At the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on October 13, former Senator and current AEI scholar Jim Talent sat down for a conversation with Senator Tom Cotton about the need to “rebuild” America’s military. The wide-ranging discussion marked the release of a new report from AEI’s Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies. While the former and current senators touched on a number of topics, their discussion of the Iraq War is indicative of the problems with their “more is always better” approach to military planning.

Talent and Cotton, the latter having served in Iraq, lamented the small size of the Army at the time of the invasion. They argued that the service had been cut too deep during the force reductions following the end of the Cold War. The Army being  too small meant that there was an insufficient number of personnel to secure the country in the aftermath of the invasion, allowing it to descend into the chaos and insurgency that followed.

There are several problems with this selective history, but two are worth highlighting here.

First, the relatively small Army that invaded Iraq was a feature of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s war plan. In their retelling, Talent and Cotton failed to mention the controversy that erupted when Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki told Congress that an invasion force of “several hundred thousand” troops was necessary to secure the country.

Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz publicly dismissed Shinseki’s estimate, while behind the scenes they marginalized him for the remainder of his tenure as chief of staff. The smaller invasion force of 150,000 that Rumsfeld pushed for was part of an ongoing “transformation” effort that would make the entire military into a lighter, faster force.

Moreover, the smaller invasion force was a key selling point for the invasion. While the specter of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was key to marketing the war, the idea that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would be a “cakewalk” also helped lay the groundwork. Given the American public’s aversion to casualties, the prospect of a large invasion force might have raised uneasy questions about the wisdom of going to war. American war planners have long tried to substitute capital for labor to minimize casualties. The use of a smaller invasion force, combined with advanced information technologies and precision weapons that were supposed to be part of a revolution in military affairs, was precisely in line with that tradition.

The second problem with Talent and Cotton’s recounting of the Iraq invasion is their embedded counterfactual. They imply that, had the defense budget not been cut following the collapse of the Soviet Union—thus preserving the military’s force structure at numbers they deemed adequate—the Army that invaded Iraq would have been larger. This larger Army would have been better prepared to face the insurgency that emerged following the invasion.

That alternate history, however, assumes the Army would have been adequately prepared to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The service’s history and organizational preferences suggest otherwise. As discussed here previously, the Army has long had a preference for a particular type of warfare—what defense analyst Andrew Krepinevich dubbed the “Army Concept.” This type of warfare includes a conventional adversary and is firepower-intensive to reduce casualties.

Cotton and Talent may argue that with greater funding during the 1990s, the Army may have been able to prepare for both their preferred style of warfare and counterinsurgency operations. However, that seems unlikely based on recent Army history. Counterinsurgency was anathema to the Army’s post-Vietnam preferences. As Krepinevich noted  during Ronald Reagan’s defense build-up, when the military was flush with cash, instead of incorporating lessons for counterinsurgency learned during the Vietnam War into Army doctrine and training, the service instead attempted to raise political barriers to ensure it did not have to conduct those operations. Even if the defense budget–and the Army– during the 1990s remained at the levels Talent and Cotton desired, it does not follow that the service would have been better prepared to secure Iraq and prevent the calamities that followed given its long-standing organizational preference.