The tactical level is fairly straightforward: the art of fighting with a particular kind of military unit. In the hierarchy of strategic levels, success at the tactical level has to contribute to the success of the next level up, the operational level. I alluded to this connection in my last post, showing that the fighting skill of the Roman legionnaire made the stunning victories of the Roman campaigns possible. Of course, an inexperienced Roman politician could always command the army straight into disaster, but you couldn't blame the legions for the mistakes of someone like Varus.
People who follow military affairs are often fascinated by the tactical level. Tank aficianados, for example, like to read and talk about armored tactics. It's a pretty interesting topic. But as we've seen, it's only one small part of a much larger story.
Armored tactics are now a very well understood discipline with time-honored principles. If at all possible, fight on the move. Maneuver to a "hull down" position, like a brick wall or a hillock, so the rest of the tank gets extra protection while the turret can still fire at the enemy. "Shoot and scoot" is a pretty effective technique, so that the enemy won't find you in the spot from which you just fired. Hitting the enemy from the flank or rear is key, if you're worried that you can't penetrate the thicker armor in the front. Never drive tanks into city streets unless the infantry has first cleared the surrounding buildings of hidden enemy soldiers armed with anti-tank weapons. And so on.
Tactical discussions like these fill official military manuals, thrilling first-person accounts, and computer games (with varying degrees of realism). Fighter tactics, submarine tactics, special operations tactics...The list is long just looking at contemporary warfare, and would be even longer if you looked backwards into history. The heavy cavalry tactics of medieval knights, the harassment tactics of Muslim horse archers, age of sail tactics...
Mastering the profession of arms at this level may or may not contribute to victory, however. The 1983 invasion of Grenada (Operation Urgent Fury) looked more like several separate invasions. Marines, Rangers, paratroopers, Delta Force commandos, naval aviation--each force seemed to be operating separately from the others. (It's worth asking, as many did after the invasion, why all the services needed to be involved in this operation, when perhaps this was a simple amphibious assault and hostage rescue.) The Grenada invasion succeeded in spite of itself; if the Cuban and Grenadan forces had offered stiffer resistance, a somewhat comically uncoordinated operation could have been a major disaster.
Tactics are critical, and the human face of warfare is most visible at this level: the tank platoon commander, the infantry seargent, the fighter pilot, the commando, the captain of a submarine, the helicopter gunship pilot. Other levels may seem more abstract, but they're just as important.
There's a lot I could say about the tactical level, particularly when it comes to the types of troops needed for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. I'll save that discussion for later, since I'll be digging into the specifics of those two types of warfare in future posts. For now, I want to talk about two important misunderstandings about the tactical level of the war in Iraq.
As you can guess from reading this blog, I'm very sympathetic with a comment that General Anthony Zinni made during his 60 Minutes interview broadcast last weekend. Zinni argued that nothing justifies shutting down critical discussion of the Iraq war. The slogan "support the troops" is an argument for open discussion, not the stifling of criticism. If the US Army give soldiers faulty rifles, Zinni said, no one would complain if you point out their defects. Given the danger these faulty weapons pose to the soldiers carrying them, it'd be the responsibility of any citizen, not just someone in uniform, to point out the risk. If you arm the same soldiers with a faulty strategy, the risks are exactly the same--and so is our common responsibility to point out defects when we see them.
Unfortunately, critical discussions of our counterterrorism effort against al Qaeda and our counterinsurgency operations in Iraq make a lot of people uncomfortable. There's a chain of reasoning that breaks in a fairly obvious place, but one apparently that a lot of people pretend not to see. We have a superbly equipped and trained military, particularly at the tactical level. We are justifiably proud of these men and women in uniform. They are trained and equipped to perform amazing feats in service to the nation, and they pledge their lives in our common defense. However, pride in their accomplishments as tactical virtuosos doesn't mean that their virtuosity is being put to good use. The operational and theater strategies that determine when, where, and who they fight may be fatally flawed. Therefore, we're not supporting our troops through our silence; we can only support them, as Zinni correctly says, if we identify strategic defects that makes "harm's way" more harmful than it should be.
My second point about the US military's efficiency is that it often leads to unrealistic expectations. You should be applauded for your extraordinary achievements; the price of success shouldn't be wildly escalated expectations than you can do the impossible. The rollercoaster of emotion about the Patriot missile batteries used in the 1991 Gulf War showed this psychology in action. At first, people expected the Patriots to be able to intercept and destroy close to 100% of the SCUD missiles the Iraqis fired at Israel. This expectation was wholly unrealistic, and unfortunately, some US military and civilian officials encouraged this misperception. When the actual rates of successful Patriot intercepts were released to the public after the war, many cried foul, charging that they had been hoodwinked into trusting a technological marvel that was far less than marvelous. Whatever you think of the Patriot missile system, you can't fault it for failing to knock down every SCUD missile. As advanced as the Patriot technology was, no system could deliver complete success.
The same phenomenon is at work in Iraq, only the focus this time is on flesh and blood soldiers, not steel and silicon weapons systems. Because "the troops" are seen as the best in the world, we've set them up for unfair accusations of failure when we discover that total efficiency is impossible. The crew of an Apache gunship can't fire on a building with absolute certainty that the missile won't hit a neighboring apartment block by accident. The gunner can't know for sure that there aren't innocents in the building when the rocket explodes. The pilot and gunner may have performed their mission with unmatched efficiency, while unwittingly killing bystanders in the process. Who's fault is that?
A recent NPR story about US snipers in Iraq epitomized this risk. For all the embedded reporters, thousands of air time reporting on the war, countless articles discussing the day-to-day fighting in Iraq, there has been very little explanation of how the modern "profession of arms" actually works. Snipers have a tough tactical challenge--stalking and killing a specific target from long range--that requires special skills and some innate talent.
The reporter, Anne Garrels, first interviewed a recently-trained sniper, one of many recently put through "sniper school." Just as there aren't enough Arabic language speakers in Iraq, there's also a shortage of snipers. The soldier interviewed readily admitted that he was not the most proficient in his craft, but he tried to do his best. In the highly populated areas where he was deployed, he had to be careful not to hit innocent bystanders. His "score," therefore, wasn't as high as it might be, had he more experience and a less complicated battleground in which to hunt.
OK so far. However, Garrels then interviewed another, more experienced sniper. Suddenly, the whole tone of the piece changed. Sgt. Daniel Osborne, the seasoned sniper, talked about his higher kill rate, and then spoke in measured tones about how if he ever killed an innocent bystander by accident, he'd be no better than the people he was fighting. As Garrels says near the end of the piece, "Sgt. Osborne says he...has...made...no...mistakes."
I'm not being cute with the punctuation. That's exactly the kind of inflection that Garrels used in that sentence. That's also the kind of outlandish expectation that sets up soldiers like Osborne for later accusations of being babykillers and psychopaths. Mistakes will happen, with tragic results. Soldiers are trained to avoid civilian casualties, which offend their moral sensibilities in any case. But as other accounts like this one and this one show, it's unrealistic to expect US snipers to operate in difficult, confusing, and dangerous places like Fallujah, Najaf, and Karballah and not make mistakes.
The higher the pedestal, the longer the fall--and news stories like Garrels' piece put the troops on a very high pedestal indeed.