The U.S. military left Iraq in December with new technologies that are likely to change the shape of future wars. But some of the skills developed alongside are in danger of falling away, several people throughout the ranks worry.
Ten years ago, the U.S. military was firmly under the control of the generals. It was steeply hierarchical, slow to evolve and squarely focused on "big wars" between armies of opposing nations.
A decade of painstaking, often painful lessons resulted in a military that is in many ways fleeter and more adaptable. It is also flatter: The generals are still in charge, but Iraq and Afghanistan showed that independent thinking by low-level captains and lieutenants is also critical to success.
In any inventory of changes, the most obvious may be equipment. To protect soldiers from roadside bombs, the Pentagon built $45 billion worth of mine-resistant, armor-protected vehicles, the V-hulled trucks known as MRAPs. Military officials say MRAPs have saved hundreds of lives, though the hulking vehicles' utility remains unclear for future arenas.
The Pentagon also built sophisticated jammers to foil radio-detonated roadside bombs, which are likely to become standard issue against improvised explosive devices, a probable the weapon of choice in future land wars. The unmanned drones it acquired to battle insurgents have transformed how the U.S. fights wars and now is also used extensively by the Central Intelligence Agency.
But the two wars have also helped push the military strategy from a playbook of offense and defense, to one that includes a third class of operations—strategies that include so-called counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, aimed at maintaining stability for populations in often-hostile zones and turning potential allies into enemies.
"It is not good enough to be proficient on the traditional military tasks we have tended to focus on in the post-Vietnam era," Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in 2007 and 2008 and now the CIA director, said in an interview earlier this month. "Very likely, conflict in the future will include a requirement for stability tasks."
Stability operations aren't popular in parts of the White House. Some administration officials see them as overly costly missions that threaten to tie down the U.S. military in long-term occupations that do little to improve American security.
Such hostility in some quarters has caused some officers to fear some of the counterinsurgency skills honed in Iraq will be lost—including running detainee operations, conducting interrogations and collecting intelligence with aerial drones, areas of high expertise that support efforts to cripple insurgent networks and head off spectacular attacks.
Others worry that the skills learned through hard years of fighting—how to react quickly to ambushes and spot IEDs before they explode—will fade. The military remade its training centers to teach such skills, but instilling the knowledge into the next generation of soldiers will require retaining senior non-commissioned officers who spent the most time hunting insurgents in Iraq.
"Those wars are going to be lost arts," said Staff Sgt. Maxwell Davis, who spent 62 months in Iraq across five tours. "The people who stay in try to teach it. But guys are getting out. So it is going to be a battle to teach what you need to do in combat to keep yourself safe."
Historians may ultimately conclude the Iraq war—some 4,500 lives lost, upwards of 30,000 wounded, more than $800 billion spent—was unacceptably costly.
With the end of the Iraq war, and beginning of the end in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has entered an era of cost cutting. The Defense Department is currently trimming some $450 billion in planned spending over the next decades with many in the military predicting more cuts to come.
Officers say they understand the need for some cuts, and to reduce the size of the military. But they say spending can be trimmed even as skills are preserved.
These people say the broader question is what sort of war the military's masters in Washington want to prepare for. They point to the years following the unconventional, anti-insurgency-style war in Vietnam. Then, the military began preparing for the kind of war it wanted to fight: a big one, possibly in Europe, with bombers, tanks and artillery.
"We came out of Vietnam and vowed never to do that again," said Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who served three tours in Iraq and is now the senior military assistant to the defense secretary. "We re-armed to fight the kind of wars we liked to fight, the kind of wars we were good at—conventional, high tech. And now, here we are, with 10 years of a Vietnam-like war."
Also enticing to Washington is the other skill honed by the military in Iraq: lean, special-operations commands capable of hunting militant networks, such as the hunter-killer operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this year.
But there is a danger in relying only on commando raids, current and former special-operation officers say. In Iraq, it wasn't until Gen. Petraeus overhauled U.S. strategy that special-operations raids began to have a significant impact.
"We had taken an awful lot of insurgent leaders off the battlefield, but it was not enough," Gen. Petraeus said in the interview. "It was not until we also focused on securing the population by living with them, conducting major clear-hold-and-build operations and then also pursued reconciliation, that security improved."
The Petraeus strategy pushed soldiers like Sgt. Davis off the big bases and in to tiny outposts inside Iraq neighborhoods, which slowly improved security enough that Iraqi citizens began to turn their back on militias and insurgent groups. But it required large numbers of personnel, outlays of cash for development projects, and skilled troops whose first instinct when fired upon was not, necessarily, to shoot back.
It also took lower-ranking officers who were creative and adaptable. In 2003, it hardly seemed like traditional military work when Gen. Petraeus ordered the military to restart industrial sites in the city of Mosul. Maj. Gen. Ben Hodges was a colonel when he approved that plan, sending three lieutenants to restart an asphalt plant, a sulfur works and a concrete plant. He said he figures the three officers won't likely be asked to restart a factory again, but such problem-solving will serve the Army into the future.
"The war showed the need for leaders at all levels who can adapt," Gen. Hodges said.
The latest turn away from counterinsurgency already may have started. The Pentagon is focusing its attention on Asia, where any war is likely to rely on the Air Force and Navy. The Libyan war showed that airpower can be used in combination with ill-trained local forces to topple a dictator.
Current and former officers say it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to think the U.S. could get involved in another conflict requiring a large number of troops to keep the peace and warn that the U.S. can't turn its back on counter-insurgency. To some extent, that may influence the decisions that lie ahead.
"We, as a nation," said Gen. Kelly, "have to be ready to fight every kind of war."
By JULIAN E. BARNES, The Wall Street Journal