The heartwarming recognition of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens’s sacrifice brought me to tears during President Trump’s address to Congress. For me, the sight of his widow’s deeply emotional response was the high point of the speech.
Later I started to think: The death of one guy . . . just one guy was enough to elicit days of media controversy over the circumstances of Owen’s death, followed by a universal outpouring of gratitude and sorrow.
During the summer of 1985, I interviewed General Harry Kinnard for a book I was writing about the Ia Drang Battle fought by the First Cavalry Division during the early days in Vietnam. The battle was immortalized in the book and movie We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young. Harry commanded the division.
We met at his home. When he spoke, I sensed a feeling of melancholy as he recounted the battle. As a lieutenant colonel, Kinnard was operations officer for the 101st Airborne Division during the German siege of Bastogne in World War II.
And so goes the American Way of War. After every conflict, the acceptable tally of the butcher’s bill goes down: from thousands a week in World War II to hundreds in Vietnam to less than single digits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American preoccupation with preserving the lives of its soldiers is deeply rooted in our liberal democracy. Jefferson’s elevation of life as one of our inalienable rights underscores the “sacred obligation” of military leaders to provide for the protection of their soldiers.
All well and good. Except that our enemies have learned to exploit our sacred obligation as a means to defeat us in battle. Ho Chi Minh put it succinctly when he reflected to a journalist just before America entered the war in Vietnam: “They will kill a hundred of us; we will kill one of them, and they will tire of it first.”
Thus, our obligation is both a blessing and a curse. As Harry Kinnard learned so painfully, our commitment to preserve soldiers’ lives has fundamentally changed how we fight wars and how our enemies seek to win against us. We seek to kill them as a means for achieving a strategic end. They seek to kill us as an end in itself, hoping that the tally of dead Americans amplified in the harsh light of global media will make us tire of it first . . . and go home.
We seek to kill them as a means for achieving a strategic end. They seek to kill us as an end in itself.
Now President Trump is promising to crush ISIS, a noble goal — until the body bags start arriving at Dover Air Force Base. The furor brought about by one Navy SEAL’s death must be a cautionary tale for this administration. As our soldiers and Marines move into Mosul and Raqqa, the butcher’s bill will begin to climb. Like it or not President Trump’s commitment to “winning” will be inexorably tied to winning as bloodlessly as possible. His goal is made all the more problematic by an enemy who holds a diametrically opposite view of the value of life, his and ours. So far, our quest for bloodless warfare seems to be working fairly well. The rate of combat deaths among close-combat soldiers has decreased an order of magnitude since my service in Vietnam.
But we can do more to reduce the butcher’s bill. What follows is a recitation of what we’ve learned about combat survival and how we’ve adapted over the half century since Vietnam — followed by a caution.
First, it helps to fight relatively unsophisticated enemies. To be sure, ISIS, like its al-Qaeda and Taliban predecessors, is a diabolical enemy, willing to die, and its soldiers have intimate knowledge of the terrain and indigenous peoples. But none of these enemies can contest our superiority in the air and in cyberspace. As in past wars, we are able to save lives by substituting firepower for manpower. So far, our aerial campaign has killed thousands of ISIS fighters around urban strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa. The Iraqi army would never have been able to enter Mosul without our precise and often painfully deliberate bombardments.
But there’s a caution: Killing from the air has limitations. We’ve been bombing for years, and ISIS has learned to adapt by hiding among the people, digging in, and dispersing. As a result, more and more bombing is needed to produce fewer and fewer results. We have learned painfully from past wars that over time the psychological impact of explosions diminishes as the enemy becomes inured to attacks from above. Worse still, the deadly effects of our aerial weapons have become less lethal after the Bush and Obama administrations abolished the use of cluster bombs. It’s all a matter of simple physics: Thousands of exploding little bombs kill far more effectively than one single, large explosive blast. Eventually the aerial onslaught will reach a tipping point at which laying on many more tons of bombs will kill many fewer ISIS and too many more innocent civilians.
We can save American lives by expending the lives of others. Our effort to make our Iraqi and Kurdish allies into effective fighters has been slow and often painfully inept. But, as the old Army saying goes: “We don’t have to make them good, just better than the opposition.” But the use of surrogates has limitations. For one thing, the fighting prowess of our temperamental allies is enhanced by the proximity of their American advisers. But the closer our ground forces get to the “killing zone,” the more of them will die. It’s a delicate balancing act, and ISIS knows it. Remember their strategic objective: Kill Americans. They will inevitably attempt a mass killing of American soldiers, most likely inside Mosul. They will try a suicide attack using a very large explosive-laden vehicle or a buried IED. A hugely tragic loss may be enough to make us end our involvement and come home.
Caution is the surest means for avoiding casualties, and so far in Mosul, a slow, methodical advance seems to be working. After all, ISIS has dug in and isn’t going anywhere. But experience has shown that time is often on the enemy’s side. Unless his stronghold is completely isolated, he can continue to strengthen his defenses and move about to avoid our aerial assault, and he can reposition to confront our assault more effectively. Also remember that President Trump’s promise to crush ISIS has a temporal component. Pressure to achieve demonstrable results might well induce haste, and haste works to the enemy’s advantage.
When researching my latest book, Scales on War, I rediscovered a fact that most experienced ground commanders have known for decades. Elite soldiers such as Navy SEAL Ryan Owens are far less likely to die in combat than their younger, less experienced, and conventionally trained brethren. Age also plays a part. Owens was 37 and had been in the Navy almost 20 years when he died. Evidence is compelling that the optimal age for a close-combat fighter is about 28 to 35. That’s the age span when experience and caution replace impulsiveness and recklessness.
It’s also important to note, however, that elite Special Operations troops are in critically short supply. Owens died on his fifth combat tour. If the administration wants to accelerate the pace of action against ISIS, it will have increasingly few options other than sending into harm’s way less experienced conventional soldiers who are, sadly, more likely to die in combat.
Special Operations troops are in critically short supply. Owens died on his fifth combat tour.
The imperative to reduce the human costs of close combat has compelled the Department of Defense to improve the gear that soldiers carry into battle. Progress has been painfully slow, to be sure. But after more than a decade of pressure to increase combat effectiveness, soldiers are better able to survive in combat today thanks to improved equipment and training. When I fought in Vietnam, the cost to fully equip me was about the same as it was in World War II: $1,900. Today it’s north of $20,000 thanks to technologically advanced body armor, sensors, night-vision devices, radios, and new weapons. Soldiers move about in vehicles superbly protected against explosive blasts from IEDs.
But the enemy hasn’t been idle. As we get better at protecting soldiers, our enemy gets better at defeating them. Increasingly, we are seeing even the most primitive enemies using anti-tank precision-guided missiles supplied by Russia and Iran. Their diabolically creative employment of mines and IEDs continues to confound our best efforts to defeat them. It’s also vitally important to note that the closer the fight, the fairer the fight. No amount of materiel superiority can completely protect against an enemy determined to kill. In fact, the lessons are universal: Within about 50 yards of the enemy, air-delivered killing power is of no use. Sophisticated sensors reveal less than eyesight does. Digital dominance gives way to courage, guile, tenacity, skill at arms, surprise, and the will to win.
When the fight against ISIS heats up, I’m afraid we will discover that airpower, weapons technology, the use of surrogates, and elite forces will not be enough to further reduce the cost of close combat in places like Mosul and Raqqa. As long as soldiers like Ryan Owens are compelled to “lead with their bodies,” they will continue to die in unacceptable numbers. The only way to radically lessen the cost is to replace bodies with unmanned surrogates such as drones and robotic vehicles.
Fifteen years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have yielded some results. We now deploy a constellation of unmanned drones, some of which are armed. These remarkable machines save lives by helping to identify enemy positions before contact. This is a vital capability because more than half of all Americans killed in combat die while trying to find the enemy.
The next big step to guarantee survival in combat is to proliferate armed drones and to put control of them in the hands of forward combat elements. Lives will be saved when a unit under fire is able to push a button on a cellphone that launches a missile from an orbiting drone, killing an enemy fighter only a few meters to his front.
Technology is now at hand to employ armed robotic vehicles. Some primitive mechanized robots have been given to soldiers to play with, but none are yet ready for prime time. Just imagine for a moment how differently Ryan Owens’s raid would have played out if a cluster of small, autonomous, machine-gun-firing robots were available to lead the assault against the Houthi stronghold in Yemen. Google and most major carmakers are developing and driving unmanned cars as we speak. Why can’t we borrow that same technology to build vehicles capable of killing the enemy remotely without shedding the blood of our soldiers?
The belief still lingers in Washington that America can win its wars without any ‘boots on the ground.’
I have to end with a question: If the greatest impediment to winning our wars over the past many decades is the specter of dead Americans, why hasn’t the nation done more to keep alive those most likely to die? I believe one answer is that the belief still lingers in Washington that America can win its wars without any “boots on the ground.” Surely the experience of the last 15 years of constant ground wars in the Middle East has put paid to that notion. As one of my fellow military theorists, Conrad Crane, has written: “We have never been able to never do this again.”
We will indeed do this again soon in Mosul and Raqqa. And, again, too many lives will be lost needlessly because too many in Washington, D.C., believe that keeping heroes like Ryan Owens alive is not a national priority. Well, General Harry Kinnard would argue that it is. So should we.
— Robert H. Scales is a retired general and former commandant of the Army War College. The Naval Institute Press recently published his book Scales on War.