“No nation ever profited from
a long war.”
– Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu’s immortal The Art of War translates into a shade over 10,000 words of American English, roughly 40 pages of aphoristic wisdom presented in language that probably 75 percent of public-school third-graders could understand. One hundred percent of our military officers should understand it, but they don’t, partly because fewer than 10 percent of them have read it.
The single-mantra version of Sun Tzu’s philosophy is “charge downhill, not uphill.”* You’d think that even cadets at West Point and Annapolis and Colorado Springs who graduate at the bottoms of their classes could retain such a short and sweet maxim and comprehend its gist. Yet the history of war is choked with case studies of generals who paid the consequences of attacking uphill when they had every opportunity in the world not to. Perhaps the most celebrated example of this was the Battle of Gettysburg, where Robert E. Lee insisted, despite the strong objection of his deputy James Longstreet, on attacking up not just one hill, but three of them (Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, and Cemetery Hill).
The drubbing Lee invited on himself at Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War and the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. That Lee continues to be our most revered and respected general despite having lost both a war and a country by violating the most common gem of military wisdom should tell us something about the kind of reverence and respect we show generals, especially the Long War hooligans we have now.
A comparison between Lee and David Petraeus is as unavoidable as it is ludicrous. If we rate Lee, his singular lack of judgment at Gettysburg and all, as a 10, Petraeus weighs in somewhere to the right of the decimal point, and maybe to the right of zero.
Petraeus is a bull-feather merchant who gained primacy in the U.S. officer corps through sheer genius for self-promotion and wizardry at public relations. Though he is celebrated as our “best general” and enjoys a reputation as the military genius who “wrote the book” on counterinsurgency, he has in fact been singularly and purposefully responsible for entangling us in a long war that he himself admits cannot be won but that we will likely continue to fight for at least another generation.
Bob Woodward’s latest book-length spin surgery, titled Obama’s War, quotes Petraeus as saying “I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. … This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.” Petraeus supposedly blurted this and other uncomfortable revelations to Woodward “after a glass of wine on an airplane.” If Petraeus’s tongue can be yanked that loose with a single glass of wine, the guy’s as much of a drinker as he is a general. Maybe that explains a few things, like how the 190,000 AK-47s he handed out to Iraqi security force recruits vanished like a wallet on a New York City sidewalk and wound up in the hands of militants.
If, as prominent warmonger Lindsey Graham suggests, King David Petraeus is “our best hope,” our ship of state is already on a bow-first vector for the ocean floor. Lamentably, the state of American military wisdom is so pitiable that Petraeus may in fact be the sharpest utensil in a drawer otherwise inhabited by spoons.
This is, in part, because of a lack of intellectual integrity in our so-called war college system, the most prestigious icon of which is the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) in Newport, R.I. NWC is home of the annual Global War Game, the template from which all other U.S. military warfare simulations are modeled. Lamentably, NWC war gaming hasn’t been a legitimate test bench for actual war since the 1930s, when the likes of Chester Nimitz and Ray Spruance devised War Plan Orange to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific. During the Cold War, the Global game was rigged to “prove” that the U.S. Navy would only lose a handful of aircraft carriers in a toe-to-toe slugfest with the Russkies. After the Berlin Wall went Humpty Dumpty, the Global game turned into a venue for validating whatever cockamamie doctrines and weapons systems the three-star in charge of the college wanted to verify.
Arthur Cebrowski, president of NWC from 1998 to 2001, used the Global game – and every other war game he could influence – to promote his pet “littoral combat ship” project, a key component of his project to transform the Navy into a worldwide Coast Guard. After retiring from active duty, Cebrowski became his pal Don Rumsfeld’s czar of military transformation, a platform from which he propelled his network-centric warfare concept past everyone’s tonsils. NCW (not to be confused with NWC, mind you) became the new truth among the defense intelligentsia. Cebrowski declared it to be “an entirely new theory of warfare,” one that involved a “system of systems” and that turned “complexity” into a decisive principle of warfare. Cebrowski himself confessed that NCW itself was too complex to define, but that whatever it was, it made all previous thought about the art of war obsolete.
NCW critics correctly guessed that Cebrowski was displaying symptoms of a decades-old dose of the bends. Indeed, NCW has never panned out to be anything more than net-eccentric rapture designed to help a good-old-boy network of networks sell pricey hardware like the littoral combat ship to Congress.
Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade of the National Defense University developed an NCW competitor doctrine now known far and wide as Shock and Awe. One can most accurately understand Shock and Awe by picturing John Candy and Joe Flaherty of the old Second City Television show sitting in front of a flickering TV screen and chortling, “That Baghdad blowed up good, blowed up real good.” Shock and Awe looked real good on cable news until we discovered Operation Iraqi Freedom hadn’t given us anything but sticker shock and buyer’s remorse.
But the most virulent warfare theory to infest our New American Century to date has been the Army and Marine Corps’ “new” counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, as manifested in “the book,” Field Manual 3-24. Contrary to the details of his manufactured legend, the only part of FM 3-24 that Petraeus actually wrote was his signature on the cover page. Maybe he did that so everybody would have an autographed copy. The book’s real authors were a team from the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., who plagiarized much of its material from older doctrines like the ones that worked out so ducky in Vietnam.
COIN doctrine suffers from a fatal internal fallacy. A successful counterinsurgency, the field manual insists, requires a legitimate host government that is in control of an effective security force. But major insurgencies do not occur in states that have a legitimate government and a functional security apparatus. Attempting to create those two entities in a country where they don’t already exist but an insurgency already does is futile, as proven by our experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
America’s finest military minds (heh) have committed the best-trained, best-equipped armed force in history to an unending, ruinous war against an enemy that doesn’t have a single tank or airplane or ship and is led by a handful of cave dwellers who don’t even have a fort to fart in.
We have to give Lee credit for one thing: in charging uphill at Gettysburg, he was at least trying to gain a decisive victory because he knew his country didn’t have the strategic depth to fight a long war. Petraeus and his extended entourage in academia and defense think tank-dom not only want to charge straight up every hill they encounter, they want to make absolutely certain that their Long War lasts long enough to accomplish what Lee could not: the collapse of the Union.
*The Lionel Giles translation reads, “It is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill.”