What these vast technological gains amounted to, at least on their face, was a new kind of war, one in which satellites in the sky replaced boots on the ground, in which machines literally replaced men. For some of its advocates, it meant high-tech, light, specialized forces designed to be deployed wherever they were needed, and few were more vocal proponents of this than Donald Rumsfeld.
And to a certain extent, it worked. The Taliban were ousted in months after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and it took a mere three weeks to topple Saddam in 2003.
"But that was a kind of reductionist view that looked at warfare as simply the delivery of firepower," Donnelly says.
America had learned to play the game better than anyone else. The only problem was that the game changed.
But the fall of the Taliban and Saddam, as demonstrated by the lengthy periods of counterinsurgency that followed with such mixed results, were in reality only campaigns in a longer global conflict that cannot be won by military means alone, or even primarily. Instead, victory requires using all the instruments of state power -- and seeing the military as just one tool.
"What is dubbed the war on terror is, in grim reality, a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign -- a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and moderation," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained. "We cannot kill or capture our way to victory."
In this type of conflict, conventional military wisdom is turned on its head. Its founding handbook, the "Counterinsurgency Field Manual," lists various paradoxes: "Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be." Another: "Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is." In this realm, firepower is often a last resort rather than the first. And while airstrikes may be exceptional ways to knock things down, they are useless in putting things back together. They can create more enemies than they kill.
"The U.S. military's ability to kick down the door must be matched by our ability to clean up the mess and even rebuild the house afterward," Gates said.
This is because in Iraq and Afghanistan, winning requires that the people of those countries choose their own governments over the insurgents. To do this, the military must protect the population from attacks while engaging in a great number of tasks once considered the sphere of those foreign governments, non-governmental organizations and the State Department.
"It's more like cops on a beat than it is like sending cruise missiles through a window," Donnelly said. And as cops on a beat, they must also identify and separate out those who can be turned away from insurgencies or terrorists and those who cannot, the reconcilables and the irreconcilables. This, too, is hard to achieve through a satellite or with high-precision bombs.
This is collectively known as COIN: counterinsurgency.
If there is a poster child for how important the arguments over the future of the military are, it may be the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle.
For years the nightly news inundated viewers with reports of troops killed and maimed by roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices as they traversed the streets in Humvees, some with armor but many without.
Memorably, in late 2004, when an Army specialist asked Rumsfeld why more combat vehicles weren't up-armored, Rumsfeld responded: "You go to war with the army you have -- not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
But Gates saw a problem here and continues to see it as a symptom of what is wrong with procurement in the military. According to the Pentagon, IEDs have been the No. 1 killer in Iraq, responsible for nearly two-thirds of fatalities. In May 2007 Gates made acquisition of MRAPs the Pentagon's top priority, and there are now nearly 9,000 MRAPs in use in Iraq and more than 1,000 in Afghanistan, with a total of 15,830 contracted. Gates and others credit the MRAPS with drastically reducing casualties since their implementation.
"Why did we have to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities we need to protect our troops and pursue the wars we are in?" Gates asked pointedly.
The issue is more a question of continuous adaptation than finding a one-size-fits-all answer. Ironically, the MRAPs that have proven so important to the effort in Iraq are less helpful in Afghanistan, where mountains are many and roads steep, poorly built or non-existent. MRAPs can weigh anywhere from 7 tons to 22.5 tons, so the Pentagon is again adapting to procure a modified, lighter version that would do better in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan.
But the implementation by the U.S. military of a broader counterinsurgency mandate is not uncontroversial. Many believe it risks watering down troops' warrior culture and limiting the capabilities of the force to fight conventional wars.
(Part 3: The "small wars" debate)
(Medill News Service)