The best weapon in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan isn’t any armored truck, flying robot or radio jammer. It’s the squishiest, most amazing technology of them all: the human brain. I return to blogger Jason Sigger’s recent assertion:
The guys in the field always want more gear to execute the mission. In the words of Colonel John Boyd, the military needs to invest in people, ideas and equipment — in that order. It’s our tendancy to flip that into reverse, not because it’s correct but because it’s easier. Maybe we ought to be smarter and develop better concepts before defaulting to overly expensive technological solutions.
This is more true now than ever before, for today’s wars are primarily wars of ideas. Radical ideologies motivate all our worst enemies. Creative thinking equips them to take on ours, the world’s greatest army, on the battlefield and win. Defeating these extremists requires that we first understand them, then out-think them at all levels from strategic to tactical. And for that, no mortar-zapping gun or airborne targeting pod is going to help. “Only human beings can penetrate the minds of other human beings,” says military writer Ralph Peters.
But we, being a highly industrialized materialist society, defer to technology to solve what are fundamentally conceptual problems, as military analyst Jack Jacobs contends:
We are left with what we started with – the assumption that a superiority of resources automatically translates into a superiority of results, something that has been shown, time and time again, to be insupportable by the facts or just plain illogical.
Our dogged pursuit of technological solutions to human problems has resulted in what the International Institute for Strategic Studies calls the “powerful-yet-weak” dilemma. For all our massive firepower, for all our multi-billion-dollar military programs, we can’t seem to beat a bunch of impoverished tribal insurgents and nutjob terrorists. Because when it comes to ideas — on the battlefield and in the media — the bad guys out-smart us all the time.
So what would a smarter war strategy look like? I believe it would involve more diplomacy, more application of “soft power,” and stronger alliances with a broader range of state and non-state partners. At the tactical level, a greater investment in people and ideas would result in troops with better language and intel skills.
Ironically, poor armies are often better with people and ideas than the relatively rich U.S. forces. Australia, for instance, can’t afford a lot of gear, so it focuses on training smarter, more mature soldiers. I examined the Aussie way of war in East Timor in a recent piece in Defense Technology International. Check it out.