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How America's Generals Can Learn from Their Errors

Dominic Tierney
By Wolfe, Frank, White House photographer, Photographer (NARA record: 8466729) - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16738251

Dominic Tierney

Security, Americas

Can they do it?

How America's Generals Can Learn from Their Errors

Downplaying the possibility of future loss in war games and military planning is also hazardous.

SECRETARY OF Defense James Mattis reportedly said: “I don’t lose any sleep at night over the potential for failure. I cannot even spell the word.” To paraphrase Trotsky, American generals may not be interested in failure, but failure is interested in them. In recent decades, the United States has suffered a number of stalemates and defeats in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the recurrent experience of military fiascos, there is a puzzling discrepancy in how U.S. officials think about past versus future loss. When leaders learn from historical cases, debacles often loom large and powerfully shape policy. But when officials plan prospective operations, they tend to neglect the possibility of disaster. As a result, military planners focus too much on avoiding a repeat of prior reversals, and not enough on the possibility that the new strategy will itself unravel.

One solution is to take inspiration from the business realm, where the school of “intelligent failure” encourages a healthier relationship with loss. By adopting the right set of tools, the military can become more adaptable and resilient.

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