The Army has a whole generation of officers who are used to sending troops out on a mission in the morning and returning for a shower and a Whopper at the forward operating base in the evening, but those days will soon be over, the Army's chief of staff said Thursday.
Future wars, in mega-cities and against enemies with similar technology and capabilities, won't have safe spaces, air conditioning and comfort food, Gen. Mark Milley told an audience at the Army and Navy Club. But on the other hand, that dynamic environment will cut down on bureaucracy.
"We have a wide variety of conditions that we've accustomed ourselves to," he said. "There's an entire generation of officers now that think — their own experience in combat is to fight from Victory base, or Bagram base, or fixed sites, where you have access to a variety of comfort items, if you will. Pizza Huts and Burger Kings and stuff like that."
While counter-terrorism in undeveloped countries is a reality for the forseeable future, he said, the long game looks different.
"The likelihood of massing forces on a base for any length of time certainly means you're going to be dead. If you're stationary, you'll die," he explained.
Radio communication could also be degraded or destroyed, he added, by enemies with advanced electronic warfare skills.
"Those conditions are intense and very, very spartan," Milley said. "And we have got to condition ourselves to operate — untether ourselves from this umbilical cord of logistics and supply that American forces have enjoyed for a long time."
On the other hand, decentralizing combat will allow troops to take some of the bureaucracy out of issuing and following orders.
If a commander tells a platoon to take one hill, he offered as an example, and they show up and realize the enemy's on the other hill, the right move is to disobey the order and take the second hill.
"A subordinate needs to understand that they have the power and they have the freedom to disobey a specific order, a specified task, in order to accomplish the purpose," Milley said. "That takes a lot of judgment. The subordinate better understand what you're doing when you're doing it."
That requires trust from the chain of command, he said, but also a willingness to allow people to fail on a small scale and hold them accountable when their poor judgment ruins a mission.
"We must trust our subordinates. So you give them tasks, you give them a purpose, and you trust them to execute and achieve your intent," he said. "If they fail, you fire them. And that's what people don't like. They don't like holding people accountable."
If you follow orders that you know are mistaken, that will also end in trouble, he said.
"If you knowingly walk over the abyss because you're following this task and this task and this task, but you don't achieve the purpose, you're going to get fired," he said.
It's not about having a zero-defect Army, he said, but instead about finding teachable moments in the smaller failures.
"We want to encourage the freedom to fail, except it depends on the failure," he said.
Failing at the Battle of the Bulge, he added, is not a small, teachable moment.
"There are some things of morality and personal conduct that, I'm sorry, life is hard and it's way harder when you're stupid," he said. "If you do stupid, immoral, illegal, unethical things, you're gone."
But if you go out on a limb to achieve the greater objective, you could be the "hero."
"Disciplined disobedience to achieve the higher purpose," Milley said. "If you do that, then you're the guy who's going to get the pat on the back."
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.