Small Wars Journal

Fighting Tigers With Sticks: Fehrenbach’s Lessons on Military Readiness

Thu, 09/29/2016 - 12:50pm

Fighting Tigers With Sticks: Fehrenbach’s Lessons on Military Readiness 

Michael P. Ferguson

But the abiding weakness of free peoples is that their governments cannot or will not make them prepare or sacrifice before they are aroused.

-- T. R. Fehrenbach

Military readiness is a paradoxical and multifaceted issue that remains largely esoteric to those unacquainted with the cruel nature of war. Arguably the most confounding principle of readiness is that it is most needed when it is least desired. In the mercurial political domain that war must occupy, this can be a debilitating characteristic. Tragically but valuably, past generations have suffered immensely so that current generations may benefit from the clarity of hindsight. T. R. Fehrenbach’s 1963 magnum opus of Korean War history, This Kind of War, offers its readers just this: a germane account of the cataclysmic impact that lackluster military preparedness has on a nation’s ability to fight and win the eternally brutal contest of wills known as war. His focus is not necessarily on the physical (tactical) realm of military readiness, but rather he concludes it is the sociopolitical and psychological state of the prewar nation that determines victory or failure. 

Fehrenbach suggests that such conditions dictate whether a nation’s citizens – and thus the members of its armed forces – possess the requisite fighting spirit to embrace the ugliness of war and enable the realization of positive political outcomes that may be opaque in the near-term. If nations do indeed “live or die by their people’s willingness to fight,” this form of readiness is linked directly to a nation’s vitality.[i] In the current operating environment, where the United States must contend with conventional state expansionism, ubiquitous cyber terror, nuclear aggression and WMD proliferation, and the transnational growth of decentralized non-state terror networks, continuous reflection on the history of preparedness remains a decisive endeavor.

In This Kind of War, Fehrenbach presents his readers with an opportunity to understand not only why monumental blunders in warfare come to fruition, but also how leaders may work to prevent similar catastrophes in what is fast becoming a more volatile operating environment. In the pursuit of this end, a periodic reexamination of lessons learned from the Korean War is critical. The following is an extrapolation from Fehrenbach’s timeless work, identifying the historical relevance of the Korean War, investigating the major lessons Fehrenbach offers in the context of insufficient readiness, and analyzing how these elements contribute to building a realistic outlook on the nature of war. Considering the glaring similarities between conditions in 1950 and 2016, these outputs are instructive when developing courses of action in the current threat environment.

Why Korea Matters

The Korean War took place during what is arguably the formal birth of the Cold War, pitting a somewhat reluctant and uncertain western coalition of hopeful youths against a relentless enemy whom they failed to understand. Prosecuted without a congressional declaration of war at a time when most U.S. divisions operated at 70% strength,[ii] this land war in Asia saw not only the U.S. employing its new theory of incrementalism against a Soviet surrogate, but also witnessed the impact of mission creep as peripheral Communist forces entered the fray, namely China. Because the majority of future conflicts in which the U.S. may participate involve limited military campaigns fought in or around Asia, lessons learned from the Korean War are instrumental in the effort to hone a ready military force.

Our experiences in Korea also proved several theories: 1) A nation’s infantry must be educated about their enemies and trained to kill them between conflicts, and these forces should be employed early in the fight. 2) The human dynamic of war remains unchanged and paramount. Consistently, leaders who have a decisive impact on military campaigns are those who understand their enemy while retaining a genuine concern for the welfare of those under their command. 3) The nature of war is eternal. It is the stubborn rock in the stream of humanity’s ever-changing outlook on suitable methods of conflict resolution. Each generation struggles to redefine war, soften the horrors of war, neglect war’s historical inevitability, or even altogether abolish war, only to suffer all the more for their denial. In such instances, American troops who desire nothing more than peace are pitted against fanatic enemies who value nothing more than their death. This denial leads to policies of incrementalism and protracted wars that lose public support, often causing the United States to win the war and lose the peace, a la Hannibal. This paper is divided into these three areas of focus.

A realistic philosophy on the nature of war – and one Fehrenbach would endorse – maintains that armed conflicts are lost less on battlefields with tactics and maneuvers and more within an apathetic citizenry years before the first shot is fired. History proves his assessment accurate.[iii] Because such indifference remains a common denominator in the human condition, so too must those traits relied upon to compensate for this deficiency. Preventing such catastrophic yet tragically common errors is only possible through vigilant study of the consistencies of war in relation to the persons waging them. It is in pursuit of such ends that we turn to Fehrenbach.

The Ultimate Weapon: Hone it and Use It

A common theme in Fehrenbach’s work, and that of numerous military historians, is the reluctance of prosperous nations to prepare for war in times of relative peace, and how that lack of foresight impacts a nation’s capacity to fight and win wars. Part of this reluctance involves a sort of institutional hesitancy to employ a nation’s infantry – an apprehension rooted in the fallacious assumption that military operations can achieve positive outcomes in a ground war without deploying forces on the ground. To be successful, a nation’s infantry must engage in a three-step development process. The first two steps become obsolete if the third is denied: teach them why they fight, teach them how to fight, and let them fight.

Fehrenbach makes his fondness of the grunt unmistakably clear, citing repeatedly how infantry training often meant the difference between life and death in combat.[iv] He believes the infantry is the only force which can guarantee favorable outcomes in war, because war by nature is a contest between peoples often defined by the reciprocal gaining and loss of physical ground. Bombs can frustrate, deter, or even remove enemy forces for a period, but only troops have the ability to prevent their return by setting conditions on the ground that preclude the need for future bombings. Every war aims to achieve primarily positive outcomes on land because the people who occupy and control that land hold the key to realizing the long-term political objectives that necessitate the waging of war. To be effective, a nation’s infantry must not only be trained, but dedicated to the mission, possessing an understanding of what it is doing and why it is important.

In his study of the 1812 campaign, Carl Von Clausewitz analyzed military readiness and its relationship to the Soldier’s individual constitution. Clausewitz suggests that relying on ideas “derived from the impulse of the moment” is disastrous, because the reality of war is so shocking to the unconditioned mind that it would likely “dash [the Soldier’s] structure to the ground before it is finished.”[v] To condition the mind, commanders throughout history have advocated for a strict and multidimensional hardening and educating process between wars, in times of peace when war seems most displeasing to the public. Luckily, the characteristics epitomizing a rugged fighting force have changed little since the United States tangled with Communists in North Korea more than six decades ago. 

Armies capable of victory are built on the foundation of discipline and cohesion. This truism resonates even with the Roman Legions of antiquity that suffered from inconsistent organizational composition as a result of frequent assembling and disbanding of armies, a flaw not addressed until Centurion commanders became more experienced.[vi] In 1950, a war-weary and somewhat isolationist United States remained oblivious to the “tough, doctrinaire, disciplined armies that were being built in Asia by the Communists.”[vii] The Truman administration adopted a minimalist approach to deter North Korean expansion into the Southern territories, offering only diplomatic support augmented with advisor teams initially, followed shortly by Air and Naval assets. Suggesting deployment of infantry forces was resoundingly unpopular.

When coalition forces blew the Han Bridges to prevent the North Korean People’s Army from enveloping Seoul, 44,000 allied troops died or disappeared. But the air campaigns continued, often dropping munitions on friendly elements because pilots had no Air Control Parties to guide their ordnance. Eventually, such an immense loss of life prompted the Pentagon to commit ground troops, but even then it was piecemeal. After much crippling defeat, it was not until a highly disciplined U.S. Marine infantry brigade entered the war – a unit untouched by the revisionist gutting that took place in the army’s ranks after World War II – that the tide of battle shifted in South Korea’s favor. These Marines were afforded no quarter in their training, and thus they offered none to their enemy.

We may observe also that unwilling conscripts make poor infantry. Whether such men are conscripted into service by force, or simply forced to fight a war they do not believe in or understand, is of little consequence. The North Korean People’s Army’s (NKPA) 4th “Seoul” Division extracted recruits from South Korean villages who reported with low morale and no training, often seizing the first opportunity to defect or abandon their units.[viii] Fear kept them in line to a degree, but even fear has its limits of control.

This paradigm is a continuation of the dhimmi armies employed during the Great Muslim Conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries that Charles Martel halted in Poitiers, formations comprised largely of brigands during Europe’s Wars of Religion, and King Phillip II’s mercenary war parties that were eventually eclipsed by Alexander III’s all-professional army.[ix] History maintains that a professional volunteer force of dedicated “legionnaires” is the preferred fighting formation, but gaining and maintaining such a force is a process that requires adequate funding, realistic training, and sufficient education regarding the nature and utility of war. Without conviction in a cause, it becomes much harder to justify the placing of volunteer ground troops in harm’s way, and the most proficient outfit will slip into a state of collective indifference. Many who fought the Korean Communists in 1950 did not understand the ideology of those with whom they fought.

Had U.S. Army Soldiers in Korea possessed such an understanding – a vision of who they were fighting and why it was important – the volume of abandoned equipment and empty battle positions may have been reduced significantly.[x] Fehrenbach paints a continuum of logic in which each generation chooses to overlook the hard-learned lessons of their fathers in an effort to convince themselves those lessons are anachronistic. It took the United States so long to accept the conditions of ground warfare in Asia because such fighting had become “distasteful to a people who had subconsciously come to regard infantry warfare as obsolete.”[xi] The most reliable patterns in history (periods of sustained ground conflict) are also the most revolting to free republics desiring nothing more than peace. Refusing to acknowledge this truth results in distressing reminders every one or two generations, often presented in the form of catastrophic loss of human life as the free world is jolted back into reality by a supposedly antiquated enemy.

A nation’s infantry, what some refer to as the “ultimate weapon,”[xii] even when highly educated and proficient in their warrior tasks and drills, is of little value when kept in a cage only to be thrown belatedly into a fight, the conditions of which have already been set. This prevented U.S. forces from choosing the time and place of engagement, a critical component of lethality in military operations since at least the Second Punic War when the Carthaginian commander Hannibal recognized and exploited its advantages.[xiii] Postponing the inevitable deployment of ground forces sacrifices time in the operational area that is essential to developing human intelligence networks, gaining an understanding of local atmospherics, and establishing fortified outposts capable of functioning as relay or resupply stations and housing combat support and combat service support assets.

These were the challenges faced by U.S. infantrymen in 1950. The American people were not ready to send their infantry into a fight so soon after World War II, and thousands of young Americans suffered for this apprehension. In Fehrenbach’s words, a “people that does not prepare to fight should then be morally prepared to surrender.”[xiv] And so, if significant effects on the ground are desired, ground forces sufficient in training and number to produce said effects must be deployed, and early.

Intangibles of War: Understanding the Red and Blue

A deficiency in readiness which Fehrenbach makes unmistakably clear in This Kind of War is the ignorance permeating much of the U.S. military regarding the nature and philosophy of their North Korean enemy. Of course, such shortcomings are hardly a novel predicament for the United States. Much of the bedlam surrounding U.S. ground operations in the Philippines during President William McKinley’s tenure is often explained as a byproduct of the military’s near unanimous unfamiliarity with the islands, including its inhabitants, culture, and geography.[xv] In Fehrenbach’s eyes, American forces entered Korea utterly devoid of such critical information, in part because elements of the American public after the Second World War had been led to believe that Stalin, and thereby extension all Communists, were “democrats at heart.”[xvi]

Understanding one’s enemy is a form of knowledge often cited as the foundation of military victory. For instance, Napoleon Bonaparte, arguably one of the most effective commanders on record, was notorious for his insatiable thirst for knowledge of his enemies. Military historian David Chandler’s sweeping, multiple-volume account of Napoleon’s campaigns offers insight into this valuable trait. In it, Chandler observes that if even the possibility of war arose, Napoleon would “send for his librarian and demand a comprehensive series of books – historical, descriptive, geographical and topical – which he would read with all the energy of Auxonne, building up a clear mental picture of his opponent.”[xvii] This clear picture (what we may now refer to as a “shared understanding”[xviii] of one’s enemy) of which Napoleon speaks was something lacking among U.S. forces sent to battle the North Koreans.

At the lowest level, discipline still serves as the most essential element in the process of building espirit de corps, but as many veterans of the Korean War suggest, the “American GI is smart,” and he “knows when he is well-trained and well-led.”[xix] When an organization fails to believe in its mission, when leaders fail to inculcate the criticality of their mission within their formations, readiness and performance will suffer. For this reason, leaders must know not only their enemy, but know the individual strengths and weaknesses of those they rely upon to defeat the enemy. Clausewitz would agree with Fehrenbach’s convictions regarding morale and mutual understanding between leaders and their formations. The Prussian officer often cited the “impact of ‘moral factors’ arising from the familiarity of the commanders and their troops with one another” as a prominent factor in Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig.[xx]

Lacking such relationships, and such clarity of mission, countless men buckled under the weight of operational ambiguity that open war in Korea placed upon them. But such failures allowed others, such as First Lieutenant Munoz and Sergeant First Class Long, to thrive in chaos. They knew their role and, more important, they understood why they fought. Infantry outfits are organizations built foremost on relationships because their members must rely on each other more than any other asset. For this reason, a leader’s genuine concern with the well-being of his troops serves as the glue that holds these formations together. Officers such as Lieutenant Munoz set the example by knowing his men, viewing them as equals, and asking only of them what he expected of himself. Such selflessness epitomizes the ideal combat leader, and carries on the legacy of men such as Major Robert Rogers who paid his men’s salary out of his own pocket during the French and Indian War when the British government failed to do so.[xxi]

But knowledge of one’s self, one’s enemy, and one’s Soldiers is of little use when those Soldiers assume the responsibility of fighting a war under delusional premises. In 1950, many service members had entered the military for “every reason known to man except to fight,” possessing no “antagonism for the enemy system, nor any desire to oppose it.”[xxii] Understanding the nature of armed conflict through a historical lens is the first step toward accepting one’s place in the greater scheme of interregional conflict by dismissing the Great Lie of warfare.

Reject the Great Lie

Noted strategists and tacticians ranging from Hannibal[xxiii] to Carl Von Clausewitz have put to rest the stubborn belief that technological or social progression will change the brutal nature of war, but according to Fehrenbach’s findings, their words seem to have stifled the Great Lie only rhetorically. This Great Lie insists that each war will be a more humane one, fought remotely with industrial machinery, leaving no place for the unpleasant anachronisms of war, such as the infantryman and his crude weaponry.

There is no shortage of frightening comparisons to contemporary events in Fehrenbach’s history of the Korean War. He depicts what is a military in perpetual shock at the horrors of war, at times “slack jawed” and unable to believe “these men were trying to kill them.”[xxiv] Such disbelief, Fehrenbach maintains, is the result of a society that imposes its idealistic worldview on its warfighters, implanting the requisite conditions for such disbelief and subsequently “civilianizing” an organization whose vigor is contingent upon its segregation from the evolving norms of civilian society.[xxv]

Much of the United States had been led to believe that, as Clausewitz once opined, there is “some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed.” As the Prussian officer concluded, this is a fallacy.[xxvi] They believed war was an act waged and governed by civilized peoples and their rules, in which casualties had become a rare and unfortunate exception to such edicts. They believed that the savagery of war could be, and indeed was, legislated into extinction.

The consequences of a nation’s institutionalized aversion to armed conflict are evident in Fehrenbach’s various accounts of overrun platoons, criminally insubordinate Soldiers, and slain senior officers. Colonels manning machine gun positions because privates refuse to do so is a deficiency resulting not only from poor discipline, but also a poor articulation of the necessity and, indeed, inherent brutality of the mission. This communicative shortcoming would not be addressed formally until President Reagan’s defense secretary drafted the Weinberger Doctrine several decades later, highlighting the need for greater specificity in defense policy.[xxvii] Combat in Korea, to many Soldiers, became something to be shirked or even altogether avoided while they waited for politicians to decide if they were in fact at war. In some ways – perhaps too many – contemporary militaries are experiencing many of the same repercussions from vague or narrow thinking as a disorganized response to the increasingly complex operating environment.

For instance, during the last 14 years, the U.S. has invested heavily in counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine and unconventional warfare because the decentralized cellular networks of al-Qaeda and its associated movements (AQAM), and the hybrid nature of Daesh, have prompted such investment. However, as new threats emerge, old ones do not dissipate,[xxviii] and should therefore not be dismissed as archaic facets of twentieth century wars. Instead, the emerging threat of persistent and coordinated interregional non-state terror is merely layered upon the framework of conventional state aggression – it does not supplant it.

Such an understanding should translate into the prioritization of fundamental skills in unit training,[xxix] while still drawing from our valuable yet somewhat narrow experiences with counterinsurgency and sustainment operations. Prioritizing the fundamentals in the institutional army allows us to benefit from historical consistencies in accordance with the nature of war (the forest) without faddish operational trends or anecdotal experiences clouding our judgment (the trees). As many western powers continue to rely heavily on sea and airpower to achieve their objectives in and around the Levant, comparisons to the early days of the Korean War are inevitable and concerning.

In 1950, the Truman administration believed it could keep the horrors of war at bay through calculated air campaigns, thus shielding the American public from the grim realities of war. General MacArthur took issue with this strategy, insisting early in the conflict that a large contingent of ground troops was necessary to achieve the administration’s political objectives in Korea. The general concluded in a cable to Washington, DC:

The only assurance for the holding of the present line, and the ability to regain later the lost ground, is through the introduction of U.S. ground combat forces into the Korean battle area. To continue to utilize the forces of our Air and Navy without an effective ground element cannot be decisive.[xxx]

In MacArthur’s opinion, the air campaigns relied upon so heavily in the initial phases of the Korean War benefitted more the romanticism of the American public than they did U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region. Fehrenbach shares his frustration. This optical illusion emboldened the NKPA by prolonging its destruction and allowing it to consolidate and reorganize with near impunity. With their defeat suspended, the Communists were able to project an image of resiliency or even success against what should be an insurmountable capitalist superpower with endless resources. Predictably, this was a monumental public relations boost for the NKPA and its global network of Communist powers. This is, of course, how modern terror organizations maintain credibility with their flock. To survive in any capacity is a victory.

Recognizing the paradoxical nature of war allows leaders to plan for the next conflict rather than searching endlessly for techniques to conquer the last. This paradox demonstrates that as the tools of war evolve, its political nature and desired end state remain unaltered: impose one’s will upon the enemy by massing effects at the decisive place and time, thereby forcing him to submit or die. Mitigating the risks associated with fighting such wars demands of its participants a balanced approach rooted in fundamentals and historical reliability, not emergent phenomena that may be nothing more than operational anomalies. Training and employing infantry forces in a manner commensurate with their traditional role reduces the risk of nascent forms of warfare catching the United States in a stasis of operational canalization based purely on systems designed around, and popularized by, the most recent conflict.

At the tactical and operational level, leaders must do what is within their power to prepare those under their command for bloody combat by putting their troops in the mud. Instead of forcing young troops to “gradually understand the nature of the job” while engaged, they must understand this terrible vision above all else.[xxxi] The U.S. Army’s new operating concept echoes many of these ideas, as it reinforces the need for rugged, agile, and adaptive leaders capable of thriving in any operational environment. But how this policy is implemented remains to be seen.

Perhaps an anecdote from Korean War veteran Colonel Ralph Puckett illustrates the nature of the Great Lie and its impact on readiness most succinctly. In 1949, media outlets and defense intellectuals told then Second Lieutenant Puckett, an infantryman, that he was obsolete because “the next war would be fought with missiles.” And so the Truman administration made a gallant effort to bring this prediction to fruition, but to no avail. As Colonel Puckett concludes: “I wish that the naysayers had told the North Koreans and the Chinese that, because one year after graduation [from the Military Academy at West Point] many of us were slugging it out in tough, deadly ground combat in Korea.”[xxxii] It appears Fehrenbach’s observation rings true in this context when he posits that if the free nations want a certain kind of world, they must be willing to fight for it – literally.[xxxiii] As evidenced in North Korea, U.N. resolutions, war machines, and stern language will not repel a tiger once it is committed to its prey. And in the year 2016, the tigers multiply – their nature untouched by a bewildered civilized world.

Is the United States Prepared for the Next War?

Answers to this question range from the misleadingly cheerful to the downright apocalyptic, with some even suggesting that the organizational structure of liberal democracies precludes its citizens from ever adopting a realistic philosophy on the nature of war. Perhaps Colonel Barnett was right when he surmised that the day will come when the U.S. is not able to meet a military challenge, and when it does, “we will do what English peoples have done for 300 years; back up, triple defense budgets, and sacrifice thousands of our youth sorting it out.”[xxxiv] But there are consistencies cited by Fehrenbach that may help us avoid such a tragic turn of events if we simply recognize them. Many of these historical continuities involve the animalistic cruelty Western coalitions have faced in every war; coalitions comprised primarily of Soldiers raised on Wilsonian principles that project Western concepts of morality and rule-of-law – all of which perish at the onset of war – upon their enemies. We must acknowledge that this is counterproductive.

President Woodrow Wilson declared a new era of human rights after the First World War prompted the decolonization process that led to the erosion of empires and signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact several years later. In short time, Joseph Stalin starved millions of his people to death strategically,[xxxv] families and roving bands in Eastern Europe resorted to cannibalism to feed themselves,[xxxvi] Nazi troops threw pregnant women into mass fiery graves and warmed themselves by the flames,[xxxvii] and the NKPA executed and buried at times more than 7,000 dissidents in a single trench.[xxxviii] This elusive era of universal human rights will not materialize in the twenty-first century any more than it did in the twentieth. American citizens and service members must come to terms with what this means in relation to the prospect of war and the conditions necessary to fight and win in what is often mischaracterized as a more civilized contemporary operating environment.

Further muddying the nation’s psychological readiness for war – following the example set by Communist adversaries throughout the twentieth century – our enemies will avoid presenting the United States with a clear moral issue to complicate foreign policy decisions and promote internal conflict among the U.S. citizenry. This method of obscuration aims to foment dissention among Western constituencies to prevent their militaries from fighting with conviction – a primary concern in Fehrenbach’s work.

Successful military campaigns are often the product of formations that “fight like men possessed…with an ideal of freedom,” as many observed of the loyalist Greeks in battle against the Persians.[xxxix] Perpetual war gave the Greeks clarity regarding the fragility of their prosperity. Perhaps in the 21st century, when wars of holocaust concede to political wars with limited objectives, it may prove more challenging to convince formations to fight as the Greeks did. Such ambiguity reinforces the importance of a trained, educated, and dedicated fighting force that stands ready to defend U.S. national interests in any capacity. Furthermore, as witnessed in Korea and in the wake of most controversial or protracted wars throughout history, waging war outside the terms of “holocaust” will be a tough sell to the American people. Consequently, conditions similar to those surrounding the Korean War are likely to emerge as policymakers struggle to pursue foreign policy objectives that require the use of military force without raising the ire of the public.

A primary takeaway from Fehrenbach’s work is thus: nations cannot muster convicted warfighting formations of high morale and discipline after the onset of war. Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson’s deep cuts into the “morale and effectiveness” of the infantry made U.S. ground forces flaccid in the face of an organized, determined, and numerically superior North Korean enemy.[xl] Resilient fighting organizations must be hardened between wars, in times when war seems most distant or least likely. After the first shot is fired, it is too late to prepare, and the force must adapt under fire as they did in Korea and Vietnam.

America’s enemies cannot and will not fight within the confines of international law; therefore, the wars of tomorrow will be just as morally repugnant as those of the past. Military leaders must be ready to face an enemy – and not simply a stateless one – who executes chaplains as they pray over dead Soldiers or castrates and cuts the tongues out of their prisoners after binding their mouths with barbed wire.[xli] In light of Daesh’s publicized barbarity, the world would be wise to remember that the only novelty of such brutality is its global broadcasting in near real time by way of the Internet. The tigers have always been and will always be there.

As Colonel Puckett substantiates, our formations must assume a “rifleman first” mentality.[xlii] Combat-oriented skills infuse our armed forces with the necessary ethos, thus teaching them how to think about war, while technical skills training teaches them what to do in war. As of autumn 2015, this is not happening within organizations such as the U.S. Army’s Cadet Command. A nation cannot long survive when it promotes the Great Lie within the very formations it relies upon to defend its interests by taking and risking life in the dark corners of the world. Troops fighting the next war must not be pulled from a society that has incubated them in this lie. If so, we may have many Soldiers telling their officers and noncommissioned officers to “shove it up their ass” when asked to rush an enemy gun position.[xliii] Under such circumstances, American officers such as Lieutenant Turner were forced to confide more in the valor of ROK Soldiers than that of their own. It is the gravest disservice to arm our forces with psychological sticks by shielding them from, or denying them access to, the nature of our world’s tigers. Fehrenbach, commenting on much of the U.S. Army circa 1950, surmises the outcome of such conditions:

For they represented exactly the kind of pampered, undisciplined, egalitarian army their society had long desired and had at last achieved. They had been raised to believe the world was without tigers, then sent to face those tigers with a stick. On their society must fall the blame.[xliv]

Recent issues, such as sequestration and personnel cuts, will impact the army’s ability to prepare for future wars considerably, but these are constraints outside the span-of-control of most leaders, and thus we must operate within them. Like it or not, the United States is a superpower upon which many around the world rely for military and political support. These expectations will not decline. Rather, they will likely increase as global instability proliferates, further destabilizing national and international systems. In light of this observation, it becomes the duty of every leader in every service to ensure that such an atrocity as Korea never befalls the United States again. The world’s tigers are becoming pervasive, and sticks will no longer stem the tide.


As the ideals of society evolve, the conditions of war and factors necessary to win remain unchanged. Minimal force and military presence will produce minimal results. The difference between the U.S. Army’s initial failure in Korea and the U.S. Marines Corps’ initial success was the lack of political pressure placed on Marine Corps leaders to acquiesce “with the ideals of society.”[xlv] To retain their identity and fulfill their purpose, modern fighting formations must rely on history and doctrine to train their ranks for the inevitability of bloody, close combat, and not be distracted by faddish social trends. They must be trained to kill, and not shun their identity as righteous killers. The public must accept – as Fehrenbach teaches us – that “power, not idealism, is the dominant factor in the world, and that idealism must be backed by power.”[xlvi]

In This Kind of War, the pillars of victory in Korea were those leaders who remained steadfast in the face of defeat, knowing their enemy and their troops, thus inspiring those under their command. In turn, such leaders found ways to take relatively unprofessional formations and mold them quickly into efficient warfighting outfits. Such transformational leadership is the product of a chain of leaders entrenching their lessons-learned within the minds of the next generation. Though future conflicts may employ novel technologies or warfighting systems, they will still be fought by troops with the same flaws, fears, and apprehensions as those possessed by the young men on the 38th parallel many years ago.

As conflicts transition from wars of holocaust to political engagements, the “continual employment of limited force” will become a reality that military leaders must accept and plan for.[xlvii] Such limited wars[xlviii] demand of its participants a holistic understanding of historical continuities that enables combat leaders to prioritize training requirements. Like the notable WWII veterans in This Kind of War, veterans of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will forge a path of preparedness for the next conflict by never forgetting and ensuring their formations never forget the hard-learned lessons of the last 14 years.

Infantry formations must be hardened and informed about their adversaries between wars. Leaders must educate their organizations and themselves with the intent of inculcating within them a profound understanding of the enemy, a practical view of their friendly forces’ capabilities, and a realistic philosophy on the nature of war. In the next peer-on-peer or near-peer conflict, conditions will change, and the metrics used to gauge success may be disparate from those relied upon during counterinsurgency operations. In fact, the ground battles in such a war may be most comparable to those experienced not so long ago by veterans of the Korean War. Because of a collective refusal to recognize the existence and nature of the world’s tigers, these battles may be equally tragic and incremental if we do not reject the Great Lie preemptively.

Such miscalculation has the potential to yet again arm our exceptional volunteer force with sticks in their fight against beasts. Let us not misinterpret the nature of war by failing to heed the warnings of men such as Fehrenbach. Instead, let us honor the sacrifices of past generations by respecting the hard-learned lessons they have bequeathed to us. Because as Aristotle so eloquently stated, there is very little mankind has not learned, but much it has forgotten.


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End Notes

[i] Roger Barnett, Asymmetrical Warfare: Today’s Challenge to U.S. Military Power (Dulles: Potomac Books, Inc., 2008), 14.

[ii] T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War: The Classic Military History of the Korean War (New York: Open Road, 1963), 59.

[iii] There is no shortage of historical examples demonstrating how privilege and a national sense of impenetrable security breed apathy toward external threats. King Phillip II of Macedonia benefited from these conditions when he stripped Athens of its independence in the Fourth century BC. Athens, at the time, was one of the most thriving city-states in the world, but was unable to defend itself as a result of an overreliance on expensive mercenaries to protect its interests. A crippling side effect of this reliance was an unrealistic perception of the outside world and the threats therein. See Ian Worthington, By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and fall of the Macedonian Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 283-285.

[iv] For instance, Lieutenant Heath assembled two squads of men who were not trained in infantry tactics to hold a hill, and the failure that ensued when they broke ranks was debilitating to the operational fight. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, 122, 234.

[v] Carl Von Clausewitz in Donald Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 261-262.

[vi] Robert L. O’Connell, The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 49.

[vii] Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, 8.

[viii] Ibid., 127-128.

  [ix] Alexander the Great formed this professional army free of conscripts, arguably one of the factors leading to his many battlefield successes. Worthington, By the Spear, 284.

[x] In one instance, more than 20,000 gallons of gasoline, tons of rations, and $40,000 worth of liquor were left behind for the NKPA. After blowing the Han bridges, vast supplies of artillery and small arms equipment were left behind for the Inmun Gun (see ibid., 46).

[xi] Ibid., 115-116.

[xii] Colonel Puckett’s humble opinion. Ralph Puckett, Words for Warriors: A Professional Soldier’s Notebook (Tucson: Wheatmark, 2007), 137.

[xiii] Hannibal was notorious for turning Roman aggressiveness against them through deception, thus allowing the Carthaginian to fight when and where he chose. O’Connell, Ghosts of Cannae, 86.

[xiv] Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, 453.

[xv] Gregg Jones, Honor in the Dust: Roosevelt, War in the Philippines and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 117.

[xvi] Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, 27.

[xvii] David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier, vol. 1 (New York: Scribner, 1966), 145.

[xviii] In reference to a commander’s responsibility to nurture a shared understanding of his intent and his organization’s mission, often involving a clear picture of the enemy and why they are fighting him. Army Doctrine Publication 6-0: Mission Command (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, United States Army, 2015), 3.

[xix] These are the words of Colonel Ralph Puckett, who commanded a Ranger Company during the Korean War. Puckett fought in three wars, mostly with Ranger units, earning numerous citations for valor. He remains heavily involved with the Army Ranger and Infantry communities. Puckett, Words for Warriors, 33.

[xx] Carl Von Clausewitz in Stoker, Clausewitz, 189.

[xxi] Robert Rogers, Journals of Major Robert Rogers: Reprinted from the Original Edition of 1765 (New York: Corinth Books, 1961), 37.

[xxii] Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, 102.

[xxiii] The Carthaginian would be considered mild in comparison to the commanders of his time, but even he well understood the utility of violence. O’Connell, Ghosts of Cannae, 84-85.

[xxiv] Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, 75.

[xxv] Ibid., 59.

[xxvi] Carl Von Clausewitz in Stoker, Clausewitz, 266.

[xxvii] Drafted by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1984, this document includes recommended courses of action to prevent quagmires such as those witnessed in Vietnam. It contains language that focuses on committing U.S. troops only if they are given clear objectives with the capacity to accomplish them, and to only commit U.S. troops with the intention of winning swiftly and decisively.

[xxviii] To the contrary, it is in the interest of our adversaries that we believe so, and fail to prepare accordingly.

[xxix] Specifically, small unit tactics, marksmanship, and land navigation. More specifically, tested and quantifiable evaluation metrics of these three functional areas, not qualitative, largely subjective evaluations.

[xxx] The words of General MacArthur in Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, 57.

[xxxi] Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, 110.

[xxxii] Puckett, Words for Warriors, 133.

[xxxiii] Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, 456.

[xxxiv] Barnett, Asymmetrical Warfare, 141.

[xxxv] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin Press, 2005), 98-101.  

[xxxvi] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 49-54.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 271.

[xxxviii] More deaths than the U.S. has suffered during 14 years of the Global War on Terrorism. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, 116.

[xxxix] Specifically, in 480-479 BC. Paul Cartledge, The Spartans: The World of the Warrior Heroes of Ancient Greece (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 33.

[xl] Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, 56.

[xli] Ibid., 136.

[xlii] Puckett, Words for Warriors, 37.

[xliii] Fehrenbach, This Kind of War, 229.

[xliv] Ibid., 84.

[xlv] Ibid., 128-129.

[xlvi] Ibid., 29.

[xlvii] Ibid., 454.

[xlviii] A conceptual policy proposed by General Robert Scales in the “Army after Next” future-war study held between 1995 and 1997. This theory responded to the emerging complexity of international relations and technology encountered after the first Gulf War. Henry Shue, Preemption: Military Action and Moral Justification (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 37-38.


About the Author(s)

Michael Ferguson is a U.S. Army Infantry officer with nearly 13 years of enlisted and commissioned experience. As an enlisted infantryman, he served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, including twelve months fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq in the Battle of Ramadi from 2005-2006. After serving as a Ranger Instructor, Mr. Ferguson published an extensive Master of Science thesis on the operational and ideological convergence of Soviet revolution theory and Sunni feudalism, earning his commission. He currently teaches Paratroopers how to sharpen their sticks in the 82nd Airborne Division.