The Key Technological Breakthrough: Avoiding Death

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What technological breakthroughs could recalibrate military operations in the tradition of the tank, guided missile, jet aircraft, or nuclear weapon? It’s not the technologies; rather, it is the motivation driving the technologies that has changed. The American Way of War has reverted back to the pre-1775 style called “skulking”: you try to kill your enemy while staying alive. That is quite different than the Decisive Battle theory and practice of war that dominated in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the 2003 March to Baghdad.

In comparing, say, Vietnam with Iraq and Afghanistan, no variable is more telling than the avoidance of casualties on our side. We have entered a different cultural era, a different way of thinking about war. What does this mean? Simple: avoiding casualties has emerged as the motivating force behind technological breakthroughs.

The technology of social media—TV, cell phones, the Internet, et al.—has created a global commons. Barbarians and atavistic tribes rub digital elbows with American college students inside the cocoons of their “safe houses.” The universal effect has been the intensification of solipsism, as every human being has become more aware of his individual worth—a feeling that he counts for more. Thus, he is less willing to risk dying. This affects the selection of tactics, the style of operations, and the chances of winning. It can prolong suffering and increase casualties.

Before you dismiss that as absurd conjecture, look at the trends. Sixty million were killed in history’s most savage war seventy years ago. My two uncles were Marine platoon commanders on Guadalcanal and Okinawa. The stoic outlook of such men greatly affected how we fought for the next several decades. In Vietnam, we “grunts” accepted as normal combat seeing the bodies of the enemy after every battle. We carried our fallen in poncho liners to the nearest LZ and went on with the mission. We didn’t dwell on death.

In Desert Storm, we and our allies won with scant fatalities. We also forbore, choosing not to kill our enemies trapped on the “road of death.” This ushered in a different attitude about sacrifice, cost, and the infliction of destruction in war. For the past 15 years, we have fought two wars while expecting to suffer few losses. Each individual struck down was treated with solemn reverence and remembrances. That observation is not intended in any way to suggest callousness toward any warrior who has given the last, full measure of devotion.

But gradually as a military we did become exceedingly sensitive to casualties, with senior commands overseeing individual small patrols and setting limits upon even squad tactics. The fundamental infantry principle of “fire and maneuver” was changed to “fire, get down, and call in more fire from the air.” Massive and heavy protective armor prevented maneuver, while not wearing the armor was subject to court-martial. The lack of any sensible strategy compounded the desire to avoid casualties. Nation-building as a military mission—20 year-old grunts expected to convert 50 year-old tribal chiefs by sipping tea—was risible at the level where the wars were fought. So many small-unit leaders decided their real mission was to bring everyone home in one piece.

The avoidance of casualties quickly evolved to include civilians. This led to rules of engagement that shackled our relative advantage in employing firepower and gave an edge to our enemies.

Fighting a war while eschewing death extended to all our allies, European and Arab. It was not an American-only phenomenon. Over the past fifteen years, I have embedded with over fifty platoons of various nations in the course of dozens of trips to Afghanistan and Iraq. The commonality observed over more than one hundred combat patrols was the caution exhibited on both sides.

This was in marked contrast to my grunt tours in Vietnam, where the North Vietnamese would dig in like badgers or slip through the wire to engage us. Battles were fought until one side or the other was exhausted or torn apart and forced to retreat.

That’s not how the jihadist terrorists and other insurgent gangs in Iraq and Pakistan fought. Yes, the suicide bomber does reflect a warped religious ideology even more murderous than the WWII kamikaze pilots with their Bushido creed. But they are a distinct minority. Among our enemies, the cell phone is ubiquitous, and access to the Internet by individual jihadists is far more common than most realize. Most fight like Apaches, sniping and hiding, usually keeping a canal or tree-line behind them and the allied patrol in order to escape intact.

The nature of warfare in the 21st Century—the willingness of the combatants at the fighting level—has changed. It may shift back, but for the first decade and a half, battles have not been fought to the death. Even the jihadists in the three battles for Fallujah (April 2004, November 2004, and June 2016) did not stay and die; they ran away. Winning by standing on the enemy’s ground at battle’s end happens very rarely. And this skulking way of war, common in America in the 18th Century, seems to affect all parties—Russians, Americans, Europeans, and our enemies. I attribute this to an enhanced sense of self-worth sparked by the interactivity that flows from the Internet. Each fighter is more aware of the sweetness of normal life, even when he is on the battlefield. He’s not alone with his unit, writing a letter a month home, as in WWII, Korea, or Vietnam Instead, he hops on the NET that provides constant reminders of a better life.

In conclusion, I expect Europeans and Americans to focus their efforts upon developing warfighting technologies that reduce casualties among our warriors.