I heard about The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War from James Fallows. I'm only up to page 107 (out of 368) so far, so these are just my first set of reading notes. Kaplan has brought the history of Petraeus' career up to 2005 at this point, while also tracing general American military thinking from the Vietnam era forward.
I don't know if Kaplan intends it to be a theme, but I am stunned by his descriptions of the cultivated incompetence of American military planning -- my phrasing, I hasten to add, not his.
Most strikingly to me, Kaplan states something I'd read in one of Andrew Bacevich's books: that the US military responded to defeat in Vietnam by refusing to learn from their mistakes.
In the mid-1970s, after the debacle of Vietnam, the Army's top generals said "Never again" to the notion of fighting guerillas in the jungle (or anyplace else). Instead, they turned their gaze once more to the prospect of a big war against the Soviet Union on the wide-open plains of Europe--a war that would play to America's traditional strengths of amassing men and metal--and they throw out the book (literally: they threw out the official manuals and curricula) on anything related to what were once called "irregular wars," "asymmetric wars," "low-intensity conflicts," or "counterinsurgency campaigns." To the extent that these types of wars were contemplated at all, the message went out that there was nothing distinctive about them. For decades, Army doctrine had held that wars were won by superior firepower. This idea was taken as gospel, whether the war was large or small, whether the enemy was a nation-state or a rogue guerilla. [p.2-3]It seemed pretty damned obvious at the time, to those of us who weren't Army officers, at least, that lack of firepower did *not* cause the US loss in Vietnam. The problem, in the most general sense, was Clausewitzan, a matter of what I call "grand strategy": getting to the desired *political* end-state. Kaplan later talks about retired Brigadier General Huba Wass de Czege:
Winning battles is important, he said, but "it is just as important to know how to follow through to the resolution of such conflicts." [p60]I would actually say that it is *more* important. There is no excuse for fighting a battle if you don't have a strategy for ending the war.
And yet, over and over again, Kaplan describes officers and official at the highest level who don't have such strategies. For instance, Isaiah "Ike" Wilson's experience:
His job in Mosul would be to help refine and execute the plan to stabilize Iraq. From his studies of military history at ever level, he knew that war plans by nature contained four phases. Phase I: Set the conditions. Phase II: Initial operations. Phase III: Decisive operations. Phase IV: Post-conflict stability operations. This was elementary. By the time President Bush made his May Day victory speech on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the US military had accomplished Phases I through II, but Phase IV had yet to begin.This kind of la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you approach to military problems wasn't only among the actual military, either:
Looking over the cache of documents, Wilson realized--at first slowly, because he couldn't quite believe this was possible--that there was no plan for Phase IV. He and Petraeus would have to devise one on their own. [p71]
Rumsfeld .. didn't want to get bogged down in securing and stabilizing Iraq after Baghdad had fallen--so he didn't make any plans to do so, and he didn't approve any proposals for such plans from his top officers. He didn't plan for the postwar because he didn't want a postwar. It wasn't an oversight; it was deliberate.As I read, I keep thinking that it's as though the US military wanted to be the poster child for "those who don't know history are destined to repeat it". Kaplan frequently discusses Petraeus and his cohorts' belief that the Army should become a "learning organization", one where mistakes are recognized and avoided the next time -- and I hadn't appreciated before how strongly American military institutions were resisting.
Rumsfeld was far from alone in this failure. [p59]
One example of what I mean by "cultivated incompetence": Petraeus got straight As at West Point, graduating 43rd in his class and with a reputation for picking only the most demanding courses. Yet when he started his PhD at Princeton, his first test paper got a B, his first test a *D* -- almost unheard-of at the graduate level. Petraeus realized he had to do better, buckled down and did it -- but clearly West Point, though just as hard to get into as an Ivy League school, is not teaching at anywhere near the same level. I can really see why Andrew Bacevich suggested that the service academies should stop being 4-year undergrad colleges.
The word at the center of Kaplan's book is "insurgency", along with its friend "counter-insurgency". Over and over, I'm wondering how many of the problems he describes arise because Americans aren't willing to use the words "rebel", "revolt", or "rebellion" -- which as far as I can tell are synonymous with "insurgent/insurgency", it just depends on which side you're on. Americans call rebels "insurgents" because we don't want to admit we're on the side of Empire. But if we don't admit what we're doing, is it any wonder we do it badly?
I'll post more notes & quotes from this book after I've read some more.