Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Book Review: The Echo of Battle

“Armies always prepare to fight the last war.” The Army is accused of preparing for the Cold War/World War III and then fighting an insurgency in Iraq. The Army is now as prepared, as it ever will be, to fight the war in Iraq. In two years (or hopefully less) this will be the last war. The Army is again ready to fight the last war –Iraq. But in reality we could end up in any of several types of war, and as the 3d Infantry Division found in Baghdad, the type can change overnight. Since the M-2 Crystal Ball is hopelessly stuck in development, how does the US Army determine what the next war will be like, and prepare for it?

Echo of BattleBook Review: The Echo of Battle: The Army's Way of War
Brian McAllister Linn
Harvard University Press

Brian McAllister Linn’s latest book looks at the question of how the Army thinks about preparing for the next war. He identifies three intellectual traditions in the Army with very different ideas on the nature of war, and what will be needed, and how to prepare for it. During peacetime when they look at past wars they see different things that contributed to success or failure, and advocate different virtues approaches and solutions. The Army’s preparations for the next war are based on the interplay of these traditions. All of them have made major contributions and all of them have been the source of significant problems. Officers of each tradition have been excellent commanders and notable failures. When each tradition listens to the lessons past wars and draws conclusions it is influenced by it’s values, thus it hears only The Echo of Battle it expects.

These different traditions have dominated at different times. These are tendencies; individual officers may have ideas that are from two or even all three schools. No tradition has ever been so suppressed that in need it could not reassert itself. Each will propose it’s own explanations for success and failure. The success or (more often) failure of these traditions to interact with each other and larger events provide the intellectual framework how the Army prepares to fight the next war.

Guardian - Fort Drum, Mainila Bay PIThe Guardian sees war as in exercise of Science.

War can be reduced to a Science and correct action is deduced. Basically an engineering project, apply the right formulas and win. Victories are explained as the result of good doctrine and equipment, a defeat means there was some defect the doctrine or equipment, a reason for more study of the science of war in the future. The political assumptions of the Guardians are that the world is a cruel and brutal place and war could be imposed on us with no notice. It is usually associated with the assumption that US military policy is defensive, offensive action at the national level is not taken except in response to other countries actions or to defend vital national interests. The 19th century Coast Defenses are the classic example of their influance. Small wars are side shows which divert resources. The purpose of the Army is to deter war more than fight a war. This assumes very little diplomatic or political involvement; some one attacks and we defeat them and let the diplomats sort it out later.

At it’s best it places good equipment in the hands of the troops with good tactical/operational doctrine to use it. At it’s worst, when war is not deterred, it does not have a National Military Strategy to implement the doctrine and equipment it provides.

Managers - Normandy LandingsThe Manager sees war as an activity to be Managed.

It sees modern war as the mobilization of societies fielding large armies to win a war for national survival, or a crusade for some great goal. War requires careful planning for the organization and mobilization of society to create a mass army. The use of standardized programs and equipment is the only way to manage these large forces. It tends to de-emphasize human factors. WWII, which was a manager’s war in many respects, is the war where American soldiers started calling themselves GI’s (Government Issue.) The invasion of Northwest Europe in WWII is it's greatest sucess. When a war occurs it dominates all aspects of society. During a war political activity is subordinated to the great goal. Again this assumes very little political or diplomatic involvement and then at the service of the war effort, after the victory the diplomats will work out (dictate) the peace.

At it’s best it enables the deployment of large forces to fight major enemies and ensures that the troops in the field are the best-supplied army in the world. At it’s worst it promotes bureaucratic stagnation, and overlooks the fighting of small wars.

Hero's - Battle of ChippewaThe Hero sees war as a Human endeavor.

People fight wars, thus the traditional military virtues of courage, character, and loyalty are essential to any successful operation. While the Guardians and Managers are engineering and managing for the next war, the Heroes were the line soldiers who fought Indians, pacified the Philippines, chased Poncho Villa, and made the surge in Baghdad. They fought the in front line of all the major wars. They know that a war cannot be considered won if you just win the battle; there has to be a political solution. They also know that without a military victory you cannot get a political solution. They are inclined to value the moral over the material, sometimes to the disregard of modern technology. Their endeavors fall apart for ad hoc design and poor management.

At their best they provide decisive battle leadership and an ability to adapt to whatever they find. At the worst they are the officers in the 1930’s who believed the élan of a cavalry charge could defeat machine guns.

Linn’s concept places a different perspective on debates about preparing for war. Each tradition is not monolithic and can have different viewpoints within it. For example Linn says that the famous Air Corp-Coast Artillery debates were within the Guardian tradition.Debates are often between traditions not old and new, or old and new in a tradition without much reference to others. What may seem to be progressive original “out of the box” thinking may actually be a very conservative exposition of a different tradition.

Of course when a war comes the Army meets a very hardheaded reality, and none of the traditions sees this reality as a whole, thus the Army is often not prepared to fight that war. If the Army is to be prepared to fight the next war, or adapt to the war it finds, rather than what it has prepared for, all three traditions need to be in serious discussion with each other.

Analysis and Opinion

Army ColorsLinn’s concepts bring to mind Russell Weigliey’s The American Way of War a History of the United States Military Strategy and Policy. He builds on Weigliey’s work providing significant new understanding.

Weigliey’s major theme was that when circumstances allow the American Way of War is to seek out and destroy the enemies armed forces and/or ability to wage war. Attrition and indirect strategies are only adopted out of necessity. When the enemies ability to wage war is destroyed the situation is turned over to the politicians and diplomats for a political solution. Both Linn’s Guardian and Manager traditions are different ideas on how to do this. Even the Hero tradition, which sees the need for the political solution sees a military solution as perquisite.

Another of Weigley’s themes was the dichotomy of a Regular Army that thinks it’s mission is to fight European type armies, the most difficult and dangerous opposition, and directs most it’s intellectual effort is how to fight them - but spent most of it’s history as a frontier and later colonial constabulary fighting indians and guerillas, the most common mission. In Linn we see that contrast in greater detail. While their documentary history is not as clear, Linn shows that the Heroes represent a constant intellectual tradition in how to prepare and fight wars, which has made a major contribution to the Army. Weigley writing from the Manager tradition tends to see them as outside the intellectual tradition of the Army.

One thing that struck me was how often the “datum” that was missed by all three traditions in planning for the next war was the future decisions of our political leadership. One of the best examples Linn sites is Lieutenant General John Schofield, then a former General in Chief of the Army saying that “foreign conquest and permanent occupation are not a part of the policy of this country” and just over a year later the US declared war on Spain. Since this was not a policy of the country there was no need to prepare the Army for it. In stating this I think Schofield was not only stating his strong personal and professional values but the prevailing consensus in the country. He would most likely have been pilloried if he had said “foreign conquest and permanent occupation are a part of the policy of this country” To a greater or lesser degree the possible conflicts envisioned by our political leadership, and which the Army was directed to prepare for, were not the ones that developed. But then if the political leadership had envisioned them they may have prevented them.

While Linn limits the topic to the Army’s internal debates, these traditions seem, especially since WWII, to reflect the similar views of the broader defense community and to US perceptions on warfare generally. The traditions exist (and perhaps others) across the Defense Department and broader defense community. Except for breaking discussions into manageable portions I am not sure the Army’s intellectual discussions can be still treated independently of the larger Defense discussion. For example, he sees the Wineberger/Powell Doctrine of fighting only for essential national interests, with popular support, in quick overwhelming decisive campaigns as an expression of the Guardian tradition. But the Rumsfeld “transformation” is also an expression of the Guardian tradition. The difference being the Wineberger/Powell envisioned a key role, in conjunction with the other services, for the Army (a role with which the Army was comfortable, perhaps too comfortable); but Rumsfeld’s vision gave the impression that the eventually the Army would be relegated to base guards and target spotters. This may help explain why the Army did not get along well with Secretary Rumsfeld. I get the impression that pre-9/11 the Army was only a marginal, and perhaps unwelcome, participant in much of the discussions that led to the “transformation” policy. It is not enough that the Army's three traditions are in discussion with each other but they must also be in a serious discussion with their counter parts in the larger Defense community, to ensure the oppertunities and problems of ground combat are taken into account, and the Army receives instructions to prepare for a future war that has a basis in reality.

The Army prior to 9/11 was not prepared to fight the Cold War/World III, as the accusation I began this post claims, it was prepared to execute the Wineberger/Powell doctrine, the last coherent political direction it received. This was useful for “major combat operations" in Iraq: but was not what was needed or the “minor combat operations” that followed. The Runsfeld transformation doctrine weakened the march to Baghdad and except for providing good air support weapons was not much use for fighting the insurgency. Of course an insurgency is a “Hero’s war."


Solidiers 1775-2007Best quote from the book. Linn quotes General Tommy Franks saying; “I’m a warfighter, not a manager”. In the footnote he comments “Franks is quite correct in his assessment of his managerial abilities”

This is a well written book that should be mandatory reading for Army officers and any one with a strong interest in military policy. For those who would only read two or three books on the subject The Echo of Battle should be one of them. STRONGLY RECCOMENDED,

Brian McAllister Linn is a History professor at Texas A&M University and the author of U.S.Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War 1899-1902, The Philippine War, Guardians of Empire, The U.S. Army in the Pacific 1902-1940 All of which are excellent. The Philippine War is an example of how military history should be written.

See Also

Reviews of Parameter articles.
Military Culture Wars
War Termination

How Not to Fix the Military

N.B. The pictures other than book cover are US governemnt art and in the public domain.

See Also

Carriers in the West Pacific
How Not to Fix the Military


El Jefe Maximo said...

Very cool picture of Fort Drum (on El Fraile, not NY). Have some more thoughts on this post...hope to write more later.

LFC said...

Thanks for the review. I may (or may not) have something substantive to say later.

hank_F_M said...

El Jefe/LFC

Thanks for reading. I am looking forward to any comment syou want to make.

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