The View From Olympus: Lessons Learned?

I recently received a copy of a brilliant after-action report, written by a Marine company commander and based on the lessons his company learned in Afghanistan. I will not name him here, because in the U.S. military no intellectual attainment goes unpunished. But he is clearly a serious student of military theory, especially Col. John Boyd’s work, his understanding of which goes far beyond the usual OODA Loop. His report tells of something; rare and of great value, namely how he successfully translated theory into actions and results.

He wrote his report as part of the Marine Corps Lessons Learned Program. But the name of that program raises an interesting question: have we actually learned any lessons from our defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The answer is clearly yes at the level of procedures and techniques. The U.S. armed forces have large bureaucracies and ranks of overpaid contractors endlessly churning new procedures and techniques. The best almost always come not top-down but bottom-up, as discoveries made by sergeants and lieutenants in direct contact with the enemy. Sometimes those are embraced by the larger service, but in general they prefer those which come top-down, both for budgetary and cultural reasons.

But this focus on procedures and techniques is itse1f a warning sign that we are dealing with a Second Generation military. Both the First and the Second Generation seek to turn everything into procedures and techniques, which are taught, learned, and applied by rote. Too often, one result is that tactics are subsumed by procedures and techniques, as is evident in the U.S. military’s frequent reference to “TTPs”, i.e., Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures. Tactics done by rote are predictable, and a thinking enemy quickly learns how to negate them and turn them to his advantage.

If we ask whether any lessons in tactics have been learned from our defeats, the general answer seems to be no. For the most part, our infantry has one tactic: bump into the enemy and call for fire. The resulting firestorm, often delivered by aircraft, may kill some enemy but also moves us closer to defeat at the moral level, where in the end Goliath always loses.

The Marine captain’s after-action report shows how lessons in tactics should be learned. Drawing from Boyd’s three levels of war, physical, mental, and moral, he writes:

Mental isolation occurs when the insurgent fails to discern, perceive, or make sense out of what’s going on around them. We were able to accomplish this by presenting them with ambiguous, deceptive, or novel situations, we well as by operating at a tempo and rhythm they can neither make out nor keep up with. During Operation . . . we conducted a night time heliborne multi-point infiltration of . . . using 16 different maneuver elements——all operating decentralized and along different avenues of approach; each going after a specific center of gravity. . . we changed the color of our utilities randomly . . . often patrolling with a hodgepodge of color schemes. This gave off the appearance that multiple “different” units were constantly operating in the area . . . We altered our patrol times, routes, durations, and missions constantly. . . Each entity was further broken down into multiple satellite units; each able to zigzag, double-back, revolve, and execute the swinging gate in support of the main effort . . .

The value here comes from the fact that the captain is describing applied theory. Other commanders can learn new tactics not by copying his, but by applying the same theory, John Boyd’s, to their unique situations. This is what maneuverists mean when we say tactics is not what to do but how to think.

At the operational and strategic levels, it is safe to say we have learned nothing. The central operational lesson is that neither the U.S. nor any other state has so far figured out how to generate operational success in 4GW, i.e., how to connect tactical successes to strategic victory. Had we learned this lesson, we would now see the U.S. armed forces engaging in a massive intellectual effort to answer that question. In fact, only the K.u.K. Austro-Hungarian Marine Corps has attempted to do so in a series of Field Manuals available here. From the Americans, the silence is deafening.

The central operational lesson points to the central strategic lesson: don’t engage in wars we don’t know how to win. President Obama seems to have learned that lesson, but that makes him an exception in Washington, where both neo-cons and neo-libs pant for more wars against ISIS and other Fourth Generation entities. It is as if France, after 1940, had sought more opponents with tank armies to go up against (or around) the Maginot Line. favicon