Military Review English Edition March-April 2016 - Page 54

existing, almost-completed narrative of these wars would be a remarkable surprise. This fact, perhaps more than any other, has the U.S. military viewing the current operational environment as problematic: an intricate puzzle that is difficult to solve. Linn wrote that the Army has been traditionally shaped by the “echo of battle” that it chooses to hear.23 It would seem that the echo being heard from the past fourteen years in Afghanistan and Iraq is noisy and filled with static: several sounds all at once, threatening to confuse us. Most misguided, albeit common, is the thinking that the U.S. military is capable of fully preparing itself for the next war. This notion suggests that the Army must be completely ready before the first shots are fired, thereby preventing the kind of “bad start” that has characterized nearly every conflict in our history. Christopher A. Lawrence recently concluded in his study America’s Modern Wars that following the “flawed and improvised” war in Afghanistan, “U.S. citizens have a right to demand that the national command authorities (the civilians) and the U.S. armed forces be prepared for all types of wars and to be able to initiate them with considerable competence.” While acknowledging that the United States made substantial strides in adjusting to the challenges Iraq and Afghanistan provided, Lawrence quipped, “Even if the glass is half full, the American serviceman and the American tax payer have every right to demand that the glass be completely full.”24 He is wrong. The glass will neither be “completely full” nor will the military be capable of being prepared for “all types” of potential conflicts at any given time. The idea of absolute preparedness, bolstered by a faith in data analysis, models, statistics, and planning checklists, naively ignores the simple reality that it is impossible to prepare for every contingency. As U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command commander Gen. David Perkins observed, “Not only is the future unknown, but it is unknowable.”25 As such, we should embrace this uncertainty and acknowledge that our ability to plan, train, and prepare for the next war is limited. Whatever the next conflict presents, we will be required to make strategic, organizational, and doctrinal adjustments as we fight. This is not a shortcoming; it is a simple, historical truth. The U.S. Army’s recent call for adaptability in its ranks acknowledges this truth and is appropriate given the state of political and military affairs today. To say that we are entering “a period of great transition” is correct, but to suggest that this is unique is not.26 The problem with viewing current military aff airs as unprecedented and somehow more complex than those previous is the tendency to ignore or discount the past. Thinking that the questions of today can only be solved with new ideas, new solutions, and new systems is both wrong and counterproductive. Conclusion Nearly thirty years ago, the authors of America’s First Battles, 1776-1965, warned against the “widespread current belief that things were never as tough as they are now.”27 That warning still applies. Complexity, uncertainty, and confusion are nothing new. They are the historical norm. Today’s cyberwarfare is yesterday’s nuclear threat. Today’s nonstate actors are yesterday’s communist revolutionaries. Today’s Arab Spring is yesterday’s collapse of the Soviet Union. We know just as much or just as little about the next war as we did when we emerged from the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, or the Persian Gulf. It is useful to remind ourselves that—while the world around us may not exactly match the world ten, twenty, or a hundred years ago—we should keep the present (and the future) in the proper historical context. We need to maintain the long view. Doing so allows us to assess current challenges and requirements without thinking that we are somehow adrift in uncharted waters, driven by currents the likes of which we have never seen before. Because we have been here before, many times. We have never enjoyed a certain future. We are not writing a new book, we are only adding the next chapter. Lt. Col. Clay Mountcastle, U.S. Army, retired, is assistant professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Lee, Virginia. He earned his PhD in history from Duke University and has taught military history at the United States Military Academy, the U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute, and the University of Washington. Mountcastle is also the author of Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals. 52 March-April 2016  MILITARY REVIEW