Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Son, rotation of troops is no way to fight: It hurt Napoleon’s campaign in Spain as well as the U.S. Army effort in Afghanistan

The more I study military history, the more I believe that troop rotation is a lousy way to run a war.

El Tres de Mayo, by Francisco Goya. (Wikimedia Commons)
El Tres de Mayo, by Francisco Goya. (Wikimedia Commons)
El Tres de Mayo, by Francisco Goya. (Wikimedia Commons)

The more I study military history, the more I believe that troop rotation is a lousy way to run a war. Or at least officer rotation is. I mentioned this awhile back in an item about the Crusades.

I thought about it again when reading in a history of modern warfare (very good and thought provoking, by the way) about the problems that rotation gave Napoleon’s army in Spain. “Too often, veteran officers and troops rotated out of the theater too quickly, taking with them vital field and anti-insurgency experience. The guerrillas thus got more experienced and better at mayhem as the French grew weaker, eroded by a wearing campaign of ambushes against their patrols, garrisons, supply lines and depots.”

And I thought about it yet once more when I read, in a very good edited volume on the Afghan war, the observation by Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff from 2007 to 2011, that soldiers tended to think that, “the war began when I got here.” This was a problem, he explained, because, “Every time this happened, something big fell apart, and it happened on every major rotation of troops.”

The more I study military history, the more I believe that troop rotation is a lousy way to run a war. Or at least officer rotation is. I mentioned this awhile back in an item about the Crusades.

I thought about it again when reading in a history of modern warfare (very good and thought provoking, by the way) about the problems that rotation gave Napoleon’s army in Spain. “Too often, veteran officers and troops rotated out of the theater too quickly, taking with them vital field and anti-insurgency experience. The guerrillas thus got more experienced and better at mayhem as the French grew weaker, eroded by a wearing campaign of ambushes against their patrols, garrisons, supply lines and depots.”

And I thought about it yet once more when I read, in a very good edited volume on the Afghan war, the observation by Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff from 2007 to 2011, that soldiers tended to think that, “the war began when I got here.” This was a problem, he explained, because, “Every time this happened, something big fell apart, and it happened on every major rotation of troops.”

I thought about it most recently when reading a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (have a nice SIGAR). Quoth he: “The constant turnover of U.S. and NATO trainers impaired the training mission’s institutional memory and hindered the relationship building and effective monitoring and evaluation required in SSA [Security Sector Assistance] mission.”

Lots of evidence here. But I do believe that the U.S. military would rather have orderly rotations than actually win a war.

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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