A scathing critique of ADP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, the Army's current capstone doctrinal publication, has prompted a vigorous discussion among members of a professional email circuit in which I occasionally participate.
Writing in the most recent edition of Military Review, the house journal of the Army's Command and General Staff College, Army Maj. J.P. Clark lambastes ADP 3-0 for offering "timid generalities of little use to commanders and staff officers [and avoiding] nuanced discussion in favor of a numbing series of definitions, a taxonomy of operational functions and methods."
Instead, Maj. Clark avers, "Capstone doctrine should describe how the Army intends to fight in clear, compelling terms. It should help field grade and senior officers envision campaigns in all of their complexities and within the prevailing strategic context. Finally, it should help provide coherence to the efforts of the institutional Army by explaining the ramifications of resourcing decisions already made while clarifying likely future uses of land power."
That's a tall order, taller still at a time when the purposes for which the U.S. might be willing in the future to commit ground combat forces are far from clear. Writing recently in the on-line journal Foreign Policy, former undersecretary of defense for policy Rosa Brooks asks, "Just what exactly is the military?" noting that today, fewer uniformed personnel than ever before actually engage in combat, while more folks than ever not wearing uniforms do just that.
"When," she goes on to ask, "does a military stop being a military? Is there some minimum quantum of traditional 'combat' that makes a military 'military,' as opposed to something else?" At a time when most American soldiers are more consumed with winning friends than destroying enemies, and CIA-operated drones seem to be conducting the bulk of the lethal operations, that's not a trivial question.
It's that question, among others, that Maj. Clark would like doctrine to answer. But it's not one that doctrine has ever been very good at answering, for reasons that Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz explained long ago. "Rules," he noted ñ doctrine, in today's terminology ñ "aim at fixed values, but in war everything is uncertain, and calculations have to be made with variable quantities."
There is a sense, of course, in which doctrine can and must prescribe "how the Army intends to fight." Just as doctors couldn't run an operating room, chefs a kitchen, or the conductor an orchestra without some agreed practices and the language with which to describe them, so any army needs some common terms of reference just to save time and avoid confusion.
To cite a classic example, until GPS and information sharing technology began making the requirement less urgent, the obligation to establish communications and furnish liaison among units operating in the same battlespace obeyed a prescribed formula: higher to lower, supporting to supported, left to right. Those responsibilities were doctrinal: nothing in particular would have precluded a different assignment. But some prescribed arrangement was necessary simply to avoid having to revisit the issue every time it arose.
Over the years, though, doctrine has taken on a great deal more baggage. For some, it has become a substitute for military strategy, although strategy by its very nature resists authoritative prescription. Others treat doctrine as a sort of programmatic lever, in effect rhetorical ammunition with which to fight their budget battles. And still others use doctrine to advance or discredit preferred or opposed institutional priorities.
Given all these competing purposes, it isn't surprising that, in the fighting Army at least, doctrine tends to be honored mostly in the breach. As one Soviet officer allegedly complained years ago, "One of the serious problems in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine."
All in all, it's hard to disagree with the colleague who emailed perceptively, in response to Maj. Clark's critique, "It seems to me the Army will first have to decide what function it expects doctrine to fulfill in the future. It seems to me we are back where we were at the end of Vietnam on that question."
He was right, both on the general point and with respect to today's strategic context. Given that context, however, before we can decide what function we want doctrine to fulfill, we first need to answer Ms. Brooks' question and decide what we mean by "military" ñ that is, to what tasks we're willing to commit America's armed forces in general and the Army in particular.
Right now, the answer seems to be, to whatever is politically convenient at the moment, which is to say, everything from killing terrorists to building schools to feeding the hungry. Somewhere in there is the formal requirement to win the nation's wars, but no one seems to know quite what that means any more.
Until we do, writing more relevant and useful doctrine may be the least of the Army's problems.