The U.S. Army turns 244 years old today, older than the nation. Its nearly 1.3 million men and women in uniform — regular, Reserve and National Guard — uphold the tradition of distinguished service that began on Bunker Hill and has continued through 18 years of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Despite America’s love of ships and planes, it is the men and women of its ground forces who have borne the brunt of battle from the time of George Washington to the days of President Trump.
The post-Vietnam Army that I came into, in the words of Gen. Creighton Abrams, had become “an Army of privates and second lieutenants,” having suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties in eight years of fighting in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The force was horribly short of experienced non-commissioned officers (NCO), the backbone of the Army, and racked with indiscipline, racial strife and drug abuse.
Little by little, a long line of officers and sergeants rebuilt the Army, crafted a new doctrine, restored discipline, rebuilt a strong NCO corps and developed the most realistic training experience in history at its army-wide unit training centers.
The first Gulf War in 1990 was this new Army’s coming-out party. Its weaponry, skills and operational excellence were unparalleled. It established a new level of excellence, one that gave fits to our competitors, especially the Russians and Chinese.
A few years later, the world’s greatest warriors shifted to peacekeeping in the Balkans. Following our Air Force’s virtuoso performance, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo, the Army’s leaders turned an engine of land war into a force for peace, highlighting the Army’s adaptability and bringing stability where there had been enduring ethnic conflict.
The Army was ready for its next challenge on Sept. 11, 2001. Army Rangers, Special Forces and light divisions took the fight to the enemy in Afghanistan and, in two short months, routed the Taliban. In 2003, Army divisions conducted the main attack into Iraq and swiftly knocked out Saddam Hussein and his murderous regime. Our sister services did yeoman’s work, but the centerpiece of the battle in both theaters, as it so often is, remained on the ground.
Both of these operations went from a conventional stage to an unconventional one, dominated by counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency operations. In Iraq, there was significant operational success with the surge and the awakening, spoiled in time by a major attack by ISIS. Iraq beat them back with our help. Today, U.S. Special Operations Forces continue that fight in Syria.
In Afghanistan, a short surge has given way to an advisory phase, with a rebuilt Afghan army in the driver’s seat. Today, soldiers not born on 9/11 are taking the fight to ISIS and the Taliban. War weariness and skillful diplomacy soon may bring peace to that troubled land.
At this moment, the Army faces a great transition. While continuing to fight the “long war,” it needs new weapons, new doctrine and a strategic reorientation, already begun under the wise leadership of the Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Secretary of the Army Mark Esper.
The nation’s strategic direction has shifted from fighting terrorists to preparing to fight peer competitors such as Russia or China, or powerful rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. Army intelligence and doctrine experts need to study how our new principal enemies fight and how they think about war.
Tomorrow’s generals must figure out how to take scarce general-purpose forces and tailor them for specific fights against distinctly different foes. Knowing one’s enemy will remain essential to success on the modern battlefield, and it is an area where all of our armed forces need to work harder.
At the same time, the Army has to adjust to the changing character of modern conflict. The line between war and peace has blurred. Unscrupulous enemies use cyber weapons and information operations to mask their perfidy. Today’s soldier may fight other soldiers, mercenaries, insurgents, or even “little green men.”
Old evils also persist. Nuclear proliferation remains a threat, and the specter of chemical and biological weapons persists, propelled forward by advances in the biological sciences.
Fortunately, the Army has an important guide to adapting to this challenging security environment: its heritage. While we meet the changes that have become constant, the Army must remain true to the things that have made it the envy of every other Army in the world. People come first. There is no substitute for quality soldiers. NCOs must remain the backbone of the force. We will recruit the best people available, but we will reenlist them with their families.
Officer and NCO training and education are key to combat readiness. In all ranks, a learning officer or NCO is crucial to maintaining the professionalism that has brought the Army success. The Army must retain its emphasis on instrumented collective training. Our ability to help others with advisory elements — the “by, with and through” approach — will remain essential to U.S. and allied security.
To maintain high levels of readiness, the Army needs more support than ever before. U.S. ground forces need the same level of overmatch that we build into our ships and fighter aircraft. As we prepare for the future, we cannot forget that we also have repair bills from the long war. The best news of the last year was the formation of the Army Futures Command, which will carry the force forward and help to provide an azimuth for it in the decades to come.
Old soldiers like me retire, but the Army, as its fight song says, “goes rolling along.” Today, it is well-led and provisioned. I leave government service this month with full confidence that the Army will continue to accomplish its mission as part of the joint force to deploy, fight and win wars for the next 244 years.
Joseph J. Collins, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is University Professor at the National War College. In his last policy assignment, he was deputy assistant secretary of Defense for stability operations (2001-2004). His nearly 28 years of military service include infantry and armor assignments in the United States, South Korea and Germany; teaching at West Point in the Department of Social Sciences; and more than a decade of policy assignments in the Pentagon. He retires on June 30, 2019, after 46 years of government service.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.]