Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Dempsey may be smart, but he’s wrong, because the next war can’t be predicted

By Jörg Muth Best Defense department of allied counsel I have to agree with my historian colleague Robert Goldich that General Dempsey’s remarks contain more bad news than good news. Between his lines lies excuses for further cuts in the budget and the emphasis on networking and good relations with the allies appears to be ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

By Jörg Muth

Best Defense department of allied counsel

I have to agree with my historian colleague Robert Goldich that General Dempsey's remarks contain more bad news than good news. Between his lines lies excuses for further cuts in the budget and the emphasis on networking and good relations with the allies appears to be wishful thinking rather than an actual reliable cornerstone for a strategy or force structure.

By Jörg Muth

Best Defense department of allied counsel

I have to agree with my historian colleague Robert Goldich that General Dempsey’s remarks contain more bad news than good news. Between his lines lies excuses for further cuts in the budget and the emphasis on networking and good relations with the allies appears to be wishful thinking rather than an actual reliable cornerstone for a strategy or force structure.

Historically no component of any policy or strategy is as unreliable as an ally or former friend. In the 1930s the best partner of the U.S. Army were the German Armed Forces. There was an officer exchange program in place and until 1940 (!) all German military schools were open for U.S. officers to visit or attend. The Americans saw the new German medium tank paraded in front of them and the new top secret heavy howitzer. Finally, the U.S. assistant military attaché rode with the German tanks into Poland.

Your current partner might be your future enemy or just refuse to aid you in your next predicament. Military strategy and the structure of force cannot reliably be based on networking and allies. The U.S. Armed Forces need to plan to go alone if necessary and have adequate forces to do so. The current planning moves in the wrong direction. It is again based more on gadgets and technology and less on numbers and soldiers with rifles in their hands.

Recommended reading for all military planners would be Ralph Peters’ book War in 2020 (especially intriguing because the year is mentioned in Dempsey’s remarks). The novel describes a downsized U.S. Army which is super-professional, networked, and has an enormous technological advantage over its enemies. For a variety of reasons this small but gadget-heavy army sustains catastrophic casualties and thus becomes nearly nonoperational as a result. With terrible costs — human, monetary, and ethical — it is built up and set back on track to defeat its enemies on a conventional battlefield as well as a in a guerrilla war. Sound familiar? Look back in U.S. military history, just minus the gadgets. You don’t want to do that again, do you?

Future wars and future enemies cannot be predicted. Too often in the past the U.S. army was focused on the wrong opponent and had doctrines laid out for the wrong kind of war. An army does not need an exact vision of a future war — there are too many variables. Because of that an army needs to stay flexible — first in mind, and second in force structure. And it needs the numbers and quality to maintain both in any conflict.

Jörg Muth, PhD, is a historian and an expert on the U.S. Army, past and present. He is the author of Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II. The book was placed by the Army Chief of Staff, General Raymond T. Odierno, on his professional reading list.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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