Underlying all these policies was the comfortable assumption that major land wars between conventional forces were a thing of the past, and that the superiority of U.S. specialized high-tech weapons could take out the armies of major nations, if necessary, the way they disposed of the Iraqi army in both 1991 and 2003.
However, the willingness of the Kremlin last month to use significant ground forces to crush Georgia, a nation that enjoyed the strong support of the United States, suggests these assumptions need to be re-examined as soon as possible.
Previously, critics had claimed the U.S. Army's continued commitment to maintaining a large, state-of-the-art armed force is obsolete in a world of improvised explosive devices and guerrilla war.
There is certainly no doubt that the U.S. armed forces' lack of adequate experience, military doctrine and senior officers grounded in the history of anti-terrorist and guerrilla conflicts cost it heavily in Iraq. It took nearly four years following the invasion and occupation of Iraq in March-April 2003 for Gen. David Petraeus, a top commander with serious expertise in such kinds of war, to be sent out to reshape U.S. tactics, and combat doctrine and conditions have improved remarkably ever since.
But even more than in other militaries, the U.S. tradition always has been to focus obsessively on the lessons to be learned from its most immediate past conflict, and to forget or throw overboard capabilities or experience learned -- usually at a high cost in lives and suffering -- in other wars.
The Clinton administration obsessed for eight years on peacekeeping military models and ignored the grim admonition of Britain's great poet Rudyard Kipling that iron "is master of all." The Bush administration under Rumsfeld for his first six years obsessed about space-based assets, though it willfully ignored the abundant evidence of how vulnerable they were. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is moving as fast as he can to remedy that negligence.
However, the current, long-overdue and so far highly successful focusing on the problems of guerrilla war should not obscure the need to maintain other, more traditional heavy armor and state-of-the-art artillery forces that can be used in more conventional conflicts. Gates and his top Army and Marine Corps officers realize that, which is why they are working hard to maintain the Army's massive heavy tank force in peak condition.
Even in Iraq, the lessons of so-called low-intensity conflicts show that heavy armor is necessary to protect supply lines and military convoys and to prevent unduly heavy casualties. Bradley Fighting Vehicles were not up to the job. The new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles are vastly better, and the Army and Marines want as many as they can get as fast as they can get them.
Therefore, even in fighting guerrilla conflicts, there is no alternative to having a large force of state-of-the-art battle tanks and armored personnel carriers. This wisdom is not unique to the U.S. military. It also is shared by the top military planners of Russia, India and China. It would take a very rash person to bet against all of them and claim confidently they are wrong.