Academic journal article Parameters

What Not to Learn from Afghanistan

Academic journal article Parameters

What Not to Learn from Afghanistan

Article excerpt

What Not to Learn from Afghanistan 
"For you all love the screw-guns-- the screw guns they all love you! 
So when we take tea with a few guns, o'course you will know 
  what to do--hoo! hoo! 
Jest send in your Chief an' surrender--it's worse if you fights 
  or you runs: 
You may hide in the caves, they'll be only your graves, 
  but you can't get away from the guns!" 
-- Rudyard Kipling 
"The Screw Guns" 

The "screw guns" to which Kipling refers were rifled artillery pieces with longer range and more penetrating power than the older smooth-bore guns. They gave British troops a substantial edge over local forces in the colonial wars of the Victorian empire, just as American bombers do for US troops today. Artillery would continue to improve in explosive power, versatility (gas, smoke), and indirect bombardment, leading to its dominant role in World War I. Yet no serious military strategist of Kipling's day would have suggested that the British Army disband its infantry and cavalry regiments and reorganize into only artillery brigades.

The great wars of the 20th century were won by maneuver, not just firepower. Technology has increased the range and precision of firepower, but the question about maneuver force planning posed by the prominent German tactician of World War I, General Wilhelm von Balck, is still central: "How much infantry will be required to utilize the success of the fire of the artillery?" Nothing in the violent decades since has changed von Balck's conclusion, "There are no longer principal arms. Each arm has its use, all are necessary." (1)

The principal lesson of modern war is the need to operate in combined arms teams to win decisive victories that yield beneficial political change. There are no "silver bullets" that can win wars by themselves, even if fitted with satellite guidance. Nor is war just about blowing things up. War is "politics by other means" with the aim to determine how territory and people are governed, and to what ends rulers direct their resources. This cannot be done from 15,000 feet in the air.

Yet there are those who would argue, on the basis of the air campaigns in the Balkans and Afghanistan, that the United States should restructure its armed forces to rely almost entirely on bombers, with some special forces and perhaps some other light troops (preferably foreign) as auxiliaries. This line of argument has been around since Billy Mitchell claimed in his 1925 book Winged Defense, "It is probable that future wars again will be conducted by a special class, the air force, as it was by the armored knights in the Middle Ages. Again, the whole population will not have to be called in the event of a national emergency, but only enough of it to man the machines that are the most potent in national defense." (2)

Airpower did play a major role in the wars that followed, but as part of a larger war effort that aimed at the destruction of enemy regimes by conquest, and the remaking of their societies in the image of the liberating armies. From World War II to Vietnam, democracies were established where American troops prevailed and dictatorships where communist troops took hold. But nowhere was the promise of "victory through airpower" alone borne out.

In the Gulf War, which airpower advocates cite as the rebirth of their doctrine, the decision to halt the ground offensive after only four days and without advancing on Baghdad left Saddam Hussein in power. A decade of air strikes and "no fly zones" has not prevented Hussein from undermining the Gulf War coalition by diplomacy while developing weapons of mass destruction.

Mitchell might well have considered his own analogy of fighter pilots to medieval knights more carefully. Though the armored horseman was singularly the most powerful "weapon system" of his day, performance on battlefields from the Holy Land to Crecy did not always support his claim to glory. …

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