Recently I got into an argument with some people on another blogs' comments.
I offered a certain argument/assertion among others; that a (small) unit (a platoon or company) should march divided, with some spacing. This would leave some elements free to respond by manoeuvre once contact with opposing forces has been made - one possible alternative to airstrikes and other huge material superiorities in the event of an ambush.
The response flabbergasted me, because it was from such a different world of thought: Some elements - moving and difficult to track or not - would still be overwhelmed and a flank attack would follow (or maybe he meant that a flank attack on the elements would happen - doesn't matter).
This made no sense to me. He seemed to prefer that the unit as a whole gets flanked instead of only a fraction. He also seemed to assert that the early warning of an element getting overwhelmed would not negate the "flank" characteristic of the attack.
Well, it's not exactly a secret that surprise is amongst the huge drivers of battlefield success, and having security details with some spacing has thus been utterly self-evident for a long time. Until recently, I guess.
The same discussion opponents brought forward the claim that Western military forces knew that Afghanistan is only a small war and would keep this in mind.
Well, that's the problem. People who get it wrong rarely get it that they get it wrong. They keep their confidence. This applies to me, too - no doubt. All humans suffer from this defect as far as I can tell. I still happen to think they were wrong, of course.
So what's the problem exactly?
I think that we -in the broad sense- have lost too much of old wisdom in recent small wars. To expose a fraction of a force to extreme risks in order to reduce the overall risks (and overall losses) has been a successful concept for thousands of years. Pickets, reconnaissance patrols too weak for a real fight, vanguard, rearguard, decoy forces - it has been self-evident, standard practice.
The entire idea that high risks may be acceptable and even the utterly correct choice if they apply only to a fraction of the force was lost. We reduce risks, without discrimination between useful and wasteful risks. We up-armour, we add support, we hesitate, we hunker down in bases, we throw more and more money at cheap problems, we mandate minimum patrol strengths that suffice for a firefight against local opposition if support is available (not a necessary characteristic of classic recce!), we don't expose decoy forces - we have lost much of the art of war.
This goes so far that quite often people cannot grasp basic and time-proven concepts any more - said concepts are too far away from how our forces do their business today.
I would love to buy into the optimism that we're oh-so competent and oh-so aware of the difference between small and great wars. I can't.
My professional experience has included contact with many different professions. Soldiers, engineers, economists, managers, lawyers, bureaucrats, workers, clerks - and they all had their profession-typical pattern of thinking. Their pattern of thought is often coined by their professional education at a university or by their social upbringing.
In the case of army troops I suspect that their pattern of thought forms within years of experience as well, and many junior leaders of Western armies had their formative years not in basic or in a NCO course, but in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their pattern of thought is a small wars pattern. They may believe that they understand the difference between small and great wars, but I suspect that all-too-often they only understand the superficial differences. They cannot switch to a great war pattern of thought.
They probably really lost this mental capacity.
"They" being of course only a majority or loud minority, for no military bureaucracy is 100% homogeneous.
Small wars are much more expensive than most accounts suggest: They badly reduce the efficiency of our spending on great war capability by manipulating our thinking into the small wars pattern of thought, and might even lead to eventual defeat in a great war.