The Secret Brilliance of “You go to war with the Army you have…”

donald rumsfeld press conference

“You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish you had at a later time.”

That infamous quote by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, absent of the context in which it was spoken, is actually brilliant in its simplicity and reflects the reality of modern combat, or really, modern combat logistics.

Secretary Rumsfeld, of course, was chided for making the comment, which was in response to a Specialist who asked why his unit has to rummage through trash heaps to find scrap metal to weld onto old humvees. The more palatable answer would have been to mumble something about resourcing the Greatest Army in the World and that the process takes time. Instead, Secretary Rumsfeld spoke the truth, which came out as insensitive. Context matters, and in this case, the Iraq War was wildly unpopular at the time, and Secretary Rumsfeld was under fire for (mis)managing the war. The quip came off as another one of his dodges in the same vein of his famously fiery press conferences.

It’s unfortunate, because the statement is both true and can be used on an almost daily basis in military life. It can hardly be said today, though, without a chuckle or raised eyebrow.

The truth is, as former Secretary Gates would say, the American public, and by extension, the American military, often has a “cartoonish” view of what our own military capabilities are. We can land a man on the moon, so of course, ipso facto, we can outfit an entire expeditionary Army with the correct armor to defeat a growing and adapting threat, right?

An interesting challenge for modern military leaders is the fact that we know that there are capabilities and resources out there that we would absolutely love to have on every mission. Someone can send me a picture with their iPhone of the exact part I need for one of my Strykers that’s sitting in a shed somewhere on the other side of the world. It’s exactly what I need, but it’s still on the other side of the world. If the mission calls for me to roll out now, then I have to roll out right now.

Assets that may have been available for one mission or one conflict or one deployment might not be available for another, even though they are indeed “available” in the grand context of that meaning – they exist. If they exist, then to the modern military leader who is accustomed to being in the Greatest Army in the World, they should be available for use, at all times.

When I originally joined the Army, that myth existed pretty strongly in my imagination. I remember rolling my eyes (figuratively, not literally) at my Sergeants who were telling me that we would have to make sure we stow away our magazines when we change them under fire; we would not have the luxury of resupply. My thinking was, if I was in a firefight, screw trying to fiddle with stuffing a magazine in my cargo pocket, I’m concentrating on shooting, there would be more magazines in the supply office after the mission. That imagination was smashed by the reality of actual combat service, including running out of food for a couple of days during the initial invasion of Iraq. I remember actually saying to my Squad Leader in the middle of the desert: “Out of food? This is America! This is 2003! How the hell do we run out of food?” Yet, we did.

We went to war with the Army we had.

All the gizmos and gadgets and assets that flood the modern battlefield are great. But if they’re not there (for whatever reason), then the assumption should not be that the mission should be scratched. Same for training.

Transportation got nixed? Walking is an option, you know.

Anyway, the point of all this is that it is actually hard to stand up in front of soldiers and say to them “you go to war with the Army you have,” probably because of Secretary Rumsfeld’s gaffe.

With that said, the Army I need includes a 900’ REAPER.

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