There are 50 pages in the Joint Staff’s new study on the lessons from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. There are also 54 references to training, and most of them refer to mistakes and inadequacies in how the U.S. military prepared for war. Much of this is already known, but that doesn’t make reading it any less depressing.
Titled “Decade of War, Volume I” and dated June 15, the report concludes: “In the course of operations, especially in the first half of the decade following 9/11, DOD policies, doctrine, training, and equipment were often poorly suited to operations other than major combat, forcing widespread and costly adaptation, and in the process, threatening the mission.” Perhaps the real beneficiaries of the Pentagon’s training strategy were the authors who had a chance to write bestselling titles like “Fiasco.” In any event, while training was not the main culprit in the outcome of two futile wars, it certainly played a role.
Like any good Pentagon study, the Joint Staff offers recommendations. Some are blindingly obvious, such as more cultural and civil-military training. Some might be a little tricky to establish, such as better training and cooperation between special operations and regular forces. Some are funny, such as “empower jointness,” which is about as meaningful as a cashier wishing you a “Have a nice day.”
Unintentional humor or not, the joke will prove painful. It would be comforting to believe that after 10 years of war, the United States will not engage in another war for years (and if you think about it, most nations don’t fight wars every decade). But I wouldn’t bet the house on a prolonged peace. Given the chaotic post-9/11 world, from al-Qaida to Tahrir Square to the rise of China, it is difficult to predict the Next Big Threat, and therefore just how we should train. There probably will not be a single right answer, just a multiplicity of wrong ones.
The best solution is naturally the most difficult. It is found in a word that crops up in the Joint Staff study: flexibility. It’s a term that by its nature is hard to pin down, but whatever it is, the U.S. military will need it. As an institution, or the sort of people who thrive in that institution, I’m not sure that flexibility is the most valued of qualities. But it’s necessary.
Either you adapt and get the bear, or the bear adapts and gets you.