Learning for the Next War: Providing Enduring Value to the Force

Following the publication of the recent article “COIN Doctrine Under Fire,” I was lucky enough to ‘listen in’ on an enlightening conversation on one of the dozen listservs I frequent. While debating the merits of counterinsurgency, the list began discussing the value of capturing the pertinent lessons from a war…during and immediately following the conflict. On the discussion were of the authors of both the Army’s pre-eminent volume on Desert Storm and the first solid look at Iraqi Freedom. Here’s the portion that really caught my attention, written by Terry L. Johnson:

As a co-author with then-BG Bob Scales and MAJ Tom Odom of the post-Gulf War work, I have to weigh in with an observation I think is timeless. Writing current history is fraught with challenges. That was our task which evolved as we worked over a period of six month’s intensive research and writing and another year of detailed editing to produce Certain Victory, the History of the Army in the Gulf War. It was at the time an exciting project with the flavor of a very positive AAR coming off a rotation at a training center. After all, regardless of the limitations of our enemy, we fought a classical ground maneuver war with far reaching strategic objectives using the equipment (the Big Five in particular) designed for that type of war. We vindicated the Reagan era buildup. We validated AirLand Battle doctrine. We demonstrated the extraordinary talent and collective performance of the All-Volunteer Force. In the face of the strident Air Force claims to have won the war single-handedly we could readily cite the immutable effects of the overwhelming ground maneuver that swept the south of Iraq clean of all combat forces. As a participant, I personally sensed a realization of the more than twenty years of development I’d experienced from Vietnam flying Hueys to commanding deep attacks with Apaches.
With all that said, no one thinks that the Gulf War was the example of the future or a predictor of what might come next. We recognized then and know more so now that it was a sort of culminating point to the Cold War, an anomaly wherein our conventional strategy, operations, and tactics fit well, and a unique, never to be repeated opportunity for all of that to come together.
Thus, don’t draw too much from our AARs from that conflict. Yet, don’t ignore enduring lessons regarding logistics, deployability, readiness, fires, and the other subjects of each chapter of Certain Victory. They remain beacons when lit in the proper context.
Remember as well that we were assessing a conflict of less than nine months duration—one that encompassed the Iraqi invasion in August 1990 to the peace talks in March 1991. This is only eight or nine months of conflict including the touted 100 [hours] of combat. Extremely difficult to draw meaningful parallels to the nearly nine years of OIF and over twelve of OEF.
When Jim Greer and Greg Fontenot embarked on writing On Point I gave them the essence of our AAR from Certain Victory. Not sure it was very helpful, but the essential element I wanted to pass on was that a project such as that requires considerable collaboration and humility. The latter derives from avoiding the tendency to hubris so significantly demonstrated by the Air Force in their accounts of that conflict.
No question that extensive analysis is necessary to pick apart OIF and OEF. Much of that happened in both volumes of On Point. The larger strategic issues, however, may need more time to percolate before the distillate of their elements emerges. Ours was a simpler and more immediate project. We fell short of really profound long-lasting lessons to some degree, but we did faithfully record the known events with a reasonably detailed analysis of how they derived from years of practice.
OIF and OEF and other operations in the last fifteen years do not yield to such simple analysis. Nonetheless, they too will produce jewels of enduring value.

One of the members of the thread mentioned that there are few active duty members that are trained as historians and the days of the unit historians are long past. Documenting and finding the sources to describe warfare is much more difficult than in the past. This is unfortunate, because, as another member of the email exchange mentioned:

It is important that we conduct such a critical review, capture what we leran and incorporate as necessary into current and future DOTMLPF [Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leader Development/Education, and Facilities/Personnel]. That is of course an intellectual exercise until LL [lessons learned] are translated into investments in time, effort, or resources as appropriate.

If we cannot look critically at our conflicts, how they were prosecuted, what worked and didn’t work, and what this could imply for the future, all of the concept development (think AirSea Battle and Strategic Landpower) and budget battles we are currently debating will be largely premature, if not largely uninformed.

I was glad to see such discussions occurring between such experienced and knowledgable members of the profession. Ideally, in the near future similar studies that “complete the record” on both Iraq and Afghanistan will joint he ranks of such studies as Certain VictoryOn Point. Otherwise, we may be stuck with emotional, but not intellectually rigorous, op-eds and posture statements that drive resourcing and strategic decisions…


Nathan K. Finney is an officer in the U.S. Army. He is also the the founder of The Bridge, founder andManaging Director of the Military Fellowship at the Project on International Peace & Security, a member of the Infinity Journal's Editorial Advisory Board, a founding board member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, a founding member of the Military Writers Guild, and a term member at theCouncil on Foreign Relations.  He tweets at @NKFinney. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect any official organization.


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