Anyone not gobsmacked by the idea of flying a helicopter on Mars has no soul. The sight of NASA’s Ingenuity conducting the first powered flight on another planet should have left all Americans awed—and deeply impressed with themselves.
Innovation, adaption, and creativity may not be an American birthright, but it is surely in the American DNA. Our people have long applied these innovative skills in military affairs, making ingenuity part of the American way of war.
The traditional view of the American military is as a large bureaucratic organization, one in which orders come from the top and are executed at the bottom. There is truth in that. But, there is another face to how Americans fight.
Arguably, it really began with the G.I. generation, the first generation of soldiers that grew up comfortable with modern industrial age technology. These were kids that built jalopies in their garage, poured over glossy full-color issues of Popular Mechanics, read “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” comic books, listened to his adventures on the radio, and watched Buck pilot rocket ships in the Saturday morning serials at the Bijou.
They were tinkerers, problem-solvers, risk-takers, and daydreamers. They were curious, gum-chewing, chain-smoking out-spoken kids. They were a generation well-prepared to improvise, innovate, and adapt technology on the battlefield. They were the ones who figured out how to make the armor, artillery, and airpower that American factories provided in such abundance on the battlefield.
And since they were a generation who had unprecedented technology available to them to fight, their ability to innovate with technology proved an immeasurable combat edge. One example is how the Americans came up with practical solutions to improve coordination between fighter planes and ground forces.
The best of the least-remembered innovators of his era was Elwood R. (“Pete”) Quesada. Thomas Alexander Hughes wrote Quesada’s biography—“Over Lord: General Pete Quesada and the Triumph of Tactical Air Power in World War II” (1995)—in “an effort to recover the lost memory” the general and his wartime innovations.
In Normandy, Quesada commanded IX Tactical Air Command (TAC), responsible for providing close air support to the First Army. From clunky radios that rarely worked to trying to navigate fighters by paper maps strapped to the pilot’s knee, there was no end to the challenge of getting fire where it was needed to support the troops on the ground. One of Quesada’s key innovations was “column cover,” an air-ground tactic that paired cycling a flight of fighter planes with the lead tanks in an armored column. This allowed ground troops to get accurate fire support virtually instantly when needed.
After the war, GI ingenuity became an enduring feature of the citizen-soldier. Through the Cold War up to today, the Army has placed a premium on retaining or recapturing the GIs’ ability to learn, innovate, adapt, and improvise. Take William DePuy, who fought with the infantry in World War II and commanded a division in Vietnam. When he spoke to soldiers about fighting, he preached the value of aggressive, adaptive, imaginative, and innovative leadership. It was an idea he learned fighting in France. Figuring out on the ground how to best make technology meet the situation at hand remained a vital attribute of the American way of war.
Today, American soldiers like the title of “warrior” because it reflects the recognition that there is a timeless dimension to land combat beyond the current technology at their disposal. “You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it for civilization,” T.R. Fehrenbach famously wrote about the Korean conflict in This Kind of War (1963), “you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.”
After the Cold War, Army leaders frequently quoted Fehrenbach to remind that, even in an age of high-tech weapons, war was still a human contest—a battle of action and counteraction between thinking, determined foes. Wars could never be won by technology alone. There would always be a need for what the generals called “boots on the ground.” There would always be a need for warriors.
While today’s soldiers celebrate their warrior roots, they still head to war laden with a tremendous amount of technology. And modern American warriors retain the old GI’s capacity to innovate and adapt technology on the battlefield.
A group of young captains teaching at the U.S. Military Academy offered an interesting case in point. In the baby days of the Internet, they wanted to create an online tool to share combat leadership experience. Once they were up and running, their site sparked a string of clunky cyber contacts, mostly through email. The dialogue left them thinking they were on to something but frustrated that the conversations were not more real-time and interactive, nor could they be easily shared with others.
One of them suggested they try building a virtual community, pointing to a website called Alloutdoors.com (now long defunct) which hosted a message board where sportsmen could post questions and solicit advice. Not only did the site allow for back and forth chats; it segmented discussions into different issue areas so that hunters, fishermen, and hikers could go right to the topics they were interested in. If the web could help explain how to dress a deer, they reasoned, it ought to be able to address the challenges of command.
On their own, they created companycommander.com, which became one of the military’s first and most successful social networks. If they had applied their innovation to the civilian world, they would have been Facebook—before Facebook. Still, they demonstrated that the innovative spirit of those in uniform is still very much alive.
This piece originally appeared in The National Interest https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/secret-reason-america-wins-wars-it-wages-185202