Category Archive 'Battle of Valmy'

29 Apr 2007

The Generals’ Failure

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Lt-.Col. Paul Yingling, in Armed Forces Journal, argues that America’s generals today, like Prussia’s 18th century commanders, remain fixated on past successes and continue failing to adapt to new wars fought by insurgency.

For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq’s grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war. …

Armies do not fight wars; nations fight wars. War is not a military activity conducted by soldiers, but rather a social activity that involves entire nations. Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted that passion, probability and policy each play their role in war. Any understanding of war that ignores one of these elements is fundamentally flawed.

The passion of the people is necessary to endure the sacrifices inherent in war. Regardless of the system of government, the people supply the blood and treasure required to prosecute war. The statesman must stir these passions to a level commensurate with the popular sacrifices required. When the ends of policy are small, the statesman can prosecute a conflict without asking the public for great sacrifice. Global conflicts such as World War II require the full mobilization of entire societies to provide the men and materiel necessary for the successful prosecution of war. The greatest error the statesman can make is to commit his nation to a great conflict without mobilizing popular passions to a level commensurate with the stakes of the conflict.

Popular passions are necessary for the successful prosecution of war, but cannot be sufficient. To prevail, generals must provide policymakers and the public with a correct estimation of strategic probabilities. The general is responsible for estimating the likelihood of success in applying force to achieve the aims of policy. The general describes both the means necessary for the successful prosecution of war and the ways in which the nation will employ those means. If the policymaker desires ends for which the means he provides are insufficient, the general is responsible for advising the statesman of this incongruence. The statesman must then scale back the ends of policy or mobilize popular passions to provide greater means. If the general remains silent while the statesman commits a nation to war with insufficient means, he shares culpability for the results. …

(Frederick the Great’s) innovations had made his army the terror of Europe, but he knew that his adversaries were learning and adapting. Frederick feared that his generals would master his system of war without thinking deeply about the ever-changing nature of war, and in doing so would place Prussia’s security at risk. These fears would prove prophetic. At the Battle of Valmy in 1792, Frederick’s successors were checked by France’s ragtag citizen army. In the fourteen years that followed, Prussia’s generals assumed without much reflection that the wars of the future would look much like those of the past. In 1806, the Prussian Army marched lockstep into defeat and disaster at the hands of Napoleon at Jena. Frederick’s prophecy had come to pass; Prussia became a French vassal.

Iraq is America’s Valmy. America’s generals have been checked by a form of war that they did not prepare for and do not understand. They spent the years following the 1991 Gulf War mastering a system of war without thinking deeply about the ever changing nature of war. They marched into Iraq having assumed without much reflection that the wars of the future would look much like the wars of the past. Those few who saw clearly our vulnerability to insurgent tactics said and did little to prepare for these dangers. As at Valmy, this one debacle, however humiliating, will not in itself signal national disaster. The hour is late, but not too late to prepare for the challenges of the Long War. We still have time to select as our generals those who possess the intelligence to visualize future conflicts and the moral courage to advise civilian policymakers on the preparations needed for our security. The power and the responsibility to identify such generals lie with the U.S. Congress. If Congress does not act, our Jena awaits us.

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