The fallacy of American “Lessons Learned”

“Lessons learned” is an overused and useless phrase.

It is batted around in educated American military circles and indicates an assumption that we made a mistake once and won’t make the same mistake again. Foreign Policy published an article last month titled “The Top 10 Mistakes Made in the Afghan War.”

The line that really got me was:

It is therefore important that we draw the right lessons from the experience, if only to partly redeem the sacrifices made by the soldiers who fought there.

While the author, Stephen Walt, correctly identifies several mistakes, the idea that we might actually learn anything this time around is a pipedream. I have little faith that we are drawing the right lessons from the past 12 years.

To avoid falling into the same quagmire again, we will have to change our matrix for choosing to go to war altogether, and paying mere homage to “learning a lesson” is not enough. To borrow from Ronald Moore: “All this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” Vietnam presented us with most of the same lessons, and if we got the answers wrong twice in the space of 30-40 years, either the wrong people learned the lesson the first time or we were focused on the wrong lessons.

The parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan are not one-for-one, but there are a lot of similar mistakes and “lessons learned.” American war-mobilization should be revamped, because our war-making is not evolving. Here are the mistakes, as Walt sees it:

1. Trying to go it alone
2. Blowing it at Tora Bora
3. The Afghan Constitution
4. The Detour into Iraq
5. The 2009 Surge
6. Setting a Time Limit
7. Downgrading Diplomacy
8. Losing Public Support
9. Failure to Manage Unruly Allies
10. Strategic Contradictions

This list is mostly strategic, and doesn’t even cover the U.S. Army’s operational/tactical problem of perennially re-learning how to fight against insurgents. That discussion can get way down into the weeds really fast.

But let’s get back to the strategic issue. Walt finally identifies the main problem in his last paragraph:

One at least hopes that some larger lessons have been learned, and that U.S. presidents will be a lot warier of this sort of quagmire in the future.

Don’t get into a quagmire.

This is the lesson we must focus on, rather than the tunnel-vision lessons which only put bandaids on a gut-wound. If you find yourself learning the same lessons over and over, you have not correctly identified the root problem yet.

Photo credit: Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stephen J. Otero

7 Comments Add yours

  1. John Grenier says:

    Spot on! LL is 99 percent of the time a useless exercise. The important thing to do is ask the right questions, and remember that a case study gives 1 point in time and space. If you’re trying to discern even basic trends and patterns, you need at least 3 case studies, but how do you ask the right question to get the right 3 case studies that will explain contingency, continuity, and change? This requires hard thinking and criticism (not necessarily negative), which is something the PME system is horrible at doing. How is it that the US has invested billions in PME since 1945, and ever senior officer in each service has graduated from PME, but we haven’t won a war since 1945? We’ve won lots of battles, but we get a great big F on winning wars. Let’s not “defer to the generals.” Let’s have the civilians, the voice of the people, make the policy and expect the generals to do their jobs, to develop strategy to attain those policies. But for that, we’ll need officers who can think (beyond managing their careers) rather searching through the database to find the right lesson to learn. Of course, this will require major changes to the PME system, which won’t happen. Expect more of the same, with the same results.

  2. Don says:

    Also keep in mind the difference between a lesson recorded and a lesson learned… I have heard the AAR process described in this manner. Anyway, the point is that we can read and discuss these lessons all day but until they are incorporated into training, new doctrine, or even policy have we really learned anything?

  3. Steve says:

    While I agree it is extremely difficult to discern strategic lessons learned, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a useless process. A Marine unit in Helmand had a cardboard sign at the entrance to their FOB which in part read “The best defense we have against IED attacks is our relationship with the local Afghans”. This unit learned if it earned the trust of the local village and showed they were willing to protect them the Afghans would turn in IEDs. For the two years I was tracking this unit had by far the highest Find and Clear rate. Other units in the area began to take note and change their focus. MRAPs, which have saved hundreds of American lives, were a direct result of lessons learned from IED attacks against HMMWVs. The problem with strategic lessons learned is you’re likely not taking into account all the variables which impacted the result.
    I’m surprised that Walt’s top ten didn’t mention trying to build an Islamic nation into our own image.

  4. John says:

    “I’m surprised that Walt’s top ten didn’t mention trying to build an Islamic nation into our own image.” Would that be a Fool’s Errand? LOL. The great tragedy of early 21st-century American history is that we let a pack of fools (supposedly the smartest guys in the room, but really just a bunch of “intellectuals with nothing but a couple of ham sandwiches in the briefcase”) send this country down the path of two un-winnable (sp?) wars that destroyed the economy and America’s standing in the world.

    Tactical and even operational LL are much easier than strategic LL, you’re right. Getting even changes to TTP is incredibly hard … trying to get something through a TRB (Tactics Review Board) and formally incorporated into a service doctrine, let alone joint doctrine, and then trained and executed, take the patience of Job.

  5. Angus McColl says:

    I heard LTG Ricardo Sanchez USA (ret) talk yesterday about the difficulty of supporting the civilian provisional authority after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Apparently there was no grand strategy for what to do next after the spectacular success of the military campaign. A particularly interesting point was the stupidity of the decision made by Paul Bremer and his State Department advisors / handlers to bar all Ba’ath Party members from any involvement in the formation of a new Iraqi government. Obviously Paul Bremer, President Bush and those advising them were trying to copy a lesson learned from reconstruction of post-Nazi Germany. But they managed to get it all wrong. In Germany many of the German officers, civilian government officials, academics and other thought leaders were NOT Nazis. And in some cases waivers were made so that useful Nazis could be rehabilitated (like Werner von Braun who was given US citizenship and placed in charge of the US space program). Apparently Paul Bremer personally enforced a zero exceptions policy such that no Iraqi military officers, no police leaders, no civil authorities or leaders, and no academics were allowed a role. Bremer never stood up a review committee to consider waivers for useful Baathists, and so they were all literally tossed out with the bath water. As a result the new civilian post-Ba’ath Iraqi government was led by the inexperienced and the incompetent, and floundered with little real hope of success. Too bad our President, Mr. Bremer and our State Department completely missed the lessons from rebuilding Germany, Italy and Japan, and failed to grasp the magnanimous, though not always perfect leadership of President Truman and Generals Eisenhower, Marshall and MacArthur. What a missed opportunity. What a disaster. What a sad caveat to a successful invasion. I had expected far better from the career diplomats and academics who ran our State Department, who are supposed to knowledgable of history and who are supposed to be able to apply the lessons learned. I wonder to what degree Colin Powell and Condi Rice failed to advise the President and Bremer, or whether they did provide good advice and were ignored. Perhaps they ignored good advice themselves from subordinates and academics who tried to help.

  6. john says:

    “Apparently there was no grand strategy for what to do next after the spectacular success of the military campaign. ” 100% true! Because the military (the Joint Staff, CENTCOM, etc) did not give them any options … they “fairy dusted” the Phase IV operations. It was the military’s job to come up with strategy and options to advise the politicians, but the leadership completely punted on it. BTW, this is the classic card the US military’s senior leadership has played since Korea: it’s not our fault, it’s the civilians. We have become a military than can win battles but not wars. And let’s not forget that the fish rots from the head down. Sanchez is and was a fool and a hack. The problem is that he was working for a bunch of larger fools and hacks.

  7. Zach Morgan says:

    I have just posted a follow-up article, in which I address many of the ideas posted in the comments above, and add a few more thoughts. Thanks for the discussion, everyone!

    Here’s part two:

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