Contemporary military culture at war
A question that is rarely asked in contemporary public and academic debates about the engagement of the United States and the United Kingdom in the Global War on Terror is how successful are their military cultures? In order to answer it, one must further ask what is the underlying purpose and utility of military institutions for a state and society, and why they invest so much national treasure in their soldiers, sailors and air personnel. The ostensibly simple question of ‘why do nations have armed forces?’ can provoke a wide range of answers, from defending the state to keeping the peace in international affairs.1 A more convincing avenue of explanation can be gleaned from the work of the American strategist Bernard Brodie, who wrestled with this issue in the light of the introduction of atomic weapons in the mid-1940s. From intensive research and rigorous analysis, he produced one the most celebrated statements in the field of strategic studies: ‘thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose’.2 Brodie framed his analysis in the light of a radically changed strategic landscape in which a proliferation of nuclear weapons had occurred, with an increased likelihood of their use in the event of a war breaking out between highly developed nation-states. The essence of Brodie’s thinking was that the development of atomic weapons was a game-changer with regard to the prosecution of interstate warfare, in that there were no benefits to either side if a largescale use of atomic weapons occurred, especially in view of the horrific results of the limited atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. However, fortunately, this dark and at the time quite plausible strategic prediction of the future has not come to pass, and what we term conventional warfare, without recourse to nuclear weapons, has been a constant feature of international relations since the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. Consequently, the first part of Brodie’s statement remains apposite and provides an excellent measure of the utility and relevance of an existing military culture for a nationstate. In other words, do they win wars? The Global War on Terror from 2001 to the present day has proven to be one of the most unusual and complex military campaigns in modern memory, and it has thrown up a variety of unexpected challenges and pressures for the military
institutions of the United States and the United Kingdom. It was provoked by an unprecedented act of international terrorism on a beautiful and clear autumn morning on 11 September 2001, when 19 members of the shadowy Al Qaeda terrorist organisation3 hijacked four wide-body commercial jetliners in the United States. Directed by the Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden, who was located in Afghanistan with the main body of his adherents and enjoying the hospitality of the Taliban regime, the terrorists flew three out of the four aircraft into their designated targets with sublime precision.4 By the end of that seminal day, nearly 3,000 people were dead, the World Trade Centre and its iconic Twin Towers had been reduced to rubble and dust and this had been broadcast on live international television, and the most powerful military headquarters in the world, the Pentagon, was on fire after being struck on one of its defining walls by a passenger jet. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as they became known, was more akin to that of a massive military strike by a powerful nation-state than an extremely lucky act of terrorism by a loose collection of radicals. Such a long-range assault on the United States should not have been so successful in view of the vast range of variables involved. Avoiding internal security agencies geared towards countering terrorists, negotiating airport protective procedures, seizing four passenger jets, corralling and controlling frightened passengers, evading air defence networks, and flying the jets with precision into specific buildings using amateur pilots with little experience should not have been allowed to produce such spectacular results as occurred on that extraordinary day. The challenge for the relatively new Bush administration was how to respond to such a devastating blow to its security, its citizens, its critical infrastructure, and its international prestige and national pride in a way that would satisfy all onlookers, but particularly the domestic ones. 9/11 shone a sharp spotlight on civil/military relations in a democratic country and the primacy of civilian leadership over military elites. Most particularly, it highlighted the importance of the supreme political leader in setting the essential context for a military response. In other words, it is civilian elites who determine the objectives for the military establishment in a specific campaign, and these goals provide the baseline for the determination of success, from which to measure defeat or victory. In the United States, the normal demands on the top political leadership, whether or not in crisis, are manifold. A presidential perspective on the American political pressure cooker is provided by the scholar Richard Neustadt, who suggests that ‘in the United States we like to “rate” a President. We measure him as “weak” or “strong” and call what we are measuring his “leadership.” We do not wait until a man is dead’.5 The internal and external pressures on the little-tested and inexperienced President George W. Bush, son of the former successful President of the United States, to respond in an appropriately dramatic fashion were immense and to a significant degree curtailed traditional options. As Bush admitted in his memoirs, ‘on 9/11, it was obvious the law enforcement approach to terrorism had failed. Suicidal men willing to fly passenger planes into buildings were not common criminals. . . . They had declared war on America’.6 Usually, acts of terrorism in the United States were criminalised and dealt with by
civilian agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), if necessary with support from dedicated military anti-terrorism units such as the US Army’s Delta Force. For the events of 9/11, such a response, while logical and rational, did not carry the political and social impact that the Bush administration needed. The leader of the only remaining superpower in the world could not be perceived as responding in a weak manner to this attack and hope to survive long in political office. President Bush’s personal interpretation of the events of 9/11 as ‘acts of war’7 set the tone of the response. Additionally, the foreign location of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan necessitated the involvement of state institutions that possessed the means to reach the terrorists in their far-flung sanctuaries. The decision by President Bush and his administration to militarise the national response to 9/11 and give authority to the armed forces of the United States to deal with the threat from Al Qaeda is perhaps one of the greatest political and strategic missteps of the modern era. Notwithstanding the material and media effects of 9/11, the long-term threat from Al Qaeda was very, very low in comparison to traditional concerns. In 2002-2003, it was estimated that Al Qaeda had possibly around 1,000 members8 – extremely limited, in fact miniscule, resources when compared to a state – and little chance of replicating their lucky strike. In contrast to the United States, the most powerful nation-state in existence with 300 million citizens and the ability to destroy entire continents with nuclear weapons if it so wished, Al Qaeda was the veritable strategic flea. This was the nub of the problem. America’s military institutions were designed, orientated and constructed to fight peer competitors or the armed forces of other states and not globe-trotting transnational terrorists. In other words, by allocating the task of destroying Al Qaeda to the soldiers, sailors and air personnel of the United States, President Bush was giving them an asymmetric task that they were not culturally, ideationally or materially equipped to deal with. Cruise missiles, strategic bombers, aircraft carriers and army divisions designed to engage conventional enemies of equal constitution are ill-suited to precisely find and kill terrorists who do not wear uniforms, blend in with a local population and do not possess critical infrastructure and traditional chains of command. This has been the root of the strategic flaw underpinning the so-called Global War on Terror for the best part of a decade: the employment of predominantly conventional armed forces with their preferences towards warfare to deal with the threat from an unconventional non-state actor. It is unsurprising that traditional state-cracking approaches to war have proven inapposite in the fight against Al Qaeda, but have been very effective in provoking regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ironically, notwithstanding the expenditure of vast amounts of blood and treasure in the Global War on Terror, with the Iraq campaign (2003-2011) alone costing at the low end of the spectrum of calculation $800 billion and the lives of over 4,400 Americans with 30,000 wounded,9 it was a dedicated anti-terrorism unit from the unconventional US Navy Special Forces community, SEAL Team 6, that finally caught and killed the architect of the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden, in Pakistan, almost ten years on from the horrifying attacks in 2001.10
The other foundational flaw in the US response to 9/11 that has profoundly affected the coordination and effectiveness of military operations, quite apart from their general inapposite utility against Al Qaeda, has been the absence of a grand strategy underpinning all efforts. Declaring a war on terror is not a substitute for a coherent strategy. As Sir Michael Howard, an eminent strategist, argues, ‘we cannot be at war with an abstract noun’.11 The failure to articulate a clear and achievable political aim remains the most glaring indictment of ineptness that can be made against American and, to a lesser extent, British political elites when they embarked on the force option in 2001. An insight into the folly of this approach is provided by the magisterial work of Carl Von Clausewitz, who warns that ‘war is merely the continuation of policy by other means’12 and adds to this oft-quoted declaration that ‘the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose’.13 Unfortunately, the Bush administration’s approach to the war on terror fell foul of this sage advice and tackled the challenge from Al Qaeda, not as a political problem per se, but purely as something that could be rectified by applying massive amounts of firepower in its rough general direction, akin to an unskilled gunfighter firing from the hip with no attempt to aim or direct the bullets precisely to their target. The upshot is an impressive amount of noise to the watching audience, wreaths of smoke surrounding the gunslinger and, without luck, no effect whatsoever. The lack of awareness of the necessity for an overall clear strategic direction is perhaps one of the most breathtaking and disturbing features of the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. Force without focused higher political direction is misdirected and often wasted effort. The performance of American and British military cultures in the Global War on Terror has been decidedly mixed, largely due to the asymmetric nature of the original task, as well as the fragility of the grand strategic wisdom behind the invasion of Iraq.14 In addition, there were major structural constraints that prevented the total application of force in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It is thus very difficult to say definitively if the US and UK forces have won the Global War on Terror. There have been periods of notable success, for example the destruction of the Taliban regime in 2001 and the ‘liberation’ of Iraq in 2003, but also marked periods of clear failure, such as the development of complex insurgencies in both countries that suggest that these earlier victories were short-term in nature and lacked a solid foundation. The uneven application of Western military culture, due to influences both from political elites and from military elites, has generated wide-ranging and often, indirectly, negative effects on the course and direction of the Global War on Terror.15 After all, military culture does not operate in a social vacuum. If it did and was applied without political distillation, then wars would be fought in a more predictable way and the current Global War on Terror would possess a very different identity. In a Weberian ideal scenario,16 the armed forces of the United States would have applied industrial-scale warfare to both Afghanistan and Iraq, involving the use of massive amount of firepower and the deployment of millions of soldiers in each state to achieve objectives. There would be no
opportunity for insurgencies to develop, as was the case in Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, and for that matter no effective opposition at all, because it would have been decisively destroyed. It would have echoed what Weigley describes as strategies of annihilation that ‘became characteristically the American way in war’.17 Such approaches to warfare, however, are only possible in times of supreme national emergency, when states are engaged in wars of survival and the structure of the international system facilitate such radical applications. Since 1945, global affairs have witnessed a shift away from the total wars of survival of the early twentieth century to the limited wars of choice that characterise the modern era. As a consequence, the use of force in international relations, and especially by the West, has been dominated by strict limitations imposed by political elites responding to the changing domestic and international moral consensus with regard to what is acceptable in warfare. From the deliberate targeting of civilians with the strategic bombing of cities to the use of nuclear weapons,18 napalm and, most recently, cluster bombs,19 it is clear that the legitimacy of using certain weapons and approaches to war can change radically over time. Military culture is a by-product of a particular state or, more specifically, a state military institution with an explicit purpose. As such, in the West, it is subordinate to political culture, as part of the democratic tradition, and this relationship, which has been at the heart of numerous cultural studies,20 determines the efficacy of military institutions in specific types of conflict, in particular the limited ones of contemporary times. In times of constraint concerning the utility of force, it is the relationship and interaction between political and military culture that is crucial to military effectiveness on the battlefield and in a designated theatre of operation. More specifically, it is the extent to which political elites in the West allow their military specialists to empower their cultural preferences – derived from hardwon experience in previous wars – to enable them to fulfil the military objectives of the campaign and achieve the political ones of the war.21 To a significant degree, the dominance and interference in the prosecution of warfare by political elites in the West after 1945 is an innate product of the capitalist system, aptly described by Max Weber in his seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.22 The ability to acquire calculations, statistics and information about virtually all aspects of life has gained a form of influential social power over time, and with the shift to wars of choice, the power of political elites to interfere in matters that traditionally were the exclusive domain of military specialists has grown exponentially. The first real manifestation of it occurred in the Vietnam War, with the controversial role of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his ‘whizz kids’ in the construction and prosecution of the campaign. By the time of the start of the Global War on Terror in 2001, it was apparent that a US Secretary of Defense could exert even greater power and interference over military campaigns. The Weberian caveat, as it is described here, is the ‘iron cage’23 or constraining social order that has significantly altered the relationship between political and military culture in the West. In the information technology age, the domination of the latter over the former through
interference at most fundamental levels, such as the determination of key force packages, troops and technologies, for a campaign means that military culture will be unevenly applied to combat. In addition, the interactive compliance of military elites with political elites adds further constraints on the effective use of force in a specific campaign. Together, these elements combine to produce a maelstrom of centrifugal tensions that impede viable strategy construction, because subjective micromanagement and political expediency take precedence over objective military planning.