Battlefield Lessons

The war in Iraq (which is winding down as this issue goes to press) reflects a world where much is new. But when it comes to war, old truths prevail: Planning and leadership are the pillars of victory.

With hundreds of embedded reporters providing 24-7 Real War Right Now, the world is witnessing combat that seems to owe more to Marshall McLuhan than to Julius Caesar. But while the operative word for this war is “new” — new technology, new tactics, new threats, new challenges to the public consensus — what we think is new is in fact just this year’s version of old methods. Shock and awe? Just imagine being the first sword-bearing soldier on the receiving end of a longbow volley. The M1 tank? Truly impressive, but just the most recent refinement of the stirrup. Special Operations? Today’s shadow warriors trace a historic lineage that’s at least as old as the land where they now do battle. There are lessons to be learned, but they are more likely to come from Thucydides than from H.G. Wells.


The end state of national security still begins with basic building blocks: planning, training, education, and leadership. The demands of military training and the principles of leadership serve as the subjects of many texts. Less is reported of the meticulous planning that precedes training and of the education that develops leaders who are capable of adapting when plans must change. It may, in fact, be several of those practices that legitimately cross the boundaries of military and business enterprise.

“Don’t forget nothing.” — Rogers’ Standing Orders for Rangers, 1759

In a world that demands that they take the ultimate risks, militaries are inherently risk averse. Living with this contradiction demands meticulous, exhaustive, and mind-numbing planning. Every step, every move, every piece, every player must be worked into this giant, chaotic, deadly puzzle. That puzzle must be broken down and reassembled again and again. And just when you think you’ve planned it all, new circumstances arise or someone finds a discarded item in a dusty corner and says, “Hey, do you think we might need this?”

My favorite example is the logistics planner who exhausted himself and his staff by minutely planning the movement of an entire heavy Army division down to the last available pallet on the last available aircraft. He was confident in his briefing to unit leaders — until the general fixed him with a steady gaze and said, “Dog food?” The officer had neglected to plan for the special meals required for the security dogs.

But why bother with a plan when Carl von Clausewitz — history’s most overquoted and underread Prussian — tells us that no plan will fully survive the first shots fired in anger? Because that particular cliché is true only to a point: If you intend to ensure maximum flexibility on a rapidly shifting battlefield but fail to plan for basics such as food, fuel, and bullets, your ability to innovate will be little more than a cerebral exercise. Militaries must plan for every possible thing that they might be able to control — from the mundane and day-to-day to the infrequent and catastrophic — much as corporations must ensure just-in-time delivery of basic materials while also planning for long-term market trends.

Given such reliance on detailed planning, it seems fair to criticize the military for being fixed and unimaginative. Well, yes, that’s fair — if you’re talking about militaries that fail. Scratch the surface of every success, and you will find a careful, thorough, meticulous plan executed by well-educated leaders who are willing and able to adapt and innovate. With such leaders, armies are capable and confident enough to stop on a dime while at a full run under fire and to move in new ways toward new objectives, regardless of the original plan.


“Education is what you have left when all the facts are gone.” — Brigadier General Daniel Kaufman, Dean, U.S. Military Academy

On the morning of September 11, 2001, a West Point cadet ran into the National Security Studies Seminar classroom shouting, “Turn on the TV!” The preplanned class topics for the day? Terrorism, nonstate actors, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The terrible visions on the screen served to reinforce, rather than contradict, the scheduled lesson. In the wake of September 11, as West Point swarmed with journalists eager to know how we planned to carry out what they assumed would be a complete rewriting of our curriculum, the story of this classroom served as the best answer to their queries. That scene was repeated on that tragic day in West Point courses ranging from philosophy to engineering. Cadets and their faculty — mostly experienced officers educated at the world’s top graduate schools — had begun contemplating a fascinating and horrible array of what-ifs long before they became headlines.

At West Point, the undergraduate curriculum is not guided by the need to accumulate facts that may become obsolete shortly after graduation. Instead, the focus is on developing leaders who can successfully deal with a full range of military, political, economic, and technological change at every level, from tactics to grand strategy. One backhanded compliment came from Russian general turned politician Alexander Lebed, who, when asked to explain the problems of the post-Soviet military, remarked, “Our generals are not West Point – educated economists.”

Those who would be leaders must prepare for a lifetime of bypassing the traditional query of “What is the answer?” by internalizing Gertrude Stein’s dying words: “What is the question?” West Point cadets, like undergraduates everywhere, don’t necessarily understand or appreciate these lessons at the time. But those on the faculty know that they can expect letters and emails like the ones that I’m receiving now, which convey some variation of, “Okay, sir. I get it.”

To prevent mental stagnation, this education continues throughout an officer’s career. By the time an Army officer is considered for promotion to One Star General, he or she has completed a bachelor’s degree, two yearlong graduate-level military programs, and multiple professional courses three to six months in length that are required at regular intervals. In the vast majority of cases, these officers have at least one civilian graduate degree, and some senior officers have earned doctorates. All of that time in the schoolhouse is not rote training; it is meant to develop and sustain the means with which to think critically beyond the current plan, the existing doctrine, the daily demands of the units in the field — and the bureaucratic battles at the Pentagon.

Zhou Enlai, one of history’s more famous noncapitalists, was reportedly once asked his views on the implications of the French Revolution. “Too soon to tell,” he replied. As we continue to be dazzled by the unproven implications of all that is new in today’s war, we would do well to remember the words of that cautious Maoist. The postwar ritual of finger-pointing and chest thumping will eventually clarify what — if anything — is truly new. Meanwhile, victory still rests on the proven foundations of carefully developed but flexible plans executed by smart, adaptable, innovative leaders.


Colonel Jay M. Parker is academy professor and director of International Relations and National Security Studies at the Department of Social Sciences, U.S. Military Academy.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the U.S. Military, or any other agency of the U.S. Government.