Robert H. Scales Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Military Strategy and the Future of Land Wars: Conversation with Major General Robert H. Scales, Jr. (U.S. Army, ret.); March 9, 2004, by Harry Kreisler, with Thomas Barnes

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Doing Military Strategy

You are a military strategist, and I would say after reading Yellow Smoke (although I'm not an expert on the military), quite a good one. book cover I would like for you, very briefly, to tell our audience what a military strategist (and historian) does.

It allows the military to do two things. Number one, to connect the goals of the nation to the ends that the military pursues. One of the interesting analogies of history is the German army, which was a magnificent army in both World Wars at the operational and tactical level, and a terrible failure at the strategic level. They focused only on how to do it rather than the consequences. What a military strategist really does is he ties together the course of the nation with the military, knits those two together at the strategic level of war.

The other thing is strategic: he is always the person that you rely on to balance ends and means. We don't bore so deep into the military art that we forget the purpose of armies. It's looking at warfare from a higher perch. As we all know, looking at the course of great nations, great nations go wrong when it comes to national security issues, not because they don't fight the wars well, but they don't fight the right wars. They tend to overextend themselves and stretch themselves. Those aren't tactical operational errors, those are strategic errors. In other words, you can lose a war, like a Sandawana or something like that, because you had bad tactics; but you can lose your national destiny if you don't get the strategy right.

Ideas in your work are very important, ideas and history -- you keep coming back to that, and, in addition, technology. Talk a little about that, because I would think that the conventional wisdom is that the military isn't about ideas.

That's a great question. It's all a function of time. If you are boring into the practical present, if your job is to be the can-do guy, the guy who is expected to be the operator, then ideas aren't all that important because you're the fixer. But as you cast yourself out further in time, if you go out a generation or two and look at the course of war, it's all driven by ideas and by vision. It's sort of like shooting ducks -- if you shoot at the duck your rounds are going to go behind him; you have to lead the duck. And you lead with ideas and vision. You form an image of what the future is going to look like based on what occurs in the past. From that, you come up with concepts that you think are about right in future-gazing. Michael Howard once said the object of writing about warfare and future-gazing is not to get it right, but to avoid getting it terribly wrong.

What we try to do as futurists is to use the tools we have at hand to look to the future and to anticipate what's going to happen, because everything else that follows behind it -- building weapons, training soldiers, creating institutions to educate soldiers -- are things that travel along the time sequence. They have to meet up somewhere, and they meet up where ideas and vision intersect with the practical day-to-day bits of the military.

In terms of thinking about war after Vietnam, the tragedy, the mistakes, the war itself becomes a learning opportunity, not a fault-finding exercise. Talk a little about that. This morning we had as our guest Robert Keohane, the international relations theorist, and he was saying that confusion is often at the heart of getting to a problem and addressing it with theory.

That's a very interesting question because those armies that learn best are those armies that lose the war. Losing has a way of sort of sharpening the sense. That's both good news and bad news for our military.

Coming out of Vietnam, just like the German army coming out of 1918, we went through not only a wrenching cultural redirection, but also intellectual redirection as well. It cleared the decks, and it allowed a whole body of reformers, people like the DePuy, and Starry, and Abrams, and others, to come along behind and decide to fix it -- back to ideas again -- to form an image of what war would be like, say, in the late 1980s, and then to figure out the right path to get there.

Now, the opposite is also true -- success sometimes breeds complacency. To use my British analogy again, sometimes success against incompetent enemies doesn't necessarily guarantee success against those who are skilled. There's a lesson to be drawn form both of those.

It was a period of rebuilding and renaissance in the seventies, and it was probably the last time the American military went through a process of radical transformation. The quality of the force that we see in places like Iraq and Afghanistan today are the legacy of that generation that changed the army about thirty years ago.

The other element in this equation is technology. In a minute we're going to talk about how warfare has changed and what we've learned from the two Iraq wars, but technology was something that made an amazing difference. So your job as a strategist becomes thinking about history, thinking about the past, thinking about Vietnam and ideas about wars that, as you say, are the same through time; but suddenly this new technology [appears] which opens up all sorts of opportunities.

Yes, it's interesting. There are three motive forces that change the character of war: technology, domestic politics, and geopolitics, or international politics. After the Vietnam War, all three variables were in motion. We had a society that was changing, our place in the world was changing. But every once in a while, perhaps once a generation or perhaps less, technologies suddenly appear over the horizon that fundamentally change the nature and character of war. In 1973, about that time, particularly the example of the Arab-Israeli War, the Yom Kippur War, demonstrated the potential these huge tectonic shifts in technology would bode for the future. That's when the army jumped on the technological bandwagon and said, "Maybe we can partially, at least, make up for our deficiencies in Vietnam by embracing these new technologies." If there was nothing else that caused the army to redirect itself, it was a recognition that the technologies of war were forcing change, rather than simply an army deciding to change on its own.

[Barnes]
I was struck by a statement you made before the House Arms Services Committee back in October [2003], and I think it carries on from what you've naturally been talking about, that technology is useful in unconventional warfare, but machines alone will never be decisive. The new phase is a struggle in the Iraq War for the allegiance of the Iraqi people, who must choose between two conflicting sides, one represented by the promise of freedom and democracy imposed by an occupying infidel, the other represented by a return to the tyranny and terror of the old regime imposed by fellow Iraqis and Muslims. The tools most useful in this new war are low-tech and manpower-intensive. So for all the technology that has forced the change, maybe it is the non-techno world that is now going to be forcing the change.

Partially, because the rest of the world, particularly those who seek to do us harm, see our vulnerability in that area. Remember, Clausewitz says that war is a contest between two opponents, and both of them intend to win. If you're going to take on the United States, you find the weakness of our society and that's where you attack us. Clearly, what the first Gulf War demonstrated to Saddam, and everyone else in that part of the world, is that a contest that is focused on ship-for-ship, plane-for-plane, tank-for-tank isn't going to work, and so perhaps the way to do this is to use the indirect approach, the low-tech, non-technical approach to find our vulnerabilities and exploit those vulnerabilities. As I said in my testimony, that's precisely what the enemy is trying to do. But we shouldn't be surprised at that. This is nothing new. We can go back thousands of years and see instances where the weaker has always found a way to defeat the stronger, and this clearly is one.

What's the lesson? Well, the lesson is that a military force in the future has to balance the technological with the cultural. There are two ways to approach warfare, and, unfortunately, a sense of ahistoricism has crept into the military over the last twenty or twenty-five years because of the opportunities demonstrated by technology. There's a caste within the military that believes that all of the particular problems faced in warfare can be solved with technology. I think what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan today clearly shows that that's not the case.

The problem that we have as an institution is we have to draw back, much as we did in '73, and look across this panoply of opportunities and determine where to place our focus. Is it just on the technology solution of the problems, or is it to take a focus on, say, the cognitive of preparing and planning for war? My point in that testimony was that it's all about balance. Right now, our future-gazing is out of balance, and it's time to bring it back into focus. What's happening in Iraq is perhaps the catalyst that we need to drive us in that direction.

Next page: The Perception of America's Weaknesses

See also: Interview with Michael Howard: The Transformation of Europe (1990)
and interview with Robert Keohane: Theory and International Institutions (2004)

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