Short, infrequent and manageable through the superiority of American technology and firepower: Those are the qualities that U.S. wars were supposed to have at the start of the 21st century. And then came Iraq.
America's military changed Iraq in a few weeks in 2003. Since then, Iraq has been changing America's military. The U.S. force structure created out of the experiences of Vietnam and the Cold War possesses vulnerabilities that are being exposed and exploited by the unexpectedly fierce terrorist campaign in Iraq.
The underlying premises that shaped the military force that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime are now under relentless assault in the Sunni-dominated cities of Iraq, where U.S. units still lack the urban battlefield intelligence and tactics needed to stem terror attacks. The antidote to remote-triggered roadside bombings has to be something more practical than using enormously expensive warplanes with jamming devices to disrupt dime-store walkie-talkies.
Increasing the technology and firepower available to U.S. forces in the Sunni Triangle does little to compensate for the structural vulnerabilities. It tends, in fact, to exacerbate one friction of modern wars: As the ability of the warriors to inflict ever-greater destruction on enemy forces grows, the tolerance for such destruction from an instantly informed civilian society shrinks.
Iraq has also brought into sharp focus the costs of the decision by Vietnam-era generals to embed critical skills in reserve and National Guard units to force the call-up of citizen soldiers in an extended conflict. The commanders reasoned that this would bar political leaders from pursuing wars that did not have substantial public support.
But the effect of this decision was to load into the reserves the civil affairs, psychological warfare and other specialized units important to fighting low-intensity conflicts or nation-building. The debate over how many U.S. troops should be in Iraq is a legitimate and important one. But it obscures the equally vital point that the United States does not have available enough of the kind of troops it needs to deploy in Iraq in any event.
Some retired and active-duty senior officers fear that another year of combat duty in urban areas of the Sunni Triangle will break the military cohesiveness and morale of the regular Army, Reserve and National Guard units being rotated into Iraq on multiple tours. Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey says the National Guard already is "in the stage of meltdown and within 24 months will be coming apart."
McCaffrey sounded that alarm in testimony and a compelling memorandum he submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 18 after a wide-ranging trip to Iraq in June. He predicted the United States would succeed in Iraq -- but added that it would take five years and dramatic changes in the way the American military and diplomatic establishments conduct business there.
His memorandum reinforces the impression that the U.S. transitional authority essentially wasted its 18 months in effective power and helped create "a weak state of warring factions" that still has to get on its feet. Understaffing and too rapid turnover by the State Department as well as the Pentagon have created a crippling lack of continuity for the decisive months ahead, McCaffrey wrote.
Such concern is driving a dramatic shift in U.S. military planning in Iraq. An emerging aim is to reduce the damage being inflicted on America's armed forces as an institution. It is the structural damage -- the hollowing out of America's military -- that most concerns McCaffrey and other military leaders. Reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq's contested urban areas by the summer of 2006 is now a key component of that planning.
The intent of targeted troop withdrawals and redeployments, as formulated by Gen. John Abizaid, the theater commander, and Gen. George Casey, the senior officer in Iraq, was briefed to U.S. commanders, visiting VIPs and a few Iraqi political leaders in early June, according to U.S. and Iraqi sources.
That context is important: The discussion within the Bush administration that has begun to spill out in public is not the direct product of rising antiwar sentiment at home or of the tragic spike this month in U.S. casualties, although reports of the contemplated changes coincided with both those developments.
The process is more deliberative and strategic than that. The battlefield realities of Iraq, as interpreted by the commanders there, will wind up reshaping American forces and tactics at least as much as the much-heralded (and much-needed) transformation process instituted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It would be surprising, and foolish, if it were otherwise.