The Military & The American Way of War

29MAR2011. Having been exposed to what was expected of us as part of the Human Terrain System (HTS), or as part of a research team deployed into a war zone, the lecture for the day focused on understanding the Profession of Arms, particularly the U.S. Army. We were advised to read the “Profession of Arms” by Lieutenant General (LTG) Sir John Hackett, which details the historical development of armies from antiquity to the 20th century. This piqued my curiosity because I like to know the origins of things (when possible), and figured it might help me better understand the “hows/whys” of the military.

I found a copy online, and perused the 1962 edition, which is organized into three lectures. The first few sentences captured my attention:

“From the beginning of man’s recorded history physical force, or the threat of it, has been freely and incessantly applied to the resolution of social problems. It persists as an essential element in the social pattern. History suggests that as a society of men grows more orderly the application of force tends to become better ordered. The requirement for it has shown no sign of disappearing…a society of men in which no resort to force is possible, either for the common good or against it, either for individual advantage or against it, is inconceivable, so long as man remains what he is” (pg. 3).

Essentially, what the author concludes is that we, as fallible humans, aren’t capable of resolving social or political problems without the use of force (wonder what the anti-war establishment thinks of this).

Then the trainer narrowed his focus on the American profession of arms for the U.S. Army, which is distinguished in three ways: (1) Service to the Constitution; (2) Officer and Non-commissioned Officer professionalism; and (3) Proficiency in integrating with technology. There are also two oaths, one for enlisted soldiers (non-commissioned officers with special skills); and one for commissioned officers (management, have more authority). There’s something meaningful about pledging allegiance to something, someone…a calling or something bigger than yourself. The very ritual, IMHO, makes you feel more vested and responsible.

Soldier's Creed with a baby standing next to it.

There are also creeds and norms of conduct. The U.S. Army is nested in a larger American profession of Arms (Marines, Air Force, Navy are other services). And the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) defines the military criminal justice system as a federal law that was enacted by Congress. For example, we learned that if you get in trouble in the Army (or other services), you’re likely to receive an Article 15, which is non-judicial punishment (no court trial). These are handed down by commanders who have the authority to decide whether an offense can be handled outside of court proceedings. If a soldier refuses to accept it, he or she can “demand trial by court martial.”

I must’ve been in the zone, taking notes like a crazy person because the guy sitting next to me (a fellow grunt) said I was taking this stuff too seriously. I turned to him and said that I didn’t have a military background and that all of this was new to me, and I wanted to make sure I understood it. He just chuckled and said, “it’s not that hard.” Under normal circumstances, I would’ve said something sarcastic (something like neither was my Ph.D.), but he was someone who liked to incite arguments, so I just smiled and said thanks. 

This fellow grunt, Chris, was an interesting character. In a little over a week, he’d managed to piss off most of the trainers with his sarcastic commentary and know-it-all attitude. He tried really hard to be the coolest person among the group of guys he’d picked to hang out with (kind of like when you’re in high school and pull obnoxious stunts to stand out…yeah, that was Chris). He was one of three Chris’ in our group (the least liked one), and while the guys tolerated him, the women weren’t much impressed. He’d served in the Army a few years and his latest deployment was to Iraq.

He liked to talk about his badassery in the war zone – how many people he’d killed, how hot it was in the desert, how little sleep he got, how terrible the Iraqis were, and all the cool equipment he got to use. I was definitely worried about someone like him deploying to Afghanistan to assist the military in understanding the locals. He didn’t appear to have much respect for anyone other than those who were like him (young, white, male, former military). Still, I tried to remain open and even went out to lunch with him one day.

When I come across people who are defensive, I often wonder what happened to them as a child and whether they’re aware of how they come across to others (or whether they even care), especially when it’s off-putting. In Chris’ case, what happened to him to turn him into such a callous blowhard? One-on-one, he was a bit contained, but with his chosen group, he was empowered to be the loudest, most obnoxious, and if he kept up with this shit, there’d be no way he’d complete training and deploy. I never got much out of him during that one-on-one lunch encounter. I wanted to know more about his upbringing, but he didn’t give me much to work with, always bringing the conversation back to his “heroics” in Iraq.

I believe your early experiences in life and socialization in the home, school, and larger society have significant influences on who you become as an adult (yes, there’s nature too). People who aren’t pleasant and get defensive easily are wounded. But oftentimes, when we come across these folks and have a negative interaction with them, we assume we’ve done something to upset them (at least I always used to think so). Still, this doesn’t mean we have to condone their actions. Sometimes we can’t help but interface with them on a regular basis because they’re colleagues, or worse, a boss. Chris had an air of superiority about him that masked his insecurities, and nothing I could’ve said during that hour lunch (or beyond) would’ve helped.

Every 50 minutes of class lecture was followed by a 10-minute break, and most of the time, we all hung out in the smoke shack. This was definitely one of the cool things about training that I much-appreciated as a smoker (now former smoker). But every hour?

That’s not what I did for my classes, not even the ones that met one night a week (usually 1830-2200). My once-a-week classes got a 15-minute break around 2000, then I lectured until about 2130, followed by 15-20 minutes of questions (not that they couldn’t ask questions throughout lecture…these questions usually centered on other things like grades, whether someone could have more time to submit an assignment, etc.); then I’d let them loose. I wasn’t trying to torture them, but I knew that anything more frequent would lead to a dwindling of the class, so by the time 2100 rolled around, I’d probably end up with a handful of students.

But no, the Army was different. They had the 50-minute lecture/10-minute break thing down to a science. And God help the trainer who didn’t stick to this schedule. People would start squirming in their seats, or be as bold as to remind the trainer that it was time for a “smoke break.” My buddy Chris usually led these protests.

Aside from an explanation of the Profession of Arms, the trainer also discussed civil-military relations. The Constitution establishes civilian control of the military by Executive Branch, with the President of the United States as the Commander in Chief. That seemed kind of odd to me in the beginning, but I understand why it’s set up that way; a sort of checks and balances exists. Also, only Congress can declare war, but the President can deploy troops into a combat zone based on the War Powers Act. This federal law checks the President’s powers in that he or she has to have approval from Congress before committing to armed conflict and set time limits on such actions. (This also explains the many surges and drawdowns during the last two presidenciesthe Obama and Bush Administrations).

We also learned that the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) is a member of the President’s cabinet and in charge of the Department of Defense (DoD), with the military services subordinate to him or her. Each service has a secretary (usually a civilian) and a Chief; the big kahuna of sorts…such as the Chief of Staff of the Army (CSA), becoming the highest-ranking officer (a four-star general). Through June 2011, the SECDEF was Robert Gates, succeeded by Leon Panetta, a California native who also attended Santa Clara University (where I did my master’s degree…he attended for undergrad and law school).

Peace dove with military weapons.

After our 3rd smoke break of the day, we learned about the Unified Campaign Plan (UCP), which is an Executive Branch document that defines the area of responsibility (AOR), missions, and responsibilities for combatant commands, and is generally updated every two years by the President. The U.S. military has seven geographic combatant commands such as U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), U.S. European Command (EUCOM), etc.; and four functional commands based on (you guessed it), the functions they perform such as U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) (this is the newest one established in 2018) and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) (yes, they’re special because they’re the elite, chosen ones who do badass stufffor more info go here). I remember thinking that we’re definitely a military force to be reckoned with…because we’re everywhere.

We did some practical exercises where we were asked to answer questions focused on the various military services. One question was about describing each service and discussing what sets them apart; another was to describe their identities and how we viewed them (huh?!?!). Being new to all things military, I didn’t know enough to form an opinion, but those with prior military experience had a lot to say. And the best way to describe some of the things that were being said is summed up well by the following (which was making its rounds on social media recently):

“The military branches explained: the Army, Navy, and Marines are all brothers in a family. Army is the oldest and mom and dad made all their parenting mistakes with him. The Navy is the middle son, they’re the explorers who left home and no one cared. The Marines are the youngest who mom and dad let do whatever they want and they still have an inferiority complex due to their small size.

Well, mom and dad got divorced once all the boys were grown. Mom got remarried to a rich guy and quickly gave birth to a fourth son the Air Force. Now she loves him the most, showers him with the best toys, and buys him whatever he wants. When they go on vacation, they fly first class, stay in 5-star hotels, and enjoy the finest meals. The Air Force is spoiled rotten and his three older brothers have bitter resentment toward him for this.

Finally, there’s the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is the rich step dad’s son from his first marriage and none of the other brothers think or act like he’s a part of the family. That’s the best way to explain the various service branches and their internal dynamics to civilians.”

The final lecture for the day (on all things military) focused on the American way of war, which, in short, we were told, is about firepower and minimizing casualties. The trainer also listed Colin Gray’s 13 attributes of the American way of war, which are apolitical, astrategic, ahistorical, problem-solving and optimistic, culturally challenged, technology-dependent, focused on firepower, large-scale, aggressive and offensive, profoundly regular, impatient, logistically excellent, and highly sensitive to casualties. These definitely characterize a superpower’s approach to war when regular war takes place (forces fighting other forces). But apparently, in irregular warfare (non-state actors, guerrilla armies), these same characteristics become a liability.

Gray’s ideas about the American way of war and its application to the war in Afghanistan were apropos. We went in with the mentality of fighting a regular war, if you will. But we met with many challenges and therefore altered our strategic approach to focus on counterinsurgency (COIN) (see my previous log entry for a discussion about this). But as Gray further postulates, we don’t do COIN well because we’re trained for regular warfare, and COIN requires the involvement of local forces, and other non-military organizations to be executed successfully. Furthermore, Gray states that we confuse war and warfare. The former is a “total relationship – political, legal, social, and military.” Whereas the latter is the “conduct of war, generally by military means.” As such, our “narrow focus” on warfare tends to be unidimensional and obscures our ability to “function grand strategically.”

Empty shells

These details weren’t discussed in class. I dug deeper to understand Gray’s ideas, and I’m happy I did because it validated a lot of my own thinking about our approach to the war in Afghanistan (and quelled some of the angst I experienced during the previous day’s lecture…if you’re curious, see my previous log entry). And as much as I was still trying to figure out the Army as an organization, it was great to delve into substantive material that provided such incisive analysis of what had taken shape and what we could expect if we continued to plow ahead in Afghanistan without continually assessing our approach, and making necessary modifications.

The day ended with an introduction to our language teachers, both distinguished Afghan scholars in their own rights who were going to teach us the basics of Dari and Pashto. And considering that I already knew Dari, I was looking forward to learning some Pashto. BTW, contrary to popular belief, these two languages have very little in common (and are the official languages of Afghanistan). It’s like Mandarin and Italian…French and Turkish…German and Arabic (LOL, you get my drift).