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One of the rituals attending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when our opponents score a goal, is for an American general to materialize before the press and announce, in his best miles gloriosus manner, that “we face a thinking enemy.” Wow. Who ever would have imagined that the enemy might think and learn?
The latest example followed the insurgents’ success in shooting down seven American helicopters in Iraq. According to the February 18 New York Times, Major General James E. Simmons, an Army aviator, told reporters, “We are engaged with a thinking enemy.” General Simmons should know; the mujaheddin shot down his helicopter on January 25, fortunately with no casualties.
One of the most basic phenomena of war is that the enemy thinks and learns. It doesn’t always happen; an example of an enemy who did not think and learn was the Japanese submarine service in World War II. It kept on doing what it knew didn’t work right through to the end. The result was about a 1:1 exchange ratio between Japanese submarines and their targets, a truly remarkable achievement in the annals of submarine warfare.
But it is so routine for an enemy to think and adapt that it is difficult to imagine one that did not. In fact, such an exercise might prove enlightening. What characteristics might a non-thinking enemy have?
First of all, such a military would have to be highly centralized. Decisions should be made as remotely from the battlefield as possible, with layers of middle and senior management given a veto over any new ideas or adaptations. Someone, in some headquarters, is bound to veto anything.
It would help if all headquarters were as large as possible. Not only would this maximize veto powers, it would also ensure that all decisions were made on a lowest-common-denominator basis. Usually, all large groups can agree on is maintaining the status quo.
Senior decision-makers should not be focused on the war. Their “real world” should be as disconnected as possible from battlefield results. Over-concern with bureaucratic empire-building, budget politics and personal career success are all useful tools for attaining this important disconnect.
A non-thinking military’s feedback mechanisms should ensure that only good news is sent up the chain. The higher the level of command — including the nation’s political leadership — the stronger the demand to suppress bad news should be. Messengers with bad news should routinely be shot, or at least exiled.
To maintain its opacity of mind, a non-thinking military should be insular. It should be careful not to look at the experiences of other militaries, historical or contemporary. A general spirit of false pride and bravado is always helpful in maintaining insularity. Past failures can be blamed on someone else.
An excellent means to ensure that thought is suppressed is to contract thinking out. Contractors could care less about truth; their measure of success is profits. Since the awarding of contracts is in the hands of senior officers whose desire to avoid adaptation is well known, contractors’ unwillingness to suggest new ideas can be guaranteed. If most contractors are retired senior officers to whom any change would be an attack on their “legacies,” so much the better. In the cause of not thinking, billions to contractors is money well spent.
Finally, a useful way to discourage thinking among junior leaders is to try to wage war by rote process. Those processes are developed and dictated downward by the same large headquarters whose inherent aversion to thought has already been noted. Better, those same headquarters control training; soldiers and junior leaders who have been trained in obsolete tactics will have more trouble adapting than people with no training.
Despite all these powerful institutional incentives to stifle thought, the regrettable fact remains that junior levels of command, up through company and sometimes battalion, will still want to think and adapt, because they want to stay alive and even to win. Every effort must therefore be made to ensure they have to fight the system each–step of the way in order to change something. The old bureaucratic rule, “Delay is the surest form of denial,” is helpful here. This brings us back to the importance of centralization and large headquarters.
Some may object that a military so carefully structured not to think is hard to imagine in the real world. That is true, since its fate would be so sure. What kind of government would be so corrupt, so unconcerned about the security of the state it leads and the vast sums it would be wasting as to tolerate such a military? Simple self-preservation would dictate sweeping military reform.
Of course, it would be anyone’s dream to have a non-thinking military like the one I have described as an opponent. Any thinking military, even one with the most paltry of resources, could look forward to victory presented on a silver platter.
Who might have such exquisite good fortune and vast favor of the gods as to acquire a non-thinking military as their enemy? Anyone who fights us.
WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.