Scales on War has been a provocative and thoughtful book. Having finished the chapter entitled “War in Two Epochs,” Scales explains the difference between two eras of warfare by looking at two Generals- George Patton and Stanley McChrystal. His argument is that General Patton’s style of fighting is incompatible in the new “American era” of war. General Patton’s style of fighting is defined by conventional, armored battles comprised of masses of troops pitted against each other on wide open battlefields. Scales boldly claims that this style of warfare is over. Done. For Scales this fighting is not practical in the 21st century. Indeed, most of his book presents hard evidence for why conventional means of fighting unconventional threats is disastrous and impractical. In this chapter, he uses the example of Russia’s invasion of Grozny in 1996 and Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon against Hezbollah in 2006 as examples of conventional forces losing to unconventional, “hybrid” threats. Furthermore, he claims that since 1973, there are few Middle Eastern nations that seek to oppose western powers in full scale armored type conventional conflicts. He says that those who still attempt to fight western powers on conventional terms do so at their own peril i.e. the example of Iraq in the Gulf War in which Saddam’s army was routed from Kuwait in less than 100 hours by an American ground campaign.
Thus, Scales claims that in the 21st century, fighting against asymmetric threats requires precise application of fires and well-trained, decentralized units. This is where he points to the new era of warfighting as embodied in the fighting of General McChrystal as Joint Special Operations Commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is important to note that Scales does not claim that the nature of warfare has changed. He accurately concedes that war remains a violent, bloody conflict of opposing wills. However, the nature of fighting these bloody, brutal conflicts has changed. The enemy has adapted and become smarter. The enemy takes advantage of human terrain and knows how to lurk in the shadows amid urban population centers. I recently read General McChrystal’s memoir, My Share of the Task, and I was impressed by McChrystal’s re-counting of his time in Iraq and Afghanistan in which he helped create networks that were capable of tracking and defeating insurgent networks most notably that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Scales points out that McChrystal’s teams were often highly trained, smart and experienced. These were men and women who were exceptionally professional and possessed skills in computer science, language and culture, and intelligence while also being able to hump heavy weight and shoot straight.
Throughout Scales’ book, he takes issue with the composition of the conventional infantry units that exist in the Army and Marine Corps. He thinks the construct of young eighteen-year-old recruits who are being selected and trained for infantry units is outdated. Instead he advocates for older, mature professionals who have more experience and school training. Furthermore, he thinks they should be paid more. A lot more. Scales is advocating unequivocally that the SOCOM model be expanded and applied to conventional forces. This might mean shrinking the conventional forces to make them highly trained and more specialized. He writes frankly that the model of mass recruits of young eighteen-year old soldiers and Marines is based on the mass army formations of the Patton era i.e. the European model of warfare in the twentieth century. In the era of McChrystal where knowledge and precision is required, Scales advocates smaller, more autonomous units that can operate as dispersed teams across the battlespace. Scales captures this idea nicely in the following quote: “McChrystal’s success proves that small units of superbly selected, trained, educated, led, and bonded soldiers can kill much larger aggregations of enemy while keeping friendly and innocent deaths to a minimum” (Scales 78).
My assessment is that General Scales raises some very good points. I do not think that he is advocating completely disbanding conventional capabilities. However, I think the challenge is to think about how we can retain our capabilities and be prepared for different contingencies while also adapting to some of the more relevant and practical challenges that exist on the battlefields in which we are currently engaged in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore, a lot of General McChrytal’s success still depended on conventional units that helped maintain security throughout Iraq and Afghanistan and partner with host nation forces. In the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, the security situation collapsed on the ground, and the army and Marine Corps were left with very limited guidance on what their role was in this situation. The success of McChrystal’s specialized teams to target insurgent networks depended on conventional forces that helped maintain security and stability in a country that was unraveling with sectarian tension. The dynamics of the surge strategy are worth studying because I think they provide a good case study for success specifically in a counterinsurgency fight. While the surge did rely on more troops, they were also better trained and more experienced after almost four years of ground operations in Iraq. Overall, I know Scales work will continue to prompt some comments, debates, and discussion.
Links to Scales on War and General McChrystal’s books: