In 2006, Ralph Peters, an author/analyst who retired as a lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Army, stated that "Too many of our military and civilian leaders remain captivated by the notion that machines can replace human beings on the battlefield. They cannot face . . . reality: Wars of flesh, faith and cities." Peters' comments echoed an earlier statement by another retired Army officer and author, S. L. A. Marshall, who wrote in 1947 that "So strong was the influence of the machine upon our thinking, both inside and outside the military establishment, that . . . the infantry became relatively the most slighted of branches."
History has demonstrated over and over and over again the fallacy behind this captivation with the machine. Both Korea and Vietnam demonstrated the importance of ground troops, as did the First Gulf War -- though people were so enamored with the air campaign that they managed to miss it. What is all more startling about Peters' statement, however, is that it came after the clearest evidence ever in history had been provided in Iraq, in places like Fallujah.
In the planning for the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon deliberately selected a small ground force with which to take down the government of Saddam Hussein. Rumsfeld and others believed that the overwhelming American advantage in technology would win the war -- even in the cities. What they failed to understand is that the effectiveness of firepower and technology is greatly diminished in urban areas, particularly in this information age where the killing of civilians will often result in a strategic setback. Rumsfeld and company thought that they would not have to fight for the cities, and they were dead wrong. The cities of Iraq turned out to be the main area of contention in the war that followed the fall of Saddam. Rumsfeld and his planners had the idea that technology would trump the human element and, again, they were dead wrong, in fact, the human element trumped technology.
Rumsfeld and many others, inside and outside of Washington, did not want to accept that war is largely a contest of human will. While understanding, to some extent, that war can be ugly, vulgar and destructive, they hoped that the worst of it could be avoided by the use of technology. The result was post-Saddam chaos, an insurgency and a protracted, bloody conflict. In Iraq we should have learned that the most powerful and effective weapon in modern war is, as it has always been, a well-trained, well-armed, and well-led infantry soldier. Yet even now, after the horrors of Iraq, many view that claim to be naive, simplistic, and antiquated.
"Surely," some might say, "that was true in Washington's or Wellington's day, even Grant's and Lee's, but it surely is not in our day with our dynamic technical sophistication. After all, how can the average foot soldier possibly compare with the power of technology?" Indeed, there is a rather large array of modern weapons from nuclear bombs and missiles, deadly gases and biological agents, to super aircraft carriers, nuclear powered, and armed, submarines, high-performance fighter aircraft, intercontinental bombers, and computer networks and electronic listening technology, and on and on and on. Surely the side with the most sophisticated and deadly weapons should win and the newer and more devastating the technology the more antiquated the infantry soldier should be. This thinking is self-deceptive, plain and simple; it also is not new.
Generals once expected the chariot to sweep foot soldiers from the battlefield, and later the mounted knight was supposed to do the same, then it was supposed to be artillery. In World War I, it was machine guns, and even better, more accurate artillery that were supposed to make the infantry solder obsolete. And after the so called War to end all wars, air power led to a techno-vangelism that argued that the airplane would make ground forces unnecessary. The techno-vangelists returned after the Second World War to argue that nuclear weapons, carried by airplanes, would finally make ground war obsolete. "The day of the foot soldier is gone forever," wrote one such air power proponent in 1946. Yet the foot soldier fought and died in Korea, Palestine, Vietnam, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other places. Over and over and over again, the prophets proclaiming the obsolescence of the foot soldier have been proven, not just wrong, but disastrously wrong.
Yet, as Peters noted, the prophets continue to believe. Some believe because, understanding that war is ugly, they hope to avoid at least some of that ugliness, at least for American troops, by relying on technology. "Shrinking from the horrifying reality of war's ugly face," wrote John C. McManus in 2010, "Americans have a tendency to think of war as just another problem that can be addressed through technology, economic abundance, or political dialogue."
McManus went on to say that "These are American strengths so it is only natural that Americans would turn to them in time of need. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with the idea of maximizing these considerable American advantages. But there is something more at work here. Reared in the comfort of domestic peace and prosperity, most modern Americans cannot begin to comprehend that, more than anything else, war is a barbaric contest of wills, fought for some larger strategic purpose. Victory in combat usually comes from the resolve of human beings, not the output of machines. Yet, the modern American war-making strategy invests high hopes in the triumph of genielike super-weapons and technology. To some extent, this is because Americans took the wrong lesson from World War II. They erroneously believed that victory in World War II came mainly from Allied materiel, technological, and manpower superiority. This created a zealotlike faith that these advantages would guarantee victory in any future conflict."
Make no mistake, modern technology, firepower, sea power and air power are important to America's national security, each is of tremendous importance. "No serious person," wrote McManus, "could possibly argue that the United States would have won World War II and prevailed in the Cold War without a preeminent navy and air force, not to mention a qualitative edge in weaponry, automation, engineering, economic largess, communications, and supply. No rational individual would ever claim that there is no need for a navy or an air force. . . ." Which begs the question of why "anyone, even for a moment, [would] confer any semblance of legitimacy on the view that ground combat forces are obsolete, especially when history proves that notion so absolutely wrong?"
Again, each of these areas, air, sea and ground power, are vital. Americans most effectively wage war when the services cooperate and fight as a combined arms team. As important as air and sea power are, however, the foot soldier has always been the leading actor on the stage of warfare. Additionally, the impressive nature of technology leads to a temptation, particularly among Americans, to rely too much on air and sea power at the expense of ground combat power. Rather than being a problem of an emphasis on technology, it is, instead, an issue of too much of a good thing, to the exclusion of what is truly the most vital.
"Time and again since World War II," wrote McManus, "American leaders have had to relearn one of history's most obvious lessons -- wars are won on the ground, usually by small groups of fighters, who require considerable logistical, firepower, and popular support" (emphasis in the original).
McManus, J. C. (2010). Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II through Iraq. New York: New American Library.