It is curious how little military men know about war. You would think they would think about it more. Yet, oddly, they regularly misjudge practically everything concerning the dismal trade. Their errors are not the sort that inevitably must occur in a contest, as when a quarterback doesn’t pick up a blitz. They are fundamental misappreciations of war itself.
The foregoing sounds both arrogant and improbable, like saying that dentists do not understand teeth. Actually it is neither.
The reasons are several. First, the military attracts certain kinds of men – authoritarian, hierarchical, conformist – who are not imaginative and do not think independently. Second, the appeal of the military is visceral, emotional, hormonal. Neither of these things is true of dentists.
This explains why wars monotonously turn out not to resemble expectations. In WWI, the German command expected a lightning victory via the Schlieffen Plan. It failed, but the foolishness does not lie in the failure. Rather it is in the complete incapacity to foresee that the failure would result in four years of inconclusive static war. Trenches, barbed wire, and machine guns took them by surprise. Yet the existence of all of these things was well known.
This sort of blindness is common, almost normal. At First Manassas in the American Civil War, the armies had no faint idea that they might be embarking on four years of horrendous war, or of the kind of war it would be. When America invaded Vietnam, the Pentagon did not foresee ten years of a losing war. Nor did it have any notion of what would happen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Militaries regularly underestimate the enemy and overestimate their own capacities. The reasons I think are several. One is that morale is important in war and a sober estimation of reality often does not conduce to high morale. For example, you do not tell your troops, “You are mediocre infantry and inferior man for man to the enemy but we have better technology and will rely on this.” Thus American troops are always the finest, best trained and best armed the world has ever seen.
Another and important reason is the Star Wars Effect. In movie theaters watch the audience, and particularly the male part, when the good space ships swoop in, dodging, maneuvering, firing, just on the edge of defeat, the music coming up, and blow the bad guy away. The watchers grip the armrests, sway with the turns of the hero’s spaceship. This visceral, adrenal response to war runs through humanity: The Ride of the Valkyries, The Sands of Iwo Jima, and the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Military training aims at the inculcation of a sense of invincibility. Years back at Parris Island a sign read, “The Most Dangerous Thing in the World: A Marine and his Rifle.” It was nonsense, the marines then being decent light infantry but no more, yet we were told endlessly that were unique in the annals of war. This sort of overconfidence has consequences. Sometimes it provides the elan needed to win. Sometimes it leads to disaster.
The unrealistic sense of power is instilled in training by, for example, running in close formation. The rhythmic thumpthumpthump of fifty pairs of boots unleashes something deep in males. It is the pack instinct, a call to savagery intensified by calling cadence, “Luke the gook comes marching by, stick your bayonet in his eye, lefryelefrylefryelef….” We are the toughest of the tough.
Often the belief in invincibility becomes almost mystical. In WWI the French believed in cran, in l’offensive a outrnce, the fighting spirit that was sure to lead to victory. More attention to heavy artillery would have been prudent. In Japan it was bushido. Yamamoto, who had been in the United States and knew what it was, suggested that starting a war with a country having ten times your industrial potential was not unduly bright. The Army ignored him.
Underestimation of the enemy is a military disease bordering at time on a death wish. Before WWII, the US military tended to regard the Japanese as funny little buck-toothed monkeys with thick glasses. The same monkeys had destroyed the Russian fleet in 1905, fought for years in China with an excellent fighter plane – the Zero – and conducted sophisticated carrier operations. None of this occurred to the Americans.
Examples abound. In 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, the French army camped in a valley surrounded, as valleys are, by high hills. The French knew that les jaunes, the yellows, couldn’t get artillery up on those hills.
Actually, les jaunes could. They also did. There is footage of maybe twenty of them heaving on a rope attached to an artillery piece, which moved six inches upward. Another man quickly put a chock under the wheels to that it didn’t roll back. Pull, chock, pull, chock, pull, chock, boom. The French were slaughtered.
Another source of unrealism is loud noise. Modern armament is exciting, in the sense that cavalry charges once were. Tanks, fighter planes, aircraft carriers and such, aside from appealing to the male love of controllable complexity, appeal equally to the male love of the fast, powerful, noisy, and inexorable.
You have to feel it to understand it. On a flight line at night, jet engines howling, hot jet-wash smelling of burned kerosene blowing about, confident and competent men working together, fighters taking off with a thudding roar that you feel in your lungs.
It is very hard to imagine such loud, virile machines being defeated by those most dangerous weapons of our times, the AK, the RPG, and the IED, wielded by a tough little peasant pissed off because you are invading his country and have killed his mother and sister.
Militaries seldom learn. More correctly, they seldom learn anything that goes against their underlying view of the world. After the Viet Minh drove the French out by largely guerrilla tactics, the Americans, ignoring this, invaded Viet Nam and were defeated in the same way. The French suffered a similar defeat in Algeria. The Russians, knowing all of this, invaded Afghanistan and were driven out the same way. Whereupon the United States, aware of all of this…invaded Afghanistan. With the same results. It then invaded Iraq, with the by now predictable results.
A wise and unusual colonel (Carl Bernard for cognoscenti) once told me, “A soldier knows how to do one thing, and he does it in response to everything. If you ask a major in armor if he knows how to bake a cake, he will say, ‘Sure I do. First you adjust the track tension….’ If you ask an artillery guy, he will say, ‘Sure. First you align the battery….’”
Why does this happen? It is not actual stupidity since officers are not stupid. Part of it is the overconfidence that is the very heart of the military’s cast of mind. Did the French lose to the Viet Minh? What has that got to do with America? Those cheese-eating surrender monkeys couldn’t beat a troop of Girl Scouts. Victor Charlie? Rice-propelled paddy-maggots. Dinks, gooks, slopes, zipperheads. No problem.
A deeper reason I think is the Glorious Charge Syndrome, the clash of gorgeous cavalry and resplendent infantry of Napoleon’s days. It’s the excitement, Wellington on the reverse slope at Waterloo, la Garde advances, the Little Corporal drops back out of the pocket on fourth and one….Although wars are usually discussed as rational enterprises in pursuit of national goals, soldiers dream of glory, honor, and the overcoming of enemies in pitched combat. This has always been true. Read the Gilgamesth Epic, the Illiad, the Aeneid, El Cid, Orlando Furioso, and Beowulf. They all deal with climactic battles of heroic men. Sieges are all right, but soldiers want to get it on, steel on target, close and destroy, and they want an enemy they can get at.
A distributed war like that in Afghanistan, with nothing important to blow up and often nobody to fight because they are hiding, is not something soldiers easily get their minds around. Aerial combat, mano a mano is more to their liking, or commando teams moving silently through the night, or the Pacific fleet, alert, men at their stations, moving through enemy waters in search of trouble. Since war is no longer like that, the soldiers flail about for years, go home, forget what happened, and in the next war do it again.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well, A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be, Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle, Au Phuc Dup and Nowhere to Go: The Only Really True Book About VietNam, and A Grand Adventure: Wisdom’s Price-Along with Bits and Pieces about Mexico. Visit his blog.