Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. Army

Army Turning Its Back on COIN?

The U.S. Army has been trying to resist the budget axe by citing to policymakers the lessons of history. Army leaders argue, rightly, that it doesn’t make sense to cut their active-duty end-strength from 570,000 to 420,000 as a result of sequestration: the U.S. has tried many times in the past to cut the army to the bone and every time we have paid a severe price in unreadiness to wage the next war. But sadly the U.S. Army itself is ignoring the lessons of history. That, at any rate, is the only conclusion one can draw from its decision to close the Army Irregular Warfare Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, on October 1.

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The U.S. Army has been trying to resist the budget axe by citing to policymakers the lessons of history. Army leaders argue, rightly, that it doesn’t make sense to cut their active-duty end-strength from 570,000 to 420,000 as a result of sequestration: the U.S. has tried many times in the past to cut the army to the bone and every time we have paid a severe price in unreadiness to wage the next war. But sadly the U.S. Army itself is ignoring the lessons of history. That, at any rate, is the only conclusion one can draw from its decision to close the Army Irregular Warfare Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, on October 1.

The center was created in 2006, under the leadership of my friend Colonel Pete Mansoor (now a professor of military history at Ohio State), to instill in the army the lessons of counterinsurgency which were badly needed at a time when the entire U.S. military was facing a terrible defeat at the hands of Iraqi insurgents. One of the center’s first tasks was to oversee the production of Field Manual 3-24, the first such army/marine manual on counterinsurgency to come out in decades. It was General David Petraeus, then head of the Combined Arms Center at Leavenworth, who was responsible for creating the Irregular Warfare Center (then called the Counterinsurgency Center) and for implementing the recommendations of FM 3-24 in Iraq. It was, in fact, these very principles which made possible one of the biggest come-from-behind victories in the history of counterinsurgency (a victory that was subsequently squandered by the premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq but that’s another story).

The Irregular Warfare Center was only a small office in a big army but it represented something big–a reawakening interest in the principles of counterinsurgency by a force that traditionally had focused only on conventional maneuver warfare. Likewise now the closing of the Irregular Warfare Center represents something big–the army turning its back on what is the most prevalent and most important form of warfare not only in today’s world but throughout history. The army will of course deny that is what is happening and point to continuing offices such as the Army Peacekeeping and Stability Institute as evidence that it remains as committed as ever to COIN (counterinsurgency).

Count me as skeptical. Ever since the U.S. pullout from Iraq and now with another major drawdown imminent in Afghanistan, the army has been eager to get back to conventional soldiering against mirror-image adversaries even though the odds of fighting such a conflict are a lot lower than the odds of fighting myriad insurgents such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Taliban. I fear the army is now repeating the mistake it made after Vietnam when it also turned its back on COIN–and paid a steep price for its neglect in Afghanistan and Iraq. The army would have a lot more credibility making the case for itself based on the lessons of history if it paid greater respect even to uncomfortable lessons that it would rather ignore.

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Defense Cutbacks Put Intolerable Stress on Troops in Afghanistan

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Bob Scales has a thoughtful op-ed in the Washington Post today suggesting that incidents such as the one in which a staff sergeant killed 16 civilians in southern Afghanistan are related to the stress of nonstop combat deployments. A Vietnam veteran, Scales points out that there is only so much that soldiers can take and that today’s generation of infantrymen has had to endure more combat rotations than his generation did. “[T]he real institutional culprit is the decade-long exploitation and cynical overuse of one of our most precious and irreplaceable national assets: our close combat soldiers and Marines,” he writes.

He makes a good point, and it’s worth focusing on just why we have had to lean so heavily on so few troopers. It’s because the army, after having been downsized by 30%, was too small to fight wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq–conflicts that nobody anticipated in the post-Cold War euphoria. Now, with the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, we are entering another “peace dividend” period with the army getting slashed by 90,000 soldiers—and that’s not even counting the possible impact of sequestration next year. If the nation orders troops into harm’s way in the future—and the odds are very great that we will, sooner or later–then today’s shrinking force will face even greater stress in the future

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Retired Army Maj. Gen. Bob Scales has a thoughtful op-ed in the Washington Post today suggesting that incidents such as the one in which a staff sergeant killed 16 civilians in southern Afghanistan are related to the stress of nonstop combat deployments. A Vietnam veteran, Scales points out that there is only so much that soldiers can take and that today’s generation of infantrymen has had to endure more combat rotations than his generation did. “[T]he real institutional culprit is the decade-long exploitation and cynical overuse of one of our most precious and irreplaceable national assets: our close combat soldiers and Marines,” he writes.

He makes a good point, and it’s worth focusing on just why we have had to lean so heavily on so few troopers. It’s because the army, after having been downsized by 30%, was too small to fight wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq–conflicts that nobody anticipated in the post-Cold War euphoria. Now, with the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, we are entering another “peace dividend” period with the army getting slashed by 90,000 soldiers—and that’s not even counting the possible impact of sequestration next year. If the nation orders troops into harm’s way in the future—and the odds are very great that we will, sooner or later–then today’s shrinking force will face even greater stress in the future

That is deeply unfair and unwise. Policymakers should heed Scales’s warnings and keep the army large enough to handle future emergencies rather than shrinking the force and once again making a small group of dedicated war-fighters pay a heavy price for our lack of readiness.

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RE: Did Chuck DeVore Exaggerate His Military Service?

Both DeVore and his press aide contacted me, quite exercised about my post regarding his military service. I imagine the Los Angeles Times is getting the same treatment. DeVore e-mails:

I actually have the micro-cassette recording of Lebanon. You can hear multiple bursts of automatic weapons fire with the Israeli officer finally saying “OK, we are done” and then ordering the  press off the hill. Zelnick stayed to complete his report, BTW, much to the discomfort of his cameraman.

But the issue of proximity, of course, is what is in question.

His press aide complains: “But it’s a he-said, she-said exercise — not even close to ‘Hillary Clinton’s Bosnian gun fire fantasy.’ It’s a shame you’d participate in tearing down the only pro-Israel candidate in this race or [in] either party.”

First, Clinton chose to confess her erroneous recollection, or that too would have been a she-said, they-said incident. Second, a candidate’s pro- or anti-Israel leanings are irrelevant to an issue of character. I frankly don’t care whether Richard Blumenthal is the next John Bolton; he’s unfit to serve. Third, Carly Fiorina is solidly pro-Israel and has repeatedly criticized Obama’s Israel policy and his approach to Iran. She is warmly received and embraced by California Jewish Republicans. Readers will assess just how credible the DeVore team is.

On the radio appearance, his aide says that he introduced himself as a reservist. Yes, but the statement was about his present status. In the debate, he also says things like: “Well, as I mentioned before, I am the sole candidate on either side of the aisle with military experience. I’m a lieutenant colonel of military intelligence within the U.S. army.” Hmm. Wouldn’t the average person think he meant “regular Army” in that capacity? And in a response to a question on Mirandizing terrorists, DeVore says: “Well, this is a very critical question. I am looking at my U.S. Army Military I.D. card and at the bottom it says Geneva Conventions I.D. Card. On the back it indicates that I am Geneva Conventions Category Four. Which is a field grade officer out of anything that means that if I am captured by Geneva Conventions signatory, I can’t be forced to do physical work and of course Enlisted people will laugh at that. The point though is that I am the only candidate out of both my Republican opponents and Barbara Boxer whose actually studied the law of war and knows the Geneva Convention because we have to study it as someone going though the Command General Staff College in the U.S. Army.” I think the average listener would conclude this is evidence of service in the regular Army.

Well, you have the account of the candidate and of a well-respected (by liberals and conservative alike) press reporter. And there is a transcript of the debate. Voters will have to decide whether DeVore was exaggerating his service. Maybe he should hold a press conference and let the media ask all the questions they like.

Both DeVore and his press aide contacted me, quite exercised about my post regarding his military service. I imagine the Los Angeles Times is getting the same treatment. DeVore e-mails:

I actually have the micro-cassette recording of Lebanon. You can hear multiple bursts of automatic weapons fire with the Israeli officer finally saying “OK, we are done” and then ordering the  press off the hill. Zelnick stayed to complete his report, BTW, much to the discomfort of his cameraman.

But the issue of proximity, of course, is what is in question.

His press aide complains: “But it’s a he-said, she-said exercise — not even close to ‘Hillary Clinton’s Bosnian gun fire fantasy.’ It’s a shame you’d participate in tearing down the only pro-Israel candidate in this race or [in] either party.”

First, Clinton chose to confess her erroneous recollection, or that too would have been a she-said, they-said incident. Second, a candidate’s pro- or anti-Israel leanings are irrelevant to an issue of character. I frankly don’t care whether Richard Blumenthal is the next John Bolton; he’s unfit to serve. Third, Carly Fiorina is solidly pro-Israel and has repeatedly criticized Obama’s Israel policy and his approach to Iran. She is warmly received and embraced by California Jewish Republicans. Readers will assess just how credible the DeVore team is.

On the radio appearance, his aide says that he introduced himself as a reservist. Yes, but the statement was about his present status. In the debate, he also says things like: “Well, as I mentioned before, I am the sole candidate on either side of the aisle with military experience. I’m a lieutenant colonel of military intelligence within the U.S. army.” Hmm. Wouldn’t the average person think he meant “regular Army” in that capacity? And in a response to a question on Mirandizing terrorists, DeVore says: “Well, this is a very critical question. I am looking at my U.S. Army Military I.D. card and at the bottom it says Geneva Conventions I.D. Card. On the back it indicates that I am Geneva Conventions Category Four. Which is a field grade officer out of anything that means that if I am captured by Geneva Conventions signatory, I can’t be forced to do physical work and of course Enlisted people will laugh at that. The point though is that I am the only candidate out of both my Republican opponents and Barbara Boxer whose actually studied the law of war and knows the Geneva Convention because we have to study it as someone going though the Command General Staff College in the U.S. Army.” I think the average listener would conclude this is evidence of service in the regular Army.

Well, you have the account of the candidate and of a well-respected (by liberals and conservative alike) press reporter. And there is a transcript of the debate. Voters will have to decide whether DeVore was exaggerating his service. Maybe he should hold a press conference and let the media ask all the questions they like.

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