[April 23, 2020] In December 2004, I had the opportunity to interview captured Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. During that brief encounter at his prison cell at Camp Victory in Baghdad, I asked him one question, “Why did the Americans defeat your army?” Honestly, I wasn’t expecting an answer. But he smiled and told me that “defeat” is a Western concept and he didn’t believe in it. I thought to myself that he based his failed strategy on fighting the last war with us.
The more I thought about his remarks to me, the more I came to see his thinking as commonplace among military leaders throughout history. One of the more interesting mistakes in future planning is something called, fighting the last war. This means believing in and using a strategy that has been successful in the past but no longer works in the present.
Here are some examples from World War II that shines a light on fighting the last war. The U.S. Army came up with an armored doctrine before WWII that predicted tanks avoiding tank-to-tank battles. Enemy armor would be dealt with tank-destroyers, and the tanks would take on the infantry. We abandoned this concept early and for the right reason, it didn’t work. And, no one copied this idea for a good reason.
In the late 1930s, the British envisioned light-armored tankettes and independent jock columns to strike the enemy forces. But in combat, they could not stand up to the more heavily armored German formations and the pounding inherent in modern warfare. The French intended to fight a rigidly methodical battle and instead found themselves in a maneuver contest with the Germans. The early war went badly for them.
The Japanese believed their “warrior spirit” would make up for the lack of material, manpower, and technology. Their defeats were staggering after some initial surprise attacks but failed in the end. Even the Germans who we say got things right, fought a war designed on a short, sharp campaign and quickly bringing their enemies to the negotiating table. The Germans didn’t figure on a global war of attrition.
Each of these armies was getting ready to fight the last war. In a sense, they all do that; it’s unavoidable. How do you predict the future with enough precision to build a military force around it? This line of thinking is a real problem. The problem is not just for the military but for all walks of life. We learn past lessons and apply them. Doing so makes sense logically. Our relevant experiences dictate this line of thinking.
What we often do, however, is fail to look forward with sufficient clarity. Inward thinking works to a degree, and it is not that sort of thinking is easy once we get over our tendency to avoid self-criticism. The future is murky and full of chaos, complexity, and uncertainty. Fighting the last war as a method of fighting future wars allows us to feel good but rarely works. Today, the world moves too quickly.