Same $h*t, Different War: The Curse of Combat Experience

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

“If another Korean War comes,” he said, “when society collapses in the north, it’ll look like Iraq – members of the regime going to ground, starting an insurgency, setting IEDs.”

This week I listened to a senior officer game out his vision of a future war on the Korean Peninsula. And, of course, the words above might actually describe what comes when North Korea falls. But what struck me is how much it was based on his personal experience in Iraq.  And Iraq is not Korea. 

Each war is unique. Strategic solutions rarely translate from one conflict to another. And yet military thought is so often tragically guilty at pounding old ideas into new wars, imprisoning minds into pre-judged cages with steel bars forged in Iraq or Afghanistan (or wherever the last war was).

Evgeny Morozov describes this proclivity as the Einstellung effect, which is “trying to solve a problem by pursuing solutions that have worked for us in the past, instead of evaluating and addressing the new problem on its own terms.”  We can actually see this at work in a vivid example from a few years ago, when General David Petraeus moved laterally from the Iraq War to lead the war effort in Afghanistan, documented in Fred Kaplan’s book, The Insurgents.  It’s worth quoting at length:

“[General Petraeus] understood, intellectually, that the two wars and the two countries were very different; in his PowerPoint briefings, he’d often include a slide that read, ‘Afghanistan Is Not Iraq.’ But Iraq was what he knew best; he’d spent three tours there, all in command slots, spanning a total of nearly four years. Afghanistan, by his own admission, he barely knew at all; so it was natural to view its problems through an Iraqi prism. But some of his aides and officers found the tendency disturbing. His instinctive reaction to every new challenge was to seek a parallel from his years in Iraq. We solved that this way in Mosul…We did this when that happened in Anbar…I said this when Maliki threatened to do that…

Once, he drew a comparison between Kabul and Baghdad in a conversation with Karazai. Matt Sherman, one of Petraeus’s advisors who had spent a considerable time in Iraq and Afghanistan, told him bluntly as they walked away from the meeting, ‘Don’t talk about Iraq so much,’ adding, ‘It might be a great mental exercise for you to try not thinking about Iraq at all.’

Petraeus nodded and said, ‘I’m working on it.’

Afghanistan, on it’s own terms, was a stumper: the levers weren’t working; the effects weren’t producing outcomes.”

Perhaps because combat cuts to memory’s marrow, the experience is so pervasive in our minds as to lull us into assuming we know the all the questions for the next war’s test (i.e. Study up on disaffected regime loyalists and suicide bombers! They’ll be on the Korean section of the exam!). The reality is, at best, we’ve only moved a few “unknown unknowns” from the last war into the “known unknown” category for the next war. Forging a profound sense of strategic modesty seems the only key to unlock the steel cage which routinely imprisons the military mind.

 

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

2 thoughts on “Same $h*t, Different War: The Curse of Combat Experience”

  1. Good article and I appreciate the criticism of the mindset that warfare would be similar to previous experience. The fact is it would be devastating and unlike previous experience by our generation. It is important to use tools we are familiar with, but only when applicable. Thanks Matt!

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  2. I totally agree. Experience is important – even critical – but it can’t be bottled and drunk by itself. West Point has recently made changes in its curriculum to deal with that: to wit, to concentrate more effort on understanding critical cultures; Afghanistan is a perfect example: it is almost unique.

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