The Noise Before Defeat: A Critique of “Seduced by Success”

Daniel Davis’ recent article in the Armed Forces Journal asserts senior Army leaders have been seduced by their own success and are, therefore, less able to fight and win wars against well trained combined arms foes. He explicitly challenges these leaders’ resilience because, unlike previous generations, they haven’t faced critical supply shortages or surprise attacks. Furthermore, Davis argues current senior leaders’ complacency has created strategic vulnerability comparable to that of pre-WWII Britain.

While I agree with his general conclusion—that we must strive to challenge ourselves through rigorous training and the disciplined study of war—I could hardly disagree more with his premise. It's true that we ought not congratulate ourselves for a job well done simply because we endured a deployment, nor should we feel satiated simply because the Thunder Run proved successful. But these platitudes aren't the result of having not been "tested” as Davis claims. Rather, our current and future vulnerabilities stem from a failure of senior leadership to provide achievable strategic ends and the ways by which tactical successes advance these ends.

Paratroopers from 3rd Platoon, Company B, 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division prepare to load a CH-47 Chinook Helicopter in the Bermel District of the Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, Oct. 13, during an air-assault mission to detain a known militant. (Photo by U.S. Army Pfc. Andrya Hill, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division Public Affairs)

In contradiction to Davis’ premise, my experiences at the tactical level have revealed these conflicts to be exceedingly difficult. The vast majority of the aforementioned experiences included little to no enemy contact (though I'm sure I was almost always being observed by enemy forces), but those that did were often more of a fair fight than I would have liked. My Paratroopers and I were on many occasions ambushed or deliberately attacked by a cunning and skillful enemy. Our success in those endeavors stemmed entirely from rigorous training (and, of course, a little luck). Importantly, this end was my steadfast focus as a company commander in preparation for a deployment: ensure we could achieve squad and platoon overmatch—because our lives depended on it.

To be fair, Davis acknowledges company grade officers have endured similar experiences. Yet, the point remains: my deployments, as well as those of leaders before me, were extraordinarily challenging. Moreover, these deployments demanded both leaders and followers exhibit tremendous grit. This fact improved our ability to achieve tactical success as the months progressed.

But I'm still hesitant to pat myself on the back. While I contributed to the destruction of anti-coalition forces and the bolstering of local capacity in two theaters, my efforts don't seem to have enabled more safe or prosperous host nations. My inability to aid my commander and his commander connect tactical successes to lasting strategic achievements has prevented us from achieving decisive victory. To be sure, I'm not self-deprecating. I'm proud of my service and infinitely more proud of the Soldiers with whom I've served. But I can't say to myself that we have definitively won. Neither should our senior leaders. In this respect, Davis’ assertion that such leaders are seduced by their success seems false. In addition, I am confident our muddled progress has nothing to do with planned deployments with certain start and end dates, or the air superiority that ensured I could be resupplied with water in the highland desert, or the fact that I could count on the cooks to have a hot meal prepared for us after a multi-day operation (we didn’t have restaurants or coffee shops on any of the small combat outposts to which I was deployed).

Hezbollah supporters fix the party's flag on top of their rockets near the southern port city of Tyre, Lebanon  (Mohammed Zaatari / AP)

Perhaps more rigorous training at brigade and above levels would enable greater success. But, then again, so would better definitions of "success" and clearer operational plans for aggregating tactical victories into meaningful strategic progress. We're fooling ourselves if we believe a more thorough or unpredictable simulation in a Corps Joint Operations Center will help address the lack of economic opportunities faced by young Iraqi and Afghan men who emplace IEDs because that's the only way to make $50. Instead, let us endeavor to establish an achievable conflict termination point and methods for arriving at the desired end state.

Equally important, we're fooling ourselves if we believe our adversaries won't continue to engage us asymmetrically for the foreseeable future. So while we must remain committed to proficiency along the full spectrum of operations, let's not abandon the simple truth that armies fight wars among the people because they have to, instead of the more convenient conception of war against traditional combined arms foes. In either case, winning depends not on how much stress you place upon me but by how well you plan and execute outcome-driven strategy.

Tim McDonald is an Army officer attending Duke’s Fuqua Business School. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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