Daydream Believers

Daydream Believers

Military transformation is seductive. The idea that you might see through the fog of war to assess the terrain, friendly forces and enemy forces on a battlefield is a powerful intoxicant that can lead to fantastic, almost God-like visions of military power. Those visions, in turn, inspire dreams of how a nation might harness military force to reshape the globe.

It's heady stuff. Unfortunately, as Fred Kaplan writes in his new book Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, it's also nearly entirely fiction. Innovations in battlefield surveillance, communications and computing do make a difference on the battlefield. But they are more evolutionary than revolutionary, at least as presently employed, and they do little to change the fundamentals of warfare that have remained constant for thousands of years. Further, these techno-centric systems have far less utility for counterinsurgencies and small wars than they do for conventional wars like Desert Storm -- and so, they have had only a marginal impact on the post-combat efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kaplan explores the history behind these transformative ideas and technologies, and lays bare the reasons why they have not borne fruit. (Full disclosure: Fred is my colleague at Slate, and we have occasionally collaborated on articles.) His slim volume is smoothly written, in the style of several long New Yorker articles connected by a common narrative, and it should be of interest both to military intellectuals and laypersons. At the core of his book is a powerful critique of the Bush administration -- which he labels a group of "daydream believers," paraphrasing a quote from T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia -- for its unwavering and irrational faith in American military power and omnipotence.

Much of this faith is rooted in admiration of American military technology and the belief that the "revolution in military affairs" enabled us to do anything we wanted in the world, with or without our allies, regardless of whoever opposed us. Kaplan walks us through this history, from the carpet bombing campaigns of World War II to the first precision-guided bombing of a bridge in North Vietnam to the Gulf War and its famous smart bomb videotapes to today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kaplan rightly points out that this revolution has never quite achieved its aim: perfect situational awareness coupled with perfect precision firepower.

But even if we had that technical ability, Kaplan writes, that shouldn't be the end of the matter. Just being able to do something doesn't mean you ought to do it.

Further, this military power has engendered a false belief that America can "go it alone" in the world, enforcing its will by force if necessary. Kaplan argues, convincingly, that this mentality has actually made America weaker. The allies, institutions, laws and norms that previously constrained American actions conferred legitimacy on our actions, ultimately enhancing our power and ability to get things done abroad. Whether in negotiating with North Korea or dealing with Europe and Russia, America has been substantially weakened over the past seven years by its neglect of alliances and international institutions -- the result of a flawed worldview that put too much faith in American exceptionalism and power.

The next president will inherit a rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq, an erratic situation in Afghanistan, a nearly broken Army, a mutated and resilient threat from Al Qaeda, and many other challenges. Kaplan's book does a good job describing the missteps of the Bush administration in creating this predicament. Let's hope the next president takes a more realistic outlook -- and ignores his or her daydreams in favor of reality.

By Phillip Carter |  April 11, 2008; 3:33 PM ET  | Category:  Books
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Fred Kaplan has his own side to protect in this debate. I would look for other sources. The proof is in the product, not the skeptic.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | April 11, 2008 4:17 PM

Give us two or three years to rebuild and we will have the best trrained military in the world. We will have tested officers and people with experience and a reason to stay until retirement.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | April 11, 2008 4:20 PM

"Just being able to do something doesn't mean you ought to do it."

Which is capability leading strategy which is what got us into this mess, in part. The other main element of that concoction from hell is narrow economic interest, the "business of America being business" in other words. The economic interests of the political investors behind Bush were very evident in the background to this war, but that has also been true of every "war of choice" America has ever fought. . . be it against Mexico, Spain or Germany in WWI. . .

Posted by: seydlitz89 | April 11, 2008 4:57 PM

Gary, you a member of the Fighting 101st Keyboarders?

Posted by: SocraticGadfly | April 11, 2008 5:07 PM


I see that point, and even wrote about it four years ago for the Washington Monthly:

But, that presupposes an end to Iraq in the near future. I don't see all that many troops sticking it out when a career in the Army means deploying every other year. But I've been saying that for a while now, and the force is still trucking along, so I could be wrong.

Posted by: Phillip Carter | April 11, 2008 6:03 PM

I suspect we're still thinking in terms of the destruction of the last of the "brown shoe" Army in Vietnam. There are significant structural differences in the Army of 2008as opposed to the Army of 1968:

1. The senior NCOs of Vietnam had come up through the conventional wars of WW2 and Korea. Vietnam was their first exposure to the endless Groundhog Day that is occupation/foreign counterinsurgency. They came, they saw, they hated it, they retired in droves. Today's E-7 has seen a whole bunch of these pointless imperial wars: Panama, the Balkans, Somalia, Gulf War 1 and now this thing. It's no less ugly but it's not the shock and surprise it was to the lifers post-Tet.

2. We've bred our own strain of troupes de marin, long-service professionals with more in common with each other than with the "folks back home". This kind of Army is much better prepared, mentally and physically, to do the dirty business of policing the imperial hustings than the draftee Army of Vietnam.

3. The bottom line is that professional, long-service imperial troops do stuff like this for a living, and probably can for longer then we believe. I suspect that the REAL breakdown is going to come morally, as our guys get used to the daily business of conducting bloody on the old, the young and the bystander, which is the inevitable product of flinging high-velocity projectiles around places where civilians live and work.

Sun Tzu said that protracted war is never good for a state. I would add that protracted guerilla war is never good for an Army. As much as it perfects the skills of ambush and counterambush it absorbs the horrific acceptence of the death of the civil society around it.

An imperial army abroad - as Caesar discovered - can be brought home to ply its trade...

Posted by: FDChief | April 11, 2008 11:16 PM

No quarrel with Kaplan's top level conclusions, but I think he is wrong about technology. I admit to bias here - I work on technology and fielding same to the soldiers.

Technology has a tremendous impact on COIN, but it is "small ball" technology - biometrics, information systems with data on people and terrain, translation systems, etc.

Traditional command and control structures do not work - too slow, and often the best information is owned by the platoon leaders, not the division commanders. Hence horizontal information capture and distribution is far more effective than the stove-piped, command-oriented C3I architecture now in place.

The apparent lack of impact is due to the need for considerable social engineering. Appropriate technology for COIN is different enough to require significant adjustments in doctrine, training and force structure. The impact of new technology is minimized until these adjustments are made.

My own experience suggests this is a process that takes a decade or more. We are in the middle of this process. Our performance is improving, and the technologies I mention are having an increasing impact.

Posted by: searp | April 12, 2008 7:16 AM

When I picked up this book I thought the title referred to the 1960's pop music hit by The Monkees. I guess Kaplan didn't intend that, but it makes a lot of sense. Kaplan documents some remarkably naive and dreamy-eyed beliefs that Bush/Cheney bring to foreign policy. That suggests to me that Bush/Cheney may have missed their calling, and that their skills might have been better used composing pop hits for the teen set. Some of their daydreams:

--- the belief that liberty is "God's gift" and "humanity's natural state";

--- the belief that The Revolution in Military Affairs changed not only how wars are fought but why. Considerations of the ultimate political outcome of a war is no longer necessary because America is the world's sole superpower.

--the belief that Missile Defense will keep us all safe;

In 200 pages Kaplan succeeds in painting the portrait of leaders who are drawn to extremes and absolutes like moths to a flame. They live in a techno-utopian dreamworld in which history and human nature have ceased to exist: war is no longer politics by other means; America isn't merely powerful, but omnipotent; absolute security is possible, and mankind will enter a liberty-utopia as soon as America can eliminate the bad guys.

Definitely a worthwhile read.

Posted by: steve | April 12, 2008 12:56 PM


"""We've bred our own strain of troupes de marin, long-service professionals with more in common with each other than with the "folks back home". [...]

An imperial army abroad - as Caesar discovered - can be brought home to ply its trade..."""

It wouldn't surprise me if what is happening is deliberate. Put your two sentences above together and you have a recipe for a force that can be used to brutally and efficiently quell domestic dissent. Even our police forces are become ever more detached from the regular civilian population, how much more so our professional military?

When you realize that every word coming from the neocons is a lie, including "and" and "the", you will then realize that "spreading democracy" is the very last thing they want to do.

Posted by: Soliton | April 12, 2008 1:48 PM

I'll have to pick up this book as my only exposure to it is this column. That being said, I agree with the argument Kaplan is making that many in the Bush administration including Rumsfeld were blinded by the idea of the RMA. They were equally blind to the other factors that bring victory, such as morale, leadership and knowledge of the enemy.

As a fan of military technology, I've been following tech developments over a number of years and I can say in a urban battlefield it's only really now that the technologies are being researched. Some have been adapted, but their main terrain mindset has always been the plains of Europe facing the Russian assault that never came.

One technology that comes to mind that fits possibly the bill of an RMA weapon is Darpa's ISIS program. The ubiquitous mass sensor surveillance had it been deployed might have reduced some of the problems we currently face. The problem is this is still a research project and I don't know if what Rumsfeld saw or envisioned for what we'd use in Iraq, but I have the strong impression he thought we already had those kind of technologies.

Another failure with the RMA and the Pentagon was not realizing that a technology can be helpful, but it really only has a decisive effect IF fielded in sufficient numbers. A token deployment of a tech will do nothing in terms of impact. Case in point, the CIWS that has been adapted for land use to shoot down rockets and mortars. The RAM threat after IED's, RPG's and snipers is next on the list of casualty producing weapons. With the CIWS, troops have a fighting chance to take those projectiles down, however only IF there are a sufficient number.

There are other problems with the RMA, but suffice to say, it surprises me that there wasn't more of an intellectual debate and exercise over its role in our military and its strength and weaknesses

Posted by: atacms | April 12, 2008 2:34 PM

I have just finished the book and found it most interesting. As a retired Army officer with a son and son-in law who have served in Iraq (my son is still there on his second tour), My view of what he describes in the equivalent of "the perfect storm." You have the neocons selling the idea of American limitless power and you have a naive, at best, President and a draft dodger vice president who has to prove his masculinity by swaggering us into a war. Add to that a SecDef who needed no advice from anyone and you have a disaster in the making. For additional spice add in senior military who, for all we can ascertain did nothing to constrain Rumsfeld and the outcome was preordained. They trashed GEN Shinseki who had the experience of Bosnia to buttress his argument about troop levels, but then who needs military advice when the civilians know it all. The outcome and the quagmire we are in is the only logical outcome that this mess could have come to. Let's hope we can get some sanity back into the government and get ourselves out of this mess before we totally destroy this great nation.

Posted by: Dick K | April 12, 2008 7:45 PM

The most accurate statement one can make about technology is that it is truly seductive, and always has been. The debate is nothing new. We kicked around the question: "Should doctrine drive technology, or should technology drive doctrine" 25 years ago at Command and General Staff College. Then as now, I support the former. One main reason is the old adage, "When your only tool is a hammer, you tend to see all problems as nails". And, when that hammer costs millions the need to find nails can become blinding.

Or, to draw on the wisdom of Douglass Adams' brilliant "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", while technology may be an answer, all too often, it's proponents have not yet determined what the question might be. And, as Adams demonstrates, an answer for which there is no question is meaningless.

There is a place for technology in the military. One identifies the objective to be achieved, and planning back from there, determines what is necessary to do so. Sometimes, we will find that the objective needs a better way of doing things. Other times we don't.

But, when a "revolution" itself becomes the objective, the tail begins to wag the dog.



Posted by: Aviator47 | April 13, 2008 9:36 AM

We already have the technology required to put a 500# bomb into any given window in Iraq. We can even fill the bomb with concrete instead of high explosive to reduce collateral damage: the kinetic energy would probably kill everyone in the room.

The problem is, we don't always know which window should be broken with 500# of concrete and mild steel casing.

All this stuff people are talking about in terms of C2 and stovepipes is a lot of advertising crap designed to suck money out of the US taxpayer. No matter how sophisticated your information processing system is, it's only as good as the info going into it.

Who's going to tell you there's only badguys in the room? Who's going to tell you that the guys in the room are even badguys? HUMINT is not reliable, there is a lot of score settling and attempted manipulation of the process, which has (and will continue) to bite us in Afghanistan and Iraq.

War sucks. It's messy. Lots of people get killed and some (maybe even most considering non-combat deaths from disease, malnutrition, etc) of them are not the right people. No amount of sophisticated algorithms, sensors, and computing power is going to change that.

So stop thinking that if only we could revolutionize things we could make war neat, clean and easy. Especially COIN operations!

Posted by: DDS | April 14, 2008 11:16 AM

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