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The Strategy Of Survival
A lifelong student of military history and affairs says that nuclear weapons have made the idea of war absurd. And it is precisely when everyone agrees that war is absurd that one gets started.
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
The permanent problem for military organizations is that they’re supposed to be ready for war in peacetime. That’s tremendously difficult. It’s like trying to operate a whole hospital and have it ready to run when it actually has no patients. It has doctors, nurses, lab technicians, cleaners, whatever, everybody on duty day after day, year after year, and no patients, and then they’re supposed to be ready when the patients start flooding in. Of course, if that happens, there are liable to be problems. A thousand things could have gone wrong unobserved. The only remedy for that would be to have made sneak visits to other hospitals that were actually treating patients. So you learn basic things. You may need fancy diagnostic equipment, but you’ve also got to have some swabs around. The trouble is that learning from the experience of others in war is tremendously difficult. Americans tend to be technologically minded, and so we often try to measure the military power of countries by listing their equipment and by focusing on a concept such as “High-tech weapons defeat low-tech weapons.” There is an important technical dimension, of course, but it usually amounts to a fraction of the study. If you’re a tactician or practically minded, then you focus on the respective tactics, and you see a different picture again. If you are able to think on a relatively sophisticated operational level, where you view the whole battlefield and think about the overall scheme of war followed by each side, again you draw a different lesson from it.
Take the case of the Falklands War. The U.S. Navy chose to learn the lesson that its long-standing policy of having aircraft carriers was suddenly justified. Other people might have drawn quite a different lesson, which is that what you need is not merely the box that carries the force somewhere—the carriers, the auxiliary ships, and so on—but that then when you lower the ramp, you have to have a valid kind of ground force. What the British did in the Falklands is instructive. They were supposed to carry out a modern airmobile assault. Well, they lost most of their helicopters, which is liable to happen in war. The reason why they won as they did is that the Royal Marine Infantry, people with thirty-two weeks of very intensive basic training, were able to march on foot, carrying sixty pounds of equipment on their backs, fight, dig, and prevail in raw infantry combat.
The lesson of the Falklands that I draw is that if you pay attention to the basics of war, which are training, cohesion, all the human dimensions, and have really reliable low-tech combat capabilities, then you win no matter what happens. If you have, in addition to that, high tech, then you win gloriously at very low cost. If you go into combat with the high tech and you haven’t got the low tech—which really is not “low,” because it contains the whole of the human dimension—then it doesn’t matter how fancy your stuff is. You’re going to end up with embarrassments, defeats, and inadequacies.
In your Manchurian case, aristocratic cavalry officers refused to learn the lesson that cavalry had become useless. Do you see particular cases where communities within the American military culture are refusing a lesson in the way that the aristocratic cavalrymen refused the lesson of Manchuria?
Sure. One aspect of the American style is a refusal to accept the primacy of the human dimension in military power. For example, the U.S. Army is unique among armies claiming to be of the first rank in that it does not systematically maintain cohesion in units. As a matter of fact, in recent years the U.S. Army had to have a special program called Cohort, with a Cohort office and administrative scheme, to do what all other first-class armies do as a matter of course, which is to train people and then put them in units and leave them there, so that they can form human bonds and be willing to fight for the sake of mutual solidarity. But after a while the Army abandoned Cohort because it turned out to be inconvenient for junior officers caught up in it. Their promotions might be delayed for a few weeks, and so for the sake of total career fairness for all officers Army-wide, they broke up the only scheme that had given some cohesion to the Army. This phenomenon ultimately may arise from a belief in equality and individual rights, but it represents a systematic violation of good military practice. It’s a disregard of the human dimension because accepting the human dimension means delving into all those nonmeasurable things like the diversities of human beings and the mysteries of how people behave.
You spoke of the high-cost, attritional American style of war as coming from our historical experience of matériel superiority.