DROP ZONE: Looking Backwards in Order to Look Forwards

Over the next few weeks, Over the Horizon will feature a number of articles that use history as a case study for the efficacy of today’s strategic and operational thought. While the operational environments, strategic contexts, and technologies have changed, the principles that govern human interaction and warfare remain relatively fixed. Each conflict in history has a unique set of circumstances surrounding them, but each also has lessons to teach those of us that care to listen today.

From Grant’s manipulations of Pemberton’s decision cycles at Vicksburg, to the adroit maneuver within the human domain by Washington, from maneuver (or lack thereof) in the First World War, to Von Moltke the Elder’s auftragstaktik, there are unlimited opportunities to improve our understanding of the modern battlefields. In fact, the wars of yesteryear may be a better example of the requirements of future conflicts than those of our recent past.

Our recent history, and the one on which we rely so steadfastly for our force’s disposition, is a story of total dominance. In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the joint air-land operations were touted as the finest in history. What is conveniently omitted from that paraphrasing is that the Iraqi air forces and defenses had been effectively destroyed in 1991 and then suppressed for a dozen years during Operation Southern Watch. The typical depiction of the opening weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom does not represent the challenges of future operations as perfectly as some make it out to be.

History may not easily divulge its true lessons. But by objectively analyzing past wars, we can begin to see the commonalities that commanders can exploit to achieve success. And sure, instead of using the chariot to challenge an enemy’s retrograde, we have now replaced that same maneuver with the tank and jet. But honest evaluations of history can yield any number of applicable lessons to today’s Joint Force and to ignore them – as so many willfully do – does a disservice to the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines on today’s front lines.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


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