Barack Obama argued in a recent piece published in Foreign Affairs that one of the major challenges facing our military is our general lack of preparation to engage with foes that fight “asymmetrical and highly adaptive campaigns on a global scale.” That the United States faces this military vulnerability is upsetting evidence of our inability to learn from the past.
Do I mean the war in Vietnam? No, I’m referring to the Revolutionary War. The army of King George was, at the time, the largest, best-trained, and best-equipped of all the armies in the world. They had triumphed in some of the most sophisticated and arduous battles of their time, both on land and sea. But their military style was conventional–history would later show that it was in fact sclerotic.
The formal tactics of warfare used by the British in the Revolutionary War were based on conventions followed in previous British engagements. But much of the American successes were attributable to asymmetric warfare; Generals Washington and Greene used a strategy of progressively grinding down British forces rather than seeking victory in a single, decisive battle. Southern militias, who were largely independent of the American army, held firmly against the British by employing guerilla warfare tactics.
So it should surprise us that we, who owe our national freedom to the advantages of asymmetric warfare, have become the sclerotic bunch at the door of defeat by the hand of a rag-tag militia adept in asymmetric battle tactics? If you believe religious fundamentalist terrorism to be a serious threat to the well-being of American citizens and sovereignty then you should be disturbed by the portentous signs of the shortcomings of our present military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the wider Middle East. As they say, history sure must be due to repeat itself.