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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New Demands on American Soldiers

You're raising a very interesting point, because there seems to be a tension right now between adapting all this new technology to get in there and whip them fast, using soldiers with handheld computers who are communicating with satellites, and orders being given for the launching of a plane from Tampa or wherever. This is what we seem to have demonstrated we could do quite well in winning the part of the war that was on the battlefield. But on the other hand, what you're suggesting in your work is that there is a long haul, and that war is the extension of politics by other means, and you fail if you don't prepare for the army or somebody to assume that nation-building/stabilization role after the battle is over.

Actually, that's right. It's not about battles. It's not about campaigns. It's about war. Back to Clausewitz again, Clausewitz is very emphatic about that. Success in war is not merely determined by success in a string of battles. You add up those factors and you don't get success automatically, because wars aren't fought that way.

When I say it's about war, it's about the spectrum of war. People often ask me, "Now that we're transitioning into the peacekeeping phase in Iraq, how is the army going to change what it's doing?" Well, we're not going into the peacekeeping phase of the war. It's just war of a different sort; it's Clausewitz's level of war (or Mao's levels of war) where American intervention and manpower and technology have pushed the war down to a lower level. But all of the things that go on today -- the opening of schools, creation of elections, finding jobs for the Iraqis, finding ways to pump capital into the economy -- those are just other weapons that are used in fighting the war.

It's all about war. If you ask the insurgents in Iraq, or whoever the enemy is, "Is this a war? Are you engaged in war or peacekeeping?" they will tell you that this is a war. If [you ask] a kid, a young Marine or solider out walking the beat in downtown Baghdad, whether he's doing peacekeeping, he'll tell you, "No, no, no, this is war."

It's all part, Harry, of managing expectations, because if the American people begin to believe that we have transcended war and are now doing something different, all that bodes is expectations exceeding the capability of the force. We'll find ourselves going back to something like the end of the Tet Offensive in 1968, where the American people were firmly convinced by the American command that the war was over, it was time to do something different. The North Vietnamese had a different idea.

So it's about war, not battles, and war is an extension of a campaign that in many ways can last decades.

It's important for our audience to distinguish the two kinds of soldiers, who may be the very same soldier. In the battle, the soldier, whether it's a man or a women, [might be] a person using computers in news ways to bring down precision weapons, to be on the ground and say, "Over there, fire that precision weapon," and so on. So there is a different kind of human quality; that is, it's a person with computer skills, but also a person who has the ability to be responsible at a very decentralized level.

You hit on the great conundrum, and it's exactly right. We expect a multifunctionality for our young men and women. And, oh, by the way, we don't have time to pull out, like a professional football team, to pull out one team, the passing team, and to throw in the running team. It's all one team. The interesting irony is about what just happened last year: we went through a 23-day war where precision, speed, knowledge -- all of the great components of large-scale warfare -- were demonstrated terrifically by this force. And then, literally, the next day, the 10th of April, suddenly, they were expected to go through a complete personality and function change.

It didn't happen. It happened probably a lot better than I thought it would, but you don't have time to "build a bench." You don't have time to swap-out sides.

Warfare in the future is going to demand young men and women of exceptional quality, because they have to do both. They have to operate the high-tech level of war, and then, literally the next morning, wake up and operate at a lower level of war. This is totally different from what my generation experienced in Vietnam.

The second phase is what we call, euphemistically, "nation-building." As I told you earlier, my class* watched a movie called Beyond Baghdad by Frontline. It was like volunteerism, as soldiers were going out and helping put in infrastructure, and meeting with city councils to expose them to democracy.

Exactly. Nothing that they've been trying to do -- [it's] nothing new. In late April I asked a division commander, a really good friend, a terrific guy, a commander of one of the most powerful division in the world, "What do you need? What is it that you're short of right now?" He said, "Interpreters. Reliable interpreters, people who can listen to what an Iraqi says and interpret it in the context of the Western ear." He said, "I feel like we're an army of strangers in the midst of strangers."

The inherent goodness of the American soldier doesn't come through, because there's this cultural wall, a cultural divide between us, and we can't cross it. So a soldier walking on the streets of Baghdad who sees a young man across the street has no idea whether he is there to be greeted or killed. These same soldiers, not a week before I was sent this e-mail, were involved in the high-tech business of killing on large scale, and now, all of a sudden, you expect them just with a snap of a finger to be someone completely different. That's asking an awful lot of an 18-year-old kid who is earning after-taxes about $800 a month.

So you're suggesting as a matter of overall American strategy that we can't go only in one direction in terms of the resources. We obviously have to fund the military for the weapons and the technology and the training it needs, but on the other hand, we have a responsibility to do the training in history, language, knowledge of reasons, and so on and so forth if we're going to address adequately the second phase of the war.

You have to think of it as a balance between two types of transformation -- technological transformation and a cultural cognitive transformation. And they have to be applied in balance. They have to be applied in synergy, if you will, because if you have a high-tech instrument that's able to kill with great precision from great distances, and you're not able to go into a civilian population to find and anticipate and to discriminate about what to strike, then this does you no good. You have this huge sledgehammer, but you have no way to find out where the nails are. My view, at least, as I've said in these works, is that we've been too techno-centric and not cultural-centric over the last twenty or twenty-five years. And, oh, by the way, our enemies have figured this out.

So this is not an imperative that we need to do on our own, it's a reaction to how our enemies have changed their method of fighting. It's tit for tat. It's action/reaction. It's adapt or die. My thought is that while the money that's spent on technology is important, now it's time to start spending money on this other, softer side of transformation.

You have a sentence in the introduction of Yellow Smoke which I thought was quite compelling, and I'm going to read it. You'll have you deconstruct it, as we say in the University. You say of the long-term goal: "The abilities to command indirectly and to operate independently for long periods on disperse battlefields located in distant and hostile regions are qualities that will be in demand in both stability operations and shooting wars." The "ability to command indirectly" suggests that the commanders of the overall operation are going to have to defer to people on the battlefield.

Harry, remember, you asked me here, and I'm a historian, so you're going to get some history ...

That's fine. Please.

Let me give you some history. If you visit the Battle of Gettysburg, and you see a corps front -- a corps was commanded by a two-star general -- you see a corps front, it's about a thousand yards wide, and in that thousand yards there may be 3000 or 4000 soldiers. So a corps commander was a direct commander. He would see things unfolding in front of him, and he had time to plug holes, to move soldiers around, and he could command with his voice, either by sending messengers over, or pat a soldier on the shoulder, or, if necessary, get out in front of his formation and command it. So he was a can-do, go-to sort of guy.

If you were to go to Gettysburg today and array a force like we're using, for instance, in Afghanistan, on that same four-mile by two-mile square piece of terrain, the senior American present is probably a staff sergeant. And yet the piece of terrain that he is commanding is a piece of terrain that he can't command directly. Instead of patting someone on the soldier or reacting to the stimulus that he sees in front of him, he's going to demonstrate a different set of skills: he's got to think in time, he's got to anticipate, he has to lead soldiers he can't see or touch, either through the use of his voice or through the use of the written word.

In other words, we're asking soldiers to demonstrate skills that 148 years ago were expected from two-star generals with 35 years in the army, now to be demonstrated by staff sergeants with six or seven years of service. And, oh, by the way, in this age of precision weaponry, a staff sergeant can make a catastrophic strategic decision with great precision. In other words, he can direct a 2,000-pound bomb into an Iraqi school just as easily as he could into an Iraqi Republican Guard position. You see the problem. Suddenly, those at the lowest ranks in our military are charged quite often with strategic-level responsibilities, and the responsibility, as I say in this piece, to think in time.

What makes it even more complex is these same soldiers now are expected on the one hand to think in time and lead indirectly in actual combat, and then turn around the next day and lead indirectly and operate autonomously when they're trying to build a school, or they're trying to establish rapport with a local tribal leader, or they're trying to build a hospital. Can you imagine the burden that that puts on our young men and women? Can you appreciate how difficult that is? Unfortunately, as I said, our own latent sense of ahistoricism in our military has impeded our ability to develop indirect leaders at the level that we have people leading indirectly today.

So when I wrote that a couple years ago, I had a sense that this is a problem that needs to be addressed, because that same battlefield, that two-mile by four-mile square piece of Afghanistan may in the future be commanded by a buck sergeant or a private, and we will be asking him to make life and death decisions with strategic consequences, and yet we do very little right now to train him to do that. And that speaks very well to the intuitive innate sense of our young men and women, the fact that we come from a society that values individualism. I don't think any other army in the world, with the possible exception of Great Britain, could generate competencies that quickly at that young of an age, where young Americans don't wait to be told what to do, and they use their own intuition to make decisions. That's something, I believe, that is uniquely American.

In one of your books, you're talking about one of the first uses of this new technology, and that the young people -- that is, the soldiers out in the field -- would accept the [computer] icon as a reality because they were used to computer games. Whereas there was still a debate among the command structure. Is that really going on with the icons?

It's believing the icons. [The experience of] my generation was that you get an intelligence report and you send out a scout or an airplane to verify it. You want to make sure that you have ground truth, and the only way you're going to be convinced you have ground truth is have somebody see the object, "Yes, it's there." But this younger generation trusts the icons. They're able to intuitively determine whether the icon is telling the truth or not, so they don't need to go back and do the verification. So the old linear process of the five-paragraph field order and the process of military decision-making has been turned on its head. It's like playing a video game: I see something, I react to it intuitively. I don't have to have someone else to tell me what the truth looks like.

You're saying it's about maneuvering, and not the old formations, the old lines, and so on.

Using a sports analogy, I'd say that the old war is like a football game. New war is like a soccer game, or maybe rugby, where all throughout the field things are in motion, and the concentration point can shift from one end to the other very quickly, and there's no quarterback. There's control, but there's not linear control. What our young people are beginning to learn is that they have to saddle responsibility for making decisions in this new battlefield because it's nonlinear. It's almost like seeing war as a series of ink blots, war that's fought for a control of territory rather than a capture of specific points. It's diffuse. It's decentralized. It's nonlinear. It's three-dimensional. All of those things are occurring right now. We see it happening in Iraq today. Again, add another layer of complexity to what wars are all about today.

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