Colonel (ret) Douglas Macgregor is a decorated combat veteran, the author of four books and a PhD. He is also Executive Vice President of Burke-Macgregor Group LLC, a consulting and intellectual capital brokerage firm based in Reston, VA. He was commissioned in the US Army in 1976 after one year at VMI and four years at West Point.
His groundbreaking books, Breaking the Phalanx (1997) and Transformation under Fire (2003) has influenced change inside America’s ground forces. His doctoral dissertation, The Soviet-East German Military Alliance, published as a book by Cambridge University Press in 1989.
In 1991, he was awarded the bronze star with “V” device for valor under fire with the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment that destroyed a full-strength Republican Guard Brigade on 26 February 1991. The Battle of the 73 Easting, the U.S. Army’s largest tank battle since World War II is the subject of his book, Warrior’s Rage. The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting.
Macgregor has testified as an expert witness on national security issues before the House Armed Services and House Foreign Relations Committee. He is a frequent guest commentator on radio and television.
President Trump understands that American society is above all the idea it forms of itself. Trump’s grasp of this truth explains his determination to nurture America’s competitive national spirit, and expunge the self-loathing of the last decade. However, restoring American military power will take more than expressions of confidence in America’s military. President Trump must make important strategic choices and make them soon.
Christopher Nolan’s stunning new movie,Dunkirk, is a cautionary tale. The movie’s theme is one of hope and courage, but the more important meaning of Britain’s strategic defeat in 1940 is lost: The British waited too long to make the hard strategic choices.
In the months leading up to Britain’s disastrous defeat in May 1940, the British public was deluged with reports from their leaders and the press of the invincible power of the British Armed Forces. In the words of B. H. Liddell Hart, “Never did so many boast about so little.”
Two weeks and two days after the German offensive began more than 350,000 British and French troops (not all fighting men) had abandoned their equipment and waited for evacuation to England. In London, the myth that the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) defeat on the continent was due to Germany’s superiority of numbers spread quickly. It was a lie.
Germany’s victory was achieved by the rapid and deep penetration of at most 8 percent of the German Army: ten armored divisions, or roughly 150,000 troops. In addition, in all but a few isolated actions, the German soldier routinely out-fought his British, French, Belgian and Dutch opponents.
How and why did this debacle occur?
From 1920 until 1938, the British government and its senior military leaders could not agree on the British Army’s strategic purpose. A future British victory against an existential military threat from Germany or the Soviet Union was always hostage to the defense of Britain’s Empire in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Until 1938 no one in London was prepared to make that choice. Worse, none of the army’s civilian ministers (secretaries of the army) had the stomach for a confrontation with the army’s conservative leadership, the generals that in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s words clung tenaciously to “obsolete methods.”
When informed in January 1940 that the Germans had ten armored divisions poised for attack in the west, General Gort, the British Expeditionary Force’s commander-in-chief, said, “In that case, we haven’t an earthly chance.” Gort was right.
The Fifth Division BEF was an infantry-centric force with one armored division that, in 1939, “was still more of an aspiration than a reality.” When the Germans attacked, the most that the BEF’s infantry divisions could do was to fall back or be crushed by an aggressive, daring and mobile armored German enemy.
A coherent national military strategy that included preparations for British Army ground forces to fight against existential threats to Britain in Europe could have make all the difference, but it did not emerge until the German and Soviet Armies conquered and occupied Poland. When London finally acknowledged what was strategically vital—victory on the European continent—from what was marginally important—defending the Empire against weak, insurgent enemies without armies, air forces or naval power—it was too late.
Like the British Army during most of the interwar period, U.S. Army modernization is now constrained by the deployment of two hundred thousand soldiers to forty countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The force is overstretched and worn out.
The army leadership’s answer is a modernization program that simply re-equips the Cold War Army’s World War II formations withupgraded versionsof old tanks, artillery and infantry fighting vehicles inside the old brigade organizations. It’s tantamount to expecting that a refurbished Ford from 1975 with a GPS attached to the rear view mirror will perform like a Tesla.
Twenty years ago, whenthe railgunwas only ten years away from fielding, the army’s leadership insisted that army tactics, doctrine and organization could not change until railguns arrived. The generals’ ploy worked. Nothing changed. Today, the army’s senior leadership is employingthe same tactic.
It’s wrong. What works now (mature technology) should triumph over “unobtainium.”
For anything to change for the better inside the army, President Trump must do what the British did not do. He must decide what’s most important: the piece-meal commitment of tens of thousands of soldiers around the world or the reform and modernization of the U.S. Army.
No amount of British air or naval power could have rescued the British Army in France from defeat. The same holds true for today’s U.S. Army, a force that has not fought a capable nation-state opponent for more than two decades.
The U.S. Army cannot do everything, but it must modernize and prepare fora different future. President Trump, it’s time for strategic choices.
Col. (ret) Douglas Macgregor is a decorated combat veteran, a PhD and the author of five books. His most recent book isMargin of Victory.
Image: U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division engage their targets during a Live Fire Exercise for United Accord 2017 at Bundase Training Camp, Bundase, Ghana, May 26, 2017. Flickr / U.S. Department of Defense
A national strategy is emerging that avoids conflicts impervious to American military solutions
By Douglas Macgregor
Andrew Jackson observed, “One man with courage makes a majority.” President Donald Trump is demonstrating the truth of Jackson’s adage.
In the space of just six months, Mr. Trump shattered the power of the entrenched liberal media and reduced illegal immigration to a mere trickle. In Europe, Mr. Trump not only reaffirmed the United States’ Western identity, he also warned Americans and Europeans that if we and our European allies lack the courage to defend our nations, our institutions, our language and our culture, then our civilization’s end is near.
Now, for first time since he took office, Mr. Trump is signaling a new focus in American foreign and defense policy. His decision to suspend aid to the Sunni Islamist fighters attacking the Syrian government and its allies suggests that he is ready to discard the bankrupt ideology of the last 25 years — the idea that defending the American people is not enough, that whenever possible the U.S. Armed Forces should be employed in open-ended missions around the world to punish evildoers.
Mr. Trump is beginning to translate “America First” into a coherent national military strategy for the use of American military power that avoids investing American blood and treasure in debilitating conflicts that are impervious to American military and political solutions. Halting the ongoing, inconclusive military operations in Afghanistan is likely to be the first test case for his new approach.
For the moment, Mr. Trump’s National Security team in the Pentagon and the White House is recommending policies that treat Afghanistan as if it has a cold. They are recommending a haircut and a shave when the patient needs a heart transplant. Something Washington cannot provide.
Even worse, his advisers are nurturing schemes designed to intimidate the Pakistani government into acting against Pakistan’s own strategic interest. Sending four, five or fifty thousand Soldiers and Marines to train the Afghan army and police, let alone drive back the Taliban will make no impression on Afghanistan or the millions of Muslims who live there. Afghanistan’s hopelessly corrupt government, military and police cannot be transformed into replicas of Western armies.
In the absence of an American and allied military presence, the regional struggle for dominance in Central and Southwest Asia involving India, Pakistan, Russia and Iran will resume with the resurgence of the Russian and Iranian-backed Northern Alliance composed of anti-Taliban forces in Western Afghanistan. These things will happen for reasons that have nothing to do with the United States. The Russian armed forces are already engaged in a sporadic war with Islamist Turks in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The assertion that, “If we don’t fight them in Afghanistan, the Taliban will come here,” must be dismissed. None of the terrorist acts in the West have ever had any tangible connection to the Afghan Tribesmen fighting under the umbrella name “Afghan Taliban.” That’s why American support for continued U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan is razor thin. The lack of support is not a function of a declining national “will to fight.” Instead, Americans reasonably question what we’re doing there.
The truth is that no amount of American military power or capital investment will “fix” Afghanistan. Washington’s only rational course of action is to withdraw American forces with the publicly stated understanding that how the people of Afghanistan choose to govern themselves is their business. In the meantime, Washington must accept the fact that the states with vital strategic interests at stake in Afghanistan — Iran, Russia, India, Pakistan and, more distantly, China — will reengage.
History is littered with politicians that lacked the courage to face unpleasant facts; men who stuck with policies and strategies long past the point when it made no sense to do so. President Harry Truman was not one of them. Truman had the courage to back Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s plan to envelop the North Koreans at Inchon when the Joint Chiefs universally opposed it. And President Truman had the courage to remove MacArthur when MacArthur insisted on widening the Korean War to China.
Truman’s example points the way for President Trump. The sooner Mr. Trump acts to remove American forces from Afghanistan, the sooner he can focus on the issues that shape the “America First” agenda; the restoration of economic prosperity and homeland defense — the security of U.S. land borders and coastal waters to cope with the criminality and terrorism emanating from the Caribbean Basin and Mexico.
• Douglas Macgregor, a retired U.S. Army colonel and decorated combat veteran, is the author of “Margin of Victory” (Naval Institute Press, 2016).