Air University Press Banner

Scales on War: The Future of America's Military at Risk

Scales on War: The Future of America’s Military at Risk by Maj Gen Bob Scales, USA, retired. Naval Institute Press, 248 pp.


The general public and government alike believe that the US Medal of Honor is one of the most prestigious awards a military service member can receive. However, Maj Gen Bob Scales, USA, retired, would argue that medals like these are the result of unnecessary heroism (p. 1). The author uses Scales on War as a rallying cry, alerting readers to the past, present, and future ills facing personnel assigned to infantry units in the Army and Marine Corps. Evident in the book are the general’s extensive combat background and refreshing candor in proposing arguments for revamping and renewing the way the United States comprehends and executes intimate combat.

The work begins with interesting—sometimes counterintuitive—observations about the nature of war itself. After a brief examination of the military genius of World War II–era Japanese colonel Hiromichi Yahara, Major General Scales concludes that, on Yahara’s advice, perhaps the United States should fight the next war like it did the last one (p. 25). He follows with narrative that, at its essence, suggests that war is not as complicated as proponents of technological advancement would have one believe: “Non-Western militaries are increasingly internalizing the lessons of war against technologically superior enemies” (p. 35). The author has an innate ability to drive home his point by including relevant facts and figures, stating, for instance, that most of the recent deaths in close combat (52 percent) occurred during searches for the enemy (p. 58).

In instances like these, Scales shows his discontent concerning the lack of proper equipment that these Soldiers and Marines receive. Interestingly, he mentions that the use of simple off-the-shelf body-camera technology could give small units an edge, even preventing some ambushes altogether. The author thus brings into question the seemingly skewed priorities of acquisitions processes and decisions (e.g., purchasing a bright-and-shiny state-of-the-art fighter jet over new rifles and machine guns for infantrymen and -women).

Next, Scales tackles the intangibles of war fighting such as human factors of intuition, narratives, and intentions. He most certainly advocates that decision makers have a strong understanding that today’s wars are not simply fought by faster jets, better bullets, or bigger tanks. Even at the small-unit level, body cameras and more advanced rifles do not negate the fact that the narrative of the war must be kept in check. Encapsulated in “the narrative” are audiences and their perceptions that the United States is trying to strategically control. For instance, the author mentions that Gen David Petraeus had to consider four audiences during his time in command: “the Iraqis, the enemy, the Arab community, and the American people” (p. 87). Shaping these perceptions, he argues, is imperative. Additionally, the general points out that cultural awareness is not to be relegated to a 30-minute computer-based training module that is easily glossed over. He makes observations about intuitive leadership that would facilitate better understanding of cultures and the abstractions associated with asymmetric warfare. Scales maintains that not everyone is necessarily fit to be a good close-combat warrior, thus making an often-overlooked point. Specifically, a certain level of intelligence is required to make on-the-spot decisions during firefights. Compellingly, he notes that this intelligence must be coupled with a personality that is able to act “under pressure in the presence of uncertainty and ambiguity” (p. 114).

Further, the author lauds relatively simple technologies. A case in point is the drone. Here, however, any well-versed Air Force operator might find fault with his arguments. Up to this point, Scales has demonstrated thorough comprehension of the battlespace and inherent obstacles, but his discussion of the manner in which the Air Force employs its Predators and Reapers is an oversimplification. That is, he believes that drones are lifesavers, providing the “unblinking eye’s” video feed to decision makers back at command posts. Although the general obviously knows that the Air Force is task-saturated with requests for drones to support squadron-level operations, he misses the impact that consistent sorties have on a minuscule, “less-with-more” contingent of remotely piloted aircraft pilots. This situation does not occur due to a singular Air Force command-level decision (where this work focuses the brunt of frustration). Budget woes and congressional decisions, of course, are factors as well.

Nonetheless, Scales wastes no time returning to his infantry-based wheelhouse, offering a thorough explanation of the poor land-based troop carriers in use today. One notes a pattern in the development of makeshift equipment in his analyses. The infantry often seems to get the veritable short end of the stick. At this point in the book, the reader has been fully exposed to one of the author’s major areas of concentration: the death toll of American troops. His evident concern and desire to begin engaging in “unfair fights”—in the United States’ favor, of course—make this work an engaging read, reminding members of the audience that there are a number of leaders “still on their side.” Happily, branching out into hyperpoliticized topics like women in combat and reinstitution of the draft is not taboo in this book either. Not once does the general stifle blatant responses to very controversial and unpopular subjects.

Overall, this very straightforward and “readable” work is a must for individuals who desire a firsthand account of what infantry personnel are experiencing. Scales on War walks the reader through the fog and friction of land-based warfare, placing special and timely attention on the oft-forgotten “boots on the ground.” Both lawmakers and military leaders would do well to heed the author’s observations. After all, the United States does not need any more unnecessary heroes.


Capt Haley Shea B. Hicks, USAF

Mountain Home AFB, Idaho

"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."

Strategic Studies Quarterly (SSQ) and the Air and Space Power Journal (ASPJ)publish book reviews to inform readers and enhance the content of articles in the journals.