Editor’s Note: This article is drawn from a talk given by the author to the Special Operations Medical Association Scientific Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina, on May 24, 2016.
Question: Do the wars of the last 15 years really prefigure the future? Many people think they do. But, the answer is “Yes” only if all future fighting is done in tribal shatter zones, where we retain air dominance. Meanwhile, additional questions that should haunt everyone in uniform for the remainder of their careers are: What is particular to Afghanistan and Iraq, and what is generalizable? What belongs in the lockbox because it won’t apply elsewhere? Or, which lessons are worth retaining versus which will we think we should retain, but will make us more vulnerable?
Historically, being able to reach, keep, and smash objectives so that your forces can move forward without you having to fear for your rear was critical. At the broadest level, no war was deemed over until one side conceded defeat. This required killing your adversary’s hope and not just his will to continue. When your enemy acceded to the terms you dictated, you had finally succeeded.
The piss poor substitute today, given our inexplicable reluctance to declare war, is to talk about end states instead. Yet, if you stop and think about it, there is no such thing as an end state. Time goes on. More events occur. End states don’t end anything. But, repeat “end state” often enough and the term begins to take on a reality of its own.
In my mind, this is similar to invoking “complexity,” which everyone now accepts as a description of today’s reality. Yet nothing we face today is more complicated than World War II. Instead, the scope of what we think we should consider seems to have expanded, thanks to the speed and volume of information flows. On top of that, we think we have the capacity — or will soon develop the ability and/or the software — to help us think through all likely consequences, even though this will only compound paralysis by analysis.
Meanwhile, who are we currently up against? Jihadis, to whom nothing is particularly complex or nuanced, except how long it might take to undermine us. They aren’t encumbered with our same sensibilities: If you’reof us, good. If not, you’re expendable.
To be clear, I am not advocating that we become more like them. Just the opposite. I want us to tilt war back to a format that advantages us, which means we need a 21st century rethink of Just War theory, and of who deserves noncombatant status among other things. We also need to give serious consideration to the following lessons that have emerged out of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
1. More technological innovation is not always a better means of warfare.
But along with this, we need to rethink our conviction that if we just keep on technologically innovating we will retain a sufficient edge. Take improvised explosive devices versus drones. Which have had a more profound psychic effect on people? With precision-strike, the individuals we target change their tactics, techniques, and procedures, and a lot of them get killed. But the pressure is Darwinist and we are helping individuals get smarter faster; drones do not dissuade communities from supporting terrorists. With IEDs, on the other hand, the randomness has been pernicious, forcing us into rolling fortresses and sowing seeds of not-yet-detonated post-traumatic stress disorder.
Meanwhile, in the who-is-out-innovating-whom sphere, we not only overlook innovations in what people are willing to do with and to other human beings at our growing peril, but we ignore the ways in which future adversaries will be able to take greater advantage of our self-inflicted Achilles’ heels. We have quite a few.
Read the Remainder at Task and Purpose