Because we learned the wrong lesson. Far too many American journalists and subsequently military leaders themselves heaped often unmerited praise on U.S. troops. I remember one particular event where a company commander was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry in action, when he should have considered himself lucky not to have been relieved. He had defeated his opponent in combat, but the tactics he used were horrible. Against an even marginally capable foe, his actions would likely have resulted in his unit suffering substantial casualties and potentially failing the mission. Instead, no U.S. troopers were hurt and he was lauded as a hero.
Don’t get me wrong, the U.S. troops were by and large excellent and trained to a high degree. As an army, the United States would have won had it faced experienced and trained Soviets, but at a much higher cost. But as it was, we faced an enemy that had decent equipment, but they were so poorly led and trained that it’s hard to overstate their weakness. Because the U.S. soldiers were so well trained at the crew level, and because the American combat vehicles and weapons were of such high quality, tactical leaders could have used even the most foolish of tactics and still have won overwhelmingly.
The problem is that far too few officers, researchers, or journalists realized this. The narrative that grew up after the war was that the United States had the greatest, most powerful military force in the history of the world. By implication, people even today appear to believe that the praise heaped on the United States in the 1990s still holds true today, and that all future wars America fights can be won just as handily. That is most assuredly not correct.
If Russia and China were materially weaker than the United States in 1991, the gap has been dramatically shortened, and in some key ways eliminated. Today, Russia continues to improve its major combat equipment, has reorganized its forces into more effective units, and continues to train its forces to effectively fight U.S. troops. China likewise has spent two full decades of military modernization, imposed substantial reformation, and continues to conduct tough, realistic field and computer simulation training. These troops realize that if they were to go against the United States, they’d be in for the fight of their lives. They focus and train accordingly.
America’s senior military leaders and most opinion leaders believe we would definitely defeat anyone we faced, and the only question would be how rapidly or slowly victory would come. The idea that we could conceivably lose a fight is given serious consideration by a rare few. Such misplaced arrogance leads to suboptimal training and insufficient focus. The imbalance in outlook and focus between theU.S. forces and those of China and Russia could have disastrous results on future battlefields for U.S. troops.
Douglas Macgregor, who was the operations officer of Second Squadron 2ACR during the Battle of 73 Easting, wrote in his newest book Margin of Victory that despite the tactical victory we achieved, “It is another reminder that without effective strategic direction, battles such as 73 Easting can be won” on the tactical level and lost at the strategic level. Unless more members of the military go back and learn the right lessons from Desert Storm, we may find ourselves losing a future war that we should otherwise win handily.
Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.
Image: An Iraqi Type 69 main battle tank burns during Operation Desert Storm. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy