The US Military’s ‘Lessons’ From Nagorno-Karabakh: God Help Us!

It is often said that military leaders tend to train and prepare for the last war. Thus, when the next conflict comes, mistakes are made, early engagements bloody, and sometimes whole wars lost. Each and every time, the past-war preparers styled themselves more forward-thinking than their stale forebears. Yet clinging to the comfort of dogma, doctrine, and experience, these would-be dynamos usually blew it when their generation beat the war drums.

There’s no precise formula here, mind you, and history doesn’t – per the tired cliché – "repeat itself." Nevertheless, the trend is harrying enough to raise both red flags and my lingering military-antennae recently. That is, when U.S. Army analysts reflexively and defensively protested early reports and conclusions drawn from currently intense conventional combat in Nagorno-Karabakh. The main debate and real rub centers on the efficacy of armored vehicles in the face of ground detection radar and integrated aerial drone strikes. The table might be set for a classic last-war/next-war training and resourcing debate – smaller perhaps, but not unlike the one that rocked the army establishment in the wake of the Yom Kippur War’s massive Arab-Israeli tank battles.

For the most part, as any military historian would be quick to tell you, the US has a particularly bad track record on next-war preparation. When I was a West Point cadet, all students read America’s First Battles, 1776-1965 – an essays volume focused on the army’s early losses and repeated failures to transition from "parade ground to battleground in each of nine wars" it fought. At the time of publication, its co-editors served as Chief of Mobilization Requirements, Operations, and Training at the Army Reserve Personnel Center and as Chief of Military History for the US Army.

Well, the Pentagon – and especially the US Army, in my experience – now does you one better than the nine conflicts the essayists surveyed: preparing to fight the last war it didn’t fought, never needed to wage, and wasn’t impending anyway. I speak, of course, of the 40+ year Cold War with Soviet Russia.

No matter, in the absurd process, trillions in tax dollars have been, and will be, funneled to corrupt defense corporations. These then turnaround and send top prospects from their own payroll to run that same Pentagon – like longtimeRaytheon lobbyist turned current defense secretary, Mark Esper. Maybe it’s "all in the game," as the captivating character Omar Little liked to say in HBO’s hit drug-gang drama The Wire.

Cold Warrior West Pointers at the Helm

Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – himself founder and ex-CEO of Thayer Aerospace – are both alumni of the Class of 1986 "West Point Mafia” infusing Trump’s administration. Fitting, really, since the academy’s "Courage Never Quits" ’86 cohort were Reagan-baby officers raised on "Evil Empire" rhetoric, Top Gun-style bloodless Disney-ified war porn, and Red Dawn-esque dystopian fantasies of high schoolers combating Soviet-Cuban-Nicaraguan invasions of Middle America (the teenage guerrilla heroes donned in their letterman jackets, naturally).

In the real world, matters weren’t half as neat as Hollywood had it – even back then. The Esper-Pompeo M&M boys entered West in the summer of 1982. Within weeks of completing "Beast Barracks" – cadet basic training – Reagan sent the marines into Lebanon’s raging civil war on an ill-fatted non-mission. Just before spring break in the second semester of their plebe (freshman) year, the president delivered that infamous "Evil Empire" speech about the Soviet Union to the National Association of Evangelicals (incidentally, despite a California upbringing, Pompeo is a rather apocalyptic brand of fundamentalist himself these days). The next month, Shia militants bombed the US Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon – killing 32 people; the "evil" Russkies had nothing to do with it.

In the fall semester of their yuk (sophomore) year, 241 of those luckless marines were killed in the Beirut barracks bombing. The Soviets sat that one out too. Two days later, in a pitifully disguised effort to divert attention from the predictable Lebanon catastrophe, Reagan launched Operation Urgent Fury – an invasion of Grenada. The ostensible mission was to rescue American medical students (who weren’t threatened) and stymie "Cuban-Soviet ambitions" (that weren’t) to dominate the tiny Caribbean island. Nineteen more American troops died doing so. Those that agreed the Grenada mission was an unnecessary and/or shameless attempt to distract domestic audiences from Beirut included the bipartisan cast of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs John Vessey.

The next month, Able Archer ’83 – a provocative NATO exercise simulating nuclear war with the Soviets – came far more dangerously close to setting off the real thing than any Cold War incident since the Cuban Missile Crisis. A later CIA report indicated that Moscow genuinely feared a pre-emptive US nuclear strike, and nearly fired off their own arsenal in response. Matters cooled a bit after two successive aged Soviet premiers – Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko – died in office during Esper and Pompeo’s West Point tenure, though Reagan did continue lying about his level of support for Central American death squads combating leftist governments. Soviet support for these leftist Latin villains was wildly exaggerated in Washington. The administration also bombed Libya just six weeks before Mike and Mark received their diplomas and shiny second lieutenants bars.

The M&M boys graduated West Point on the same date as I would 19 years later: May 28, 1986. Pompeo was valedictorian. According to his hometown paper in Santa Ana, California, old Mike received the second biggest ovation – per usual, the top spot was saved for the "goat," or cadet who finished last in his class. Secretary of Defense Weinberger – who’d vehemently opposed and forever regretted Reagan’s marine mission in Lebanon – gave the commencement address.

Tragically, this was just before the really remarkable magnitude of new Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s tensions-thawing outreach to Reagan was widely apparent. Maybe that’s why so many of the administration "West Point Mafia" members remain as frozen in Cold War metaphysics as the "frozen conflict" in Nagorno-Karabakh itself. After the academy, Pompeo headed off to an armor unit defending West Germany’s Fulda Gap from a Soviet attack that wasn’t coming – certainly not in an unprovoked strike.

Later the same year, December 1986, the University of Kansas Press published America’s First Battles. The implication was clear: for once America’s military couldn’t sit and wait – next time we’d be prepared for the inaugural fight. The enemy would, and must near necessarily, be Russian. For too many US military officers and civilian armchair analysts, it still will – still must Moscow be. When or where is almost immaterial. Which brings us to one possible "where" – Nagorno-Karabakh and the South Caucasus.

The US Army’s Hot Take on Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The beauty of the dream Armenia-Azerbaijan battleground is it near perfectly fulfills the macabre fantasies of Cold War-nostalgic conventional army officers. For this crowd, the war on terror was distinctly unsatisfying – what with all those roadside-bomb-laying insurgents refusing to fight fair, and light infantrymen or special forces grabbing all the glory. But Nagorno-Karabakh and its regional environs? It’s hard to think of a more ideal playground to test out their toys than this grand isthmus flanked on either side by rather classic "enemies" – Russia and Iran – and chock full of Fulda-style gaps through the Great and Lesser Caucasus mountains (to the north) and Alborz range (to the south).

The only problem is that so far – in the region’s largest tank battles since the 2005 Russo-Georgian War – tanks haven’t fared so well. In a high-intensity combat take on the rock-paper-scissors game, in Nagorno-Karabakh (Turkish- and Israeli-supplied) Azeri drones seemingly beat both Armenian howitzers and tanks. It is hardly so simple of course. Better integrated air defense and electronic warfare capacity and competence could change that calculus and allow the iron-horse to maintain much utility in the ground combat breach. Nevertheless, with the traditionally more prescient and pliable US Marine Corps and British armed forces already shedding heavy tanks, the US Army is looking ever more alone and unafraid in its commitment to armor.

Yet the overall Pentagon, and army-specific, evaluation of Nagorno-Karabakh’s "lessons" goes beyond tactics and – more worryingly – stretches to the strategic. The small and delusional thinking that defines Washington’s framing of the whole NK-conflict – like most other hot zones – filters down the senior, and even mid-level, military ranks. Therefore it’s instructive to drop in on their musings about recent Caucasus combat. Well, it’s about what you’d expect – if a bit heavy on the farcical side.

In a classic case of "me thinks the lady doth protest too much," it took just three days after the recent round of Caucasus combat erupted for the Military Times to respond with this peach of a headline: "Armor attrition in Nagorno-Karabakh battle not a sign US should give up on tanks, experts say." Yes, what do those "experts" – who haven’t won (or better yet, vocally opposed) a war since Saddam Hussein played into their tactical hands in an open-desert sandbox back in 1990 – have to say? Simple: the ongoing armor-slaughter isn’t "a signal that tanks are obsolete," but rather merely a matter of "tactical training failure." So said Nicholas Moran, a Texas Army National Guard major "who’s been working with tanks for some 20 years and is a tank historian by trade."

Still, even that may be worrisome, according to retired US Army Lieutenant General Thomas Spoehr, director of Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. He claims the bigger problem is that America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offered inadequate training and experience for the "high-tech overhead warfare of today." By the way, Spoehr was a chemical and biological warfare officer, not a tanker, and several years senior to Esper and Pompeo – but did participate in the Grenada invasion absurdity whilst the M&M boys were young cadets. His latest published article was titled "In Defense of Mark Esper." Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, Spoehr says that with 20 odd years of terror-wars failing to do the trick, such conventional core competencies have had to be gleaned in that old desert bane of my army-existence, the National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, California. There, and in regional war-games scenarios played out at the army’s premier professional military education (PME) institutions – the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) and Army War College.

Five Fake Countries for a False World View

On that count, for once, the US military must be patting its own back for being so exceeding "prepared" for the next first battle. As Major Moran correctly noted, "Army personnel are very familiar with the Caucasus Region." That’s because since at least 2003, what Moran described as the endless number of scenarios the army can create there has made the area a "persistent favorite" of American planners.

By the time I was a CGSC student, we spent much of the yearlong course toying with the Caspian Guard scenario – defending Azerbaijan and its natural gas pipelines from the northward attack of "Ahurastan," a fictional breakaway Iranian state. Russia loomed over the whole affair, but was limited to its looming for the moment. As of 2015, in its broader regional scenario – labeled the "Decisive Action Training Environment" – the army actually invented five fake countries that remarkably resemble the five very real ones contained in the Greater Caucasus. From south to north, the fictional states are:

  • Ariana [Iran] : described as a theocracy ruled by a clerical caste and hostile to Western democracy.
  • Atropia [Azerbaijan] and Limaria [Armenia]: the former is a "classic dictatorship" run by a "ruling family" [no doubt the mini-Stalinist Aliyevs who’ve reigned in Baku near-exclusively since 1969]; the second is simply labeled an "autocracy." In the scenario, both countries remain locked in conflict over a region called "Lower Janga" [Nagorno-Karabakh].
  • Gorgas  [Georgia] and Donovia [Russia]: this pair is also perennially plagued by tensions, and boy the two couldn’t be more different. The scenario’s army authors simply gush over Gorgas – an innocent little land that’s "trying to make democracy work and stands to lose much if let down by Western interests." That’s one way to portray manipulative NATO/EU-aspirant Georgia’s sometime aggressive attacks on Russian-protected autonomous breakaway provinces – all incentivized by the CIA, the US military’s security assistance programs, and vague support-assurances from the Bush administration. Anyway, back in the scenario, Gorgas is threatened by dastardly Donovia – "an authoritarian state led by a small, incestuous elite," who use power to "enrich [themselves] and secure both domestic and international political support."

If all that seems a tad too on the nose, remember: immersed in a persistently anti-intellectual professional culture, army officers rarely make for a nuanced lot. Besides, their bosses in Washington and chief (media) propagandists in New York aren’t any better. Policy statements and press reporting on Nagorno-Karabakh’s recent combat calamity provide only the latest exposure of an inherently uncritical lot.

Look to the language, Christopher Hitchens repeatedly recommended, and I often insufferably repeat. Never is linguistic critical analysis easier and more disturbing than when targeted at the emirs of euphemism in the military officer corps. After retired army armor officer Lieutenant Colonel Mike Jason told the Military Times that many observers are "drawing the wrong lessons" from NK-combat, he described the supposedly misleading video footage as "war porn." Only it isn’t the images of immolated bodies in burning armored hulks that he finds salacious, per se, but rather the resultant talk of warehousing his beloved tanks.

Instead, there’s a better battling way, and he’ll undoubtedly know if it’s porn when he sees it. To win, Jason advised, "We want to give our commanders all the possible tools available in the toolbox." Done right, he continued, "We put it all together in concert, this symphony of violence all working together in synchronicity." Where oh where might the US military put to practice Jason’s gold-standard combination of the esoteric yet obscene language of highbrow militarism? And against whom?

Well, two of his fellow "expert" friends offer some hints. When Major Moran described the "whole bunch of different players" in the "very messy" Caucasus area, the Military Times quoted him explaining that "some are aligned with the Soviets, the Russians." Oops! Apparently Freudian slips aren’t reserved for officers old enough to have actually served in the Cold War. Yet Moran’s only a mid-level officer.

The ex-general, Thomas Spoehr, was grander and less subtle. Not two months ago, he wrote a glowing book review for the other Heritage-hawks. The then forthcoming book’s title: The Great Nightfall: How We Win the New Cold War.

"Pre-order now," Spoehr advised, it "will ship in October" – just in time for full-fledged Caucasus combat, as it turns out…

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, contributing editor at, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), and director of the soon-to-launch Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, ScheerPost and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen