The U.S. Army has been fighting wars non-stop for over a dozen years — the longest period of continuous conflict in the nation’s history. Other services have made their contributions, but soldiers have done most of the hard combat and suffered most of the casualties. So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Army is trying harder than other services to figure out why wars in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t go as well as they might have.
The analysis is ongoing, but some of the conclusions Army leaders are reaching ring true. As one officer involved in a Strategic Landpower Task Force with the Marines and Special Operations Command put it to me, “war is not a math problem — it’s a clash of wills.” He says that U.S. military planners have become so captivated by the organizational, technological, and logistical facets of warfare that they have lost sight of the human dimension.
The human dimension encompasses behavioral factors such as cultural values and emotional commitment — factors that help explain why achieving “overmatch” in warfighting metrics doesn’t necessarily translate into victory on the battlefield. Army leaders didn’t really get that lesson until it was too late in Vietnam, but now they’re trying real hard to understand how it should inform warfighting practices in the next Anbar or Helmand province.
And make no mistake — there will be future Anbars and Helmands. Having nearly defeated America and its allies in such dusty backwaters despite massive inferiority in men and materiel, extremists have figured out that is where they should make their stand in the next war. The U.S. won’t resort to wholesale bombing of civilians in these places to get at the bad guys, so that means the only way to defeat them is to send in ground forces — including U.S. soldiers.
In thinking through the experience gleaned from recent campaigns, Army thinkers have come to appreciate the value of “persistence.” What that means for them is continuous presence near and interaction with the peoples who populate potential trouble spots. The way they see it, if the military doesn’t show up until there’s trouble, then it probably won’t understand the indigenous culture well enough to shape the human dimension of conflict that drives outcomes.
Obviously, this isn’t a big issue for sailors sitting offshore or airmen flying overhead. But for soldiers and marines who must take the fight to the enemy on its own turf, understanding the local setting is critical to success. Ideally, Army insiders say, soldiers should be on the ground and developing relationships with indigenous peoples years before conflict occurs. That’s the opposite of how ground forces are employed today — typically as a last resort when other tools for influencing hearts and minds have failed.
If these emerging lessons about the importance of persistence and human factors are valid — and they certainly sound reasonable — then perhaps Washington needs to stop making such a stark distinction between whether U.S. forces are on the ground or not in threatened countries. What matters is not so much whether they are there as what they are doing. If they are building the foundations for effective indigenous defenses or strengthening ties to local leaders, then “boots on the ground” may be the best way of avoiding the need for much bigger commitments.
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