Every military refights the last war, but good militaries learn lessons from the past. We'd better get them right, and soon.
It's always looming. But has our military learned the right lessons from this one to fight it and win?
Testifying before Congress last week, Gen. David H. Petraeus appeared commanding, smart and alive to the challenges that his soldiers face in Iraq. But he also embodied what the Iraq conflict has come to represent: an embattled, able, courageous military at war, struggling to maintain its authority and credibility after 4 1/2 years of a "cakewalk" gone wrong.
Petraeus will not be the last general to find himself explaining how a military intervention has misfired and urging skeptical lawmakers to believe that the mission can still be accomplished. For the next war is always looming, and so is the urgent question of whether the U.S. military can adapt in time to win it.
Today, the most likely next conflict will be with Iran, a radical state that America has tried to isolate for almost 30 years and that now threatens to further destabilize the Middle East through its expansionist aims, backing of terrorist proxies such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, and far-reaching support for radical Shiite militias in Iraq. As Iran seems to draw closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, almost every U.S. leader -- and would-be president -- has said that it simply won't be permitted to reach that goal.
Think another war can't happen? Think again. Unchastened by the Iraq fiasco, hawks in Vice President Cheney's office have been pushing the use of force. It isn't hard to foresee the range of military options that policymakers face.
The next war would begin with an intense air and naval campaign. Let's say you're planning the conflict as part of the staff of the Joint Chiefs. Your list of targets isn't that long -- only a few dozen nuclear sites -- but you can't risk retaliation from Tehran. So you allow 21 days for the bombardment, to be safe; you'd aim to strike every command-and-control facility, radar site, missile site, storage site, airfield, ship and base in Iran. To prevent world oil prices from soaring, you'd have to try to protect every oil and gas rig, and the big ports and load points. You'd need to use B-2s and lots of missiles up front, plus many small amphibious task forces to take out particularly tough targets along the coast, with manned and unmanned air reconnaissance. And don't forget the Special Forces, to penetrate deep inside Iran, call in airstrikes and drag the evidence of Tehran's nuclear ambitions out into the open for a world that's understandably skeptical of U.S. assertions that yet another Gulf rogue is on the brink of getting the bomb.
But if it's clear how a war with Iran would start, it's far less clear how it would end. How might Iran strike back? Would it unleash Hezbollah cells across Europe and the Middle East, or perhaps even inside the United States? Would Tehran goad Iraq's Shiites to rise up against their U.S. occupiers? And what would we do with Iran after the bombs stopped falling? We certainly could not occupy the nation with the limited ground forces we have left. So what would it be: Iran as a chastened, more tractable government? As a chaotic failed state? Or as a hardened and embittered foe?
Iran is not the only country where the next war with the United States might erupt. Consider the emergence of a new superpower (or at least a close competitor with the United States). China's shoot-down of an old Chinese satellite in January was a wake-up call about the risks inherent in America's reliance on space. The next war could also come from somewhere unexpected; if you'd told most Americans in August 2001 that the United States would be invading Afghanistan within weeks, they'd have called you crazy.
Any future U.S. wars will undoubtedly be shaped by the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, however painful that might be. Every military refights the last war, but good militaries learn lessons from the past. We'd better get them right, and soon. Here, the lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan couldn't be more clear: Don't ever, ever go to war unless you can describe and create a more desirable end state. And doing so takes a whole lot more than just the use of force.
The lessons from past conflicts aren't always obvious. After the demoralizing loss in Vietnam, the United States went high-tech, developing whole classes of new tanks, ships and fighter planes and new operational techniques to defeat then-enemy no. 1 -- the Soviets. We also junked the doctrine of counterinsurgency warfare, which we're trying to relearn in Iraq.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.S. military embarked upon another wave of high-tech modernization -- and paid for it by cutting ground forces, which were being repeatedly deployed to peacekeeping operations in places such as Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Instead of preparing for more likely, low-intensity conflicts, we were still spoiling for the "big fight," focusing on such large conventional targets as Kim Jong Il's North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq -- and now we lack adequate ground forces. Bulking up these forces, perhaps by as many as 100,000 more active troops, and refitting and recovering from Iraq could cost $70 billion to $100 billion.
Somehow, in the past decade or two, we began to think of ourselves as "warriors." There was an elemental purity to this mindset, a kill-or-be-killed simplicity that drove U.S. commanders to create a leaner force based on more basic skills -- the kind that some generals thought were lacking in Vietnam and in the early years of the all-volunteer military. Now, in an age when losing hearts and minds can mean losing a war, we find ourselves struggling in Iraq and Afghanistan to impart the sort of cultural sensitivities that were second nature to an earlier generation of troops trained to eat nuoc m?m with everything and sit on the floor during their tours in Vietnam.
One of the most important lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and Vietnam, for that matter -- is that we need to safeguard our troops. The U.S. public is more likely to sour on a conflict when it sees the military losing blood, not treasure. So to keep up our staying power, our skill in hunting and killing our foes has to be matched by our care in concealing and protecting our troops. Three particularly obvious requirements are body armor, mine-resistant vehicles, and telescopic and night sights for every weapon. But these things are expensive for a military that has historically been enamored of big-ticket items such as fighter planes, ships and missiles. Many of us career officers understood these requirements after Vietnam, but we couldn't shift the Pentagon's priorities enough to save the lives of forces sent to Iraq years later.
That brings us to the military's leaders. We need generals who are well-educated, flexible and culturally adept men and women -- not just warriors, not just technicians. Why aren't more military leaders sent to top schools such as Princeton, the way Petraeus was, or given opportunities to earn PhDs, as did Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's military assistant, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli? For years, Congress has whacked away at military-education budgets, thereby driving gifted officers from the top-flight graduate schools where they could have honed their analytical skills and cultural awareness.
Still, let's not be too hard on ourselves. As an institution, the U.S. Armed Forces stands head and shoulders above any other military in skill, equipment and compassion, and its leaders are able, conscientious and loyal.
But shame on political leaders who would hide behind their top generals. It was hard not to catch a whiff of that during last week's hearings. The Constitution, however, is not ambivalent about where the responsibility for command lies -- the president is the commander in chief.
Surely here is where some of the most salient lessons from recent wars lie: in forcing civilian leaders to shoulder their burdens of ultimate responsibility and in demanding that generals unflinchingly offer their toughest, most seasoned, advice. Gen. Tommy R. Franks embarked on the 2001 Afghanistan operation without a clear road map for success, or even a definition of what victory would look like. Somehow, that was good enough for him and his bosses. So Osama bin Laden slunk away, the Taliban was allowed to regroup, and Afghanistan is now mired deep in trouble and sinking fast.
In Iraq, President Bush approved war-fighting plans that hadn't incorporated any of the vital 1990s lessons from Haiti, Bosnia or Kosovo; worse, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fought doing so. Nation-building, however ideologically repulsive some may find it, is a capability that a superpower sometimes needs.
At the same time, the United States' top generals must understand that their duty is to win, not just to get along. They must have the insight and character to demand the resources necessary to succeed -- and have the guts to either obtain what they need or to resign. If they get their way and still don't emerge victorious, they must be replaced. That is the lot they accepted when they pinned on those four shiny silver stars.
Above all else, we Americans must understand that the goal of war is to achieve a specific purpose for the nation. In this respect, the military is simply a tool of statecraft, one that must work in tandem with diplomacy, economic suasion, intelligence and other instruments of U.S. power. How tragic it is to see old men who are unwilling to talk to potential adversaries but seem so ready to dispatch young people to fight and die.
So, steady as we go. We need to tweak our force structure, hone our leadership and learn everything we can about how to do everything better. But the big lesson is simply this: War is the last, last, last resort. It always brings tragedy and rarely brings glory. Take it from a general who won: The best war is the one that doesn't have to be fought, and the best military is the one capable and versatile enough to deter the next war in the first place.
Wesley K. Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO, led alliance military forces in the Kosovo war in 1999.
Wesley K. Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO, led alliance military forces in the Kosovo war in 1999. He is a fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA, and the author, most recently, of "A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor and Country."