Adaptation under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime

  • Published

Adaptation under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime by David Barno and Nora Bensahel. Oxford University Press, 2020, 430 pp. 

Is the US military adaptable enough for the types of conflict it will face in the future? That is the question at the heart of Adaptation Under Fire. David Barno, a retired lieutenant general and the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, and Nora Bensahel, a strategic studies professor, bring an authoritative analysis on the US military’s attempts to adapt their doctrine, technology, and leadership in past conflicts. The book provides a thought-provoking and in-depth analysis of the US military’s successes and failures to adapt.

Adaptation Under Fire argues that adaptation is vital to the US military, as the nature of the next conflict is impossible to predict. Barno quotes former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who once said that since Vietnam the United States has a perfect record in predicting the next war: “We have never once gotten it right”(1). This premise, that wars are impossible to predict and adaptability is key to military success, is a central tenet of the book. The authors evaluate adaptation through the framework of doctrine, technology, and leadership. They argue that these three areas are the most critical components of military adaptation. The bulk of the book is devoted to evaluating the US military's ability to adapt in these three areas during the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The book is well-researched and relies heavily on detailed case studies to illustrate how militaries have successfully adapted in past wars. From World War I to the Yom Kippur War and Afghanistan, the book provides a rich historical perspective on how adaptation has impacted success in military conflict. These case studies provide a strong foundation for the reader to understand the nature of successful adaptation and the consequences of armies that fail to adapt.

But Barno and Bensahel focus primarily on America’s recent wars, and they pull no punches in critiquing the US military’s failures. The authors argue that “Leadership may be the most important factor affecting wartime adaptability” (174) and blame some of the top commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq for failure to adapt to the conflict they were fighting.

This critique is especially convincing given that Barno was formerly the top US commander in Afghanistan.  It took years for the United States to implement a successful counterinsurgency strategy and too often an overly bureaucratic leadership stuck with losing strategies for years on end. Not only did the top leaders fail to recognize the need for change; at times, they actively resisted the attempts of tactical commanders to adapt to the enemy.

Despite serious US failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the authors praise the American record of adaptation at the tactical level and highlight several instances of tactical leaders adopting new and innovative strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The authors make a point to differentiate tactical and strategic adaptation and are careful to not paint with too broad a brush when critiquing U.S. efforts in the Middle East.

Adaptation Under Fire’s biggest flaw is that it focuses primarily on the U.S. Army and only highlights adaptation during land wars. There are several compelling historical examples of adaptation at sea and in the air that could have been used. While the authors rightly devote an entire chapter to the nature of future wars and highlight the role that air, cyber, and space will play, the book’s narrow focus leaves something to be desired.

Barno and Bensahel conclude that the US military has a troubling track record of adaptation. Adaptation under Fire provides a compelling argument that the wars of the twenty-first century require adaptable militaries who can keep up with an unprecedented rate of change. Barno and Bensahel leave the reader with several recommendations for the US military to become more adaptable. On the heels of America’s much-maligned retreat from Afghanistan, this book is a must-read for all those who want to prepare for tomorrow’s wars.

Captain James M. Kennedy, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."