Forging the Sword

Forging the Sword

Doctrinal Change in the U.S. Army

Benjamin M. Jensen

Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2016, 216 pages

Book Review published on: June 2, 2017

From the post-Vietnam War era to the end of the Cold War, and amid the enduring aftershocks of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Army has experienced near-continuous transformation. As a period characterized by large troop commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan passes—however haltingly—into history, the Army again confronts the challenge of “winning in a complex world.” This time, however, potential threats take many forms, placing a premium on the force’s ability to adapt and innovate. To the bevy of contemporary works focused on this urgent yet chronic problem, Benjamin M. Jensen’s Forging the Sword proves a thoughtful addition. A professor at Marine Corps University, as well as at American University’s School of International Service, Jensen maintains a commission in the U.S. Army Reserve and approaches the process of doctrinal development as both scholar and practitioner. He has deployed to Kosovo and Afghanistan in the past decade, and he recently served on the Army Chief of Staff’s Strategic Studies Group.

Previous studies cast doctrinal development in the U.S. Army as a matter of bureaucratic self-preservation, forceful civilian intervention, or cultural adherence to an attrition-based way of war. Jensen nevertheless finds these oft-cited drivers unpersuasive. Rather, he argues that new doctrine has sprung from within, as military professionals anticipated the future and determined how best to fight under such conditions. To be sure, a myriad of internal and external catalysts may have influenced these periods of debate and reflection, but the process, according to Jensen, has been above all an authentic, focused, and officer-driven “search,” with each effort leading to a “new theory of victory” that articulated “solutions to a particular operational problem.” In this recurrent “war of ideas,” Jensen highlights two consistent mechanisms of doctrinal change: incubators (or protected spaces) that facilitate the development of new approaches and advocacy networks that diffuse them—often with the top cover of Army senior leaders.

Jensen applies this framework for understanding doctrinal innovation in chapter-length treatments of four case studies. The first considers the formulation of active defense as a way of fighting outnumbered against the Soviets on the envisaged battlefields of Central Europe in the 1970s. Received across the force with ambivalence, active defense set the stage for debate that resulted less than a decade later in the adoption of AirLand Battle, the subject of Jensen’s second case study. In the third, the 1990s witnessed the end of the Cold War and a related reframing of U.S. Army doctrine to account for the challenges of a “new world order” in which military operations across the “full spectrum” grew in notoriety. Jensen’s fourth case study—the shortest by a noticeable margin—centers on the development of counterinsurgency doctrine in 2006.

In line with his deliberate focus on process, Jensen levies no judgment on the effectivenss or suitability of the doctrine each episode produced. He sidesteps the debates on forms of counterinsurgency and their application in Iraq, for instance, choosing neither to analyze the impact of 2007’s “population-centric” approach nor to compare it to the preceding one. Here, the author eludes a potential quagmire, but this decision may frustrate readers. The same goes for his treatment of active defense. Forging the Sword holds up Gen. William DePuy as an exemplar for how to implement doctrinal change. That his methods included securing buy-in through “entrapment,” or that the Army soon replaced the doctrine he instituted, barely alters the storyline.

Still, with its emphasis on ideas as perhaps the most prominent factor in shaping U.S. Army doctrine in recent decades, the book provides plenty of grist for the mill of reflection. In the foreword, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster compliments Jensen for providing “insights into how to foster learning organizations that can anticipate the challenges of future armed conflict and develop the ability to meet those challenges.” This reviewer echoes that praise.

Book Review written by: Col. James S. Powell, PhD, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas