In a recent piece in Business Insider, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Miley stated, “We believe now that after 20 years, two decades of consistent effort, that we have achieved a modicum of success [in Afghanistan].” He went on to say that the modicum of success is best seen as a strategic stalemate.
But is that all we did there in 20 years? Or did we achieve something much more important? Something that potential adversaries like China and Russia have great reason to fear?
What Is Operational Memory?
The United States will be remembered someday by historians as a vast trading empire that spanned the globe and it fought its wars to protect its trade interests around the world. As reasons for wars go, the ability to trade freely with other nations is not a bad one, folks. Like the British and the Roman, two great trading empires of the past, the U.S. has a powerful, modern military with an army, navy, and air force to protect U.S. trade interests and those of our allies and trading partners. And, on occasion, it has to fight wars to maintain its fighting ability, what I call, Operational Memory.
Since the end of WWII and the rise of the Soviet Union and Communist China, the United States has maintained Operational Memory by getting itself into some kind of war in every generation. WWII was followed by the war in Korea. This was a conventional fight for the Big Army with army corps-sized engagements involving tanks, guns, bombers, fighters, naval bombardments, and even a major, combined arms, amphibious landing at Inchon. Everybody got in on the act. And a cadre of battle-tested officers and NCOs were able to salt formations in Europe and Asia and bring that experience to the training of draftees.
The Lessons of Vietnam and its Contribution to Operational Memory
Then, barely 10 years later, we took over an existing Vietnam conflict from the French. It began as a low-intensity counter-insurgency war that was being fought and won by the newly-created Green Berets under the Kennedy administration. President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 saw Lyndon Johnson take over as president. He massively expanded the U.S. military presence with conventional forces in Vietnam. Troop strength went from 16,300 total troops to a staggering 536,100 troops in just three years. Again, everybody got in on the act. The Navy sortied air wings from its carriers and its surface forces engaged in shore bombardments. Navy SEALs went from doing underwater demolition and beach reconnaissance to covertly operating behind enemy lines and bumping off high-value targets and disappearing their bodies. The Army landed whole corps formations with tanks and artillery and we engaged in massive deforestation efforts to give the tanks and guns free rein. The Air Force dropped more ordinance on South Vietnam than it expended bombing Europe during WWII (or so it says at least).
During that conflict, we saw an incredible range of new weapons come into use and be tested in battle. Anti-radiation missiles, TV-guided bombs, the M-16, the M-60, the M-61 grenade, body armor, the M-102 Howitzer, night vision goggles, supersonic jet fighters and bombers, electronic warfare, and even unmanned drones. Vietnam saw the greatest leap in new weapons and tactics since WWII.
What we learned as Vietnam ended in 1975 was again carried on as Operational Memory in the officers and NCOs and into the first Gulf War in 1990. In that war, the United States took about 30 days to demolish the Soviet-Chinese equipped and British trained Iraqi army, the fourth largest in the world at the time. (And to say it was demolished may be understating it a bit.) The Iraqi army was so thoroughly beaten in terms of men, material, and moral that entire Iraqi formations tried to surrender to Apache Helicopters and even to a CNN camera crew. The commander on the ground in that war, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, had commanded troops on the ground in Vietnam. As had Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
In these conflicts, the Chinese and Russians sat on the sidelines and attempted to gain their own operational experience against U.S. troops in proxy conflicts. In Korea, the Chinese had attempted to intervene with veteran troops that had fought Japan and the nationalist forces of Chang Kai-shek during WWII. Their losses were staggering, on the order of 300,000 to 900,000 killed and wounded. The conflict all but wiped out their cadre of experienced officers and NCOs. In Vietnam, China sent vast quantities of war material to North Vietnam along with 330,000 troops. Yet, it committed very few troops to actual ground combat operations, perhaps recalling the scorching they had taken in Korea. Recent disclosures have China admitting to having lost some 3,000 troops on the ground in North Vietnam. This confirms CIA reports of the time recording that U.S. troops found dead Chinese soldiers in uniform on several occasions.
The Soviets also attempted to gain operational experience in Vietnam by sending some 3,000 “military experts” to the region mostly as crews for anti-aircraft artillery and missile batteries. There were reports of blue-eyed pilots flying North Vietnamese Air Force MiG 21s as well. But the Soviets could not invest a significant number of troops in Vietnam. The reason was simple enough: the Soviets had their largest formations facing NATO in Europe and had to keep its Eastern Armies facing off against China on their shared border. It’s a crazy situation to imagine. China and Russia, two communist superpowers, trying to assist the nascent North Vietnamese communists in their struggle against the U.S but being hamstrung by the fact that their million-man armies are staring each other down on the Mongolian border.
How Do America’s Adversaries Fare?
The Soviets’ lack of Operational Memory came back to haunt them in the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets employed large armored formations as per their doctrine and for 10 years could only claim to hold what ground they were physically sitting on at any given time. This powerful army was relegated to staying inside cities and larger towns and having to send out armored formations in battalion strength with air support to gather firewood to heat their camps.
And China did not fare any better. After the Vietnam War, it all but annexed Cambodia in 1979. Then it launched a “punitive” expedition into Vietnam to “chastise” the Vietname for their Cambodian invasion. The campaign lasted 30 days and China invaded with some 200,000 troops. They were only able to advance about 30 miles into Vietnam. The Vietnamese gave them quite a beating. Vietnam had the Operational Memory of a recent war and hundreds of thousands of troops with actual combat experience that had fought against the best field army in the world. China didn’t.
Now the U.S. military has been in Iraq and Afghanistan for the better part of 20 years. These wars have seen the use of virtually all of the U.S. military’s assets and valuable operational experience has been gained for all our service branches. We have amassed hundreds of thousands of combat flight hours, tested and refined weapons systems, and developed new weapons. We may have as many as one million U.S. citizens with some kind of combat experience. Furthermore, we gained vast experience in the logistical art of supplying armies in faraway lands. The American public may not hold that to be of great value, but it really is. If you were on the command staff of either the Chinese or Russian military the idea of fighting a foe with the kind of Operational Memory that the United States possesses would be truly sobering, especially if your own armed forces lack that kind of experience.
Now we have Acting Defense Secretary Miller saying that most of the troops will be coming home by mid-January. “With the blessings of Providence in the coming year, we will finish this generational war, and bring our men and women home,” Miller said last month. “We will protect our children from the heavy burden and toll of perpetual war.”
So we may be leaving places like Iraq and Afghanistan and claiming some modicum of success. But the dirty little secret of superpowers like the United States is that we will probably always be fighting small and limited wars because it keeps the spear sharp and shiny. And doing so may well prevent us from ever having to fight another world war with a major power.
This article was originally published in December 2020. It has been edited for republication.