Peter Nealen’s three part series in this forum is a fairly apt analysis of the state of the profession at arms. A lot of things important were said that many of us have been grumbling about for years.

Since September 11, 2001, the force has struggled to maintain manning while minimizing diminishing returns on the quality of soldier entering the army. Good order, discipline, physical fitness, and a solid foundation of basic soldiering skills seem increasingly elusive. Seemingly concomitant has been the reluctance to allow the backbone of the military, small units led by junior leaders, the ability to make timely and effective battlefield decisions without being lorded over by higher commanders situated far from the fight.

In my time in Army Special Forces, there was much lamentations and gnashing of teeth about the 18X recruitment program that brought soldiers right off the street for initial entry training (IET) and straight into the “Q,” presuming they passed through the requisite gates. They weren’t soldiers, they said. They didn’t spend time in a conventional unit to learn the discipline of a soldier and to have the skills to make them ready for SF. I was one of those soldiers, and stayed around long enough to pick up E-7.

However, I also watched my leaders and peers frustrated by in-service recruits to the regiment who were unable to perform skill level 1 and 2 soldiering tasks. Some of these men were already NCOs before selection. Given the period and policies in place, which I can talk about in another piece, they were selected for innate traits that were perceived to make them successful in completing Special Forces training, not because they were a well-rounded warrior that was ready to employ mastered skills. Most of them were great dudes, and with experience and mentoring made great SOF warriors. Again, I am not saying this was the best approach, but this seemed to be how the show was being run.

But this is not what Nealen’s series is about. It is a searing attack on the political/cultural divide within our country between the warfighter and the vast majority of the American people who will never step up to the thin red line. My response is not an apologia for our civilian and military leaders, nor do I completely buy into Nealen’s perspective. But hell, it is a great read and it definitely hit the mark.

In truth, the basic points are right. We as a war-making nation give greater emphasis to technology over humans. Our civilian and military leaders are risk averse. Finally, the military’s overlords (the dreaded elected politician and his over-educated functionaries) are detached from the realities of war, and unable to take decisive action to fight and win our conflicts. All those points are right, 100-fucking-percent right. However, I want to make a few points to bring clarity to this discussion and make an argument that there are some deeper, longer-standing roots to the “decline in American war-making.” I’ll deal with each point out of order, but I think my order builds a pretty good case to explain why and what is actually happening.

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First and foremost, I think we should all wake up and listen to spoken-word tapes of former Delta commanders’ maxims the way some people listen to words of affirmation to get through their day. Peter Blaber is right; for that half of a grid square that the guy decisively engaged sits, all the homies back in the TOC need to pay heed. But that is one TIC in a multi-dimensional battlespace where land, air, sea (I know Afghanistan is landlocked) and apparently, cyber assets are engaged in the full-spectrum of war. Neither Blaber, nor any ground force commander, nor even a battlespace owner in a small segment of Afghanistan, is evaluating the equities of the entire operational environment, which extend way past our thin red line of heroes ready to pipe hit their way to Valhalla.

I am talking about strategy, military strategy in particular. Echelons above the guy digging his fighting position (tactical) and even above the division-equivalent commander (operational) running RC Southeast-Central of Nowhere. And here risk aversion is the maxim. It is the strategy.

Sun-tzu, Clausewitz, and McRaven will all tell you that every fight is not one in which we can just dig in and fight to the end. Sun-tzu would say that you should attack at a time and place of our choosing in which we are assured victory. Clausewitz and McRaven will point to the marshaling of material and forces at a decisive point to gain relative superiority. All of our doctrine is and has been centered on, from the strategic to the tactical, relative superiority.

It means that the thin red line has to be ready to fight to the end when we ask it, and be ready to tactically retreat when we ask it. Another day, another fight. This is a core tenet of all military strategy and as I will explain, continues to flow from a cornerstone of American democracy, not a cultural weakness that pervades all elements of our society. In fact, it is the piece that makes our military far superior to all others.

Our politicians control the levers of war, even if the politician is a military leader. Every one of those politicians is constrained by the political will bestowed by the governed, even in an autocracy (Saddam’s Iraq) or a single-party state (China). Our decisive advantage is that we have an all-volunteer, professional military in which civilian control is supreme. The politicians, often to our chagrin, make decisions that spear-chuckers disagree with or don’t understand. Civilian control of the military ensures that, risk averse or risk prone, we do not write a check that we cannot pay and that we go to war when the nation is on-board with that prospect.

I get it. I have been in that seat sitting on the firebase or sitting in the team room saying: “Hey, we know exactly where this piece of shit that killed our brother is sleeping. We’ve got guns and trucks and hate. Let’s go roll him up.” We are the tool of choice for state-sanctioned violence. I realize that, because of politics and poor decisions, it is often muddled and poorly employed, but we (and the politicians) have to be accountable to the people.

The decision for war, to sue for peace and everything in between is a value judgment. Politicians going back millennia were constrained by the cost of war, casualties and the appetite of the masses. I am merely suggesting that it is not new, and that, as a unique American advantage, we have formalized the structure for civilian primacy over the military.

The volunteer, professional military is an advantage because our warfighters are not rounded up in times of national emergency to be put on the front lines to trade their jobs in factories or offices for a uniform and a rifle. We are allowed to be death dealers on the reg. It allows our military to, in theory, devolve command authority to lower units, and to give Blaber’s proverbial “man on the ground” to wield his fire team.

Nealen’s lament is accurate, but to say that risk aversion is a new advent is wrong. Our military is extremely hierarchical and micromanaging (as are all militaries, to a greater or less degree), but it has largely always been that way. The myth of the sua sponte soldier is just that – a myth. The audacious acts of previous wars were often executed contravening orders of a higher command. Should the risk aversion stop? Yes. Should authority devolve? Yes. Is it a new quality emerging in our society and body politic? No.

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The final point in Nealen’s article is about prizing technological advantages over an adversary to the detriment of the true source of combat power — the infantryman clawing for unholy ground face-to-face with the enemy. His supreme point is training is the matter and compares the dollar-for-dollar investment in flawed military hardware acquisition programs to training dollars spent on the ground warfighter. The analysis of where money being spent is superb, and hits on points about rifle marksmanship, equipment and the silly involvement of platoon sergeants conducting PCIs instead of delegating it to squad and team leaders.

From my limited fields of fire, I see this result evolving out of the two points that I made above. Simply, that risk aversion is a long-standing feature of military strategy and doctrine, and that since the dawn of time, soldiers have been thwarted and poorly employed by politicians.

In this all-volunteer, professional fighting force, people are a precious resource. Conscripts of wars past faced some pretty awful conditions, and their lives were not valued very highly in the conduct of war. Global standoff capability, advanced situational awareness systems and battlefield survivability go hand-in-hand to the success of the soldier. As important as it was for the infantryman in Saipan to make the air war over Japan successful, the Joint Strike Fighter gives our ground pounder relative advantage in the fight.

The underlying point is that technology is much overrated in what our military needs. However, for our ground forces, the technology that will allow our guys to survive the fight (though horribly scarred) will lead to technology to survive and stay in the fight. The iron-man suit seems like far-fetched overstretch, but the principle behind it is not all bad. Relieve heavy loads, give the man on the ground access to information to enhance his war-fighting capability and give him protective armor that will allow him to get back up after being hit. This is only a narrow facet.

In addition, it is part of an ever-increasing effort to leverage relative superiority into each and every fighting element. In SOF, we always talk about surprise, speed, violence of action and security as being the most successful elements of any direct action. How do those come about? The warfighter has to rapidly observe the enemy, orient to the battlespace, decide on a course of action and then quickly act. I am not going to rehash Boyd’s Law or the OODA loop, but it is safe to say that we can only gain relative superiority through surprise, speed, violence of action and security. And we can only do that if we can more quickly enable the soldier on the ground to make effective decisions and close with and destroy the enemy.

How does this all link together? Risk aversion, retranslated, is the strategic ability to marshal combat power at a decisive point. Our political (and military) leaders may be risk averse because of careerism, politics, body counts and the like, but more importantly, it is because they have judged a point in the engagement, the operation, or the campaign, to be decisive. The technology and the soldier survival/SA systems are designed to maximize maneuverability toward this relative superiority.

And here is where the caveats come. Nealen is right. No soldier ever needed anything other than water, a rifle, a knife and ammunition for a fight. Training is truly undervalued. The military-industrial complex has, to rephrase him, pissed away good money for bad. We are at a point in our history where we ought to step back and return to our military’s core functions. We are straddling too many worlds: one of next-generation warfare, one of war with a conventional enemy, one in the current fight – all in an environment of budget sequestration. Our civilian and military leaders are doing a shit job of balancing all of these priorities and maintaining the health and morale of the force.

Some of his arguments are overlapping, but Nealen’s central point holds true. Our war-making capabilities are hamstrung; our leaders do not take risks when risks are needed and our technology fetish risks losing our fighting edge. Re-read Nealen’s series, read the QDR, our national military strategy and look at the summary of DoD’s budget. We have to continue to have this conversation. Many of us have felt for some time that our backs are up against the wall.

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