How Americans Learned to Fight Modern War

How Americans Learned to Fight Modern War
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Lifting the Fog of Peace: How Americans Learned to Fight Modern War. Janine Davidson. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

In a recent interview reflecting on his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, General David Petraeus recalled an incident that took place during the invasion of Iraq. Petraeus, then commanding the 101st Airborne, recounted that after a tough fight to take the city of Najaf, he called the V Corps Commander, General William Wallace to say, “Hey boss, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that we own Najaf...The bad news is the same as the good news: we own Najaf. What do you want us to do with it?”

In conventional narratives of the war in Iraq, this anecdote illustrates the Army’s failure to adapt and prepare for these sort of wars. In Janine Davidson’s telling however, the story is rather more complicated. Not least, there is the figure of Petraeus himself. Having served in Haiti and Bosnia, he had direct experience with the challenges thrown up by stability operations. Davidson suggests Petraeus was not exceptional in this sense, and there were figures like him throughout the U.S. military in 2003, he argues the U.S. military that invaded Iraq was not that same one that had fought in Vietnam: it was a force willing and able to learn.


In Lifting the Fog of Peace: How Americans Learned to Fight Modern War, Davidson pushes back against simplistic notions that the U.S. military has refused to adapt itself to contemporary conflicts. The book has two central claims, both of which are convincing. First, small wars,  irregular wars, and stability operations have been perennial tasks of American soldiers, even if the record of capturing the lessons of these wars in doctrine is mixed; and second, accounts that blame a monolithic military culture that wished only to fight conventional wars for the failure to internalise these lessons are too simplistic.


In her early chapters, after considering some of the theoretical literature on institutional lesson-learning, Davidson demonstrate that external factors were often as much as to blame as internal culture for the failure to adapt to the challenges of these conflicts. For instance, she argues the Posse Comitatus Act subtly influenced American military culture by establishing a distinction between military and police duties, but this act was one imposed by a Congress that wished to reconcile with Southern states after Reconstruction, not by an Army that had grown weary of police duties. Similarly, she shows the Army’s World War II-era programme for military government at the University of Virginia ran into trouble due to a wave of newspaper stories warning of a school for Gauleiters in Charlottesville. (A Gauleiter was the party leader of a regional branch of the Nazi Party.) Thanks to this panic, Civil Affairs units were not effectively integrated into military planning, which caused major problems during Operation TORCH. Alongside these stories of external influence on doctrine, Davidson traces the slow, imperfect, but steady growth of formal lesson-learning mechanisms within the military.

The core of the book, though, is not a survey of American involvement in small wars, but a reflection on the military’s post-Vietnam adaptation. Davidson’s book, which was published in 2011, was at the front end of a wave of literature that includes my own work, but also books by David Ucko, James Russell, and—more recently—Austin Long. This literature largely makes the same point as Davidson: the military (the Army in particular) may have struggled with the question of how to adapt to contemporary conflicts, but it was not an organisation completely resistant to change.

Davidson’s particular contribution to this literature is a focus on the post-Vietnam construction of a lesson-learning system within the Army, from the changes to doctrine and professional military education that began to take into account the changing environment, to the establishment of institutions such as the Center for Army Lessons Learned, the National Training Center, and the Joint Readiness Training Center, all of which allowed for the rapid dissemination of lessons throughout the Army. According to Davidson, the post-Vietnam military in 2003 was an agile and adaptive force that was learning to learn.

This is not to say Davidson argues this was a force fully prepared for what it was about to face. After all, the point of Petraeus’s anecdote is that there wasn’t really a good answer to his question of what was to be done after the capture of Najaf. Instead, she argues that while this lesson-learning infrastructure was effective, it was focused on the tactical level. Doctrine had led many officers to believe that other government agencies would step into the breach in stability operations, and they were shocked in Iraq and Afghanistan when that simply did not happen. Training exercises had rarely involved non-governmental organizations or other government agencies, with the Army instead hiring role players to fill in. Further, the lessons learned tended to focus on only those things the military did well, such as the provision of security, rather than the more difficult, long-term tasks associated with reconstruction (tasks that do not fit well into the window of a National Training Center or Joint Readiness Training Center rotation). Davidson describes an institution that was making an honest attempt to adapt to its environment, but one that was inward-looking and not in dialogue with other agencies or institutions. Reading Davidson, I am reminded of Hew Strachan’s critique of American strategy-making, in which he indicts the focus on the operational level of war for creating a politics-free bubble and a false comfort zone for generals who prefer to focus on tactical excellence rather than the messier questions of strategy and its relationship to policy. It is therefore no surprise that much of Davidson’s subsequent academic work has been focused on the difficult problems of civil-military operation and interagency coordination, since these are questions essentially left unresolved by the book.

Given these gaps and the seven years now elapsed since Lifting the Fog of Peace was first published, it is perhaps worth thinking about what a new edition might look like. When the book was published in 2010, it was at the height of optimism over the results of the surge in Iraq, and many of the commendations for the book claimed Davidson’s work on adaptation provided an explanation for how quickly the U.S. military was able to pivot to counterinsurgency and execute a new plan in Iraq. Viewed from 2017, things appear rather darker, and it is Davidson’s emphasis on the tactical bias of the lesson-learning process and the continuing difficulties in coordinating with other agencies that seem more pertinent.

Indeed, a second edition could usefully address one of the major historical lacunae of the book: the Vietnam War. One of the curious things about Davidson’s approach is that her early chapters survey the U.S. experience up to 1945, then the book jumps to the post-Vietnam military and the attempts to recover from that conflict. The shadow of Vietnam is present throughout the book but never addressed head-on. This is a pity, because while the reluctance to intervene in or even summarise the seemingly endless debate over Vietnam is understandable, the recent historiography on that conflict (much of it published after Davidson’s book came out) has much to tell us about lesson-learning and organisational adaptation. The work of Gregory Daddisin particular has demonstrated that much as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the senior U.S. military leadership in Vietnam had their eyes wide open about the nature of the conflict that they were immersed in, and that units in Vietnam made a serious effort to adapt their tactics to suit a counterinsurgency campaign. Of course, despite all of this, the U.S. still lost in Vietnam. Perhaps some discussion on that experience might have led Davidson to still greater caution about the limits of the post-Vietnam military’s adaptability.

When discussing the struggles of the U.S. military in the early years of the Iraq War, Davidson uses the phrase “adapting without winning,” a formulation that surely continues to accurately describe the American experience of the post-9/11 wars. Despite the optimistic characterizations on the dust jacket that frame this book as a manual for how to succeed at counterinsurgency, though, Lifting the Fog of Peace sounds a note of caution about the gap between tactical adaptation and strategic success, even as it lauds the U.S. military for the evolution of its lesson-learning apparatus. In analysing the strengths and limitations of this apparatus, Davidson’s book makes a valuable contribution to the literature on adaptation and counterinsurgency.

David Fitzgerald is a Lecturer in History at University College Cork and the author of Learning to Forget: U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq and the co-author (with David Ryan) of Obama, U.S. Foreign Policy and the Dilemmas of Intervention.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

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