On War #84

Learning Curve

By William S. Lind

Last week, I attended and spoke at a conference on armor in urban operations, put on by the U.S. Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. In listening to the other presentations, the question I was asking myself was, "What are these guys learning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan?"

The question is an important one, because war is a competition in learning curves. Whoever consistently learns faster acquires an increasing advantage. This is the Boyd Cycle or OODA Loop at work on the macro level, and just as in the micro level of actual combat, it is an important determinant of victory or defeat.

So what did I discover? At the level of techniques, when actual units briefed, the learning curve seemed impressive. They had quickly figured out that while techniques tend to be regarded in peacetime as static, in combat they become dynamic: you can't use yesterday's techniques that are always done the same way, the new priority becomes adapting and inventing techniques. Again, the combat units I heard brief seemed to have gotten this. They were innovating intelligently, in ways that were relevant to the situation in Iraq as it is, not as we might like it to be.

When we moved up a level, from units that have actually fought to institutions, the picture immediately got cloudy. Here, the internal priorities of budget and bureaucratic politics still hold sway, despite the fact that we are fighting two wars. One example was a brief from the Marine Corps "Battle Lab" at Quantico (the term is a misnomer: the office is about budgets, not battles, and unlike a laboratory, it does demonstrations, not experiments). The briefing stated at the outset that the keys to success in wars like that in Iraq are "Increased Lethality and Improved Protection."

Well, no. We already have vast advantages over our Fourth Generation opponents in both lethality and protection, yet we're losing. That suggests there is rather more to Fourth Generation war than lethality and protection. Indeed, we have so much of both of those qualities that they may work against us more than for us. Recently, the lethality of U.S. Army attack helicopters was turned on a crowd of young men and boys gathered around a burning Bradley, with catastrophic results for our image among Iraqis. And our Force Protection already seals us off from the people we are supposed to be helping, turning us into an alien and threatening presence. At the mental and moral levels of war, we may need less lethality and protection rather than more.

This points to the big disappointment in all of what I heard at the conference. It was all focused on the physical level of war, to the virtual exclusion of the more powerful mental and moral levels. At the mental level, there were a few mentions of PSYOPS, but even these were misconceived as what we say. Real PSYOPS are what we do, like stepping on the heads of detainees. Only one briefing grasped this essential point.

Of the moral level of war, which John Boyd argued is the most powerful level, there was nothing. Worse, there was no discussion of the central dilemma in Fourth Generation war, that what wins at the physical level tends to lead to defeat at the moral level. Goliath may mop the floor with his smaller, weaker opponents, but in doing so he makes himself universally hated.

In classic Second Generation fashion, the assumption behind almost all the briefings was that if we can only accumulate enough tactical victories, we are certain to win strategically as well. Vietnam should have put an end to this simplistic belief, but the lessons of Vietnam were filed and forgotten almost as soon as that war was over.

The fault here is not that of the combat units, which were doing all they could to get their learning curve up, within the understanding of war that they have. The fault lies with those institutions within our military, such as TRADOC and the "Battle Lab," that are supposed to grapple with the larger, conceptual issues. They have failed for years to do their job, and they are failing still. Their learning curves are as flat as the landscape of the Sunni triangle, where our soldiers and Marines are doomed to continue winning lost victories.

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William S. Lind is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation

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