General Robert Scales On The Steep Price Paid By America’s Infantry

If we are going to fight a war, apply overwhelming force in order to break the back of the enemy, and then go home.
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Since World War II the majority of American combat deaths have come from the infantry. This band of brothers, and now sisters, makes up a small minority of the military, but does the bulk of our fighting and dying.

These are our nation’s warriors. Their job is one that requires them to leave the wire every day with the intention of finding, closing with, and killing the enemy. They do battle with their foes close in and at the small unit level. These engagements should be one-sided fights, with the odds weighted in favor of American infantrymen and special operators. Tragically, this is not the case.

In his upcoming book “Scales On War: The Future Of America’s Military At Risk,” retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr. posits that had ground combat troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan been better armed, equipped, and supported, the extraordinary feats they accomplished in battle would not have been required, and the losses suffered might have been substantially less.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr. speaks at U.S. Naval Institute event, June 17, 2008.

In Scales’ 35 years of service he commanded two units in the Vietnam War as a field artillery officer and was awarded the Silver Star for his actions during the Battle of Hamburger Hill. He has held commands in South Korea, across the United States, and rounded out his career as the commandant of the Army War College before retiring in 2001. Since leaving the Army, he has worked as a senior military analyst for Fox News for 14 years, and as a commentator for NPR and BBC, written for a host of news publications, as well as penning numerous books on the history and future of American warfare.

Related: It’s Time We Address The Consequences Of America’s Recent Wars »

Scales spoke with Task & Purpose about the prioritization of large-scale programs over smaller ones that focus on stacking capabilities in support of ground combat troops, the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the current state of the Army.

What’s the strength of our military? Is it in our technology? What should our strength be?

I think the great strength of our military is not technology. I think it’s two things. One is the quality of our people: If you look at armies around the world and you try to find an army comparable to ours today, it just isn’t out there. The second I think is the culture. We have a culture of decentralized leadership in our military that other armies can’t replicate. Oftentimes, we have sergeants doing things that lieutenant colonels are doing in other armies. That makes an army more resilient, it makes it more robust, it makes it more flexible.

In your book “Scales On War” you open it by discussing “unnecessary heroes,” and the need for “unfair fights.” Can you expand on that?

I’ve always been a believer that America’s vulnerable center of gravity is dead Americans and our enemies for so long have used and relied on a strategy that’s based on killing Americans. Humanitarian factors aside, I’ve always argued that the success of the nation at the strategic level, particularly in longer wars, is dependent on fighting with the least cost of human life and most of the deaths — 81%, four out of five deaths in war, since World War II have been infantry. So my view has always been: If the enemy is trying to win by killing our ground soldiers, meaning infantry, then we should never allow our infantry ever to engage in close combat in a fair fight. It’s bad that we do it, it’s bad that it happens at all, but when you factor in the strategic view, that this is a strategic imperative, it really changes it.

So if our enemy’s goal is dead Americans, and if the majority of combat deaths are infantry, why do we allow, all too often, fights at the small-unit level to be fair fights? It doesn’t pass the logic test to me and that’s why I wrote this book.

What does an ideal unfair fight look like for U.S. ground forces?

The technology of miniaturization, the internet, the development of new materials for small combat units is sitting on the cusp of a technological revolution if we just spend money to do it.

Number one, above all else, would be drones. Number two would be the use of robots or ground drones. Number three would be a soldier network, and number four would be a new suite of man-portable arms that could kill tanks, shoot down airplanes, and shoot the bad guys well outside the range of his weapons.

Again this is not like fighter aircraft where stealth is everything, at least that’s what they say. This is a stacking of capabilities which yield dominance.What makes it so difficult in the Army and the Marine Corps is that each of the things that I mentioned, each falls under a different material administrator. By the time you walk through it, there’s nobody who has dedicated to him or her responsibility for creating dominance at the small-unit level. The only one who really comes close, in my opinion, is JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command]. JSOC has managed, and that’s why JSOC is so good because it’s literally all under one roof.

If we want the next president to achieve decisive overmatch in the wars we’re actually going to fight, as opposed to the wars that the Navy wants to fight against China, then spend the money on this, and the amplification of capability per buck is off the charts, instead of it going to, I don’t know, another aircraft carrier.

Why aren’t advancements in armor, small arms, life-saving tech, surveillance assets — all things that are critically important to ground combat troops, grunts, SOF, etc. — a bigger priority?

Frankly, I stand up and say to an audience, “A Naval Academy graduate goes through a year and a half to two years of flight school, he’s qualified in the F-18. He then goes to carrier trials; he then becomes a qualified pilot, and he flies a $75 million piece of machinery. Is his life more valuable to his parents than that 18-year-old kid with a high school GED who just got shot between the eyes because the enemy’s got a better weapon than him?”

So I ask the question, “Is that lieutenant’s life more valuable than that lance corporal’s?” And they look at you and they say, “No of course not.” So then I ask them, “Then why are you spending $4 million on this guy and when he gets shot down it makes national news, and they deploy newsmen from all over the world to cover his experience, but when the 18-year-old gets shot between the eyes it’s just a footnote on the news?”

A lieutenant’s life is more valuable in our society than a lance corporal’s and that’s not right. That’s not right. You put the money where the probability of death is highest in my opinion, and we do just the opposite.

In July of last year, you wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post about the state of the Army. You said the Army was breaking. Can you expand on that? Is it still breaking?

Our Army, at least in this century, when it breaks — and it has now five times in my lifetime — breaks at the NCO level. The Army breaks when NCOs vote with their feet, or they’re wounded, or they’re dead. An army that’s characterized by decentralized leadership is good news and bad news. The bad news is that when it breaks it can’t be replaced because that delicate balance of leadership and responsibility in the army is something that has to be grown carefully over time.

The canary in the coal mine in our Army is our sergeants. An army doesn’t break because a computer operator in the Pentagon has a bad day. It breaks at the small-unit level. It breaks when those who do the dirty business of fighting or dying get worn down by overcommitment and casualties, and they break. When they break, the rest of the Army collapses around them.

If you had told me we’d be fighting a 15-year-long war with less than a half-a-million-man Army, I’d call you a liar. The fact that the Army has even managed to maintain the level of proficiency it has is a miracle, but that’s how armies break. They break internally; they break from the bottom up, and once they break they’re irreparable for upwards of a decade.

Are there some challenges that are unique to an all-volunteer military? What are they?

I don’t think they’re challenges. The only challenges are, number one, the insensitivity and the lack of concern for close-combat soldiers who form the tip of the spear in a volunteer force. The only danger of the all-volunteer Army is that we’re going to run out of, or exhaust, those who do the killing, but that’s not an institutional problem. It’s a problem of priorities and concern. There’s no downside in wars in this era to having a professional force.

If you want to build robustness in the Army, you build robustness in those close-combat units; you overpopulate the small units with rank. You figure out how many you need and you double that number.

What do you we always run out of first? Do we run out of ships? No. Do we run out of planes? No. Do we run out satellites? No. Do we run out of missiles? No. We run out of 11Bs. We always do. It’s that shortage of close-combat soldiers that drives the strategy instead of the strategy driving the number of close-combat soldiers.

How would you describe our current fight with ISIS? Are we at war with ISIS? What would a war with ISIS require, and is our military in a position to take that on?

Have you ever heard the old saying, we all know the sound of two hands clapping, but what’s the sound of one hand clapping?

So that’s the question here. We’re listening to the sound of one hand clapping, which is essentially a part of a state has declared war against the West, and the holy grail of a war against the West isn’t France or Great Britain, it’s the United States. You have one side declaring war and executing it and the other side trying to avoid the problem, but this is a war. People are dying. There’s another old saying that America fights short wars brilliantly and long wars poorly, and so the mere act of stretching out the enterprise in an attempt to simply outlast a political situation makes it more painful, and in the end, more destructive to our side, because we do long wars very poorly.

If we’re not going to fight a war, then don’t fight it. If we are going to fight a war, apply overwhelming force in order to break the back of the enemy, and then go home.

Marines stand at parade rest during a 9/11 remembrance ceremony at the Healing Field in Tempe Town Lake, Arizona, Sept. 11, 2015.U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Devan Gowans

What do you think of the term “boots on the ground” in relation to the Syrian Civil War and U.S. policy regarding ISIS?

It’s absolutely ludicrous. First off, we have boots on the ground. I don’t know what having no boots on the ground is about, but at the end of the day, the gods of war are a perfidious lot, and the dynamics that drive the course of war can only be moderately shaped by politics and policy. In other words, Roosevelt did a brilliant job of steering America away from the European war until Pearl Harbor, and we did a brilliant job of ignoring the terrorist threat until 9/11, and I can go on and on. It comes a time that war is being driven by a Darwinian process that nobody can shape or control. It reaches a sort of psychological tipping point, beyond which the course of war is driven by circumstance, not driven by political wants.

At the end of the day, the enemy has a vote. If the enemy decides that he’s going to prosecute this on the ground because that’s where the profit lies, he’s going to do it.