Monday, May 18, 2020

Why Listen to Jim Webb?

There is goodness in the creative friction between Berger’s neo-transformationalist movement within the USMC - you can read the meaty parts here - and the traditionalist pushback whose default head for now seems to be Jim Webb.

There has been a lot of back and forth the last couple of months that I have mostly ignored on the blog. I think the issue has seasoned well enough to start the week on the topic.

I’ve had on and off issues with Webb through the years, and that bias of mine kept me away from reading his article closely. On second reading, his opening stuck with me.

I keep coming back to it.
On September 4, 2002, five months before the invasion of Iraq, this writer warned in an editorial for the Washington Post that “China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall . . . An ‘American war’ with the Muslims, occupying the very seat of their civilization, would allow the Chinese to isolate the United States diplomatically as they furthered their own ambitions in South and Southeast Asia.”
He was right. From that point, you can see the see of the rage that drove his political action.

On Berger’s neo-transformationalist drive, I think we should pause to consider Webb’s strong and informed warning.
Interestingly, when citing his philosophical inspiration at the outset of his proposal, General Berger chose to ignore two centuries of innovative and ground-breaking role models who guided the Marine Corps through some of its most difficult challenges. The giants of the past—John LeJeune, Arthur Vandegrift, Clifton Cates, Robert Barrow and Al Gray, just for starters—were passed over, in favor of a quote from a professor at the Harvard Business School who never served. Many Marines, past and present, view this gesture as a symbolic putdown of the Corps’ respected leadership methods and the historic results they have obtained.
It is fun an sexy to say that you, or someone you follow, all of a sudden see the future clearly as no one else does … that you are smarter and more perceptive than those who came before. That you are progressive with a new look on a new frontier.

One must move forward, we must evolve. We always do … but it must be grounded on the knowledge of how we got here.

Is Berger right? No.

Is Webb right? No.

The right path is somewhere in between.

What we don’t need are mindless advocacy on behalf of either, as if they received a gilded book from on high.
If history teaches us anything in combat it is that the war you get is rarely the war that you game. As former heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson once put it, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In World War I the Germans were convinced they would defeat France in exactly forty-two days. Prior to World War II the French matched this folly by building a string of fortresses along the Maginot Line, leaving open the thickly forested Ardennes, which their war planners decided was impenetrable by a large-scale German attack. In 1941 the British were convinced that no military assault could overcome its shoreline defenses against an attack on their naval base in Singapore, then known as the unassailable “Gibraltar of Asia.” The Japanese army landed far to the north, then bicycled and marched its way down the Malayan Peninsula, attacking Singapore from behind and quickly smashing the stunned British and Australian defenders. Except for General Tomoyuki Yamashita the Japanese high command was not usually that brilliant. Its pre-war plan of fixed defenses on island redoubts throughout Pacific Asia backfired spectacularly, and their inability to adapt after their unexpectedly quick victories at the beginning of the war allowed American resilience and control over the sea and the air to destroy their gains.
None of these debacles were the result of a failure in new technologies. All were the failure of faulty planning and especially of the miscalculations of those at the highest levels of command.

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