The idea of “learning and adapting” in war, and in particular how well or poorly this has happened with counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, has consumed the American military and especially the U.S. Army.
However, this hyper-focus on learning and adapting has prevented the military from stepping back and objectively assessing the overall strategic and political worth of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military history shows quite conclusively that it is natural for military organizations to learn and adapt in war. The crucial issue, however, is how well or poorly they do it.
At the battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Confederate general Robert E. Lee can be faulted for not learning that the Union army in front of him had become a very effective fighting force compared to when Lee had fought it in previous battles. Lee’s inability to learn prevented him from adapting to this changed Union army and thus fighting the battle differently.
But the notion of learning and adapting in war has taken on a very special meaning for the American military—again namely the Army—with Iraq and Afghanistan. In these wars, “learning and adapting” for the American army means figuring out how to do the “classic” methods of counterinsurgency correctly. Retired army officer John Nagl’s book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, along with the U.S. Army’s doctrinal manual on counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, have become the foundational texts for the learning-and-adapting paradigm.
The learning-and-adapting paradigm is based on a formula: conventionally minded armies—like the one the U.S. took into Iraq in 2003 and into Vietnam forty years earlier—hate counterinsurgency and avoid doing it, and when they do it, they always fail miserably—at least at the beginning. But then, as the formula prescribes, a few lower-ranking folks see a better way to fight the war, they combine with a savior general who teaches his army the right way to do counterinsurgency, and the war is put on a path to success.
Counterinsurgency experts and aficionados over the years have constructed a counterinsurgency narrative that has applied this causative formula to history. It goes something like this:
1. In Vietnam, the American army fumbled at classic counterinsurgency, did not learn and adapt, and therefore lost the war.
2. In Iraq for the first three years of the war, the Army made the same mistakes that it did in Vietnam. But in 2007, a savior general named David Petraeus rode onto the scene and armed his army with a new COIN manual. The army learned and adapted, and Iraq was put on the path to success.
3. In Afghanistan in 2009, a fumbling army was rescued by another savior general—Stanley McChrystal—who rode onto the Afghan scene and made his army learn and adapt toward correct counterinsurgency.
There are, however, numerous irreparable defects in this counterinsurgency narrative. To be blunt, it finds little support in the historical record. What the historical record does show is that there were no tectonic shifts between fumbling armies and the ones led by savior generals who made them learn and adapt.
Ye the COIN narrative’s fundamental notion of learning and adapting permeates the current intellectual climate in the American military. This has unfortunately caused assessments of Iraq and Afghanistan to focus singularly on the doing of war—its tactics, methods, and procedures. What is never asked or considered in all of these assessments is what these wars have actually accomplished and if they have been worth the cost. The result is an American military isolated in a world of tactical and operational assessments, devoid of the greater strategic and political context.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey released a report in June 2012 assessing what the American military had “learned” in operations since the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The report is striking in its underlying acceptance of the counterinsurgency narrative, and the learning and adapting paradigm. The report noted that for the “first half of the decade” the American military fumbled at COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan. But roughly by 2007 it finally started to learn and adapt at COIN operations and became better. Nowhere in the report, however, is there any kind of objective assessment of exactly what counterinsurgency operations had achieved strategically and politically in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is one thing to argue that the American army had learned to do COIN and other types of operations correctly, but that tactical and operational focus then begs the question, “What did it all achieve?” Iraq currently burns in ongoing sectarian and regional civil war, and its government that the U.S. put into place is aligned with our regional adversary
Iran. Trillions of dollars spent, 4,883 Americans killed, one quarter of a
million Iraqis killed. The statistics for Afghanistan don’t look much better.
In a striking omission of the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, retired general Stanley McChrystal—one of the leading American army proponents for the efficacy of counterinsurgency—noted in his recently published memoirs that the U.S. Army learned a great deal in Iraq and Afghanistan and had become a highly professionalized force. Yet not once in this lengthy memoir did the General provide any assessment of what all of the blood and treasure the U.S. has spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the death and destruction wrought on those places, has achieved beyond tactical and operational success and learning in war.
Alas, the learning-and-adapting paradigm has turned the American military into militarists: wars are worth fighting, and justifiably so, simply because they have been fought. This might be a pleasing way for the American military establishment to rationalize and justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from a narrow, tactical perspective, but it is a poor way to assess the strategic and political value of war. More importantly, it offers a very poor set of guideposts for the future.
Gian Gentile is a serving army colonel. In 2006 he commanded a combat battalion in West Baghdad and he holds a PhD in history from Stanford University. He is the author of Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.