(Re-Published from Small Wars Journal, March 29, 2014) SWJ discussion with Maj. Gen. Herbert Raymond (H.R.) McMaster, commander of the US Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, GA.
SWJ: Sometimes history rhymes. There are a lot of parallels between the current situation and the context of the US in the mid 1970s, after the Vietnam War. Then, we were leaving behind a long conflict; we faced a draw down in defense capabilities, while returning to some small-footprint solutions (training and advising) in Central and South America. The domestic mood was one of uncertainty about the US role in the world. What are some of the big lessons of the Vietnam Era and post-Vietnam Era that we should keep in mind as we move forward post-Iraq and Afghanistan?
McMaster: There are important first order lessons from Vietnam, ones that are consistent with the study of war broadly across time and war under different conditions and periods. The first lesson associated with Vietnam is that war is in fact an extension of politics and in any war military operations have to be conducted in such a way that they contribute to sustainable political outcomes consistent with vital interests that are at stake in that war. To consolidate military gains politically, the military effort has to be integrated with all elements of national power. The failure to do so was of course one of the biggest problems in Vietnam.
Another important lesson from Vietnam is that it is critical to consider the regional and global context of local conflicts. Many of the situations in which we will find ourselves in war demand both internal solutions (security, economic, social, political) and external solutions such as getting neighbors and others to either reinforce the resolution of the conflict or to at least to not undermine it.
Another lesson from Vietnam is that wars are profoundly human endeavors. That means we need to pay particular attention to the drivers of conflict, including local dynamics as well as regional factors, and understand that cultural, ethnic, tribal, and religious factors can affect the course of war and its outcome in a profound manner. Therefore, defense concepts must take into consideration the social, economic and historical factors that constitute the human dimension of war. We often neglect those factors.
SWJ: Technology and rational choice were key features of “the graduated pressure approach” implemented by the US during the Vietnam War. Why didn’t it work?
McMaster: It didn’t work because it was based on a definition of the war as we wanted the war to be and it was inconsistent with the real character of the conflict in Vietnam. It was based on not only a misunderstanding of that particular conflict, but also cut against the enduring nature of war—war as an extension to politics, war as profoundly human, and war as inherently uncertain due to continuous interaction with the enemy and other destabilizing factors that makes the future course of events uncertain. Graduated pressure took a sort of systems engineering and predictive approach to war. It didn’t take into account the essential cultural and historical factors that influence the future course of war. It was based essentially on the explicit assumptions that the Ho Chi Min and the Vietnamese Communists would respond to bombing attacks and other forms of pressure on the North similar to the way the rational man in English Common Law would respond. Graduated pressure was based on the assumption that applying just enough military force would signal American resolve and persuade the enemy to alter his behavior by changing his calculation of interests. It was a narcissistic approach to war. It defined the war as certain people would like the war to be and it didn’t give agency to the enemy in Vietnam.
SWJ: Are we at risk of pivoting too sharply towards an RMA-like, force-on-force construct?
McMaster: There is a danger that we will return to the orthodoxy of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that dominated defense thinking in the 1990s. The RMA neglected continuities in warfare and focused on only one factor that affects the character of war, which is technological change. If we regard the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as aberrational, we risk failing to consider recent historical experience. In fact, these wars possess many continuities with past wars. We have to be careful that budget pressures do not push us toward simple solutions to the complex problems of future war. We should recognize that the orthodoxy of RMA. grew out of a fundamentally narcissistic approach to war and the associated belief that we could determine the future character of conflict mainly by developing technologies (advances in communications, in information collection capabilities, precision munitions, robotics) that would allow us to achieve military dominance mainly through the application of firepower onto land from the aerospace and maritime domains. We must be careful not to neglect the fundamental nature of war, as a profoundly human and political endeavor that is inherently uncertain. In the end, people fight for many of the same reasons today as they did 2,500 years ago when Thucydides said people fight for three reasons: fear, honor and interest. I recommend Donald Kagan’s On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace, which is quite good on this particular point of why nations fight and the impact that has on the prospects for sustainable peace and how to understand the causes of wars …
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Octavian Manea is pursuing, as a Fulbright student, an M.A. in International Relations with a focus on global security and post-conflict reconstruction at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.