A country’s approach to warfare is an extension of its social and cultural norms and values as much as it is policy by other means. Challenged by geography and steeped in a Puritan ethic of material fortune as a sign of providential approval, Americans have leaned heavily on technology to breach frontiers, overcome obstacles, and parse time and space. Our progressively technological approach to warfare goes back to the Civil War, when the industrial North outlasted the agricultural South. It shaped what Russell Weigley, in his classic The American Way of War, called the “strategy of annihilation” (or attrition warfare) through technology and firepower. The pinnacle of this was World War II.
When I became an officer in 1980, Vietnam was already in the rearview mirror of a big-war Army with institutional amnesia on small wars (guerilla is Spanish for “small warrior”). The lesson-learning process concentrated on industrial-era rather than information-based warfare, much as our corporations clung to hierarchical business and industrial models belonging to an older era. The invincibility of our technology became synonymous with the invincibility of our military and thus our nation because we had come to see our power abroad as largely a function of military power.
Over the course of my military career, I witnessed some challenges to this catechism. Because no one yet has been able to beat us at our own game, our military has gotten away with its force-on-force, technology-centric brand of battle. So it plans and prepares for the wars it prefers but not the ones in which it often finds itself. That incongruence eventually got exposed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as our adversaries inconvenienced us again, choosing not to appear as we wished.
It is the human factor that is the ultimate determinant in war, as military intellectuals like Arthur Cebrowski, Robert Scales, H. R. McMaster, and many of their kind have long argued. War, in other words, is more about people than platforms. Or, in the first of the “Special Operations Truths” I later learned as a Civil Affairs officer: “humans are more important than hardware.”
The wars we have fought—more so now than then—have essentially been wars of identity. Those who have a more firmly and widely rooted sense of it are usually the winners. The latest batch of bad guys we see in the news today went asymmetric, not just because they could not go toe-to-toe with the world’s most professional fighting force. They had identified the Achilles’ heel of our industrial-era strategy of annihilation in attrition warfare. They understood better than we do that war is and always has been more a psychological than a physical struggle.
It was both my upbringing and civil–military education that helped me understand my trade in this way. I [later] learned how civil–military operations were not simply a form of public relations. They were a form of maneuver and economy of force, more in the psychological than physical sense. They should be integral to the operation rather than nice to do. If war was primarily a human endeavor, then civil–military operations could hardly be a sideshow—they were part of the main act.
Connecting this to my experience in the Iraq War as I maneuvered the Wide Glide back on to Interstate 40, heading west once again directly into the wind, I realized that our Phase Four failure in Iraq was not that much out of character, because we were not thinking of it in Cold War West Germany either. Then I remembered how I had learned from my father, as a carpenter’s understudy, that it wasn’t the framing and shaping work of posts, beams, and rafters that was most difficult or time-consuming. It was the finishing work—joinery, windows, doors, walls, and trim—that ultimately decided how good a job you had done. Civil–military operations and Phase Four stability and reconstruction operations are, in a way, the finishing work of war.
It was not about men or machines—it was about both—about understanding that technology, as metaphors of the interplay between inner and outer nature, should work to enhance rather than be a substitute for moral conscience. War, like any collective human endeavor, is ultimately an exercise of the moral in the physical, not just over it. As such, therefore, the role of art and science in our lives cannot be understood any more separately than can humans apart from their hardware. This more expansive understanding of who I was and what I was about helped prepare me well for later challenges that I could not have foreseen during those days in Central Europe.
In this emerging new world, the military has to be a force of cooperation as much as confrontation. Professional soldiers of the twenty-first century must be as adept in the use of restraint as in the use of force. Among the most significant things I later heard someone in the UN explain to me was “in peacekeeping, the enemy is not a party to the conflict—the enemy is the conflict itself.” That’s really the paradigm we’re in now. The Powell Doctrine has had limited application for the unconventional or what are now called irregular-warfare situations between peace and war that have become the new normal.
What I was beginning to internalize [in Germany and the Balkans] but could not articulate until much later was that civil–military operations embrace the art of leveraging nonviolent means to achieve the same ends as violence. There may be no substitute for victory, but there are substitutes for the ways and means to achieve it. Getting the civil–military approach right was and remains the most important but toughest sell in this business.