It must be pretty obvious to those who follow this blog that I take a lot of what comes out of Washington with many grains of salt, but General Mark Milley, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, has some good advice for Americans and Canadians, too, for soldiers, for citizens and for political leaders, alike, in an article in the Army Times headlined “Future wars will be long, they’ll be fought on the ground, and spec ops won’t save us.” It is a refreshing dose of common sense from a seasoned soldier. General Milley attacks five all too prevalent myths:
- Wars will be short;
- You can win wars from afar;
- Special Forces can do it all;
- Armies are easy to create; and
- Armies fight wars.
With regard to the short war myth, he says that “There are wars that have been short in the past, but they’re pretty rare …[and] … Most of the time, wars take longer than people think they will at the beginning of those wars.” The article quotes him as saying that “Leaders tend to gloss over conflicts, describing them as a ”little dust-up,“ assuring everyone that victory will be quick …[but General Milley says] …
“Beware of that one,” he said. “Wars have a logic of their own sometimes, and they move in directions that are highly unexpected.”” Remember that people said, in 1914, that the troops would be “home by Christmas.” It’s a common failure of, especially, political leaders.
That is a lesson that Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper all learned the hard way during the dozen years of the Afghan War. Prime Minister Chrétien wanted a quick, relatively cheap and painless show of support for the USA and the UN Resolution, but it isn’t just wars that have a logic of their own … so, as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said, do “events,” and events transpired to draw Canada deeper and deeper into the Afghan War, partially in order to give Jean Chrétien’s Canada a politically palatable excuse to avoid joining in the US led Iraq debacle. It is a lesson that I suspect is not lost on General Jonathan Vance but the myth may be believed by e.g. Justin Trudeau, Gerald Butts and Harjit Sajjan.
Presidents Clinton and Obama seemed to me to be believers in the second myth, US bombs and missiles rained down all sorts of enemies … but to what effect? Did America “win” anything? General Milley says that ““wars are about politics. That’s what they’re about …[and] … They’re about imposing your political will, and they’re about people. And I can tell you with a high degree of certainty that human beings can survive horrific things from afar.”“
The article goes on to explain that General Milley “used his father’s experience as a Marine during World War II, storming Iwo Jima after 66 days of relentless bombing from the U.S. Army and naval air forces. His father, he said, was told that all of the Japanese soldiers on that island would have surely been killed …[and he said that] … “There’s no eight square miles of Earth that has ever received as much ordnance as the island of Iwo Jima. Almost all the Japanese survived,” he said. ”Life wasn’t good, they were drinking their own urine, they never saw the sunlight, they were deep buried under ground, and they weren’t happy campers – I got it. But they survived. They were ideologically committed to their cause, and they survived enough to kill 7,000 Marines when they hit the beach“ ..[and, General Milley added] … It’s a similar situation in the fight against ISIS now. U.S. and coalition forces were able to take back Mosul, but years of air campaigns couldn’t put a dent in the extremist group’s progress until boots got on the ground …[because, eventually] … “It took the infantry and the armor and the special operations commanders to go into that city, house by house, block by block, room by room, to clear that city,” he said. ”What I’m telling you is there’s a myth out there that you can win from afar. To impose your political will on the enemy typically requires you, at the end of the day, to close with and destroy that enemy up close with ground forces.”” See, also, my earlier ‘Future wars(6)‘ post about urban warfare.
Although he acknowledges that special operations forces played a role in the battle for Mosul, he reminds us, very correctly, that while “Special Operations Command has grown exponentially in both reach and prestige during the Global War on Terror … it is not a magic bullet … [General Milley said] … “I’m a proud Green Beret, love Special Forces ….[and] …. Special Forces are designatedSpecial Forces, with that name, for a reason. They are special. They do certain special activities, typically of a strategic nature … [but, despite their specialized training] … they are not designed to be plugged into a conflict to pull out a decisive victory … [thus] … “The one thing they are not designed to do is win a war … [and] … They can do raids, they can train other countries – there’s lots of other things they can do. Winning a war by themselves is not one of their tasks.”” That’s a vitally important point that our, Canadian academics, analysts, journalists, politicians and generals need to keep top of mind.
“Winning wars will take conventional troops to finish what Special Forces might have started … [General Milley says, and] … “There’s a myth that you can just throw Special Forces at it and it works – it’s magic dust,” he said. ”It’s great, but winning wars is not in their job jar …”“
The General then touches on what seems, to me, to still be, despite having been discredited by research and experience, a favourite Canadian myth: ““There’s a myth that you can just bring kids into the military, march them around a field a little bit, six to eight weeks of training and – boom – you’ve got an army” General Milley said, but that’s the “Wrong answer. It takes a considerable amount of time to build armies, navies, air forces and marine corps, especially in today’s environment with complex weapons systems.“” But Canadians, especially bean counters and some military leaders, remain wedded to the myth that our reserves are effective and can be, quickly, turned into fighting units … Not true! Most of our reserve regiments cannot even produce a worthwhile troop or platoon of, say, one junior officer and 30± trained soldiers. Our reserves cry out for reform but most ministers are either too smart or too lazy to try and make them effective.
Canada, back in the late 1940s and early 1950s accepted General and later President Dwight Eisenhower’s “trip wire” strategy which said that we, the Western allies, would not stand “shoulder to shoulder,” en masse, facing the Soviet’s hordes; instead we would deploy just enough forces, backed by lots of nuclear weapons, large and small, to make the Kremlin think twice about starting a war. Meanwhile, while Russia continued to waste money on huge conventional armies, we would invest in making better lives for our peoples. It forced us to redesign our military into two parts:
- A modern, professional, well equipped, combat ready permanent force; and
- A large reserve that could, reasonably quickly, be made effective.
We had both in the 1940s and ’50s; the reserves began to decline in the 1960s, the regular forces followed in the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau decided to starve them to (near) death. Admirals and generals and bureaucrats and academics and political so-called leaders have been lying to one another ~ and to Canadians ~ about the state of our defences for decades.
General Milley is quite correct to say: “you can’t just dial up an effective force at the drop of a hat.” Both regular and reserve forces need constant care and attention … what Pierre Trudeau did in the 1970s and what Justin Trudeau seems to be doing now is nothing short of dangerous.
An army (or navy or air force) is not a machine, stamped out and put together on an assembly line. It is, instead, a very human enterprise: if you starve it it will shrivel; if you ignore it then it will turn in wrong directions; if you abuse it it will, eventually, turn on you. If you nurture it ~ which doesn’t mean wasting money or fiddling about with rank badges and uniforms ~ it will be ready and able to defend you when needed. But first you have to create it, build it and then you have to keep it healthy.
Finally, General Milley makes a key point: the final myth is that “Armies fight wars.” Not so, General Milley says: ““We don’t. Armies don’t fight wars,” he said. “Navies, air forces – they don’t fight wars. Nations fight wars” … [thus] … In other words, Milley explained, to fight and win wars on behalf of the U.S. takes a buy-in at every level, from service member, civilian and government official alike … [and] … “It takes the full commitment of the entire nation to fight wars,” he said. ”We can do a raid real quick – that’s one thing. But war is a different thing, and it takes a nation to fight and win a war.”“
If we, citizens, and our teachers and journalists, our admirals and generals and our bureaucrats and politicians do not understand and believe that then we are doomed to be defeated, not necessarily in a war, we will defeated by actions short of war, by threats and bluster and bullying because the wars of the future are fought in office towers on Wall Street and Bay Street and in The City of London and in Central in Hong Kong, in movie theatres and on TV screens and, increasingly on social media and in public spaces. The aim is to force us to submit to the will, to the strategic aims of others without fighting. But the only way we can win the battles in the full spectrum of conflict, from bluster on Twitter all the way to armed combat is if we are, demonstrably, ready, willing and able to engage in combat … if it is apparent to our opponents and competitors that we cannot or will not fight for anything then they will simply walk over us, without firing a shot.