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War in Afghanistan and American Character

On Principle, v10n2

April 2002

by David Tucker

In a sense, war is a simple thing: find the enemy and kill him. Ulysses S. Grant put it this way: “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.”

The simple business of finding and killing gets complicated because the enemy typically does the best job he can of not being found. He pretends to be where he is not or travels at night or camouflages himself. He hides behind trees, in trenches or, as we have found out recently, in caves. He communicates in code or maintains radio silence. Even when he fights out in the open, moving across a large battlefield, the size of the battle and its smoke and confusion make it difficult to know exactly where the enemy is and what he is doing.

Because you cannot engage the enemy unless you can find him, much time and money has been spent over the years on improving the business of finding the enemy. For much of the history of warfare, little progress was made. The methods used in World War I were not that much different from those employed in our Civil War or the English Civil War fought four hundred years before our own. Progress in finding the enemy began with the development of radio technology after World War I. Radar, an outgrowth of this technology, was a critical reason the British won the Battle of Britain in World War II, defeating the German bomber offensive. They were better able to find the enemy than the enemy was to find them. But it was not radar alone that gave the British the victory. They combined this new sensor technology with a communication system that allowed commanders to direct fighter aircraft against the incoming German bombers. And critical, of course, was the bravery and skill of the British fighter pilots.

From these humble beginnings, the business of finding the enemy has progressed steadily. The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union pushed forward many of these developments. They accelerated again with the development of information technology over the last 15 or 20 years. The power of these developments was evident during the Gulf War. Although available in limited numbers, manned and unmanned aircraft that could see the battlefield provided U.S. forces with an unprecedented ability to find the enemy. We had improved these technical capabilities in quantity and quality by the time of the war in Kosovo in 1999. By the time of the war in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, the United States was able to deploy what one defense analyst has called a “constellation of sensor systems [that] . . . included photographic and electronic intelligence satellites, E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTAR) aircraft, the RC-135 River Joint electronic intelligence collectors, P-3 Orion aircraft, Predators [unmanned aerial vehicles with sensing equipment], and the new long-range, high-altitude RQ-4A Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, along with stalwarts such as the EA-6B Prowler, S-3-B Viking and F-14 and F-16 fighters with targeting pods.” All of this sensing equipment was linked to weapons, through a command center that could direct these weapons to their targets even as they flew to and over the Afghan battlefield. The result was that U.S. and allied forces could find the enemy and destroy him faster and more effectively than ever before.

From this perspective, the war in Afghanistan was a triumph brought about by American technical genius. A nation of tinkerers, of Edisons always looking to improve technology, operating within a political system that protects the liberty of individuals and an economic system that rewards the initiatives these individuals are free to take, defeated an enemy that cared nothing for personal liberty.

This was not the whole story, of course. As both President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have remarked, the enemy was found and defeated not just by our advanced technology. We had soldiers on the ground who rode into battle on horseback with our Afghan allies. The first cavalry charge of the twenty-first century, President Bush called it, with cavalrymen carrying laser target designators and satellite communications.

Indeed, by all accounts, our ability to find and kill the enemy depended on these men on horseback. Our sensors in the sky and in space could do a great deal, but the tide of battle turned in our favor when we added the local knowledge of our allies and the eyes of our own soldiers to the technically collected information we had. Our forces were able to give the exact locations of targets because they held in their hands technology that uses orbiting satellites to pinpoint the location of targets on the earth and to communicate this information to those who command the weapons. Nevertheless, our soldiers had to be on the ground themselves to do this. Moreover, the laser designators they also held in their hands illuminated targets directing laser-guided bombs to precision strikes; but, again, they had to be on the ground near the targets to do this.

Secretary Rumsfeld has often remarked on this combination of ancient means of warfare with the most recent technology. He has cited it as an example of the kind of innovative approach that typifies how America will now fight its wars. More than that, it refutes those who claim that Americans are nothing more than their technology, that they are afraid to fight. Such an estimation of the American character seems to have guided bin Laden. He appears to have believed that we would respond to his attack with no more than cruise missiles. Instead, we put men on the ground who braved enemy fire, treacherous mountain pathways, and terrible winter weather to carry the fight directly to the enemy, striking at him as hard as they could and as often as they could, and moving on to the next targets. As in the Battle of Britain, technology was important to the outcome but required the bravery and skill of those who confront the enemy directly.

Even technology and bravery are not the whole story of the war in Afghanistan. As has been heavily reported, the war has been fought mostly by Special Operations Forces (SOF). The battle of Gardez, recently fought in the rugged hills south of Kabul, has involved light infantry that are not part of SOF, but the critical fighting in the first months of the war that led to the collapse of the Taliban was carried out by SOF. In particular, the men who conducted the cavalry charges praised by the President and the Secretary of Defense, were one kind of SOF, Army Special Forces (SF), more commonly known as Green Berets. Understanding something about SF allows us to understand more fully what the war in Afghanistan tells us about ourselves.

SF operate in twelve-man teams. The teams consist of non-commissioned officers (NCOs)—Sergeants, long-service soldiers, true professionals)—and a commanding officer. The officer is typically younger and less experienced than the NCOs, who, in addition to their years of soldiering experience, have received extensive training in weapons, communications, combat engineering and combat medicine. The central function of these teams is to work with and train the troops of other nations or irregular forces operating behind enemy lines and, on occasion, to lead them into or join them in battle. They are trained to work within foreign cultures and in foreign languages. As in Afghanistan, they are prepared to operate cut off from larger U.S. military units, living off the land, relying on tenuous lines of resupply, operating on their own. To succeed, the teams must be tough, resourceful and inventive, solving whatever problems arise with the skills they carry with them. Because of the demands of their job, selection for SF, as for all of SOF, is rigorous. Those in SOF think of themselves as an elite. They have reason to do so.

Whether the teams succeed or fail depends largely on the NCOs. Because of the disparity in experience and skill between the NCOs and the commanding officer, the responsibility for success of the SF team rests more on the NCOs than it does in other Army organizations. The importance of the NCOs means that the commanding officer of the SF team cannot command respect but must earn it. Between the commanding officer and the NCOs and among the NCOs themselves, rank is less important than merit. To the extent that he rules, the commanding officer rules by consent. For this reason, although it is no doubt hyperbolic to put it this way, the elite of the U.S. military are also its most democratic, if we mean by democracy what it has meant in the United States: a system of government that more than any other allows each to receive what he merits.

While it may be hyperbole to talk about the democratic character of the SF team, it is true that the SF team reflects the character of the U.S. military. Just as the SF team gives more authority and responsibility to NCOs than other U.S. military units do, so does the U.S. military give more authority and responsibility to NCOs than any other military does. In this sense, the U.S. military reflects the character of the United States, which at its best calls on every one of its citizens to take responsibility for their lives and conduct. Thus, not only the SF teams that led the way, but also the light infantry that followed and joined the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda represented more than the power of the United States. They represented its character.

We can take some satisfaction from the fact that what destroyed the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan was not just our technology, as amazing as it is, nor the bravery and skill of our troops and pilots, as wonderful as those are, but the very character and spirit that bin Laden and those who think like him find most threatening and tried to destroy on September 11. They believed Americans too decadent, too fascinated by our technological toys, and too soft from our effortless abundance to fight. Only a flatterer of democracy would deny that there may be some truth to this claim. Yet, as in every generation past, Americans have today found it in themselves to risk their lives to destroy our enemies. This is a fact awful in what it tells us of human possibilities, humbling for those of us who have not fought, and, we must believe, terrifying to our enemies, who have seen that we are getting better and better at finding them and have been reminded again that, when we find them, we will get at them, strike them as hard as we can and as often as we can)—and keep moving on.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.

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