Military Lessons Learned

We at Gutenberg are not a bellicose bunch. Of all the staff and board, I can only think of one person who even served in the military. My life has been filled with books and discussions rather than guns and war. But I am irresistibly drawn to accounts of courage and sacrifice and heartache experienced by those who have fought and, in some cases, died in the service of our country. So it is with interest that I am just finishing an account by Colonel David Hackworth of his experience in taking a beaten up and demoralized infantry battalion in Vietnam and turning them into a cohesive and effective fighting force. As I write here of my observations, I must first apologize to those who know far more about military life and strategy than do I. Where I am mistaken or have misunderstood, please be in touch to offer clarification and correction.

For most of Hackworth’s book, what held my interest were the accounts of actions in the field, some successful and some not, but all gut-wrenching. The concluding couple of chapters, however, contain the interesting and worthwhile lessons. I hope that I am accurate in my summary.

Hackworth suggests that it is the rare general who has truly learned the lessons of the battlefield and been able to use them to be able to win wars rather than just to pursue the next promotion. Those military leaders do exist, but they are not easy to find. And he is adamant that the greatest attention needs to be paid to the “boots on the ground”—the needs of those enlisted personnel actually doing the fighting and the lessons they have learned and the training and leadership that they need.

But Hackworth’s point that I found most interesting is what he says is almost endemic to a military mindset: military leaders use the tactics and strategies of the last great war to try to fight the current one. Hackworth, on the other hand, when faced with the guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong in Vietnam, studied those tactics, trained his men to understand them, and then employed strategies that would allow them to use those tactics against their enemy in the field. As things changed, he would change his tactics and strategies as well.

Hackworth’s strategy reminded me of a lesson I learned in my grade-school history class in Pella, Iowa—a lesson probably not taught in our schools today. General George Washington, fighting alongside the British in the French and Indian wars, saw his men mowed down when they used European battle formations against an Indian enemy. The “redcoats” (along with the colonial troops) would line up across a field and then march across it standing bolt upright, thus becoming easy targets. The Indians, however, would hide behind trees, set ambushes on wooded pathways, and then blend back into the forest to fight another day. Washington watched and learned and then employed those Indian tactics extremely effectively against the British in the Revolutionary War, allowing his more rag-tag army to engage and eventually beat a far superior British force.

Hackworth observes that there is a danger in the way today’s military is fighting the current “war on terror.” I know I am not being “politically correct” when I talk about there still being a war on terror. Supposedly we have already won that war. But as I look around our very unsafe world today, it doesn’t look to me as though the war is over, much less already won.

According to Hackworth, it is critically important for today’s military not simply to rely on superior firepower and technology when faced with a deeply entrenched force that operates in small units or even individually. He believes that it will continue to be critical to understand the mindset and the actions of the enemy on the ground (yes, I did refer to them as enemies) and to fight the battle, to some degree, on their terms. That doesn’t mean our military should eschew our vastly superior numbers or technology, but rather that it should harness those things in support of the war being fought—not impersonally from the skies but (regrettably) very personally  on the ground. Very interesting.

Now let me wander a little bit from my topic. Even writing about these things makes me a bit uncomfortable. I have never been in battle, face to face with an enemy intent on taking my life. I have never even served in the military. I cannot personally imagine the horrors of war. So it is not my intent to glamorize and encourage war.

My daughter Katie works with an organization that includes many in its ranks who have been in the thick of battle in the wars of the last two decades. Now, however, they are committed to bringing relief, medical and other types, to people still living under military oppression in other places. I was struck a couple of months ago when Katie referred to many of the people with whom she works as “warrior philosophers”—implying that these workers are desirous of being able to identify clear examples of evil in our fallen world and are then willing to fight to combat that evil.

I am not suggesting that everything our country has ever done militarily is right and morally justifiable or that every individual action in our military history has been above reproach. However, I do believe that, on balance, our efforts as a nation have been to do the right thing. We are not, contrary to what some are saying today, empire builders.

There is real evil in the world. There are people who will beat or even kill a young woman who wants simply to pursue an education without having her head covered in public. There are people who will cut off hands for stealing a loaf of bread or cut off heads for not following the dictates of a specific religious system. There are people who will herd an entire ethnic group into gas chambers.

And there are those who are willing to stand in the gap and use physical force to oppose evil. Hackworth’s plea is that we give those people the best chance of success—not by offering them tactics and strategies from safe military boardrooms far from the front lines but rather by giving them tactics and strategies that have been tested and found true in the field.


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