Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley wants the American public to stop fooling itself when it comes to war, so he’s drawn up five ”myths” he says we need to let go of, pronto.
Milley shared his thesis with an audience at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, and his take on it has evolved since he first started speaking about four slightly different myths of warfare back in 2015. The myths:
1. Wars will be short
“There are wars that have been short in the past, but they’re pretty rare,” he said. Most of the time, wars take longer than people think they will at the beginning of those wars.”
Leaders tend to gloss over conflicts, he said, describing them as a ”little dust-up,“ assuring everyone that victory will be quick.
“Beware of that one,” he said. “Wars have a logic of their own sometimes, and they move in directions that are highly unexpected.”
2. You can win wars from afar
Dropping bombs has become an increasingly popular way for the U.S. military to fight enemies overseas, but in Milley’s view, few wars are decisively ended until troops come face-to-face.
“Look, wars are about politics. That’s what they’re about,” he said. ”They’re about imposing your political will, and they’re about people. And I can tell you with a high degree of certainty that human beings can survive horrific things from afar.”
He used his father’s experience as a Marine during World War II, storming Iwo Jima after 66 days of relentless bombing from the U.S. Army and naval air forces. His father, he said, was told that all of the Japanese soldiers on that island would have surely been killed.
“There’s no eight square miles of Earth that has ever received as much ordnance as the island of Iwo Jima. Almost all the Japanese survived,” he said. ”Life wasn’t good, they were drinking their own urine, they never saw the sunlight, they were deep buried under ground, and they weren’t happy campers – I got it. But they survived. They were ideologically committed to their cause, and they survived enough to kill 7,000 Marines when they hit the beach.“
It’s a similar situation in the fight against ISIS now. U.S. and coalition forces were able to take back Mosul, but years of air campaigns couldn’t put a dent in the extremist group’s progress until boots got on the ground.
“It took the infantry and the armor and the special operations commanders to go into that city, house by house, block by block, room by room, to clear that city,” he said. ”What I’m telling you is there’s a myth out there that you can win from afar. To impose your political will on the enemy typically requires you, at the end of the day, to close with and destroy that enemy up close with ground forces.”
3. Special Forces can do it all
Special Operations Command has grown exponentially in both reach and prestige during the Global War on Terror, but it is not a magic bullet, Milley said.
“I’m a proud Green Beret, love Special Forces,” he said. ”Special Forces are designated Special Forces, with that name, for a reason. They are special. They do certain special activities, typically of a strategic nature.”
They have the best warriors in the world with the best training, he said, but they are not designed to be plugged into a conflict to pull out a decisive victory.
“The one thing they are not designed to do is win a war,” he said. ”They can do raids, they can train other countries – there’s lots of other things they can do. Winning a war by themselves is not one of their tasks.”
Winning wars will take conventional troops to finish what Special Forces might have started.
“There’s a myth that you can just throw Special Forces at it and it works – it’s magic dust,” he said. ”It’s great, but winning wars is not in their job jar, by themselves.“
4. Armies are easy to create
Following years of drawing down troop numbers, the Army this year received the go-ahead from Congress to grow its total force back to over one million. Reaching that number is doable, Milley said, but you can’t just dial up an effective force at the drop of a hat.
“There’s a myth that you can just bring kids into the military, march them around a field a little bit, six to eight weeks of training and – boom – you’ve got an army,” he said. “Wrong answer. It takes a considerable amout of time to build armies, navies, air forces and marine corps, especially in today’s environment with complex weapons systems.“
For that reason, to fulfill current needs and anticipate future conflicts, Milley and his officials are continuing to ask Congress for funds to grow the Army.
“Based on the tasks that are required, I believe we need a larger Army,” he said. ”My teammates on the choice staff also think the same thing of the Navy, Air Force and Marines.”
5. Armies fight wars
“We don’t. Armies don’t fight wars,” he said. “Navies, air forces – they don’t fight wars. Nations fight wars.”
In other words, Milley explained, to fight and win wars on behalf of the U.S. takes a buy-in at every level, from service member, civilian and government official alike.
“It takes the full commitment of the entire nation to fight wars,” he said. ”We can do a raid real quick – that’s one thing. But war is a different thing, and it takes a nation to fight and win a war.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.