A decade of conflict produced a new generation of great American military leaders; warriors with names like Petraeus, Odierno, McRaven, Mattis and McChrystal. In the tradition of American soldiers and sailors from wars past – Grant, Patton, Ridgway, Spruance and Abrams – these individuals achieved results considered by many at the time to be impossible. Like their predecessors, the leaders of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reshaped the forces they commanded and created new concepts and capabilities that will endure for decades to come.
One of the best of our new generation of military leaders is Major General H.R. McMaster. A true warrior-scholar, General McMaster has thought deeply about, written on and practiced the warrior arts. In particular, McMaster established what became the model for modern counterinsurgency operations when he commanded the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tel Afar, Iraq in 2005-2006. As commanding general for the Army’s Maneuver Warfare Center of Excellence (MCoE) at Fort Benning, Georgia, McMaster holds possibly the most critical position in the entire Army hierarchy. The MCoE is tasked with developing all the means and methods that will enable Army combined arms formations to achieve success in the most stressing form of land warfare across the evolving conflict spectrum.
So when this warrior speaks, we need to pay attention. In an op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times, “The Pipedream of Easy Victory,” McMaster draws on ten years of conflict to make an argument that, at first reading, appears to be a theoretical, abstract, even simplistic discussion of the unchanging nature of war. The author makes three basic points. The first is that war is above all else a political act, for all parties. The second is that it is a quintessentially human affair. As he states, “People fight today for the same fundamental reasons the Greek historian Thucydides identified nearly 2,500 years ago: fear, honor and interest.” The third point is that war is an uncertain business largely because it involves that most central of human qualities, will. The overall conclusion he draws from both theory and practice is that looking to the future, “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments.”
Who could argue with any of this? So why write this op-ed at all? Because, if there is any human activity that is more political in nature than a real war it is a bureaucratic war for resources. With the war in Afghanistan winding down, the nation weary of protracted overseas military engagements and sequestration slashing already tight service budgets, the Army sees itself in a “clash of wills” over how scarce defense resources will be apportioned. McMaster reveals his intent in the following sentence: “Today, budget pressures and the desire to avoid new conflicts have resurrected arguments that emerging technologies – or geopolitical shifts – have ushered in a new era of warfare.” As he describes it, this new era centers on the exploitation of advanced technology, most specifically, the use of precision strikes to avoid close combat, the need for large land forces and the resulting higher levels of casualties. It doesn’t take much to infer from this description that this new era would advantage the Air Force and Navy at the Army’s expense.
While I agree with much of General McMaster’s argument, including the title which I assume was actually written by the NYT’s editorial staff, I must find fault with his argument on three grounds. First, without dominant air and naval power, there will be no role for the Army in future wars. In fact, every success by American ground forces for the last 60 years, to include Iraq and Afghanistan, has been conditioned by the exploitation of our dominance of the air and space domain. Second, virtually every future conflict involving U.S. land forces we can imagine will be so-called away games. This means that the Air Force and Navy must, as necessary, seize air and sea superiority in order to enable land forces to be projected and then support and sustain them through the end of hostilities. Because the United States is distant from virtually all theaters of conflict, it makes sense to invest heavily in long-range strike capabilities. Finally, while there is no better instrument of American power than a well-trained soldier or Marine, the future of conflict will be as much about the precision application of force as about the clash of wills. America cannot bomb adversaries back to the Stone Age and will not support a million-man Army. Hence, future forces will need precision weapons of all ranges and lots of them.
General McMaster’s caution that we not equate military capabilities with strategy is well-founded and bears repeating. But we also must not ignore the reality that technological superiority has been and remains today an essential feature of the American way of war.
Find Archived Articles: