Failure tends to drive reflection, and recently here at The Maneuverist, two authors have reflected on the recent collapse of American operations in Afghanistan, and the open-ended life support rendered to operations in Iraq. Both have noted American military efforts there as failures, and it is hard to dispute this characterization—certainly both friends and adversaries around the world share that conclusion, and are drawing their own conclusions about what that means regarding America’s future conduct.
While this author respects both of the other contributors, and shares their perspective that “failure” is the term best appended to our Nation’s efforts in both countries, their conclusions about the institutional response in the Marine Corps to that failure do not paint the full picture of what the Corps has and has not done, and in one particular respect—who is responsible—talk past a very uncomfortable truth that the Corps is not ultimately equipped to deal with. This response will attempt to add more context to what the response to failure should look like, or has looked like already, and address the question of who, exactly, needs to look in the mirror regarding the most uncomfortable truth of all.
Easton and Thiele share a common theme in both of their pieces, which is that the Marine Corps has made no effort to learn any lessons from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and shows no visible desire to do so in the future. Yet in describing a failure in self-reflection, it seems closer to the truth to say that the Marine Corps has not engaged in self-reflection in the manners they prefer. That is quite different from saying no self-reflection has occurred at all. Easton, for example, calls for a number of very “public” things: a public statement of intent by the Corps to review its performance, committees, symposia, and so on. It is largely true that the institutional Marine Corps has not conducted such publicly-oriented events—though not entirely true as, for example, the Middle East Studies center at Marine Corps University has hosted a number of events focusing on Afghanistan, including one just this past November, and its Insights publication often features content focused on Afghanistan.
However, the absence of Easton and Thiele’s preferred public-facing modes of introspection does not mean the Corps has learned nothing. In terms of tactical lessons learned, consideration and adoption of new tactics, techniques, and procedures occurred regularly and in stride; for example, with pre-deployment training courses constantly morphing to include new material. This author recalled back in 2007, shortly following the shoot-down of Morphine 12 in a complex aerial ambush, that both the tactical analysis of the jihadi video showing the shoot-down, with new tactical recommendations, had been added to the DESERT TALON predeployment training exercise his squadron attended only weeks following the ambush. As the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan ran on, new battlefield threats fed into technological adaptation as well, with new equipment from ground-based improvised explosive device (IED) jammers to aircraft-employed directed infrared countermeasures fielded in response to an adaptive enemy. Over the years, everything from training and readiness manual events to work-up exercises like DESERT TALON and MOJAVE VIPER were updated to cover new and dynamic threats (as was the Commandant’s Professional Reading List; in the latest version, works on Iraq and Afghanistan make up half of the “Profession of Arms” section, and are also featured on the “Innovation” and “Leadership” sub-lists). So it is not accurate to accuse the Corps of learning nothing; but Easton and Thiele’s ultimate charge of disinterest seems aimed at something higher than tactical lessons. We will readdress this shortly.
Easton and Thiele also both bring up China in their discussions, though their views on China’s importance diverge. Easton expresses concern that failing to learn could negatively impact potential future Marine Corps operations against a Chinese adversary that could just as easily employ irregular forces or IEDs, and given China’s adeptness at using unconventional approaches, such concern is entirely fair (though, as stated above, strictly tactical lessons learned against these threats have been retained in a number of ways, though without fanfare). Thiele goes in a different direction on China, arguing that open conflict against China is “unthinkable” and “should never be permitted to happen,” and hence that the Marine Corps should focus its attention elsewhere—specifically, at “Fourth Generation War” (4GW). While war against China would doubtless be horribly destructive for both sides, history is full of wars that were considered “unthinkable” by the belligerents, and it seems a rather narrow view to dismiss the chance of conflict against any adversary as impossible. One could spill buckets of ink (and many have) on the topic of 4GW itself, but this author stands by his previous argument that 4GW “is too arbitrary and convoluted a construct to be useful in framing today’s problems.”
On China, perhaps it is sufficient to say modern militaries tend to organize themselves in opposition to specific threat nations, as such a focus provides more coherence to training, education, acquisitions processes, and doctrinal development. It is also worth noting that, at least for militaries under civil control, Services do not get to choose the adversary against whom they want to organize—they are directed in their efforts by civilian authority which sets national strategy, and which the Services are then obligated by law to support. Still, Thiele argues that the focus on China is about money more than anything else. While there may be truth in this, this author does not claim to see into the windows of the soul of every senior military and political leader to discern their underlying motivations; thus, perhaps a better consideration worth noting is that in organizing itself against China, the Marine Corps has gone in the opposite direction Thiele laments from the days of 2014. Among other things, the “Force Design 2030” restructuring effort deliberately, and without Congressional prodding, aimed to reduce the size of the total force to its end strength prior to 9/11 and accept fewer personnel in order to ensure amphibious lift capability. If the Marine Corps cares only about its share of the budgetary pie, it has a funny way of showing it.
So while this author disagrees with aspects of both Easton and Thiele’s arguments concerning institutional introspection, in a sense, none of this directly addresses the self-critique Easton and Thiele appear to most want to see from the Marine Corps and national leadership concerning failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ultimate goal implied is a very public confession by senior leadership, civil and military alike, that states, in sum: “I failed. We failed. And we failed not only because we were repeatedly wrong in our judgments, but that we were not transparent in acknowledging the depths of our failure, in confronting the wrongness of our judgments, and in doing something about our wrongness that might have prevented national disgrace and immeasurable bloodshed.” This public act would be accompanied by further acts of atonement by the humbled, or by the rough justice that the unrepentant loser deserves.
Truth and reconciliation, justice and catharsis: this author would agree that they are necessary, indeed overdue, on behalf of the blood shed by the dead and wounded, and on behalf of those who will be called to shed blood in the future. But this is not what the recommendations offered in the other two articles will achieve. Here is the uncomfortable truth mentioned at the outset of this article: the ability of one military Service to accomplish this on behalf of the entire Nation is both unrealistic and not within the boundaries of what the Nation requires the military Services to do. Easton calls the failure “national,” and Thiele blames the generals, and in both cases, the point of failure is diffuse and at a level above the senior military leader, no matter how many stars they wear. If the failure was national, it belongs to the polity. It belongs to the political leaders who did not conduct the oversight or hold generals who were always, but not quite, turning the corner accountable. It belongs to the people who put those political leaders in office, who could not rouse themselves to elect representatives who, in turn, would ask generals why, year after year, victory remained elusive, or whether it was in America’s interest to remain in those countries at all. That failure runs much deeper and is well beyond the capability of the Marine Corps to “fix” no matter how large or small its budget is.
Maj. Ian T. Brown is a CH-53E pilot and currently serves as the Operations Officer for the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at Marine Corps University, Quantico, VA. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official views of the Krulak Center, Marine Corps University, the United States Marine Corps, or any other agency of the U.S. Government.