Members of the Islamist Militant Group Boko Haram
I read with great interest Easton’s essay on how the U. S. Marine Corps should seek to learn from the twin failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think Easton makes several excellent points. If the Marine Corps were actually interested in learning from defeat and improving its capability to fight future wars, it would undertake the program Easton advocates. Unfortunately, the Marine Corps – like the other services – has no serious interest in capturing the lessons of these wars, so little of importance is likely to occur.
There are several reasons our recent wars get so little attention. Perhaps it is because neither Iraq nor Afghanistan were existential crises for the United States. Both wars were certainly long and painful (particularly to the relatively small percentage of the population that served), but Islamic extremists, though still a threat, cannot destroy the United States. Given the relatively low stakes, it is not surprising that abject failure – while difficult to watch for those who served – has garnered so little attention in the military establishment itself.
Senior military leaders long ago shifted their primary focus to deterring China. Rather than reflect on their failures, our generals and admirals have been busy finding new enemies to justify their respective service’s budget. Inside the Pentagon, if you talk about war, you are neither right nor wrong; you are irrelevant - unless you are talking about the budget war. In mid-2014, I vividly recall a number of Marine Corps general officers proudly reminding a room full of soon-to-be commanders that the Marine Corps was the only service larger than it had been on 10 September 2001. The Global War on Terror had led to cuts in Air Force and Navy budgets. Even the U. S. Army had decreased in size. Each general had the same message: Of all the services, only the Marine Corps had grown in end strength. Long before the sad endgame in Afghanistan, the war itself had become an afterthought, with the Pentagon increasingly focused on China. To ensure its budget did not cut as priorities changed, the Marine Corps followed suit.
The Battle of the Budgets
And what of China? China is certainly a competitor with which the United States must reckon, but since China is a nuclear power, this competition should never be permitted to become armed conflict. Any armed conflict between the U. S. and China automatically leads to the potential for escalation, which could lead to nuclear war. Such a possibility is unthinkable. War between the United States and China would be a catastrophe for both. So, why are the U. S. Armed Forces focused on China? Because that is where the money is. War with China would require aircraft carriers, stealth fighters, and other expensive, exquisite weapons systems. Such weapons programs require big budgets for each of the services.
The F-35, a plan suited for conventional war, is the costliest weapon ever built.
If war with China is unlikely, what is the Marine Corps’ proper role? Although the Marine Corps should be able to fight across the spectrum of conflict, Fourth Generation wars (4GW) are the most likely conflicts Marines will be called upon to fight. 4GW differs from past conflicts in terms of who fights and what they fight for. Iraq and Afghanistan were Fourth Generation wars. The Marine Corps has a great deal to learn from these conflicts if there is any chance of avoiding more gut-wrenching defeats in the future.
Easton’s recommendations for how to learn the lessons Iraq and Afghanistan have to teach are excellent, but they are highly unlikely to be adopted. Easton misunderstands the Marine Corps’ (and the entire defense establishment’s) motivation. The goal is no longer to win our nation’s wars; our generals have failed repeatedly since the end of World War II with no repercussions. The objective is to preserve the institution. That means money - and lots of it. If Marine Corps leaders were truly concerned about preparing for future conflicts, there would be an earnest effort to learn from our defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, as they represent the kinds of 4GW conflicts the Corps is likely to face in the future. Ignoring failure to focus on China is a telling indication that Marine Corps leaders true interest is is budget politics, not warfighting.
Author Bio: LtCol Thiele served in the Marine Corps 26 years, including as a light armored reconnaissance platoon and company commander, an instructor at The Basic School and Expeditionary Warfare School, and as the executive officer of the School of Infantry-West, from which he retired.