Leadership: November 5, 1999

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And a Lamb Shall Lead You Into Battle: A recent Duke University research project revealed that America tends to get involved in military operations when there are fewer military veterans in Congress and the White House. This is no surprise to veterans. Being in the military, even if you don't get shot at, provides a vivid reality check about the nature of military operations. Veterans know well that even the best plans can easily blow up in your face. Moreover, there are several aspects of military operations that the troops either keep to themselves, or have a difficult time explaining to civilians. Friendly fire is one of those skeletons in the closet that the troops would rather not discuss. Combat veterans usually have some friendly fire experience. They may mention the times they got hit by their own artillery or aircraft. Those things, like the enemy, are largely out of their control. But less talked about are the many cases were the "hunting accidents" took place, when an infantryman, in a murky situation, shot one of his buddies. Army surgeons also knew how often this happened because they saw American bullets in American troops, and provided the evidence that, in one official report, estimated friendly fire to be nearly twenty percent of losses in past wars. 
And then there are the things that most non-veterans cannot grasp, such as the importance of discipline and morale. These two qualities are desirable in civilian work places, but the military version more often amuses than impresses civilians. Yet the seeming silliness of saluting, uniforms, marching in formation and the like are traits developed over thousands of years to prepare the troops for combat. As silly as it seems to the untrained eye, it works. One aspect of combat training that doesn't even get much attention among civilians is the way combat training teaches you the meaning of fear and how to control it. This sort of thing is central to creating troops who can face combat, succeed, and maybe even survive.

With this in mind, it should be surprising that the Duke researchers found veterans not only reluctant to use military force, but that when they did, they used far more troops than their non-veteran peers. Veterans know that, in combat, quantity does have a quality all its own. For the troops themselves, too much ain't enough when their own lives are at stake. But non-vets buy into the current myth that you can fight wars without taking any casualties.

The Duke research did not reveal anything new, their findings have been seen in action for millennia. Leaders without exposure to combat have always tended to be more eager to call out the troops to solve some political or diplomatic problem. What is different today, and the Duke crew missed this, is that armed forces have undergone an unprecedented transformation in this century. For the first time in history, the vast majority of the troops have little to do with fighting. That in itself is not a bad thing. We have more machines to do the fighting, and that saves lives. But civilian misperceptions of what warfare is all about have forced the military to water down their training. The harsh discipline and stress conditioning that worked so well over the centuries to turn civilians into effective soldiers has been attacked as insensitive and harmful. So most of the recruits today, those that are headed for non-combat jobs, get basic training that does not educate them about what combat is. The only veterans who have a realistic idea of what combat is are those who train and serve in combat units, or near them. This is no more than a third of the people in uniform.

The media can't get across the dangers of using military force, for they also have far fewer veterans in their reporter and management ranks. And those vets who do work as journalists find it difficult to educate their non-veteran peers. Many give up trying after discovering that going against the conventional wisdom is not good for their careers.

The conventional wisdom is formed by movies and TV reporting that, quite naturally, spotlight the heroic, and often victorious, aspects of military operations. You can't entertain an audience with the tedium and terror that characterizes military operations. And then there's the "can do" attitude most troops exude. This does not represent confidence so much as it is another tool to get men through the terrors of combat. Battlefields are full of hopeless situations, so over the centuries, a "do or die" attitude was found to be an approach that made the most of a bad situation. Non-veterans tend to misinterpret "can do" as, "hey, piece of cake, do it." But what the troops mean is that they will give it their best shot and, if need be, die in the attempt. It's not for nothing that the U.S. Marines motto is "Semper Fideles" ("Always Faithful," to their mission, to each other and so on, unto death.)

So there you have it. A bad situation with no known solution. Worst of all, you now know that a lot of that peacetime military action is more dangerous than it appears and that the politicians calling for it really are getting in over their heads.


 


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