Winning the next war?

At the risk of treading on Tom Ricks’s beat, I’m linking here to a fascinating talk at the Command and General Staff College (subsequently reprinted in Small Wars Journal) by Lt. Colonel Paul Yingling, one of the shining lights and fearless truth-tellers in the American military. Yingling has seen extensive service in Iraq, and his ...

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Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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587103_090406_walt_a2.jpg
BAGHDAD, IRAQ, MARCH 31: Iraqi Army soldiers stand in formation during a handover ceremony at Camp Rustimiyah March 31, 2009 in Baghdad, Iraq. The U.S Army handed over the Rustimiyah military camp back to the Iraqi army , which houses the Iraqi Military Academy and is about seven square kilometers of terrain with 200 buildings, during the ceremony. (Photo by Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images)

At the risk of treading on Tom Ricks's beat, I'm linking here to a fascinating talk at the Command and General Staff College (subsequently reprinted in Small Wars Journal) by Lt. Colonel Paul Yingling, one of the shining lights and fearless truth-tellers in the American military. Yingling has seen extensive service in Iraq, and his main theme is the inability of the "institutional military" to adapt to the challenges of a world where counter-insurgency and irregular warfare are becoming more important than the traditional "great power" focus of American military planning.  

Why is that? Yingling pins the blame not on the officer corps itself, but rather on the incentive system that pervades U.S. military organizations.  Troops in combat must "adapt or die," but the "institutional military" back home has a clear incentive "to procure expensive, high-tech weapons, even if those weapons are not the ones combat forces need." Moreover, junior officers "operate under powerful incentives to conform to senior officers' views, even if those views are out of touch with battlefield realities. Unlike combat forces, the institutional military operates under an incentive system that rewards conformity and discourages adaptation." Senior military leaders are "not bad people," he writes, "but they work in a bad system that rewards the wrong behaviors." The bottom line:

At the risk of treading on Tom Ricks’s beat, I’m linking here to a fascinating talk at the Command and General Staff College (subsequently reprinted in Small Wars Journal) by Lt. Colonel Paul Yingling, one of the shining lights and fearless truth-tellers in the American military. Yingling has seen extensive service in Iraq, and his main theme is the inability of the “institutional military” to adapt to the challenges of a world where counter-insurgency and irregular warfare are becoming more important than the traditional “great power” focus of American military planning.  

Why is that? Yingling pins the blame not on the officer corps itself, but rather on the incentive system that pervades U.S. military organizations.  Troops in combat must “adapt or die,” but the “institutional military” back home has a clear incentive “to procure expensive, high-tech weapons, even if those weapons are not the ones combat forces need.” Moreover, junior officers “operate under powerful incentives to conform to senior officers’ views, even if those views are out of touch with battlefield realities. Unlike combat forces, the institutional military operates under an incentive system that rewards conformity and discourages adaptation.” Senior military leaders are “not bad people,” he writes, “but they work in a bad system that rewards the wrong behaviors.” The bottom line:

Our Armed Forces are incapable of internal reform on the scale necessary to prepare for the wars of the 21st century.  Real reform will require political intervention, preferably by Congress, as statutory reforms are more durable than executive ones.”

I’m still not persuaded that the United States ought to be doing a lot of nitty-gritty counter-insurgency and “nation-building” operations, but Yingling’s warnings about our institutional incapacity to adapt deserve to be taken seriously. And if we can’t overcome the bureaucratic obstacles he’s pointing to, what does that say about our prospects for success in places like Afghanistan or Iraq?

Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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