Monday, October 18, 2010
Off the (Electronic) Shelf: John A. Gentry Reviews Keith Shimko’s The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution
By Keith L. Shimko
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010
249 pp. $27.99
JOHN A. GENTRY
What are the military lessons of the Iraq wars for the future of U.S. defense policy? Should the Iraq wars be seen as a fundamental turning point in the history of warfare? Keith L. Shimko, professor of political science at Purdue University, addresses these questions through the lens of an American Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) he sees occurring during three Iraq wars—Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the conventional warfare of March–April 2003, and the ongoing insurgency that erupted in August 2003. Shimko’s dissection of the war that began in 2003 is suspect, but it enables him to assert that the American RMA quickly won two “wars” comprised of rapid, violent battles between mismatched conventional military forces.
Shimko explains his conclusion that an American military revolution is ongoing within a lengthy, generally well-balanced intellectual history of the RMA discussion in the United States that is the major contribution of the book. Despite noting many prescient criticisms of the concept, and recognizing that many claims by proponents of RMA and related concepts like transformation and net-centric warfare are exaggerated or fanciful, he largely accepts the latter claims anyway. He also repeatedly attacks Stephen Biddle, one of the best contemporary American political-military analysts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who has a less expansive concept of military revolution.
Shimko’s military revolutions are evidenced mainly by tactical advantages in conventional battle provided by technological innovations like precision munitions. They do not, however, have to be used in all conflicts or always even be useful. Hence, the much reduced relevance of RMA-like technologies in the “third” Iraq war in which U.S. forces initially floundered—and the distractive characteristics of the obsessive U.S. focus on finding technological solutions to military challenges—does not diminish Shimko’s confidence in an ongoing American military revolution. We are left with a concept of military revolution that is a light, generalized, and significantly qualified version of more strident air- and network-focused concepts associated with the likes of John Warden, Harlan Ullman, and Arthur Cebrowski.
Shimko’s concept of military revolution is so narrowly conventional, yet fluid and undemanding, that it encompasses most moderately useful military innovations. His broad claims for a continuing American RMA amid accurate descriptions and assessments of troubled U.S. military operations in Somalia, Kosovo, and Iraq since 2003, and recognition that technologically inferior but clever adversaries can defeat even the targeting technologies that are among RMA proponents’ best arguments (pp. 103, 122–123), render his concept largely useless for theoretical, military operational, and policymaking purposes. It can even be dangerous because it presents an appealing vision easily abused by technophiles with parochial interests; exploited by military tourists seeking quick victories in minimally personally risky, short, conventional wars against weak opponents; and used as a lens through which policymakers focus on the narrow range of military activities in which American technology provides clear but transient advantages at the long-term cost of ignoring the full spectrum of military missions that U.S. forces may be ordered to conduct.
Shimko makes some of the common mistakes of RMA proponents. Despite numerous caveats, he sees war as consisting of medium-intensity, conventional fighting—not broad, complex, political/military conflict. He sees in the alleged American RMA a desirable, massive increase in U.S. ability to gather and communicate data but barely discusses the irrelevance of such data without its conversion into sound political/military judgments. He acknowledges that military leaders like H.R. McMaster and David Petraeus learned much of what they needed to know in Iraq by drinking tea with local citizens but ignores the fact that even this kind of information requires contextual knowledge to be operationally useful—something technology cannot provide (p. 208). While recognizing that the U.S. military as an institution long has avoided developing such cultural awareness, he little addresses why or how the deficiency can be overcome.
Shimko also passes on an opportunity to discuss a major, ongoing feature of war that arguably is more revolutionary than the technology he dwells upon—the changes in motives for, political calculations about, and conduct of war driven by massively increased sensitivity to casualties since 1945. He addresses normative aspects of modern war in passing, recognizing that precision munitions can help keep casualties down. But American enemies since North Vietnam nearly half a century ago have repeatedly used tactical military actions to attack casualty-related U.S. strategic political vulnerabilities in ways that defeated the United States while U.S. military forces in the field were unbeaten. These changes have been revolutionary in the broad sense that they alter societies and politics as well as military actions, and they generate surprise strategic outcomes. Gil Merom, Ward Thomas, Alan Kuperman, and others provide some insights into such processes, but much more work remains to be done. Moreover, actual and potential U.S. adversaries, including Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Chinese and Iranian military theorists see in America’s peculiarly gizmo-centric variety of warfare opportunities to exploit U.S. casualty sensitivity and technological vulnerabilities and to convert U.S. material “power” and technological assets into political liabilities by, among other means, using disinformation to mislead Americans into generating collateral damage incidents.
In the end, Shimko does not persuasively offer evidence or logic that the Iraq wars offer major RMA-related lessons or mark a turning point in military history. He does not convincingly demonstrate that a U.S. military revolution exists. Lessons of recent wars surely abound, but they, and Shimko’s modest discussions of them, mainly reflect military cultural and U.S. Government-wide institutional factors whose excessive focus on RMA obscures more than it clarifies.
LTC John A. Gentry (USAR, Ret.) received a Ph.D. in political science from George Washington University and writes on military and intelligence topics.