Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 30, 2007

No Silver Bullets

The Washington Post has begun running a long series of articles by Rick Atkinson, author of an acclaimed new book about the Italian campaign n World War II, regarding the chief military challenge we face in Iraq: the IED, or improvised explosive device. As the article notes:

IED’s have caused nearly two-thirds of the 3,100 American combat deaths in Iraq, and an even higher proportion of battle wounds. This year alone, through mid-July, they have also resulted in an estimated 11,000 Iraqi civilian casualties and more than 600 deaths among Iraqi security forces.

The Pentagon has poured vast resources into defeating these infernal devices (Atkinson writes that $10 billion has already been spent with another $4.5 billion budgeted in fiscal year 2008), but at most it has managed to stay even with the assailants. That is, even as the number and lethality of IED’s has increased, the number of U.S. casualties has stayed constant. That’s something, but it’s a far cry from the ultimate objective—to cause a decline in U.S. losses.

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The Washington Post has begun running a long series of articles by Rick Atkinson, author of an acclaimed new book about the Italian campaign n World War II, regarding the chief military challenge we face in Iraq: the IED, or improvised explosive device. As the article notes:

IED’s have caused nearly two-thirds of the 3,100 American combat deaths in Iraq, and an even higher proportion of battle wounds. This year alone, through mid-July, they have also resulted in an estimated 11,000 Iraqi civilian casualties and more than 600 deaths among Iraqi security forces.

The Pentagon has poured vast resources into defeating these infernal devices (Atkinson writes that $10 billion has already been spent with another $4.5 billion budgeted in fiscal year 2008), but at most it has managed to stay even with the assailants. That is, even as the number and lethality of IED’s has increased, the number of U.S. casualties has stayed constant. That’s something, but it’s a far cry from the ultimate objective—to cause a decline in U.S. losses.

The failure to make more progress toward that goal illustrates one of the themes of my book, War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World: that technology seldom confers a lasting advantage in military affairs. What counts is not having the right tools per se, but how you make use of them, and especially whether you can adapt faster than your adversaries. The problem in Iraq is that the nimble, networked terrorists are managing to adapt faster than our lumbering, bureaucratic military. As Atkinson writes:

“Insurgents have shown a cycle of adaptation that is short relative to the ability of U.S. forces to develop and field IED countermeasures,” a National Academy of Sciences paper concluded earlier this year. An American electrical engineer who has worked in Baghdad for more than two years was blunter: “I never really feel like I’m ahead of the game.”

The answer isn’t better technology. It’s better counterinsurgency. That’s what General Petraeus and his troops are finally doing. Too bad it’s taken this long to settle on the appropriate strategy. American servicemen and women have paid a price for our fixation with technological “silver bullets.” Sometimes they simply don’t exist.

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