What’s in a Name: The Problem with “Warfighter”

Back in the late 1990s, when the Army was being all that it could be, the Army began leaning into the concept that soldiers should think of themselves as “warriors” in order to increase the fighting spirit of the force. I’ve already said my rant, er, I mean, my piece on this, which you can find here. But that same thought process of the time gave rise to another monstrosity: warfighter.

Now, not only is this an assault on the English language in general – “I’m not a teacher, I’m a smartsgiver” – it is also patently and dangerously misleading. Why? Because it assumes that the sole role of the Army – and the military in general – is to only fight wars. The Army has gone one step further and made sure that no one escape just what the Army’s mission is, by giving itself its own mission: “To deploy, fight and win our nation’s wars by providing ready, prompt and sustained land dominance by Army forces across the full spectrum of conflict as part of the joint force.” Pretty convenient when you get to issue your own mission statement, huh?

Now, you might be saying, “What’s the big deal? Shouldn’t we always want the Army to think about winning wars?” Sure, yes, absolutely. Only, see, the problem is, the Army spends most of its time not fighting actual wars. Throughout the history of the Army’s conflicts, “war” – the political act of nations trying to impose their will on each other via violence – takes a very back seat role. Conflict, yes. There’s plenty of that. Irregular, always messy, few clearly defined rules, shifting objectives, politically fraught, sometimes ethnically or racially charged, fought with either little fanfare or with intense media interest. These conflicts have happened anywhere from North America to Africa, from the Pacific to the Middle East, from Siberia to Latin America.

There are also plenty of the Army’s missions that have nothing whatsoever to do with conflict: since 1787, the Army has engaged in public relief missions, infrastructure construction, labor disputes, management of federal lands or national parks, natural disaster relief, or dealing with public unrest. All told, these types of combat missions and non-combat missions make up the majority of what the U.S. Army does.

So, why does this happen? Why does the Army mostly do things that don’t sound like killing people and breaking stuff? Because as much as the AGSU-wearing folks in the five-sided puzzle palace would like you to believe that the Army is actually the master of its fate and the captain of its soul, it is not. The Army receives its missions from the executive branch of the U.S. and its funding from the legislative branch. So while the Army would love to focus on nothing but fighting conventional wars, sometimes the political will of the nation requires it to do something else. Most of the time, the nation’s political and public wills are in unison. Oftentimes, however, the political will diverges from the public will and the Army can find itself fighting a confusing conflict without the support of the people it serves. Obviously, this is not something the Army is excited about.

And so, we turn to the concept of the warfighter. This concept that says that our nation’s military force will only be used for achieving overwhelming military superiority over our nation’s enemies. This concept is troubling for two main reasons.

One, that we have decided as an article of faith that establishing military dominance wins wars. This is all the more amazing since this is the Army that can’t stop quoting Clausewitz’s dictum about war as a continuation of politics. Somewhere along the way, we stopped actually thinking about what that meant. We began to believe that war and politics could be separated from each other, as if they did not go hand-in-hand.

The consequence of this has been to separate the political from the military ends in conflict. John Shy and Thomas Collier put it best in their chapter on “Revolutionary War since 1945” in Makers of Modern Strategy, when talking about the U.S. military’s response to Vietnam: “The senior American military commanders never took seriously the idea that the political effort, presumably going on behind the security screen provided by large-scale combat operations, should have equal or greater priority.” ​(page 856)

This sort of assumption about combat dominance leading to victory also has played a hand in the overall tactical focus of the modern-day U.S. Army. Nearly all leaders with combat experience have had it only at the tactical level rather than the operational or strategic, where things other than firepower dominance come into play. This, in turn, leads to a generation of leaders who only know how to apply tactical solutions to strategic problems.

The second reason that the concept of a “warfighter” is troubling goes back my first point surrounding the Army’s missions. If our leaders only expect to be warfighters, what happens when they’re presented with a situation short of war? And as a reminder, that has been the vast majority of the Army’s experience since the nation was founded. Are we properly building leaders who are capable of handling a diverse range of tactical, operational, and strategic problems if we maintain a myopic focus on the concept of a warfighter?

While it is true that winning wars against the nation’s existential threats is a no-fail mission, failing in other conflicts can severely damage the military’s credibility. Building generations of leaders who only see their role as “managers of violence” does little to help the U.S. navigate the complex waters of geopolitics in the 21st century.

Enjoy what you’ve just read? Please share on social media using the buttons below.

Views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.

One Reply to “What’s in a Name: The Problem with “Warfighter””

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: