are the implications of the revolution in military affairs? In answering that question, Odom ranges widely, discussing strategy, force structure, coalition management, intelligence, mobilization, and research and development among other topics. Yet as a synopsis of his views on strategy and force structure will show, his own recommendations are far from radical.

When it comes to strategy, the author's prescriptions do not suggest any abrupt departure from the past. Far from it. In Europe and Asia, Odom urges the United States to preserve key strategic relationships developed during the Cold War, with particular attention given to Germany and Japan. Militarily that counsel translates into maintaining the leading U.S. role in NATO and sustaining existing American defense commitments and presence in East Asia--recommendations unlikely to strike many analysts as controversial. Granted, Odom's blithe call for a "U.S. strategy [that] would give Germany what it has sought but failed to achieve for over a century: an international role commensurate with its power" might strike readers in Paris or London as a trifle presumptuous. Europeans generally are unlikely to muster enthusiasm for his assertion that "there is no reason to believe" that German dominance of Europe "would be a bad thing."

When it comes to Russia, Odom is positively sanguine. Russia and the United States, he writes, have "no easy way to go to war with each other" and the two nations "share many global and regional security interests." While he remarks that the United States "cannot stand aside either in Eastern Europe or in Russia," he provides few specifics that would indicate support for any bold new departure.

With regard to other regions, his prescriptions vary from predictable to downright vague. In the Caribbean, Odom advocates the maintenance of American hegemony, endorsing a policy that every president in this century has supported, however varied and imaginative their pretexts. Yet when it comes to the drug traffickers who use the Caribbean as a superhighway into the United States, Odom sticks to the standard military line: narcotics "are not a national security problem." In the Middle East, he favors a U.S. policy contributing to new regional equilibrium. How to achieve this worthy if unexceptionable goal? The author offers few specifics, noting only that "large military challenges and complex diplomatic problems" are involved.

If Odom's perspective on post-Cold War American strategy will strike many readers as uncontroversial, his views on how to modify force structure in light of the Military Revolution likewise fall short of being radical. In this instance, however, they are flavored with a generous dash of service parochialism.

The wars that Odom believes the United States should expect to fight in this revolutionary era follow a familiar script. As the retired army general sees it, these wars will be decided on the ground just as wars have always been. They will require a powerful, well-trained mechanized (but high-tech!) army, backed by the abundant airlift and sealift needed to transport several heavy divisions to a distant theater of operations. Supported by an air arm outfitted to suit the needs of the ground commander, that army will defeat any adversary it goes up against--just as it did in World War II, just as it did (sort of) in Korea, and just as it did (in Odom's telling of the story) in the Persian Gulf.
Given this scenario for future war, it is not surprising that Odom's ideas for restructuring the military work to the benefit of his old service. The army, he believes, requires several additional mechanized divisions, more even than it had at the tail end of the Cold War. (These must be active divisions; Odom evinces the regular officer's usual low opinion of the National Guard.)

To pay for this beefed-up army, the other services should shrink accordingly. Odom believes that the air force should be able to manage with decidedly fewer long-range missiles and long-range bombers. But if the air force's strategic arm should be cut, those air elements that support the army--tactical air support and air transport--should be enhanced. As for the navy, Odom starts from the premise that "a twentieth-century fleet, even a very modern one, is unlikely to be the most appropriate one for the twenty-first century." That diktat translates into reducing the fleet "perhaps by half," starting with aircraft carriers that the author views as too expensive and attack submarines that have become redundant. The money saved could be used to procure more sealift, needed to get the army's heavy equipment where it needs to go to fight the nation's wars. But it is for the marines that Odom reserves his choicest salvos. The marine corps is "an antique luxury" clinging to a mission that army helicopter assault and parachute units can accomplish more effectively. Accepting the political obstacles to disbanding the marine corps altogether, Odom contents himself with reducing it to a token force.

None of this is really new. For those familiar with American military history, it amounts to little more than warmed-over gruel served up in a shiny new tin pot. Far from responding to the requirements of an ongoing revolution in military affairs, Odom merely updates an old agenda bequeathed from one generation of army officers to the next. Virtually every army chief of staff since Matthew Ridgway has complained about shortfalls in airlift and sealift. Given the opportunity to trade the entire marine corps for a couple of heavy divisions, most of them would have jumped at the chance.

In Brown's case, service parochialism is unconcealed. As with Odom, no mere revolution in warfare can shake Brown's belief that "landpower" remains "the ultimate application of military power whose cutting edge is the individual fighting soldier." No doubt Pershing would have concurred.

Encumbered with such assumptions regarding "the enduring nature of landpower," Brown's analysis of the Military Revolution leads to conclusions no more revolutionary than Odom's. As he reviews with satisfaction various initiatives adopted by the army over the past decade, the true burden of Brown's argument is that his old service should remain steady on course, albeit with a further sprinkling of microchips.

Indeed, according to Brown, the army "has already most of the components required for executing regional contingency and peacetime activities in the information age." Reviewing the army's existing doctrine, its mechanism for designing organizations and equipment, its approach to training, and its method of battle planning and analysis, Brown discovers little with which to find fault. Dramatic labels notwithstanding--sections have titles like "Seizing the Future" and "Capturing Accelerating Change"--Brown's overall prescription is for a nip here and a tuck there, leaving the army looking pretty much the way it was before the Military Revolution commenced.

Might not changes in the very nature of warfare jeopardize the primacy of the tank on the modern battlefield? For Brown, such a notion is apparently inconceivable. But we know how Haig felt about horses.

Replaying the Gulf War--Forever

That the proposals for revolutionary change offered by Odom and Brown should be so mild is unsurprising. In truth, as currently touted by soldiers, the very concept of a Military Revolution is profoundly reactionary. Its true aim is to roll back the two genuine revolutions that have shaped war in the modern age, revolutions for which military professionals never devised an adequate response. The first of those revolutions was the advent of total war, culminating in the creation of nuclear weapons. The second--in large measure stimulated by the first--was the proliferation of conflict at the opposite end of the spectrum: terror, subversion, insurgency, and "people's war."

Although it liked to pretend otherwise, the army in which Odom and Brown served never solved the problem of how to fight on a nuclear battlefield. The very idea of actually using nuclear weapons threatened to make waging war an absurdity and as such threatened the military profession itself. Similarly, unconventional conflicts--waged by and among the civilian population, with war and politics so intimately intertwined as to be indistinguishable--struck at the very underpinnings of war as a separate province of human activity governed by its own distinct elite. As the Vietnam War demonstrated with conspicuous clarity, the preferred American style of waging war was (and remains today) ill-suited for such conflicts.

As interpreted by the services, the underlying aim of today's so-called revolution in military affairs is to declare null and void the problems posed by these two earlier revolutions. If the prophets of this new revolution have their way, future wars will follow rules suited to the military's long-standing preferences: with politicians kept at some remove and the people observing appreciatively, generals will preside over neatly defined campaigns and battles, producing in short order and at tolerable cost the victories required to restore international comity. It is a vision of the Persian Gulf War replayed over and over again.

That vision requires adversaries who share the American view of how real war is henceforth to be conducted. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the U.S. Army has divested itself of its entire nuclear arsenal. Will future adversaries also conclude that such weapons have no place on the battlefield? Brown gives the question scant attention. Odom gropes for evidence suggesting that they will. He cites Desert Storm as an indication that nuclear weapons "are being transcended in their importance to modern warfare by new weapons technologies." Since nuclear weapons pose such "unattractive...operational problems" and since their use is fraught with "so many uncertainties and complicating collateral effects," surely potential adversaries will, like their American counterparts, come to see them as obsolete. One wonders if Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il would agree.

If the United States can ill afford wishful thinking when it comes to nuclear weapons, neither can it ignore the problems posed by unconventional war. As the military history of the post-Cold War begins to take shape, its dominant theme is unlikely to revolve around high-tech armies facing off against one another Desert Storm-style. Rather, that theme is to be discovered in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Yemen, and the bombing of the World Trade Center. Uniformed advocates of the revolution in warfare have been notably--and understandably--reluctant to unleash their high-tech military might in places like Bosnia. But if forces designed and equipped in compliance with the dictates of the future are ill-suited for dealing with civil wars, ethnic conflict, failed states, and terror, then they are of limited utility in the world as it exists. Nor does it suffice to declare, as Odom does regarding drugs, that such phenomena simply don't qualify as national security problems.

For officers such as William Odom and Frederick Brown, distinguished members of the generation that fought in Vietnam and then devoted itself to the long, hard task of purging the American military of that war's poisonous effects, victory in the Persian Gulf marked the culmination of years of effort. It was indeed a multi-faceted triumph. That these soldiers should wish to preserve their hard-won gains and to protect the institutions that they cherish is eminently understandable.

Yet if that determination feeds an illusion that the "revolution" glimpsed in Desert Storm has supplanted other sources of change--political, social, and cultural as well as technological--that have shaped the character of modern warfare, it is likely to prove dangerously misleading. Without doubt, the implications of the Information Age for the future loom large. Yet their impact on warfare can hardly be assessed in isolation from other pertinent trends: the erosion of state sovereignty at the hands of supra- and sub-national forces; the resurgence of ethnicity and religious belief as sources of conflict; the evidence of cultural disorder and loss of confidence throughout the West generally and in the United States specifically. However vexing to those who yearn for a return to the stylized warfare of which Desert Storm was reminiscent, factors such as these will exert a profound influence on why and how future wars are fought. Given the difficulty of assessing such trends--indeed, given the possibility that the phenomena preoccupying us today may be mere blips distracting attention from other deeper currents of change--the proper response to those who claim with certainty to have seen the future of warfare is at least wariness, if not incredulity.

Throughout this century, the interplay of technology, politics, and social and cultural change has overmatched the best efforts of military professionals bent on keeping war in harness. To imagine that the technologies of the Information Age will reverse that trend, forcing war once again to conform to limits requires hubris on a monumental scale. In embracing technology as their chosen instrument for salvaging their profession, soldiers are willfully blinding themselves to other powerful elements that shape warfare--elements with which they have failed in the past to come to terms and that they continue to find uncongenial. Pretending to stride confidently toward the future, a military establishment fixated by revolution is more truly engaged in an effort to evade the past.

Pullquote: the military's sponsorship of its own revolution has thus far provoked not skepticism but approbation, garnering a more respectful response than proposals for "change" advanced by the average pol or lobbyist.Essay Types: Essay