It is no secret that the Army has historically struggled to predict both the nature of the next major conflict and the adversary against which it will fight, and there is little reason to expect that, without creative thinking, that pattern is likely to repeat itself. A lack of imagination on the part of the Army’s leaders today will lead to a stale, stagnant, and supremely unprepared force of tomorrow. Recent articles published by the Modern War Institute and written by junior officers challenged conventional thinking and the current state of affairs, and most importantly, offered recommendations for improving the force in preparation for tomorrow’s fight. One, written by a pair of Marine lieutenants, imagined a Russian mechanized brigade charging headlong into a Marine infantry battalion, and predicted that the Marines, armed mostly with light machine guns, would be incapable of defending against the attack. Another, which I wrote, contended that the US appetite for large, heavy tanks, with their extensive maintenance and mobility burdens, could become paralyzing on a future multi-domain battlefield.
Both articles used imagined scenarios to identify a problem and make recommendations. And they are two examples of disruptive writing that starts an intellectual discussion about how to generate the most capable US military for tomorrow. As the author of one of those articles, it’s rewarding to see that discussion develop, which included a thoughtful response article arguing that despite the difficulties of fast-paced modern war and the immense logistical demands associated with heavy armored vehicles, they will remain vital on near-future battlefields.
Some reactions to these two articles, however, focused on undermining the imagined scenarios they included, criticizing them as wholly unrealistic. US forces would never act as a standalone battalion against the Russians, without immense support as part of a brigade or division effort. (That criticism ignores the fact that it is, as the author pointed out, the precise scenario templated for infantry battalions at the Marine Air Ground Combat Center).
To be fair, there is a lot of imagination involved in these articles. But that’s exactly the point of disruptive writing. Did Gen. Custer, with his Civil War experience against the Confederate Army, imagine he would be surrounded and annihilated by a Native American force at the Little Bighorn? Did the only army victorious in two theatres during World War II imagine that five years later its soldiers would find themselves retreating in panic at Osan on the Korean peninsula, fighting for their lives against a North Korean Army with no organic artillery and whose troops were kept fed by carrying rice on their backs? After landing at Inchon, and even reaching parts of the Yalu River, did MacArthur imagine that five Chinese divisions would come crashing down on a hastily assembled Marine/Army task force at the Chosin Reservoir? Did American commanders, whose forces were supplied with the latest in rotary-wing aviation, imagine that a peasant North Vietnamese Army could ambush and destroy 2-7 Cav at Ia Drang? Did commanders believe that the Taliban were capable of assembling a battalion-sized force to lay siege to and storm Combat Outpost Keating, even with the prospect of seemingly infinite American firepower on call? The history of the US Army is filled with tales of soldiers fighting in heroic, desperate conditions with their bewildered commanders stunned by the ferocity of the enemy, and the tenacity of their own troops.
The question before us, then, is how we can harness the power of human imagination to build the most capable, lethal, and effective Army of tomorrow? We must write. There is perhaps no better way to imagine the complexities and challenges of tomorrow’s battlefield than to organize one’s thoughts, experiences, and research in the production of written work. It is a means of individual learning and strengthens the future of the American profession of arms. With nearly continuous access to digital devices, and multiple professional forums available, every military leader can play a role and offer insight. But we need to write.
Not only must we write, but we must write disruptively. Doing so isn’t without its challenges. Just as seeing a discussion spurred by a particular article is immensely rewarding, criticism can be difficult to take. And criticism is especially likely when an article challenges current beliefs about future wars, the methods by which we will fight them, or the enemy against whom we will find ourselves fighting. A thorough, studied foundation in doctrine will always be necessary. Disruptive writing takes this and builds on it.
As American military professionals, we are particularly lucky to be allowed to write and engage with the biggest and most pressing challenges. We should all take advantage of that opportunity—regardless of branch or service—and use imagination to help generate new ideas. For it is disruptive thinking that wins wars.
Capt. Matthew Allgeyer, an armor officer from 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, recently wrote a highly disruptive article on enhancing the future battlefield effectiveness of the infantry, asserting that the US Army must incorporate heavy infantry into our fighting formations. From my own experience, infantry officers are bred to believe that “if it isn’t light, then it isn’t right” from the first day of their infantry training. And yet, it was hard to deny the strength of Allgeyer’s argument, based on a historical analysis of heavy infantry forces’ domination at the point of decision on the ancient battlefield. That he wrote the article is important. What’s equally important, however, is that others engage with the ideas he presented on their merits. Here, too, we can collectively do better. We are often too quick to write off new ideas because the author is too junior or from the wrong branch—or because an article envisions an “unlikely” scenario. Could technology, innovation, and the grit of the American soldier produce a heavily armed, well-protected infantryman capable of delivering shock, firepower, and overwhelming lethality on the future battlefield? Do we want our enemies to find out first?
The truth is, infantrymen, with their own biases, might never have had the insights that an armor officer’s perspective generates (and vice versa). That’s an important feature of disruptive writing. Perhaps even more important than whether Allgeyer or other disruptive military writers are correct are the conversations they spark that lead to thoughtful debate and forward thinking. Whether you agree, disagree, or find yourself somewhere in between, victory in tomorrow’s wars—whether dominated by heavy infantry, smaller tanks, or missile-laden Marines—starts with disruptive writing today.
Image credit: Pvt. Hayden Allega, US Army