There is an apocryphal story that features the founder of the (now defunct) Army school of critical thinking, Colonel Steven Rotkoff. The story involves generals planning the Iraq invasion gaining access to inside, expert information that America’s military foray into that country would not be successful in its then-present form due to insufficient American resolve in the face of a massive and complex problem set. The story ends with the generals being unable to act on that information, as they realize that America’s war logic had its own, inexorable agenda. America’s mistaken premise was already baked into the war plan and there was no way to fix it.

You are wrong. This is not going to be the liberation of Paris with pretty girls throwing flowers at your feet,” al-Khoei warned. “This is going to be post-Tito Yugoslavia. Everybody is going to kill everybody.”

The Two American generals looked at each other and shook their heads.

“How long do you think we should be prepared to stay in your country?” Thurman asked warily.

The imam pulled out another cigar, lit it, and took another long drag.

“How long have you been in Germany? Sixty years?” he asked. “That should be about right. It’s going to take two generations to change Iraq. Maybe then you can leave.”

Americans come across in this story as over-powered toddlers who don’t want to understand the complexity of a place and, at least at the institutional level, don’t want to be told that they don’t understand. America appears, collectively, as a confident ignoramus, at least in complex cultural matters—a population for whom E pluribus unum means that we must necessarily elide a rich understanding of our own cultural antecedents just to be good Americans. More broadly, however, this anecdote points to an overarching problem, which is how—in the wake of poor strategic outcomes in our post-9/11 wars despite a large outlay in blood and treasure—America can achieve her strategic goals more effectively. The amalgamated Long War that has spanned operational theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan, with associated missions in countries across a broad swath of the world, shows that America has the resources for ambitious military endeavors. But even with all the resources in the world, America still wasn’t effective. America does seem committed to demonstrating, repeatedly and spectacularly, how little Americans understand the environments in which America deploys military force. That lack of understanding means that the resources America brought to the fight have been misapplied to the battlefield, and the result was not victory. Perhaps closing this knowledge gap, as ever, holds the key to success.

Having clear goals is an essential starting point (ideally, perhaps narrow it down to one clear goal so there is less ambiguity as to when it has been met). Military goals are what the military understands and can most easily achieve. Liberate Kuwait from occupation by Iraqi forces (or, in the vernacular “clear Kuwait”) is straightforward and, as the world saw thirty years ago, achievable. More complex goals may extend the military’s capabilities and necessarily imply the use of other means of national power—the D(iplomatic), I(nformation), and E(conomic) in the DIME acronym. The literature of mission creep, and on the cost of not having clear national goals before we wage war, was extensive in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It is even more extensive after the fall of Kabul.

Beyond goal setting, the connecting of goals and goal accomplishment requires thought. Thought requires knowledge. This was the point of Rotkoff’s story and what led to his interest in critical thinking as a military discipline, or red teaming.

There are those, however, that believe that the military system itself militates against the effective application of knowledge in the service of victory.

There was expertise—individuals and governmental elements both in Washington and in Saigon, both military and civilian apparat—devoted to strategic analysis. Effort was mounted, as is noted below, but it failed, not because of ignorance (vincible or otherwise) but because it was so disparate and fragmented that no analytical consensus was ever possible. The villain in the piece thus was not individuals but the system, which was never able to address itself in a meaningful way to the enemy, to his thinking, to his leadership, to his strengths, weaknesses, and choices.

Of course, many Americans—most, probably—don’t agree. They would like to think, naturally, that success is possible, and that America must simply determine what adjustments to the system must be made if she is to succeed in future conflicts. Accepting that the system is broken and resigning American military adventurism to repeated failure is just defeatist (and “un-American”). Still, there has been mounting evidence that these problems are systemic, and widespread, and have been immune to change even in the face of squandered blood, immense squandered treasure, as well as clear and unmet planning requirements.

So, how does America get out of her own way?

Are the lessons of recent conflict the same as the lessons of Vietnam? Should we recommit to the Weinberger or Powell Doctrine? The latter of these has been described as “a vision of U.S. strategy that does not shrink from using force, but only if vital national security interests are at stake. If they are, then the United States should defend those interests by taking the gloves off and doing whatever it takes.” In short, don’t fight without garnering national support for the fight. Once you decide that the conditions are right to initiate fighting, bring all the right national tools to bear on the fight. Is it as simple as realizing that America shouldn’t start a fight that she isn’t willing to finish?

Unfortunately, that is a formula for picking the right fights, not necessarily for winning the fights that are chosen for the military by the civilian decision makers. These criteria seek to impose a constraint on the civilian leadership in its decisions to commit to the use of military force. Perhaps that it what is ultimately needed, but that is a topic for the voters, not necessarily the military community.

The failure of the nation to bring all aspects of national power to bear on a strategic problem is certainly a factor in bringing about American failure in military conflict (America has to want to fight and want to win). That said, while a lack of national will can explain military failure, it cannot function as an excuse for it. Military leaders do not have the luxury of only being presented with missions that reflect the overwhelming support of the American people and their government. What steps can be taken to at least improve America’s chances of succeeding in military conflict, even a suboptimal one? In other words, how can the military improve America’s chances of hitting what the civilian leadership aims at?

A substantial portion of the answer to that question comes down to this: do the reading (to understand the operational environment) and do the math (by planning, planning, planning).

The first part of this—do the reading—is Sun Tzu stuff, not rocket science: know yourself, the enemy, and the terrain. What is required, however, is a broad view of “terrain,” one that includes culture. Success is possible. The military has demonstrated proficiency in understanding the friendly and enemy weapons of war and their employment on various types of terrain; it is the location- or theater-dependent factors that the military dislikes. Just as we spent years studying the Soviet Union to successfully act as a counterweight to its international ambitions, and much as we now study China, every theater in which the US military seeks to engage requires expert knowledge. The military just needs to swallow that pill. What this looks like in practice is less clear. It could mean recruiting more students of history and culture or trying to drive culture change with the existing force. But it needs to happen, however much the military has tried and failed to do this in the past.

The military keeps learning and forgetting the lesson: it again started caring more about reading the landscape of anthropology, language, human behavior, and culture during the Long War but then stopped because it was too difficult and the Army, for example, simply did not view it as generally important to battlefield success. At best, “culture” has been described as an area of cyclical interest in military circles, and the last cycle ended already. Afghanistan is the towering example that proves that view to be wrong.

Unless we want to keep fumbling around in the dark and have more Vietnams or Afghanistans, the current institutional view of culture as some additional, nice-to-have competency is wrong. As the authors of The Rise and Decline of Military Culture Programs, 2004–2020—a book that might yet become either the obituary for the latest US military efforts in this regard or a bible for those that champion them—put it:

Despite great efforts from many civilian and military personnel, we had largely failed to get across the basic point that the ability to understand and operate effectively in almost all missions requires an understanding of the cultural patterns of partners, local populations, and adversaries [emphasis added].

Achieving the enemy’s defeat is, at least in part, dependent upon an understanding of culture. Prevailing over an enemy in war involves depriving the enemy of both the means of resistance as well as the will to fight. Understanding the latter—what will break the enemy’s will to continue the fight—necessarily requires the commander to understand the enemy’s human characteristics (wants, desires, motivations). This is impossible without understanding the “squishy stuff.”

Even assuming the foregoing is all rubbish—and a knowledge of the enemy’s particular mental makeup is irrelevant if all that is required is his submission to a superior force, skillfully employed—all Phase III decisive action objectives are in service to a Phase IV vision of a stable, post-conflict end-state. However irrelevant one may find human factors to the hard grind of victory in kinetic combat, it is irrefutable that the object of the exercise can only be achieved with an understanding of the human factors present in the theater of operations.

The other part—do the math—is building, fortifying, and exercising planning staffs. In the nineteenth century it was said that one of the five perfect things in Europe beyond the Vatican’s curia, the British parliament, the Russian ballet, and the French opera, was the German general staff. In the American military planners are readily available and planning is cheap. Shockingly, such planning capabilities as we have we do not use. This is the opposite of the needed approach.

The American military should plan for everything, all the time, and should be constantly refining those plans by applying staff power to the various problems thrown up by those plans, and by consulting experts needed to really understand those problems. The military should be building expertise, now, in the entire universe of potential problems that may come with future military conflict. It shouldn’t matter whose feelings are hurt by a plan to occupy and hold any piece of territory where US interests could conceivably lead to US military involvement. For each potential objective, there should have at least two plans, and there should be a small team working on a rewrite of those plans at all times. In this way America exercises her military’s collective brain muscle, either refining a common approach for projecting power and operationalizing American strategy or by exploring bold, disruptive options for victory. If these are not the purposes of military planning, what is?

Existing staff planning exercises are too constrained in their variables to achieve this purpose. We can do more. And better.

Just as any sergeant major will tell you that quality physical training is the way to ensure the Army is made up of soldiers fit enough to meet the demands of tomorrow’s battlefield, achieving true understanding of the environments where the military will operate and repeatedly exercising the planning muscle to build up institutional and staff expertise is the way to ensure American military endeavors become more effective in achieving national goals. Whether the main consideration is a short-term concern with budgets or a long-term commitment to America’s national goals, everyone can agree that a military that doesn’t get the job done will eventually lose the confidence of its stakeholders.

Garri Benjamin Hendell is a major in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He has served in leadership positions as a cavalry scout and as both a squadron plans officer and as a division strategic planner. He is currently assigned as a division assessment officer

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: US Army