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Troops shouldn't become reliant on technology

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One hears many arguments that the U.S. is in decline. Our economy is doing poorly and is likely to get worse, home foreclosures are on the increase and our currency isn’t worth very much. We are almost wholly reliant on commodities that we can’t afford that come from nations we can’t trust, many of them populated by restive citizens who hate us.

But we ought to take strength from the fact that we are, at least for the moment, a technological powerhouse. Granted, our schools are producing far fewer scientists and engineers than they should, and in many households there is an appalling lack of interest in the quality of their children’s education, but this country has been a powerful magnet for new ideas and creative ways to employ them.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that reliance on scientific advancement has made it attractive to do things that are easy rather than right. And there are few examples as eloquent as the use of technological innovation in combat.

When insurgents in Iraq recognized that it would be impossible to fight a successful conventional war against American firepower, they rapidly switched to the devastating use of improvised explosive devices. For years now, the large majority of American casualties have been the result of roadside bombs, with insurgents detonating these deadly things as we stubbornly cling to the practice of traveling on unsecured roads. Instead of clearing the roads, which is something we all learned at the outset of our military training, we turned to technological improvements in armor, not because it was a better solution but because we can. Defeating our improved armor, however, has not been impossible for the enemy: They have merely made the bombs bigger.

But reliance on technology has had an even more insidious effect: It has given commanders a tool to control combat actions many levels below them. in the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinelputs this troubling phenomenon into sharp relief.  Technology encourages nanomanagement, which is far worse than micromanagement from almost every standpoint.

While it may sound efficient for general officers to have the ability to control the activities of squads and even individual soldiers, it is corrosive in the extreme. For one thing, it bypasses the chain-of-command on which all training, discipline and success depend. Whatever immediate tactical benefits come from a general officer’s telling a non-commissioned officer exactly what to do with his squad of ten men are short-lived. And if there are many squads in contact, as there usually are in combat, relying on direct control will guarantee wider failure.

In addition, we may be rearing an entire generation of officers whose combat experience has been shaped by the distorting lens of nanomanagement and who themselves will view technology as more effective, and thus more important, than people. If our sad experiences in Vietnam and Iraq teach us anything, it is that there is no weapon more powerful than a group of young American warriors, but that failure will come at the hands of people who manage them rather than lead them.

Jack Jacobs is a military analyst and a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.