Why Do We Always Forget How to Wage Wars We Successfully Fought in the Past?

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Mr. Callahan is Professor of History (Emeritus), University of Delaware.

At first sight, the recurring difficulties experienced by conventional military forces when confronted by unconventional opponents is quite surprising.  Unconventional war – whether labeled insurgency, guerrilla war, asymmetrical war or some other label du jour – is as old as history, the natural response of those who feel unable to openly confront conventional opponents.  Yet armies, even quite good ones, often fumble their initial responses to such opponents, greatly complicating – and sometimes precluding – successful campaigns against them.  Why?  The answer will of course vary somewhat in each situation, but broadly speaking, three factors seem to constantly reappear: ingrained attitudes, defective institutional memory, and professional priorities.

Attitudes are the most obvious.  Professional military organizations have a hard time taking seriously as opponents (or allies, for that matter) those who do not look or behave in the least like themselves.  John Ford caricatured such attitudes in his classic 1948 western, “Fort Apache”; his West Point-trained colonel’s biases are the prelude to an Apache victory.  Ford had his finger on something all too real – and about to recur.  Only a few years later Lyndon Johnson famously (or notoriously) remarked that no group of “raggedy-assed little guerrillas in black pajamas” were going to defeat the armed forces of the United States.  It is easy to identify – indeed, to parody – such attitudes; harder to fix them.  After all, armies do need to prepare to confront their like.  Traditions of victory in such encounters foster pride and pride reinforces cohesion and morale, constituents of continuing victory.  It’s all too easy then for armies to assume that scruffy irregulars will pose no problem.  Since no one wants an army without belief in itself and pride in its record, how to prevent something valuable from leading to disaster when invoked in an unconventional situation?  Here is where institutional memory should come in.

The preservation of “lessons learned” in a military institution – at least beyond the professional lifetime of those who learned the lessons – is the job of staffs and the doctrine they create.  In the nineteenth century no army fought more “little wars” than the British.  Lacking a staff, however, the British Army never developed any doctrine on the subject.  The closest approach was an unofficial study, Major General Charles Calwell’s Small Wars – Their Principles and Practice (1896), which appeared only on the eve of the Boer War.  In that conflict the British Army had to develop its response to the challenge of guerrilla war on the fly, with predictable muddles, disasters and scandals.  When it was all over the British Army was reorganized and a general staff created.  Yet two decades later, confronted by another intractable insurgency (with an urban dimension not present in the Boer War), the British Army again found itself improvising a response.  The problem of institutional “forgetfulness,” even with a staff system and doctrine to preserve lessons learned takes us to the final item: the professional priorities of armies.

When the British Army reorganized after the Boer War, it was to configure itself to fight on the continent against the German Army.  A century of little wars and even the expensively purchased experience from South Africa were no longer of professional interest to the British Army or to its new general staff.  Then came World War I.  When unconventional war again became a concern in Ireland in 1919-20, an army that had been accustomed to thinking in terms of corps and army operations supported by artillery barrages and tactical air power found itself starting from scratch and handicapped, among other things, by the sense that the messy, ambiguous conflict in Ireland was not real soldiering (and would not advance anyone’s career).  That in turn made it easier to “outsource” counter-insurgency to an improvised special force, the Black and Tans, who – while certainly damaging the insurgents – inflicted far more collateral damage on the credibility and reputation of the British government. 

All this has obvious relevance to recent American military history.  The great formative moment in the U.S. Army’s twentieth century history was World War II.  That triumph of what the late Russell Weigley, in his most important book, The American Way of War, made the U.S. Army reluctant to reshape itself for a different type of conflict, especially with the Red Army sitting just over the horizon.  As Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl has shown in his penetrating Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (2002), this “Fulda Gap” mentality reasserted itself rapidly after the Vietnam War, aided by the understandable institutional desire to close the door on a very unhappy episode.  Careers were made by staying in the military mainstream, not by worrying about unconventional war – that could be left to a few (professionally marginalized) specialists.  When the next big conventional conflict came, it was not – fortunately – against the Red Army but against Iraq, a rather less formidable opponent.  The dazzling success the American military enjoyed in that Gulf war, however, served only to deepen its commitment to the “decisive battle” at precisely the moment when the likelihood of symmetrical war was rapidly receding.  And so we came to our current situation – a very good army once again finding that its finely honed skills and expensive equipment couldn’t cope with the situation it faced and forced to play costly catch-up, improvising equipment and revising techniques and updating doctrine as it went.

Does this always have to happen?  Once again, military history may have a hint to offer.  Britain in its Victorian imperial heyday had two armies: the regular British Army and the Indian Army.  That latter army fought continuously, for decades, on the Northwest Frontier of the Raj (today’s “Tribal Belt” of Pakistan) and found a way to preserve and pass on the lessons of its campaigns, gradually building up a formidable body of doctrine and expertise despite the absence through most of the period of either a general staff or any “lessons learned centers.”  Why?  Largely because in the officer corps of the Indian Army (separate from and rather disdained by the regular British Army) careers were made – or broken – on the Frontier.  Perhaps in the end, important as the collective memory of staffs and the cogency of doctrine are, what really determines the sort of response an army confronted with unconventional war can offer is the definition it has given to “real soldiering” and the promotion choices that definition drives.  Attitudes, it would seem, are central.

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Arnold Shcherban - 1/12/2008

It's only a variation of the issue you presented if the US is an neocolonial empire, which some even
most loyal to conservative thinking folks acknowledge today (though, on quite clear reasons, they call it just "empire").

Andrew D. Todd - 1/9/2008

This is a variation of the familiar "Why doesn't America have a Foreign Legion" discourse. The French Foreign Legion performed something of the same function for France that the Indian Army performed for England. The problem is that these auxiliary armies grew out of the colonial circumstances of the countries which formed them. They were not based in the home country, nor were they permanently based on small islands. An army is composed of young men, and young men cannot reproduce themselves without assistance. Over any length of time, an army has to have a civil population to live among.

The enlisted ranks of the Indian army, including warrant officers, were of course recruited from the "martial peoples" of the upland/desert regions of British India, that is, Rajputs, Pathans, Sikhs, and Gurkhas. This did not quite correspond with the landlord class of India, which was historically either Rajput or Turkish-Persian, and which had been more well-represented in the pre-mutiny army of the East India Company, but still, it was a reasonable approximation. Many of the areas from which the post-mutiny Indian Army recruited were not part of British India per se, but were "Princely States" (when a Gurkha was at home, he was a subject of the king of Nepal). British officers went on tour through the princely states, paying veterans' pensions, generally upholding the social status of the veterans, and recruiting young men on the recommendation of the veterans. There was a certain "co-extensiveness" of interests between the martial peoples and the landlord class. The Indian army was tiny, relative to the Indian population, perhaps one soldier for every one to three thousand inhabitants. Even before the 1857 Mutiny, the East India Company had sizable contingents of English troops, and regular British Army units often served in India, After 1857, the Indian Army had a systematic stiffening of English troops, integrated at the brigade level (two Indian battalions and one British in each brigade). English units rotated out to India at approximately fifteen or twenty year intervals, so one transfer over a career would put a soldier wherever he wanted to be, according to his circumstances. Practically any military operation would involve both Indian and English troops fighting together. It was not a case of leaving the dirty jobs to the Indians. The Indian Army was not cheap by virtue of leaving everything to the Indians, but because of the extreme political passivity of the Indian population, something which began to change with the Salt March. As independence and partition approached, the Indian Army was stretched to the limit, not actually maintaining the peace, but doing things like escorting refugee trains to safety and thereby mitigating the casualties of what would later be called ethnic cleansing. Something like fifteen million people fled, and only half a million were killed. The social basis of the old Indian Army began to crumble with independence, when Nehru insisted on Social Equality, and abolished the princely states. In the end, Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguard. In the process, India became a country which was not interested in fighting for anything except its own national interests.

(*) See the articles by John Keegan and Gwynne Dyer, viz, "India," "Pakistan," "Bangladesh," "Burma," and "Sri Lanka" in: John Keegan, ed., _World Armies_, 1979. Also, read John Masters for background, especially his novel, _High Command_, 1984, and his memoir, The Road Past Mandalay, 1961. The Savage Family novels (_Night Runners of Bengal_, etc.) are of course a bit more at second hand, things Masters had been told rather than seeing himself.

The French Legion was based in Algeria. The white population of Algeria (the "Pied Noires") was not especially French, but was largely a mixture of Italians (Sicilians and Calabrians), Spaniards, Corsicans, etc., immigrants who were not welcome in France, in short. The Legion, on the other hand, while extremely mixed, was, as much as anything, German, its original core being military refugees from the collapse of the Napoleonic empire. Like the English troops in India, the Legion was supplemented by native forces, such as Moroccan Spahis and Tireurs Senegalese. At the end of colonialism, additional troops had to be added from the Metropole. The garrison of Dien Bien Phu at the beginning of the battle in March ,1954 was 22% French, 25% Legion, 20% African, and the remainder Vietnamese. Reinforcements drove the proportion of metropolitan French up to 35%.(*) Meanwhile in Algeria, over a period of time, the Legion had developed a sympathetic identification with the Pied Noires, culminating in the 1961 mutiny, the formation of the OAS (Organization Armee Secret), and repeated attempt to assassinate De Gaulle. None of this served to reverse Algerian independence, and the Pied Noires became refugees in Southern France.

(*) Albert Fall, Street Without Joy, p. 327, 1961 et. seq., pbk. ed. 1972

Uninformed discussion of the Foreign Legion and the Indian Army tends to become an exercise in "Something for Nothing." Given that one's own young men are not available for military adventures, one hopes to find... someone else... who is available with no strings attached. But of course that is a fantasy. A community is not going to release its young men to anyone who will not, or can not, guarantee the community's protection and sustenance at an acceptable level. The men you get without the community's blessing are only those who have done something so bad that they are not willing to go back and face the music. Both the Indian Army and the Foreign Legion were ultimately based on the existence of comparatively privileged castes in a colonial situation. The big problem is that one can only gain current experience in colonial warfare by engaging in it regularly, as a part of maintaining a colonial system, and ruling colonies. If the ruling of colonies is considered profitless, then such experience is rather dearly bought. What made the Indian Army and the French legion work was a whole informing ideology, which upheld colonialism as a self-justifying end in itself ("Lesser Breeds Without the Law," "Mission Civilitrice," etc.). Going out to the colonies to rule natives was considered to both a virtuous and a profitable undertaking. At the level below army officers, there were people such as plantation managers, commercial factors, etc. Army officers, as an elite, often served largely at their own expense. An upper-class young man, Winston S. Churchill, not only fought in assorted frontier battles, but got his mother to pull all kinds of strings to get him more than his fair share of frontier battles. His younger brother, John Churchill, reluctantly became a stockbroker in London.

So, ultimately, the reason the United States does not, and can not, have a Foreign Legion, or an Indian Army, is, in the first place, that the United States is not a caste society. Even illegal immigrants become full citizens within a generation or less, assuming they don't get kicked out. A legal immigrant, or a hyphenated-American is strongly encouraged, at the least, to open a small shop, or a restaurant specializing in his native cuisine. Americans are notoriously experimental about food, eating everything from pizza to sushi to Congolese fried bananas. The immigrant's son, of course, goes to college and enters a profession. The next President of the United States will very probably be a Kenyan-American. In the second place, the inevitable reality is that such a force ultimately has to be backed up with one's own troops, or it melts away. The United States does not have a population surplus to dispose of.

Russell Weigley's "American Way of War" is really a special instance of something much broader. Americans do not believe that it is virtuous to be the manager of a maquiladora factory in Nuevo Laredo, employing a couple of thousand teenage girls at low wages. On the contrary, they instinctively suspect such a man of being a pimp on the side. One notable thread which crops up in American business thinking is a preference for Chinese manufacturing, because China has a viable entrepreneurial middle class which can run the factories, and avoid American involvement in what is ultimately seen to be the shameful business of hand-labor. That is a set of attitudes which ultimately go all the way back to Uncle Tom's Cabin. The kind of factory which Americans admire is so highly automated that it does not rely on cheap labor. One of the American stories of the Second World War is the invention of synthetic rubber. This not only eliminated American dependence on an area which had been conquered by Japan, but had the effect of separating America from the moral decadence of European colonialism in Southeast Asia. Vietnam was a hand-labor country, heavily based around a plantation economy and cheap agricultural labor. It is now a hand-labor country, based around cheap manufacturing. The United States Army's experience in Vietnam was rather like that of a man who, after a prolonged drunk, wakes up to find himself in a brothel-- and a few weeks later, finds that he has strange sores. Col. Harry G. Summers' moral lectures in the _On Strategy_ books have to be understood in that context.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/8/2008