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Do We Have Any Idea How to Deal with North Korea?

According to the tenets of current American military thought and practice—that is, “wars amongst the people” fought to win the hearts and minds of local populations—the capacity to have three cups of tea with a local sheik equals the ability to counter and coordinate artillery fires. Indeed, America’s conventional war-fighting capacity has atrophied to the point that a recent internal Army report termed artillery America’s “dead branch walking.” And, yet, here we are, watching the two Koreas exchange artillery fire and sit on the precipice of war—a war in which the United States Army would be deeply involved, fully equipped, and presumably trained for a cup of tea. 

The vogue that counterinsurgency has enjoyed over the past three years stifled arguments to the contrary; the prospect that future wars might involve something other than fighting insurgents who set off IEDs and then scamper away elicited nothing but derision. Suggesting that perhaps the United States military may soon have to fight a war where actual armies square off against each other labels one as a member of the old school, a pea-brained dinosaur in the “doesn’t get it club.” Never mind that the mantra after Operation Desert Storm was that there would never be another Desert Storm. Never mind, too, that after the next Desert Storm blew up—the drive to Baghdad in 2003—the only (and unlikely) scenario that planners could envision for conventional war involved conflict on the Korean peninsula: We now have a conflict on the Korean peninsula. 

There is an irony in the North Korean bombardment of Yeonpyeong. It was this very same island that General Douglas MacArthur used in the early months of the Korean War in 1950 from which to launch his massive amphibious invasion at Inchon. The notion that war would one dayrevisit Yeonpyeong simply did not compute. American Army General William Caldwell noted in a published article in a professional journal just a few years ago:

The future is not one of major battles and engagements fought by armies on battlefields devoid of population; instead, the course of conflict will be decided by forces operating among the people of the world. Here, the margin of victory will be measured in far different terms than the wars of our past. The allegiance, trust, and confidence of populations will be the final arbiters of success.

Of course, wars in recent history, even when fought by armies on fields of battles, never unfolded far from populations and routinely tore through the center of them. But a future absent “major battles and engagements”? Apparently the North Koreans haven’t read the U.S. Army’s new counterinsurgency manual.

Quite aside from the numbers problem (the ability of the U.S. Army to generate combat brigades to fight in Korea), what American faces in Korea is a problem of theory. The insistence that foes would no longer test America’s conventional military prowess is the very pillar on which current thinking about American military purpose and policy rests. Korea punctures that conviction. To be sure, war on the Korean peninsula would rely heavily on American firepower delivered from the air and from the sea and, of course, from the South Koreans themselves. But the U.S. Army would almost certainly have a crucial role to play, whether in assisting the South in occupying the North or fighting squarely against it.  

History shows what happens to militaries when they shackle themselves to narrow conceptions of warfare. To take one recent (non-American) example, the Israeli Army by 2006 had become an Army largely focused on low-intensity conflict in the Palestinian Territories. But, when the IDF was called on to fight a sophisticated foe in Lebanon, it became clear very quickly that the Israeli Army had forfeited its most basic ground-fighting skills.

There is a straightforward and bottom line here. An American military force that can coordinate firepower and best a powerful foe can also engage locals and practice lower tech warfare. But a military that focuses on how to kibbitz may face serious challenges when called upon to do the reverse.  

Colonel Gian Gentile commanded a combat battalion in West Baghdad in 2006. Currently, he is a Visiting Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.