As the insurgency raged in Iraq and began worsening in Afghanistan, the US military increasingly turned to its young leaders in the field for ways to turn the tide of war. Military commanders like Gen. David Petraeus had pushed hard for the move towards counterinsurgency, but how, precisely, to best carry that out remained an open question.
Young commanders at small outposts were coming up with their own solutions. “War was no longer about overwhelming firepower. It was about working with local populations, and that presented amazing challenges that really required a lot of improvisation,” says Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
It also created a generation of officers more accustomed to decentralization than ever before. “Basically, what you’re telling these lieutenants is that in the absence of orders, figure out what the orders should have been an execute them,” says Mr. Dressler.
It was an approach that over the decade changed the culture of the military.
It also created a great deal of stress on the force, Dressler notes, particularly in the face of repeated deployments. Before 9/11, the military had touted high-tech efforts by the Navy and Air Force to reduce the need for manpower. Since then, it was reminded of the value of boots on the ground.
“One of the huge changes in the military is the much greater recognition that the ground-pounding warfighter had to be made a far greater priority,” the Middle East Institute’s White adds.
The post-9/11 period has also made Pentagon officials acutely aware of the need to dramatically improve the treatment of those in its care. This was particularly true after a scandal emerged at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which showed the neglect of soldiers in the hospital's care. Likewise, in the years to come, veterans, too, will no doubt challenge America to do better by them that it has in its recent past, says Harrell of the Center for a New American Security.
For now, there is an outpouring of vocal support among senior administration officials for its new and far younger crop of veterans. The challenge in the future, Harrell notes, will be to maintain that attention years after the wars end, especially as economic concerns mount.
In an era in which less than 1 percent of the US population is fighting the current wars, many Americans are further removed from the armed forces than they were during the draft days of Vietnam.
“I’m not convinced that our country really embraces the concept of veterans,” Harrell says. As other national and world crises intervene, and as time goes by, “I’m not convinced they’ll still be embracing them 10 years after this conflict ends."
For now, the military is increasingly focused on how to continue to challenge its current crop of warfighters after the wars end, says Freier of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s going to be crucially important that we continue to challenge and empower these young leaders. Solutions in Iraq and Afghanistan bubbled up from the bottom,” he adds. “That communication from the bottom up proved critical in how we execute contemporary conflicts. We’re going to have to continue to capture that lightning in a bottle.”
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