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William S. Lind: Learning Curve
William S. Lind: Learning Curve


About the Author

William Sturgiss Lind, Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation, is a native of Cleveland, Ohio, born July 9, 1947. He graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1969 and received a Master's Degree in History from Princeton University in 1971. He worked as a legislative aide for armed services for Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio from 1973 through 1976 and held a similar position with Senator Gary Hart of Colorado from 1977 through 1986. He joined Free Congress Foundation in 1987.

Mr. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook (Westview Press, 1985); co-author, with Gary Hart, of America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform (Adler & Adler, 1986); and co-author, with William H. Marshner, of Cultural Conservatism: Toward a New National Agenda (Free Congress Foundation, 1987). He has written extensively for both popular media, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Harper's, and professional military journals, including The Marine Corps Gazette, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings and Military Review.

Mr. Lind co-authored the prescient article, "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation," which was published in The Marine Corps Gazette in October, 1989 and which first propounded the concept of "Fourth Generation War." Mr. Lind and his co-authors predicted that states would increasingly face threats not from other states, but from non-state forces whose primary allegiance was to their religion, ethnic group or ideology. Following the events of September 11, 2001, the article has been credited for its foresight by The New York Times Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly.

Mr. Lind is co-author with Paul M. Weyrich of the monograph: "Why Islam is a Threat to America and The West." He is the author of "George W. Bush's `War on Terrorism': Faulty Strategy and Bad Tactics?" Both were published in 2002 by the Free Congress Foundation.

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September 14, 2004

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Last week, I attended and spoke at a conference on armor in urban operations, put on by the U.S. Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. In listening to the other presentations, the question I was asking myself was, "What are these guys learning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan?"

The question is an important one, because war is a competition in learning curves. Whoever consistently learns faster acquires an increasing advantage. This is the Boyd Cycle or OODA Loop at work on the macro level, and just as in the micro level of actual combat, it is an important determinant of victory or defeat.

So what did I discover? At the level of techniques, when actual units briefed, the learning curve seemed impressive. They had quickly figured out that while techniques tend to be regarded in peacetime as static, in combat they become dynamic: you can't use yesterday's techniques that are always done the same way, the new priority becomes adapting and inventing techniques. Again, the combat units I heard brief seemed to have gotten this. They were innovating intelligently, in ways that were relevant to the situation in Iraq as it is, not as we might like it to be.

When we moved up a level, from units that have actually fought to institutions, the picture immediately got cloudy. Here, the internal priorities of budget and bureaucratic politics still hold sway, despite the fact that we are fighting two wars. One example was a brief from the Marine Corps "Battle Lab" at Quantico (the term is a misnomer: the office is about budgets, not battles, and unlike a laboratory, it does demonstrations, not experiments). The briefing stated at the outset that the keys to success in wars like that in Iraq are "Increased Lethality and Improved Protection."

Well, no. We already have vast advantages over our Fourth Generation opponents in both lethality and protection, yet we're losing. That suggests there is rather more to Fourth Generation war than lethality and protection. Indeed, we have so much of both of those qualities that they may work against us more than for us. Recently, the lethality of U.S. Army attack helicopters was turned on a crowd of young men and boys gathered around a burning Bradley, with catastrophic results for our image among Iraqis. And our Force Protection already seals us off from the people we are supposed to be helping, turning us into an alien and threatening presence. At the mental and moral levels of war, we may need less lethality and protection rather than more.

This points to the big disappointment in all of what I heard at the conference. It was all focused on the physical level of war, to the virtual exclusion of the more powerful mental and moral levels. At the mental level, there were a few mentions of PSYOPS, but even these were misconceived as what we say. Real PSYOPS are what we do, like stepping on the heads of detainees. Only one briefing grasped this essential point.

Of the moral level of war, which John Boyd argued is the most powerful level, there was nothing. Worse, there was no discussion of the central dilemma in Fourth Generation war, that what wins at the physical level tends to lead to defeat at the moral level. Goliath may mop the floor with his smaller, weaker opponents, but in doing so he makes himself universally hated.

In classic Second Generation fashion, the assumption behind almost all the briefings was that if we can only accumulate enough tactical victories, we are certain to win strategically as well. Vietnam should have put an end to this simplistic belief, but the lessons of Vietnam were filed and forgotten almost as soon as that war was over.

The fault here is not that of the combat units, which were doing all they could to get their learning curve up, within the understanding of war that they have. The fault lies with those institutions within our military, such as TRADOC and the "Battle Lab," that are supposed to grapple with the larger, conceptual issues. They have failed for years to do their job, and they are failing still. Their learning curves are as flat as the landscape of the Sunni triangle, where our soldiers and Marines are doomed to continue winning lost victories.

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2004 William S. Lind. William S. Lind is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.



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