January 5, 2012

Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.

Here we go again. President Obama made the same mistake Thursday in announcing his new military strategy that virtually all of his predecessors have made since the end of World War II. He said:

“Moreover, we have to remember the lessons of history. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past — after World War II, after Vietnam — when our military was left ill-prepared for the future. As commander in chief, I will not let that happen again. Not on my watch.”

Unfortunately, Obama’s plan does exactly that. It forgets the lessons of history. Some facts: Harry Truman seeking to never repeat the costs of World War II reduced the Army from 8 million soldiers to fewer than half a million. Without the intervention of Congress, he would have eliminated the Marine Corps entirely. The result was the evisceration of both land services in Korea, a war Truman never intended to fight.

With Dwight Eisenhower came the “New Look” strategy that sought to reduce the Army and Marine Corps again to allow the creation of a nuclear delivery force built around the Strategic Air Command. Along came Vietnam, a war that Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson never wanted to fight. But by 1970 our professional Army broke apart and was replaced by a body of amateurs. The result was defeat and 58,000 dead.

After Vietnam, the Nixon administration broke the Army again. I know. I was there to see the drug addiction, murders in the barracks and chronic indiscipline, caused mainly by a dispirited noncommissioned corps that voted with its feet and left. Then came Jimmy Carter’s unique form of neglect that led to the “hollow Army” of the late ’70s, an Army that failed so miserably in its attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran.

The only exception to this very sad story was the Reagan years, when the land services received enough funding to equip and train themselves to fight so well in Operation Desert Storm. Then tragedy again as the Clinton administration reduced the ground services, intending to rely on “transformation,” a program that paid for more ships and planes by reducing the Army from 16 divisions to 10. In the George W. Bush administration, Donald Rumsfeld continued a policy that sought to exploit information technology to replace the human component in war. Had it not been for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Army would have gone down to fewer than eight divisions.

So, here we go again. The Obama administration will reduce its long-service, professional land force to pay for something called “Air Sea Battle,” a strategy that seeks to buy more ships and planes in order to confront China with technology rather than people. This strategy shows a degree of a-historicism that exceeds that of any post-World War II administration. So much for remembering “the lessons of the past.”

Here’s what the lessons of the past 70 years really teach us: We cannot pick our enemies; our enemies will pick us. They will, as they have always done in the past, cede to us dominance in the air, on sea and in space because they do not have the ability to fight us there. Our enemies have observed us closely in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have learned the lessons taught by Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Saddam Hussein: America’s greatest vulnerability is dead Americans. So our future enemy will seek to fight us on the ground, where we have traditionally been poorly prepared. His objective will be to win by not losing, to kill as an end rather than as a means to an end. And we will enter the next war again tragically short of the precious resource that we have neglected for six administrations: our soldiers and Marines.