Leadership: August 3, 2001

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It's dj vu time for the U.S. Army. Back in the 1950s, nuclear weapons were going to make "war as we know it" obsolete. It was also thought to be making the army obsolete. This despite the fact that the army had recently provided some old time hard fighting in Korea from 1950 to 1953. But the army proceeded to bend itself out of shape trying to deal with nuclear weapons, and the revolution in military affairs the president (a former army general) and his respected advisors were sure was right around the corner. The army reorganized, got it's own nukes and frantically tried to come up with ways to survive on the nuclear battlefield. Sanity returned in the early 1960s, even before America got involved with another large ground war in Vietnam. Aside from a few long serving NCOs, no one in the army remembers the "Atomic Army" madness. But, as the saying goes, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. The army is again being portrayed as obsolete and forced to justify its existence. 

No one wants to admit it, but it's still nukes that are, more or less, keeping the peace. Just as nukes did the job fifty years ago. But there is no peace. Dozens of wars rage or simmer in different parts of the world. Nukes don't faze these folks, the little guys with beefs, weapons and blood lust. About a third of the U.S. Army is over there trying to keep the peace in some of these hotspots. Seeing an opportunity in peacekeeping, the army is furiously refashioning itself as a peacekeeping force. But others caution that there are still opportunities for old fashioned, toe to toe, hard fighting type wars. Not to worry, says the presidents respected advisors, we can keep the peace with stealthy aircraft and smart bombs. It's the revolution in military affairs again. The army's been hammered with this stuff throughout the 1990s, despite having won another ground war in 1991. And despite facing large, and hostile, ground forces in Korea and the Persian Gulf. 

Yup, it's dj vu all over again.

Why does this keep happening? Actually, this isn't the second time it happened, it's the third. During the 1920s and 30s, the forward thinking lads were touting the disappearance of warfare as we knew it because air power was going to change everything. It didn't. In fact, although few noticed it at the time, the innovations that really worked during World War II (mobile combat units and improvements in logistics) were already developed by the end of World War I (1914-18.) The only revolution in military affairs was that the Germans had managed to perfect these basic concepts by the time World War II began in 1939. The Allies caught up after a few years and then it was mainly a matter of numbers. The Allies had bigger numbers and that was that.

It must be something about human nature, the eternal search for the magic bullet. Nowadays it's technology or some brilliant new concept that will replace tried and true concepts. What usually happens is that the new concepts and technology really are great, but then everyone forgets that without expert execution, the new goodies won't work. That's what happened before World War II. The Germans, who had invented most elements of "Blitzkrieg warfare" during the last two years of World War I, kept to the basics of thorough training and excellent leadership. That's what made Blitzkrieg ("Lightning War" in German) such a fearsome technique. History showed that it had a sense of humor during the "Atomic Revolution" of the 1950s. It eventually became apparent that no one wanted to go to war using nukes, because was obvious that there was little chance of winning and a big certainty that everyone would lose. But wait, it got better. The U.S. Army developed the UH-1 ("Huey") helicopter so that troops could move quickly over radioactive battlefields. No one thought the Huey could survive any combat zone with enemy troops still in it. Then came the Vietnam war, when the Huey pilots, and the troops they supported, demonstrated that the Huey could survive. Sure, a lot were shot down. But they were largely survivable crashes. The troops quickly realized by evacuating casualties and quickly carrying troops and ammunition to where they were desperately needed, the Huey was well worth the risks and losses. After a few months of combat flying, Huey pilots showed you could do things with the choppers no one had imagined. Like most true revolutions in military affairs, it was well trained and led soldiers under fire who figured out what worked and what didn't. 

So, using tried and true dj vu as our guide, we can be pretty certain that the current reform proposals (whatever they eventually turn out to be) are only half right. And we won't find out which half works until there's a war of some sort and the troops can demonstrate conclusively which ideas run true and which run into walls. 

 


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