Don't Forget the Pen After the War

Co-authored by Professor Leo Blanken

Secretary of Defense Hagel's plan to reduce the military and the Russian attack in Crimea have raised the volume of the debate about the nature of the armed forces needed to meet America's security threats in the post Afghanistan War era. Under consideration are weapon systems, personnel figures and the number of conflicts the US can simultaneously fight, yet one topic is conspicuously missing -- ideas.

Ideas are force multipliers; they are hard to value in peacetime and absolutely essential in war. It wasn't the number of German tanks, but how they were used that made the Blitzkrieg so effective in WWII. The Egyptian coordination of their surface to air missiles and ground forces in the 1973 War made their initial attack against Israel's stronger forces deadly. It wasn't the number of US Special Operations Forces, but how they worked with the Northern Alliance that toppled the Taliban so quickly. More important than any weapon system is the knowledge of how to fight effectively, coordinate operations with allies, treat our wounded and develop a flexible and adaptable wartime military.

In war, the crucible for developing new ideas is the battlefield. The long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan acted as experimental laboratories where the US military developed innovative ways to fight. These new ideas affected all aspects of war, including tactics (IED detection), devices (one-armed tourniquets), operations (swarming attacks), analysis (social networks) and many, many more. It is not an exaggeration to say that the U.S. military is more informed now about the nature of counterinsurgency threats and effective responses than it has ever been before. That information may be vital as most analysts agree that in the near future America is more likely to become engaged in insurgencies than any other type of conflict. This knowledge, however, came at a high cost, with combined US military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan of over 6,700 dead and almost 50,000 wounded and the social and psychological costs for millions more of families separated, combat experiences, repeat tours and harsh living conditions. The American public also paid a high economic cost (estimated in the trillions) to acquire this knowledge.

The dispute in the Crimea emphasizes the importance of warfighting knowledge. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, in 2012 (the most recent year for which there are data), there were 32 wars -- only one of which was exclusively interstate -- nation vs. nation. The remaining 31 were either civil wars or, similar to what is occurring in the Ukraine, internationalized intrastate disputes. The knowledge gleaned from Iraq and Afghanistan has tremendous applicability to this type of conflict. It is vital that we teach and build upon these hard won ideas.

Following previous wars America demobilized not just its force structure, but also its idea structure. It lost the people and resources that preserved, critiqued and developed innovative military thinking. The result was that at the beginning of every war, including World War II, American troops died because the strategic thinking that guided our forces was not fully informed and up-to-date. Without deliberate efforts to support the institutions, resources and people that maintain and update this knowledge, this same idea structure demobilization will occur again. There will be pressure again on military academies to cut courses on insurgency (like there was after the Vietnam War). Contractors looking for funding for their weapon systems (which may have subcontractors in every state and almost every congressional district) will use their influence to try to reduce funding for military educational intuitions (which have no equivalent national network advocating for them). If uncontested, these cuts will once again diminish our combat knowledge and endanger our troops.

The mantra that knowledge is power very much applies to war. As we debate the future of the American military we need to recognize the importance and fragility of wartime ideas and support the collection, analysis and teaching of the ideas shaped in battle. It is essential to take the steps to preserve and expand our combat knowledge so that the U.S. can deploy in its likely next conflict the most informed and effective military possible.

Dr. Leo Blanken is an Assistant Professor in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School where his research focuses on military strategy and planning. He has recently published the book Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion, and is currently editing a book on wartime assessment. He can be reached at: