“Generals usually fight the last war.”


“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Sounds like a conundrum. The first quote is often attributed to Winston Churchill. However, it has been repeated so many times, it’s hard to know who really said it. It is true and accurate, just the same. The second quote is from George Santayana. It has also been rephrased and repeated many times over the years. It is also just as true and just as relevant.

It’s not only generals who fight the last war. Entire armies, countries, and politicians fight the last war, too. It becomes institutional, at that point. This has happened for thousands of years. It also does make sense, of course. Hindsight is always 20/20. Everyone should always learn from the past and implement those learnings accordingly. Past lessons should always be applied to the process of getting better.

The challenge, then, becomes doing two things simultaneously: Learning from the last war, and, at the same time, preparing for future conflict.

Fortress Schoenenbourg Maginot Line
The entrance to Fortress Schoenenbourg along the Maginot Line, constructed to defend the road between Wissembourg and Hagenau. (Wikimedia Commons)


The Maginot Line

After World War I, France wanted to remember the past and apply the lessons learned to future conflicts, specifically, against Germany. So it constructed the Maginot Line to prevent a conflict similar to World War I.

The Maginot Line was an ingenious piece of military engineering. It is an elaborate system of fortified bunkers, tunnels, and trolleys. This vast underground network also had air conditioning, making it very advanced for the time. Thousands of troops could be garrisoned in this huge fortification network. Being French, of course, they even had wine cellars.

This network spanned the entire French-German border. France also built a similar network, facing Italy. The intent of the Maginot Line was to buy time for the French military to assemble in the event of invasion.

However, 20 years later, the military world was very different. So, the French solution guaranteed that France was stuck fighting the last war.

While at the time of its completion the Maginot Line was considered a strategic success, it became irrelevant and a failure. When the Nazi army invaded France, it went around the Maginot through the Ardennes forest and Belgium to the north and across the Rhine to the south. The French had discounted the possibility of a German invasion through Belgium and across the Rhine.

General George Patton famously said, “fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man.” One cannot help but wonder if he was partially referring to France and the Maginot Line.


Fighting the Last War

Retired U.S. Army General Douglas R. Satterfield shared some good examples of fighting the last war, in his personal blog. These examples from World War II illustrate the struggle of trying to predict how to conduct future warfare, especially, warfare with rapidly changing technology.

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M4 Sherman Shinhoto Japanese tank
An M4 Sherman passing a destroyed Japanese Shinhoto tank on Luzon in the Philippines, January 17, 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

General Satterfield writes,

“The U.S. Army came up with an armored doctrine before WWII that predicted tanks avoiding tank-to-tank battles. Enemy armor would be dealt with tank-destroyers, and the tanks would take on the infantry. We abandoned this concept early and for the right reason, it didn’t work. And, no one copied this idea for a good reason.

In the late 1930s, the British envisioned light-armored tankettes and independent jock columns to strike the enemy forces. But in combat, they could not stand up to the more heavily armored German formations and the pounding inherent in modern warfare. The French intended to fight a rigidly methodical battle and instead found themselves in a maneuver contest with the Germans. The early war went badly for them.

The Japanese believed their ‘warrior spirit’ would make up for the lack of material, manpower, and technology. Their defeats were staggering after some initial surprise attacks but failed in the end. Even the Germans who we say got things right, fought a war designed on a short, sharp campaign and quickly bringing their enemies to the negotiating table. The Germans didn’t figure on a global war of attrition.

Each of these armies was getting ready to fight the last war. In a sense, they all do that; it’s unavoidable. How do you predict the future with enough precision to build a military force around it?”


The Global War on Terror (GWOT)

A lot has been written over the last 2o years on the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Without trying to rehash or dispute too much of what has been written concerning the U.S. and NATO militaries, the war is often used as an example of a military being unprepared or underprepared. Additionally, it is often used as an example of a military getting bogged down in the past and the present, and not looking towards the future. It is possible that these assertions are both correct and incorrect at the same time.

Was the military prepared to fight a war with insurgents and non-state actors in Afghanistan and Iraq? No. And, yes. While militaries are built around conventional forces, there is always the threat of unconventional or asymmetrical conflict. The challenge lies in the fact that up until September 10, 2001, the U.S. military was built around mostly large-scale, conventional, and nuclear warfare as it was anticipating a conflict similar to WWII with the addition of nuclear weapons.

Horse warriors special forces riders Northern Alliance Afghanistan
U.S. special operation forces on horseback with members of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. (Wikimedia Commons)

Just like generals and armies fight the last war, you also always fight the current war with the military you have whether you are prepared or not. The struggle during GWOT was not so much being unprepared as being underprepared. Granted, that might be splitting hairs. It’s not an attempt to disregard or apologize for any shortcomings, either. After all, preparedness is arguably a function of focus, and structure, rather than capability.

In my experience, the challenge was not the capability, but the mindset. And history. Troops on the ground, both conventional and unconventional, had the will and the necessary training to fight. We had both the ability to adapt and improvise. The mindset took time to change at the command level, as senior leaders and commanders, all the way to the top, were slow to allow for bottom-up learning that counter-insurgency strategies require.

Conventional forces are built around top-down orders and a vast, combined-arms doctrine. This is necessary for large-scale operations, but not as much in a 360-degree battlespace typically fought with Small Unit Tactics (SMUT) with decentralized FOBs and firebases spread out over a large, often urban, region. Conventional troops can and will adapt to more non-conventional operations given the proper mindset and leadership. This includes political leadership and the will to win.


Future Threats

During the third presidential debate of 2012, then-President Barak Obama famously derided and mocked presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Romney had stated that Russia was the next, emerging geopolitical threat in the world. He called Russia not a rival, but a foe. President Obama said, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

Senator Mitt Romney has clearly been vindicated with his very prescient statements. The irony is that only four short years later, the Democratic Party claimed that Russia, being a huge geopolitical threat, colluded with Donald Trump to manipulate and influence the presidential election. That is hardly a Cold War set of events from four decades years ago.

President Obama built much of his re-election campaign and foreign policy around al-Qaeda and terrorism as the biggest threats to American safety and security. While he was not necessarily wrong, it does illustrate the bigger point: balancing current threats with future and potential threats.

J-20 Chengdu Chinese fighter
Two Chinese Chengdu J-20 fighters, also known as “Mighty Dragon.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Take the F-22 fighter program, for example. Congress canceled the funding for the F-22 fighter program. Prior to that, President Obama had stated that he would veto the defense bill if there was any money for the F-22. Both President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates lobbied hard to cancel the program. Why? Because at the time, neither China nor Russia had fighter planes that could even come close to the capability of the F-22 (and even some of the older fourth-generation fighters). Secretary Gates also felt that they were not “relevant to post-Cold War conflicts such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq.” While the program and the planes were expensive, the initial plan was to field 750 F-22s. Only 187 were delivered to the Air Force. Looking back, this was largely short-sighted.

While the intent was to save money and cut costs to allocate the funds elsewhere, the lesson here is that future capabilities are not the right place to make such cuts. Now that China has the J-20, its first fifth-generation air superiority, stealth-capable fighter plane, programs like the F-22 quickly became relevant again, just a few short years later. Since these programs take years to develop, going into any new conflict with the military that you have is a bad recipe for countering emerging threats.


Lessons Learned

Hopefully, now the military will figure out how to balance handling current threats while planning for future ones. The decision of the Biden Administration to effectively deprioritize the Middle East and the war on terrorism is pragmatic to some degree. However, it is also misguided and naive. The threat of terrorism is not going anywhere. In fact, Biden’s decision will likely make the threat worse. The decision to focus on China and the Indo-Pacific, by comparison, is a good decision. The bigger question that remains, is if the DoD can focus on both threats, at the same time.

Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth
Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth (Photo by Rod Lamey/AUSA)

Speaking at the annual Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Convention this past week, Secretary of the Army Christina Wormuth clearly addressed future threats and China: “Today’s Army must ask hard questions,” she said. “I am not convinced that we have fully thought our way through all of the challenges we may face in the future.”

“The future is a lot closer than some of us think,” the secretary added. “Fortunately, the Army has not been standing still. Far from it. We are designing new formations to bring us into the future where you’re [sic] innovating and experimenting. We are developing new weapons systems so that we remain the world’s premier land force.”

Across the world, state and non-state actors have had 20 years to study U.S. military doctrine, tactics, techniques, procedures (TTPs), gear, and capability. These actors include Russia and China, just as much as they include Iran, the Taliban, and the Islamic State.

Secretary Wormuth went on to say, “If deterrence fails and either China or Russia makes the strategic mistake of threatening our vital interests with military aggression, we can no longer count on having months to project combat power overseas from an uncontested homeland, nor can we count on quickly establishing air superiority so that our forces can precisely strike targets with relative impunity.”


Future Defense Planning

Indeed, it will require a shift at all levels, not just at the U.S. Army. The entire Defense Department, as well as the State Department, Congress, the intelligence community, and politicians at every level will also have to adjust.

On October 7, 2021, CIA Director William Burns announced that the CIA will now make China its priority after focusing, the last 20 years, on terrorism. The CIA has created the China Mission Center (CMC). The “CMC will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government,” Burns said.

Focusing on threats that have been neglected for 20 years is the right call and a sound strategy. The challenge will come in seeing these emerging or existing — but neglected — threats while not losing sight of the current threats already on the radar screen. China, of course, is a good example of that.

The reality is that the U.S. is behind. A refocus should have happened 10 years ago.

Time will tell if the United States can learn from history and, simultaneously, avoid fighting the last war.