Good book review of an interesting book: in today’s UK Financial Times:
The man who coined the ‘shock and awe’ strategy explains the US military’s dismal record. Washington thought Vietnam would be the next communist domino to fall. People who knew it understood this was a war of self-determination. How long does it take for the US military to admit defeat? The answer is forever, according to Harlan Ullman.
Today there are US soldiers deployed in Afghanistan who were one year-olds when the war began. Yet the Taliban is no closer to being banished than it was in 2001. Indeed, it occupies considerably more of the country today than it did two years ago. In the meantime, the US presence has fluctuated from a few thousand troops to more than 100,000 and back again. Each president thinks he has found the key to winning the conflict. Every time, the key breaks. Yet the Pentagon refrain continues: “Give me the tools and I will finish the job.
If there was a president who might have resisted the “deep state” it was Donald Trump. He campaigned against America’s endless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He won the mandate to say “no” to the Pentagon. Yet, in power, Mr Trump has given the Pentagon everything it has requested — and more. For the first time in modern US history, military commanders have discretion to make large battlefield decisions without civilian approval. Last year, the Pentagon took advantage of its new latitude to drop the “mother of all bombs” — the largest non-nuclear weapon in history — on an Isis-occupied warren of caves in eastern Afghanistan. “We have the greatest military in the world,” said Mr Trump. “We have given them total authorisation and that is what they are doing.” Alas, Isis is still there.
Ullman’s subtitle is a pardonable exaggeration. Occasionally the US wins wars it did not start — such as its 1991 liberation of Kuwait. For the most part, though, he is right. From the deadly stalemate in Korea in 1950 that holds to this day, to the Vietnam war, the second Iraq war, and Afghanistan, the world’s greatest military has a poor record. Individual battles are no problem. There is not an army in the world that could stand up to the Americans in a fair fight. But winning wars is a different matter. What is the problem? Ullman is a good person to answer the question. Having fought in Vietnam as a Swift Boat captain, he is a veteran of the US’s most costly defeat. He is also a respected military strategist on the Washington scene. As an instructor at the Naval War College in the 1990s, he coined the strategy of “shock and awe” that was put to devastating use in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. As a friend and sometime adviser to figures including Robert McNamara, the former secretary of defence, and Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, Ullman understands their weak spots.
He has three explanations. First, the US keeps electing poorly qualified presidents. Second, they keep making strategic mistakes. As Mr Trump is showing, the less experienced the president, the more likely they are to take advice from the military. But the Pentagon should not be entrusted with strategic decisions. That is the job of the civilian who is elected to be their commander-in-chief. Just as often, presidents invent their own blunders. John F Kennedy’s presidency was almost upended when he took the Central Intelligence Agency’s advice to launch a botched invasion of Cuba. George W Bush thought that Iraq’s defeat would deflate tyrants everywhere. Barack Obama believed the Taliban would fall for his “Hello, I must be going” temporary surge in Afghanistan.
Two exceptions were Dwight Eisenhower, who had been commander of US forces in Europe, and George H W Bush, who had been head of the CIA. Bush Senior wisely stopped the 1991 invasion of Iraq long before it reached Baghdad. Bush Junior was clearly not paying attention.
Ullman’s third explanation — that American forces lack cultural knowledge of the enemy — is where he is most scathing. “Ignorance of the local situation is . . . embedded in our decision-making DNA,” he writes. “Too often, American leaders have believed that the enemy is always thinking as we do.” Perhaps the best example of this was seen in Vietnam. Washington thought it would be the next communist domino to fall. People who knew the country understood this was a war of self-determination. Ullman’s thesis can be boiled down to one phrase: too much muscle; not enough thinking. He recommends a “brains-based” approach. That would be a good place to start. Intelligent volunteers should begin by reading his book.
The writer is the FT’s Washington columnist and commentator