After the military’s failure in Vietnam, it tried to turn war into a matter of firepower and technology—which is why, when the Sunni insurgency began to take off in the summer of 2003, American forces had no idea how to react and made matters far worse. By 2004, battalion commanders in Salahuddin were begging the Pentagon for information about the nature of Iraqi society. This year, the Army is actually deploying teams of social scientists with units in Baghdad and Afghanistan. The soldiers whose reputations have been made and not destroyed in Iraq—General David Petraeus, Colonel H. R. McMaster, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl—have doctorates in the humanities. The best soldiers I met in Iraq were eager to share critical views with professors and journalists. This past spring, when McMaster led a group of officials and private citizens to Iraq to assess progress there, he picked as one member an anti-war British political-science professor who happens to know a great deal about the country. Desperate times breed desperate measures.Well, the military may need academics, but it doesn't have to like them. Col. HR McMaster -- the one Packer mentions specifically above, and about whom Packer has written a great deal -- has been passed over for promotion. For the second time. More than one person has pointed out the obvious: McMaster has gotten a lot of good press by a) emphasizing that new thinking, not new weapons, are necessary in Iraq, and b) McMaster's first claim to fame was writing a book where he argued that America's Vietnam-era Generals had failed miserably in their jobs by saying pleasing things to their (Democratic) political leaders, rather than telling the necessary truth.
It used to be said that the military learned it's lessons from Vietnam -- something that, I hope it's clear, is simply not true. Rather, the US military learned some lessons about a war that they believe happened somewhere in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, but it really bears little resemblance to the war that was actually fought. I fear we're in for a rerun -- the military hierarchy refusing to listen to those who have proven themselves in the field to understand the different kind of conflict they're in.
Cycles within cycles.