We must reckon with the hard truth that the United States has lost another war. Though errors made by policymakers certainly played a part, our military lost in Afghanistan because it no longer knows how to fight and win wars. This wasn’t because our military professionals lack will or effort but because they have forgotten the real purpose for which militaries exist. Nowhere is this truer than in America’s war colleges—the schools our nation established to teach officers how to fight and win wars. The plain fact is that these schools no longer teach warfighting. This may sound incredible—even unbelievable—but it is true.
In May 2020, the Joint Chiefs of Staff published guidance for the education of future senior military leaders that repeatedly emphasized the need for all senior officers to learn how to fight wars and campaigns as a joint force. The various services are specialized to fight and win battles on land, at sea, and in the air, but campaigns and wars require building, supporting, and commanding formations that fight in all three environments simultaneously, often far from the United States. The Joint Chiefs issued their guidance because our senior-officer education system does not prepare its students for joint warfighting, which is enormously complicated.
At the war colleges, this cry for help has gone missing in a maze of bureaucracy and jargon. Educational standards take the form of vague word salads: “Senior leaders who lead complex organizations and think strategically and skillfully as adaptive and collaborative problem solvers to develop strategies to achieve national security outcomes.” Such “standards” are neither measurable nor focused on winning wars, yet educators congratulate themselves for meeting them, while graduates leave not even knowing what they don’t know.
Here is what we know: the only standard that matters is whether our military officers can prevail in war. As recent events in Afghanistan have demonstrated, we don’t meet that standard. How did we get here?
In 1967, the commandant of the U.S. Army War College wrote that developments since World War II made the old, warfare-focused curriculum “outdated.” As the American military flailed away aimlessly in Vietnam, he argued that “today’s military professional, while first and always a soldier, must also be a diplomat, an economist, a scientist, a historian, and a lawyer.”
This view evolved from the belief that modern conventional and nuclear wars were so devastating that they were no longer worth waging. Political and military leaders sought to make war impossible, and military educators embraced Sun Tzu’s widely misunderstood aphorism, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” American military professionals must be diplomats, economists, scientists, historians, and lawyers, the thinking went—not to be better at fighting wars but so that the United States would not have to fight wars at all. Professional military education prepared graduates to avoid armed conflict, not prevail in it.
No wonder that graduates of such a system produce weak strategies that fail to explain how our armed forces will fight and win through the intelligent application of force. Instead, these strategies rely on “whole of government” approaches: help from politicians and civilian agencies. If such approaches were viable, civilians in authority would already have employed them and wouldn’t have needed the military in the first place.
The system is broken because the theory at its heart—that wars can always be avoided, and that it is the responsibility of professional soldiers to do the avoiding—was wrong. Preparing not to fight wars has neither averted nor won America’s wars.
By contrast, earlier students at senior military schools studied past wars and military campaigns. They put themselves into the roles of leaders like Washington, Scott, Grant, Sherman, Pershing, Nimitz—planning and executing their campaigns. This instruction produced wartime leaders who could marshal vast fleets, air forces, and armies of well-equipped fighting troops into coherent campaigns. Victory depended upon this intelligent and overwhelming application of force.
Whole-of-government approaches in wartime can supplement, but not replace, military action. Lend-Lease neither forestalled American entry into World War II nor delivered victory on its own. Diplomatic agreements and international charters greatly contributed to success, but military leaders could not—and did not—rely on those efforts alone. They had to fight and win, no matter what the results of Casablanca or Yalta.
Our war colleges must rededicate themselves to the task of instructing students in the problems of fighting and winning. They must teach graduates to reject simplistic analogies, aphorisms, and the latest “revolutionary” developments in warfare. They should teach diplomatic, economic, scientific, historical, legal, and other academic subjects only insofar as they contribute to warfighting. Above all, they must carefully study historical and contemporary conflicts of all types to gain a greater appreciation of the vast complexity of joint warfighting, and then apply it in practice—first, by crafting their own war-winning strategies and campaigns, and then by fighting them out, over and over, in war games and other exercises.
We have forgotten much of what we need to know. We will have to relearn it together. It will be frustrating and difficult, which is why we haven’t done it yet. But seared in our memories now are the images of Afghan people fleeing their homes in terror, some clinging to the wheels of departing American airplanes—a brutal testament to our military’s contemporary inability to achieve victory.
We have failed for decades now in the school of war. The women and men who commence from our war colleges must be equipped with the know-how to fight and win. It’s up to us to teach them how.
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