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Circling the Wagons

Washington’s War

by Col. DOUGLAS MacGREGOR, (Ret.)

The human and material cost of America’s
occupation of Iraq is reaching a climax. The ongoing "surge"
of ground combat troops into Baghdad and its surroundings is
producing higher U.S. casualties, exacerbating intersectarian
violence and draining the last reserves of American patience.

Like the French Army in Algeria
and the British Army in Ireland, the generals in Baghdad are
discovering that soldiers and Marines in Iraq control only what
they stand on, and when they no longer stand on it, they don’t
control it. Meanwhile, the Army grinds itself to pieces while
the national military leadership stands by watching, clinging
to the promise of more troops for a larger ground force in the
future–a promise that is irrelevant to the challenge we now
face: getting out of Iraq.

Like so many tragic events
in human history, the occupation of Iraq could have been avoided
if military and political leaders in Washington had recognized
the tectonic shift in international relations created by decolonization
after World War II. This shift made any occupation, with the
exception of very brief American or European military triumphs
over non-Europeans, especially Muslim Arabs, impossible. But
the decision to occupy and govern Iraq with American military
power was driven by ideology, not strategy. And, when ideology
masquerades as strategy, disaster is inevitable.

The U.S. needs a new national
military strategy, a strategy designed to enhance America’s role
as the world’s engine of prosperity, making the American way
of life attractive, not threatening, to others. However, for
a new, more effective national military strategy to emerge that
can rationalize the structure and content of the armed forces
for operations in the aftermath of Iraq, both policymakers and
the flag officers who command our forces must reorient their
thinking to a strategy that exalts economy of force in expeditionary
operations and rejects plans to optimize the Army and Marine
Corps for any more misguided occupations. This is a strategy
that deliberately limits the commitment of U.S. military resources
to attainable goals and objectives consistent with U.S. strategic
interests and avoids the kind of open-ended ideological warfare
that nearly destroyed Western civilization in the 20th century.

With another presidential election
just around the corner, it’s time to begin answering the all-important
questions of "What is the strategic purpose for which the
U.S. armed forces will fight in the aftermath of Iraq?"
and "How should a new president and secretary of defense
define strategic objectives for U.S. forces?" How these
questions are answered will determine whether our forces and
their missions are aligned with the nation’s security needs.

Soon after the terrorist attacks
against New York City and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, President
Bush invoked the images of World War II, demanding total victory
over a new, demonized enemy: Islamist terrorism. Those who were
not with us in the new ideological struggle to democratize the
Middle East were suddenly against us. When American forces intervened
two years later in Iraq, they did so not in search of indigenous
friends and allies in a country tyrannized for a generation,
but in search of new enemies to destroy.

With the passage of time, politicians
imbued military action to destroy Islamist terrorism with a meaning
it never had, equating the unnecessary and destructive American
military occupation of Muslim-Arab Iraq with America’s special
mission to spread freedom throughout the world. Worse, Iraq’s
forced democratization unleashed reactionary forces Americans
did not anticipate. These forces strengthened Iranian regional
power and influence, precipitating a dangerous anti-American
backlash abroad and creating economic vulnerability at home.
We cannot easily reverse the outcome in Iraq, but we can avoid
repeating the pattern of behavior that made the Iraqi quagmire

In the xenophobic, tribal and
desperately poor populations of the Middle East and much of Africa,
occupying Christian armies from the U.S., United Kingdom and
other European states are unlikely to win significant numbers
of hearts and minds. Moreover, the kind of secular democracy
the Bush administration sought to export to Iraq through military
occupation is synonymous in most of the Muslim Arab world with
massive corruption, widening gaps between rich and poor, and
moral decadence as seen inside Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Persian
Gulf emirates. Where democracy does prevail, Islamism tends to
govern. And, where Islamism governs, as seen in Iran–a state
that is, in practice, the most democratic in the Islamic world–democracy
is subjugated to Islamic Shariah law. This outcome is hardly
in the interest of U.S. national security.


These points do not argue for
after-the-fact preparation or transformation inside the Army
and Marine Corps to fight future insurgencies that arise from
unwanted U.S. military occupations. Unwanted occupations should
be avoided, not repeated. Many point to the British success in
Malaya as a reason to persist in delusions of success in counterinsurgency
in developing regions. However, there is a vast difference between
a British Army in Malaya commanded by Sir Gerald Templar in 1952,
whose publicly stated goal was to end British occupation of Malaya,
and the open-ended American military occupation of Iraq that
precipitated a popular Sunni Muslim-Arab revolt against an unwanted
American military occupation. From the moment we occupied central
Iraq with no plan to leave, we were at war with a population
humiliated by our presence; it is the kind of conflict the American
military should not be asked to fight.

If performing counterinsurgency
campaigns against enemies created by the overbearing presence
of U.S. ground forces is not the strategic purpose for which
U.S. forces should fight, then what is the purpose? As they begin
to contemplate the use of American military power after Iraq,
policymakers should consider the following points:

First, interventions to remove
genuine threats to U.S. and allied security interests should
not involve U.S. military occupations that have no chance of
altering cultures, societies or peoples fundamentally different
from us. America cannot financially sustain open-ended military
interventions in failing or failed societies with the object
of imposing cultural change through military occupation to convert
developing societies’ social, political and economic structures
into modern Western institutions. Not only do these operations
involve expensive, long-term military garrisons on foreign territory,
but the probability of success for these interventions, as seen
throughout most of the 20th century, is very, very low.

Second, the principal strategic
purpose for which the U.S. armed forces must be ready to fight
in the 21st century is not the forcible installation of Western-style
democracy in societies where the conditions conducive to the
rule of law and democratic development do not exist. Rather,
the use of American military power will involve guaranteeing
commercial access and, if the president and Congress deem it
necessary, extending American influence to geographical areas
vital to U.S. and allied prosperity and security.

Owing to the geographical positions
of those areas most important to American economic interests–the
Persian Gulf, West Africa, the Sea of Japan, the South China
Sea, the Caribbean basin, the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean–any
strategy to preserve access to these areas is exceptionally well-suited
to the use of air and naval power. Moreover, unchallenged American
control of the oceans and the air gives the U.S. the opportunity
to wage war on its own terms, at places and under conditions
of its own choosing. Whatever we undertake on land should exploit,
not ignore, this enormous strategic advantage.

Third, the security interests
beyond America’s borders that prompt U.S. military intervention
rarely justify the mobilization of the nation’s entire military
power. In fact, the strategic imperative that emerges from this
analysis is the avoidance of total war along with the mobilization
of America’s human and industrial capacities that total war entails.
This will not eliminate the need to guarantee access by occasionally
disembarking ground forces from the sea and the air at points
along the Eurasian, African or South American periphery–potentially
hundreds of miles away from the target–and then moving these
forces rapidly over land to the strategic objective.

However, the ongoing proliferation
of weapons of mass destruction will make the massing of large
ground forces extremely dangerous. Consequently, future expeditionary
forces must mobilize organic combat power that is disproportionate
to their size and numbers and execute mobile, distributed, yet
coherent joint operations. This description points toward joint
expeditionary forces designed for operations of limited duration
and scope, forces that can be organized, trained and equipped
at far lower cost than mass armies creat¬ed for long-term
territorial conquest and occupation.

Fourth, military transformation
must be viewed in the context of the strategic, operational and
tactical problems the joint force is being asked to solve today
and the problems it is likely to face in the future. Once these
problems are understood, the joint force can begin changing the
way it operates and fights, and initiate the process of selecting
the most promising technology options to achieve the desired

The challenges to transformation
might end there, except that the nation’s flag officers tend
to operate with single-service frames of reference that define
the questions about military power and preordain the answers
that they find acceptable. Officers who want to become generals
or admirals buy into what questions are acceptable to ask, as
well as what answers their superiors will tolerate. The consequence
of this cultural environment is that spending on defense guarantees
nothing, civilian control of the military is negligible and a
host of military structures and supporting institutional concepts
of warfare with their roots in World War II and the Cold War
persist into the present, even though they are no longer congruent
with the nation’s strategic needs. The Army’s Future Combat Systems
, the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle , the Air
Force’s F-22 and the Navy’s DD1000 collectively exemplify the
problem. On the grounds of cost overruns and strategic irrelevance,
all should be canceled.

Understanding the combined
power of a massive, permanent defense establishment and defense
industry together with a political system that relies on millions
in donations for elections makes it difficult, if not impossible,
for Congress to exercise effective oversight. This is why the
president and secretary of defense must hold flag officers accountable
for the readiness of their forces to deploy and fight, for the
results–good and bad–that they produce, and how much blood
and treasure they spend to achieve their aims. They must demand
that flag officers conduct military operations with an appreciation
of the direct impact of their actions on the nation’s fiscal
health and the government’s political fortunes and keep in mind
that "military" decisions must not be made in isolation
from political realities, as Carl von Clausewitz cogently demonstrated
long ago.


Who should command? Is the
commander successful, and how should he fight? These questions
should be asked before, during and after military operations.
In retrospect, the answers always seem self-evident, because
for victory to occur, the winning commander and his force must
do most things right, while the losing side must do many, many
things wrong.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., stunned
the Washington community by having the temerity to question the
competence and truthfulness of America’s senior military leaders
in Washington and Baghdad. For some reason, questioning the decisions
and actions of senior officers who decide the life or death of
our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines made Reid a target
for attack from his political opponents. This was unfortunate,
because Reid sent a powerful but belated message that professional
competence and character under fire should trump fluff and PowerPoint
briefings in wartime, the stock and trade of too many flag officers.

The quality of performance
must count even when the results are not always the ones originally
intended. This is why it is a measure of the frightening disengagement
of civilian leadership that the president and the secretary of
defense have never acted to relieve a single general officer
of command for failure to perform in Iraq or Afghanistan, despite
an impreWsive record of failure in each case.

Indeed, the principal overseer
of American military forces in Iraq for much of the occupation,
Gen. George Casey, was promoted to Army chief of staff after
his strategy failed miserably. One cannot help but make the comparison
to Gen. William Westmoreland, who was made Army chief of staff
after the strategically disastrous Tet Offensive in 1968. Since
the civilians in charge were obviously not happy with developments
in Southwest Asia, they must have thought that it was not their
role to interfere, a mind-set that seemingly contradicts the
whole concept of civilian control of the military. Again, the
comparisons of Casey and Westmoreland are instructive.

The bad news is that experience
in Iraq has not fundamentally changed the thinking, organization
or equipment of the Army and the Marine Corps. While the lethality
of every weapon in ground combat continues to rise, as seen recently
in the fight between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon,
the level of armor protection, firepower and off-road mobility
for soldiers and Marines continues to fall based on a warfare
mentality that is delusional–a mind-set that exalts the dismounted
rifleman inside communication networks based on the false promise
of perfect information.

As repeatedly demonstrated
in the towns and cities of Iraq, dismounted riflemen sent against
insurgents, rebels or terrorists who use improvised explosives,
mines and anti-armor weapons are doomed to fight the enemy’s
war on the enemy’s terms. They are effectively denied surprise
and security, their tactical intelligence is extremely limited,
and they have no significant edge in armored protection, mobility
or firepower. In the 21st century, the goal is to destroy the
enemy, not hold ground. Attrition battles that pit Americans
with rifles against enemies with rifles favor the enemy, not


In time of peace or war, civilians
who command America’s defense establishment must not allow the
nation’s military leaders the freedom to develop military strategy
in isolation, to define their own programs and priorities, control
their own funding lines, and then rate their own effectiveness.
Clemenceau’s dictum, "War is too important to be left to
the generals," applies with equal force to the conduct of
military operations and, in particular, spending for military

Today, unity of effort in military
operations is more vital than ever and the importance of minimizing
losses in our ground forces cannot be overstated, but the initiative
to change the way conventional forces organize, train and equip
will not come from the ranks of the flag officers. Flag officers
in Washington love to talk about change in warfare so much that
embracing military transformation becomes a tired cliché.
Modernization is not rationalized for new strategic settings.
In reality, preserving existing command structures and career
patterns, papering over internal bureaucratic inefficiencies,
deflecting serious questions about spending, and maintaining
as much of the organizational and institutional status quo as
possible are the pre-eminent goals of the military bureaucracy.

In a fiscally constrained environment,
the nation must re-examine the roles and missions of its armed
forces, especially its land warfare services–the Army and Marine
Corps. Both are required to deliver ground forces by air and
sea to crises and conflicts. Together, the active components
of these forces number roughly 675,000, an impressive total by
any standard. However, these numbers are not very meaningful
within the current organizational structures as seen in Iraq
and Afghanistan.

Both services remain organized
and equipped to execute operations in accordance with their long
and distinguished histories. Today, any enemy that attempts to
defend a beach will be targeted and destroyed from the air. The
more likely scenario involves area-denial operations that capitalize
on sea mines and unmanned systems to protect critical approaches
from the sea, while dispersed enemy forces (nonstate or state
actors) defend from positions inland. Yet, the Marine Corps remains
focused on the conduct of single-service "force entry"
amphibious operations against defended beaches.

Contrary to its public claims,
the Army remains wedded to the massive application of men and
firepower inside large division and corps structures with their
roots in World War II, structures that include airborne, armored
and motorized divisions that have no useful purpose in the modern
era. In a strategic setting where technology and threats are
causing missions to converge, the fundamental structures and
purposes of these two services must be re-examined and, ultimately,

Reorganizing the manpower and
capabilities in these large forces within an integrated, joint
operational framework to provide a larger pool of ready, deployable
ground forces on rotational readiness that can perform a range
of missions is essential. These missions include striking inland
from points along the periphery of Eurasia, Africa, and Central
and South America to destroy enemy regimes, WMD and long-range
(strategic) weapons, or temporarily seize key facilities or points
on the ground; carry out armed reconnaissance operations, and
train and support allied forces; and seize or liquidate terrorist
cells and carry out non-combatant evacuations.

These reorganized ground forces
would be mobile, armored forces with significant organic firepower
and integrated infantry, not light infantry-based forces. How
fast ground forces deploy is less important than what they do
after they arrive and the tactical skill with which they are
employed. Ground forces that capitalize on mobile armored firepower
can take punches and keep fighting without taking heavy casualties,
provided these forces are not road-bound and not committed in
ways the enemy can easily predict. Ground forces operating in
a manner within the strategic framework presented here would
also allow for the economic maintenance of a credible nuclear
force, as well as the security of the nation’s borders, coasts
and air space–a mission set that must involve more of the nation’s
military capability than it has to date.


If we do not abandon the current
strategy of intervention, destruction and occupation to spread
democracy, America will end up like the circled wagon trains
of the Old West–surrounded by hostile Indian tribes, but with
no U.S. cavalry riding to the rescue, because they’re also behind
the wagons. Fortunately, there is another way.

Politicians can accept America’s
economic and military limitations and reorient the direction
of U.S. national security policy to the traditional English-speaking
policy of making the American way of life attractive to others.
However, harnessing American military power to this approach
will still require more change. This change involves a new attitude
among civilian leaders in all American branches of government.
All branches must hold commanders of U.S. forces around the world
accountable for what happens, and replace commanders who do not
produce results. In addition, Congress must be far less willing
in the future to go along with any aggressive military action
an over-eager president decides to conduct.

In warfare, as in wrestling,
the attempt to throw the opponent without first weakening his
foothold and upsetting his balance results in self-exhaustion.
Without a coherent military strategy or attainable political
objectives beyond the vague desire to transform non-European
societies and cultures into replicas of English-speaking democracy,
American ground forces will fall into the trap of brutal raids,
patrols and checkpoints, forgetting that no local government
can be legitimate and tolerate foreign occupation for long.

Today, any insistence on simplistic
formulas that see the world in terms of good and evil will reinforce
the blatant disregard for the cultures of people different from
us, and the driving forces of state interest and power. This
mentality has worn out America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and
Marines, along with most of their fighting equipment. The next
president and secretary of defense will have to cope with the
fallout and make fiscal caution an executive fixation.

Selecting, educating and cultivating
the right officers within a professional framework based on merit,
not nepotism, is vital. Winning combinations of policymakers,
military leaders and formulas for military success along with
the conditions of unchallenged military superiority they create
do not emerge suddenly or swiftly. They are never permanent.

Like international systems,
military leadership and thinking should be dynamic. Technology
is perpetually changing. The demand for new operational concepts
and innovative organizations for combat is never-ending. Thus,
decisions that determine the senior leadership, organization
and equipment of military establishments, and that occur in the
20 or even five years leading up to the wartime collision, are
decisive factors in the complex calculus of victory, often more
decisive in their impact than what happens when the fighting
takes place.

With the right senior officers
and selection system in place, and civilian leadership able to
distinguish careerism from professionalism and willing to punish
the former and reward the latter, the next president can resolutely
implement a new military strategy. Most important, doing what
every presidential administration has done since 1945–going
to war with the senior leadership and the force they found on
taking office–is no longer an option. If the next administration
repeats this mistake, as did the Johnson and the Bush administrations,
we will continue to muddle through trying to buy everything and
win nothing.

Inside defense, there is far
too much management and committee work with diluted and dispersed
authority and responsibility, and far too little leadership with
centralized and delegated authority and responsibility. This
is especially true for the civilians, but the criticism applies
to many of the flag officers in the higher headquarters, as well.
The next president and his secretary of defense should routinely
remind themselves of Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s advice to Theodore
Roosevelt when he assumed his duties as assistant secretary of
the Navy: "Sir, no service can or should be expected to
reform itself."

Douglas Macgregor is a retired Army colonel and a decorated
Persian Gulf War combat veteran. He is the author of " HREF="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0275957942/counterpunchmaga">Breaking
the Phalanx" and Transformation
under Fire: Revolutionizing the Way America Fights
Macgregor served in the first Gulf War and at Supreme Headquarters
Allied Powers Europe during the Kosovo Air Campaign. He was an
adviser to the Department of Defense on initial Second Gulf War
plans and is an expert on defense policy issues of organization
and transformation.