Transforming American Military Policy

Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy by Frederick W. Kagan, 2006. Encounter Books. Recommendation: read

This book is an excellent accounting of the theories that have gripped and influenced American military thinking and planning since the Vietnam war.


If all your information on the military has come from Hollywood (and there is a new series about Iraq out on HBO, surely this time written by writers who actually served and are thus knowledgeable), then it might come as a surprise that when planning a war you actually have to decide what to hit, what resources are needed, when those resources should be in place, what will happen in theater and out of it, the political consequences, and on and on. These decisions are made with reference to a guiding doctrine, a.k.a. a theory.

Since Clausewitz, a leading theory has been to attack an enemy’s “centers of gravity”. Destroy those, the theory goes, and the enemy collapses in confusion. Maybe so. But what is a center of gravity? Does this mean you try to kill as many troops in the field as possible? Or instead commit your resources to disrupting enemy supply lines, or perhaps the lines of communication and control? Or do you, as happened at the very beginning of Iraqi Freedom, attempt to take out the leadership (an effort, you will recall, which failed)? All good questions, the answers to which should depend on the situation. The danger is that people can pay more attention to the guiding theory—to what the theory says reality should be like—than to actual reality itself. This common human failing is found in war just as it is in other areas.

There is also the danger of rushing in, say after an unexpected attack of your country, and not having any plan:

[T]hey find it difficult—albeit no less important—to identify clear, achievable strategic aims. There is an emotional temptation to want to ‘do something’ without first clearly understanding what political purpose that ‘something’ is supposed to accomplish.

Kagan repeatedly emphasizes that military actions are subservient to, or an extension of, a country’s political aims. Just killing the enemy is not enough. The way that enemy is killed or defeated must be done in such a way to further the political aims. The lack of these thoughts harmed the Iraqi war. As is well known by now, the hostilities themselves were over very quickly. The war plan was to “topple the regime” as fast as possible. This was “mission accomplished.” But in toppling the regime, nothing took its place, and chaos prevailed. The problem was the enemy was not captured, they was instead allowed to disperse, taking their weapons with them, the result of which was the insurgence.

The situation in Iraq was not turned around until more boots were on the ground, handling things in the old fashioned way, opposite to dictates of the “revolution in military affairs” and “transformative” theories then touted by the leadership.

Kagan also takes to task the latest theories that holds some in thrall: Network Centric Warfare, or NCW. This is the idea that the miracles of the “Information age” will “revolutionize” and “transform” forever our view of the “battlespace” (the old term “battlefield” deemed musty). Generals, using these things called computers, will soon be able to see what every platoon-leading lieutenant sees, and so will be able to direct the battlespace more effectively. Information overload? Don’t bother me with details. Kagan sums up his objections to NCW:

First, it is a solution in search of a problem. Second, the technical requirements needed to produce the capabilities sought and promised are unattainable in the real world. Third, it proceeds from a misunderstanding of the nature of war…The NCW visionaries imagine a world in which the eternal race between offense and defense ands in our favor—we will be able to see everything and the enemy will be about to nothing about it. This notion is preposterous.

Instead, Kagan advocates the obvious strategy: plan for the situations you are most likely to face. You might still be wrong, but you, by definition, have the best chance of being right. Do not ask for “revolutionary” technologies, but build better weapons from known technologies.

Other topics are discussed. For example: “The Army still maintain garrisons as though it were preparing to subdue the Sioux and Apache once again.” These historical dispositions “impose significant delays” on deployment and offer the enemy “numerous bottlenecks to strike.” But to try and change base and post locations is a mighty political task. Try suggesting to your congressperson—Democrat or Republican—that the base in their state is aptly located and see what happens. Politicians, as ever, will usually opt for what is best for themselves and not the country.

The book is an intelligent, readable overview of military policy planning and I highly recommend it.

1 Comment

  1. and there is a new series about Iraq out on HBO, surely this time written by writers who actually served and are thus knowledgeable

    I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not, but the show is based on a non-fiction book written by a journalist who was ’embedded’ with some marines at the beginning of the war, and two of the actual marines the show depicts served as consultants.

    Also, David Simon is an executive producer and writer, the point being that The Wire (which David Simon created) is widely praised for being extremely realistic (and I can verify that it’s extremely good, even if I have no idea how accurately it depicts Baltimore’s awfulness).

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