By Quint Hoekstra ~

For over a generation, Western militaries have spent much of their attention on improving military technology while neglecting the damaging effects of their memories of the last war. This mental barrier has prevented them from fully understanding the implications of the changing character of war and undermined their ability to win the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The great Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote that “the advance of civilisation has done nothing practical to alter or deflect the impulse to destroy the enemy, which is central to the very idea of war”. [1] War, in other words, is here to stay. But the way in which wars are fought has substantially changed. Sun Tzu, writing over two millennia ago, boasted about his innovative use of drums and flags to signal fellow units. [2] Today’s commanders, by contrast, do so using satellite-guided systems. As the protagonist who is quickest to make use of new technology is more likely to prevail in a test of arms (all other factors being equal), Western militaries rightfully spend much of their time, money and energy on adapting to new gizmos.

Yet in this process, Western militaries have neglected the mental barrier of the last war. This barrier, which has similarly plagued other powers in the past, entails that much military forecasting, planning and execution is based on the practical experiences of the last conflict. When this war has been won, militaries have a tendency to copy-paste this war’s strategy and tactics directly onto new and different conflicts irrespective of the adversary. Mental barriers are even more ingrained when the last war was lost, as commanders set to straighten the record by perfecting the last war, rather than responding to the different context of the next war.

This article shows that the mental barrier of the last war has left Western militaries, despite their clear technological advantage, woefully unprepared for the demands placed on them in emerging armed conflicts. It is only during such wars that they learn most, both about themselves and the enemy, and adapt accordingly, only to repeat the same mistake again during their preparations for the next war. [3] This argument is illustrated through a brief overview of Western armed conflicts over the past 25 years, followed by a discussion on how this problem may be mitigated.

During the Cold War, which lasted for over forty years, the West experienced a tremendous advance in consumer technology, such as the introduction colour television and handheld calculators. NATO member states gladly spurred such inventions for military purposes in the belief that qualitative superiority may be able to offset the Soviet Union’s numerical and geographical advantage. This military embrace of technology is illustrated well in the superpower “space race” of the 1960s, followed by President Reagan’s “star wars” of the 1980s, which left the United States (US) in particular with a high-tech military.

As a full-on conflict with the communists (thankfully) never materialised, it was not until the First Gulf War that the United States, and the world at large, would see how the “revolution in military affairs”, as scholars had come to label the technological advance, would play out. War erupted in 1991 when the US came to the aid of Kuwait, which had been invaded by Iraqi armed forces on Saddam Hussein’s order. In the event, the US military proved to be such an effective and surgically precise war machinery that it could allegedly fly a missile through an open window. [4] This feat is made all the more impressive considering that this predated the invention of modern computing power. Realizing he had made a terrible mistake, Saddam quickly acceded to US demands.

Increases in kinetic power can yield battlefield advantage. However, when disparities in power asymmetries become too large, the adversary will negate this by changing to irregular tactics.

The Gulf War’s military success came much to the pleasure of politicians and top military brass alike, who had long lamented the seemingly endless struggles during the Vietnam war. US President George H.W. Bush later reflected on the defeat of Iraqi forces by saying “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all”. [5] Yet this relatively small war’s success instilled a memory that would obstruct military effectiveness for a generation.

The First Gulf War reinforced existing ideas in the US military, as well as other NATO member states, about the efficacy of the application of hard power, and the prominent role of advanced military technology. [6] This assessment initially appeared to be correct; technology had elevated the US to such a unipolar high that, for a brief period of time, the world enjoyed a “Pax Americana”, an US-led era of peace. Politicians around the world quickly interpreted the peace dividend as an opportunity to slash defence budgets.

Unfortunately, Clausewitz soon proved to be right after all. The New World Order, as President Reagan called it, was no stranger to war; the 1990s were marked by a proliferation of genocides in places such as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, followed by the first major attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor. The US responded to 9/11 in the only way it knew how: by the abundant use of force, made possible through ever improved technology. Initially, this proved to be no match for the Afghan Taliban, and later – for slightly different reasons – the Iraqi government. The world was once again in “shock and awe” of US-led firepower.

Both wars, however, soon bogged down into a lethal quagmire. Blinded by the Gulf War’s success, the US made the fundamental mistake to assume the enemy would once again agree to fight on their terms. But both in Afghanistan and Iraq, insurgents quickly noticed the power asymmetry was sufficiently large that a direct confrontation would effectively constitute insurgent suicide. They therefore opted for an indirect approach, which relies on classic guerrilla tactics such as hit and run attacks and placing roadside bombs. The insurgents sought to prolong the conflict, frustrate the adversary and render their technological advantage near useless. This way, technologically weaker protagonists are able to prevent an much stronger adversary from winning. [7]

The consequences of this were painfully unclear to the US military until late 2006, when the US Army produced its first update of counterinsurgency doctrine in a generation in the form of Field Manual 3-24. [8] By relearning old and hard-won lessons by the United Kingdom in so-called “irregular” or “small” wars in exotic locations such as Kenya and Malaya, the US adopted a new strategy which is commonly referred to as COIN (a shorthand for counterinsurgency) or colloquially “winning hearts and minds”. [9] Shedding the memories of the First Gulf War had a tremendously positive effect on the US’ prospects, particularly the ‘surge’ of troops in Iraq led by General Petraeus. Yet these efforts soon turned out to be half-hearted, time-bound affairs. Rather than try to win these wars, the US simply wanted out. President Obama had been elected on this very promise.

With NATO ground forces now having largely been withdrawn from both Afghanistan and Iraq, Western military commanders have returned to their barracks with ample time to study what went right and wrong. This will most definitely yield interesting insights, and may very well be helpful to fight the next war which, as Clausewitz said, will surely come. Aspects that are particularly likely to improve are greater civil-military cooperation and cultural sensitivity, as well as the development of coherent conflict narratives.

Yet it would be a fallacy to think that perfecting the last war is the best way to prepare for future conflict. The mental barrier of the First Gulf War has been a major obstacle to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is tempting to think that the successful strategy and tactics of a war won should serve as the ideal guidance for the next conflict. But enemies evolve and adapt to power asymmetries. Blind faith in existing practice, coupled with a near religious belief in the efficacy of superior military technology, is therefore misplaced.

The generals’ tendency to “fight the last war”, however, should not be taken as an accusation as much as an observation; it is understandably incredibly difficult to let go of the last war – particularly when it was lost – and focus on how future adversaries are likely to adapt. Military analysts and planners are forgiven in being overwhelmed and daunted by the sheer complexity of anticipating the future. As US Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld once famously said, there are those things the military knows are unknown, and there are the “unknown unknowns”; the latter are the aspects of war that simply cannot be prepared for. [10]

That is not to say, however, there is nothing to be said about the direction of war and warfare. As students of strategy have long known, while the character of war changes, its nature does not. [11] The world appears to become increasingly connected, allowing non-state actors to play a more prominent role in global politics, which may significantly alter the use and utility of military power. [12] On a related issue, the mediatisation of war is making non-physical aspects of war, such as images and videos, more important. [13]

Today, it remains unclear how this will manifest itself exactly in war. While NATO member states are preparing themselves for the perfect counterinsurgency campaign, the next conflict may very well be a conventional interstate conflict with Russia or China. Militaries are therefore best advised to maintain a varied “toolbox” of war, as their maintenance costs are small change compared to another war lost. Talk of “task specialisation”, in which each of the smaller NATO member states focus on acquiring unique military capabilities, are premature.

While the mental barrier of the last war can never be fully resolved, it can be reduced. Rather than attempting to perfect the last war, Western militaries should seek to supersede it. An fitting if perhaps unexpected example of this is the German Wehrmacht, which managed to overcome the terrible stalemate of trench warfare during the First World War not with larger rifles or better manoeuvres but with the completely novel invention of the Blitzkrieg. This made excellent use of emerging technologies and, most importantly, was used not to outfight but to outsmart the adversary.

Western military strategists may very well make use of modern information technologies, such as strategic media narratives and cyber warfare, to develop such a new, 21st century approach to modern warfare. But in order to overcome the mental barrier of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they must first start with a full understanding of Western society and its armed forces, as well as its likely future adversaries. As Sun Tzu said: “[k]now the enemy and know yourself [and] in a hundred battles you will never be in peril”. [14]

Quint Hoekstra graduated with distinction in Political Science (BSc) at Leiden University and in Conflict, Security and Development (MA) at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His research largely focuses mainly on insurgencies, their evolution and their relationship with supporting states.


  1. Clausewitz, Carl von. [1832] 1984. On War, ed. transl. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton University Press., 76.
  2. Griffith, Samuel B. 1963. Sun Tzu: The Art of War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 107.
  3. For an excellent discussion on in-war learning see Nagl, John. 2002. Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Westport: Praeger Publishers.
  4. Marc Cersaini. 2003. The Future of War: The Face of Twenty-First Century Warfare. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 32.
  5. Bush, George H.W. 1991. “Remarks to the American Legislative Exchange Council”. March 1.
  6. Betz, David. 2015. Carnage and Connectivity: Landmarks in the Decline of Conventional Military Power. London: Hurst & Company.
  7. For a discussion on this see Arreguín-Toft, Ivan. 2001. “How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict.” International Security 26(1): 93-128. For a rival take on why military strong states lose wars see Mack, Andrew. 1975. “Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetrical Conflict.” World Politics 27(2): 175-200.
  8. U.S. Department of the Army. 2014. FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies. Washington.
  9. The term “winning hearts and minds” was first coined by the British General Gerald Templer during the Malayan Emergency. See Thompson, Robert. 1966. Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experiences from Malaya and Vietnam. London: Chatto & Windus.
  10. Rumsfeld, Donald. 2011. Known and Unknown: A Memoir. New York: Penguin Group.
  11. Gray, Colin S.2009. “Schools for Strategy: Teaching Strategy for 21st Century Conflict”. Strategic Studies Institute.
  12. Betz, 2015. See also Smith, Rupert. 2005. The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
  13. Bolt, Neville. 2012. The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.
  14. Griffith 1963, 84.
  15. Duyvesteyn, Isabelle. 2013. “Strategic Illiteracy: The Art of Strategic Thinking in Modern Military Operations.” Inaugural lecture on acceptance of Special Chair in Strategic Studies, Leiden University.

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