Conversation with Ret. Colonel John Spencer, Chair of Urban Warfare Studies

I had the opportunity to interview Ret. Colonel John Spencer (@SpencerGuard), the Chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point, one of the world’s leading experts on urban warfare, and author of the upcoming book Connected Soldiers.

Our conversation, conducted via Zoom, is below.

Can you give an overview of your background?

I served in the U.S. Army on active duty for 25 years. I joined right after high school as a 17-year-old, enlisted from basic through the enlisted ranks, and then became an officer. I had two combat tours in Iraq, one in 2003, for the invasion, and one in 2008, really at the height of the Iraq violence in the civil war that was happening there and the surge.

Towards the end of my career, I started getting into the academics of studying war and all aspects, that is.

I worked in the Pentagon. I worked for the Chief of Staff of the Army in a kind of small think tank, and then my last duty assignment was teaching at West Point.

I helped start up a research center called the Modern War Institute. And that’s really academically where I started. I learned to write, I learned how to do research, I learned how to ask questions, and I gained a real passion for writing. And my research interests continue to this day where I still serve as the Chair of Urban Warfare Studies now that I’m retired. I study all aspects of urban operations. That’s a real synopsis of it.

Can you talk about whether U.S. Army culture has changed significantly, or how it changed from when you first signed up?

I think the culture and the values haven’t changed in a long time. But of course, the military is a reflection of society. We’re really big in the U.S. military about making sure that it is a reflection of our society, it’s a volunteer force. So of course, as the world changes, so does the military and that really drives my book about connections. But the culture, you know, the pride of being in the military, the group identity of being a soldier and being part of small groups and fighting for the nation, and for your families and for each other, that hasn’t changed. A huge part of the power of our military is this aspect of a volunteer force, with extreme values of duty, selfless service, and all these things.

Is the U.S. military nimble, as far as adaptable?

Absolutely, I think the U.S. military is adaptable. It’s really built into the smallest to the largest level. I mean, it’s a million people just in the U.S. Army if you count the active, reserve, and National Guard.

But that ability to adapt to situations that present themselves, whether changes in society, or changes in war, is a huge part of the U.S. military, unlike other militaries to be frank. How we from the day you enter, try to instill in the person that they are a leader, as well as a follower.

We have these things called career enlisted, where we invest in people and build up experts. And then we have both officers and we have sergeants and enlisted. And they combine to create this very nimble and adaptable force. Because one thing about the future that has remained the same is that we usually get it wrong. And the people that perform the best are the ones that can adapt and have a system to adapt to, whether that’s how to reform themselves as organizations or to change the things they are doing.

Of course, it’s a large bureaucracy. So at the highest level, whether you’re talking about vehicle procurement, or things like that, there’s some rigidity in it and that’s on purpose as well, kind of like our government, right? We have all these checks and balances, and we have processes and all that. So there is some rigidity in the bureaucracy. But that fundamental attribute of adaptability is ingrained in the soldier and in the military from day one, because it is so important in war, right? The ability to adapt to your enemy, adapt to the situation. And to be frank, the military has always led in social adaptability as well, whether that’s integration of different races, integration of equality, or making sure that equality is such a huge part of what we do.

Your book, Connected Soldiers comes out in July. What inspired you to write it?

What inspired me to write it was really wanting to tell my story and hoping that other people learn from my story. Of course, there’s a theme in the book, as a researcher, I learned to ask a lot of questions. And sometimes you figure out that sometimes we don’t have the answer to the question, or we forget things.

And my book is about me, it’s a memoir, but it’s also a book questioning the impact of connectivity to things that have existed in the military and in our society for a long time, the fact that we know how important bonds and cohesion are, and morale and things like that are in war, but also in our families. And I think COVID kind of taught us that.

What inspired me to write it is this deep love of learning and asking questions that I learned towards the end of my career. But of course, everybody wants to tell their story. So there’s some vulnerability in my story, as a leader in combat, and even as a father, that in my book, I was inspired to write it down with hopes that maybe it helps other people. Clearly, it helped me. It is therapeutic to write. And I found a love of writing. I mean, the moment that really started it was a New York Times op-ed that really drove to the book. But that wasn’t the inspiration for writing the book, because you do need to finish a book with a lot of inspiration on why they’re doing it.

Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern War
‘Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern War’ by John Spencer. 280 pp. Potomac Books

Has your perception of modern warfare changed watching events from afar in Ukraine?

Absolutely not. It actually has solidified what those of us that study war, or showed the world the things that even in my book that I say are important, like morale, like motivation, and cohesion, like the strength of our military is our lower level leaders that can adapt to the situation. What we’re seeing in Ukraine is reminding the world of things that we’ve known for centuries. It is the individual will to fight in the soldier that means the most on the battlefield, not the type of weapons or the number of soldiers; It is that will to fight that wins wars. We’ve known that. Ukraine is reminding us of that.

If you had a sit down with Putin, not that you would want to, but what advice would you give him? But in general, what should strategists or tacticians advise him to do?

If I was advising him, before the war about what his military could achieve, I would say you need to make sure that you’ve invested in the people that are going to do bold plans. And that’s why the U.S. military costs a lot because not just because of the world’s best equipment, but because we invest so heavily in people, and the Russian military does not.

Even though it has a conscript system, that’s not bad. I mean, Israel has a mandatory service system as well, but they also invest in their people and care about their people. And that translates to combat power.

So in the tactics, things went wrong. We say amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics, the Russian military found out that its entire logistical backbone was not there. Some of that is based on years of corruption, some of that’s based on lies from the generals to Putin about the capability of their force, you really got to dig down and you’d have to really rebuild, look at the logistical plan for whatever it is the operation you’re going to do.

But it really goes back to your people, investing in people leads to troop strength, not just troop numbers. So higher numbers doesn’t necessarily mean stronger. And that’s what I think we’ve learned from this war. Everybody thought Russia was a very powerful military. It was ranked two or three. Based on the face of battle and experience of this war, Russia has shown the world that they’re extremely big but extremely weak. Weak because of their personnel system, their system of only officers, no senior enlisted corps, and their system of corruption that has led to an atrophied logistical backbone. So they’re going to come out of this war ranked 25 or 30 in the world next to small little countries.

Have we fundamentally misread Russia?

I wouldn’t say that we fundamentally misread [Russia]. Some people had made Russia into a giant. I don’t think that was wrong, right. So you prepare for the unknowns. And the two biggest threats to U.S. national security were China and Russia.

You’re in the assessment of what the Russian military was or could do. They fooled a lot of people really about their capabilities, everything from long-range rockets to investments in future systems, more advanced systems. So I think, yes, people overestimated Russia’s capability. But war also exposes everything. So it also exposed an underestimation of Ukrainian capability, and then reminded people about the will to fight is the most important thing.

So yes, you know, in my initial training post-Cold War, the Russian tactics, the way the Russians would fight, the fact that they were this big enemy probably was not misleading, but not as accurate as everybody would have hoped it had been. But I’m happy we were wrong.

In Ukraine, whether it’s Buka or elsewhere, the Russian military has been brutal and sadistic. Are Russian soldiers being directed to do so?

So in my personal opinion, I think that the war crimes, crimes against humanity, conducted by massive formations of Russian troops, have been condoned. And by condoned, I mean either ordered, deliberate, basically, ethnic cleansing, or, you know, pick the word, allowed.

Both are really bad, both are condoned by the Russian military apparatus. These aren’t rogue units. War is not an individual act of an individual soldier. It’s a group act. What we’ve seen in places like Buka and Irpin are mass atrocities done by lots of soldiers, not just a rogue group of soldiers. So officers were present, either ordering it or allowing it to happen. And that kind of builds to being at scale.

In my personal opinion, it was ordered in retribution for defeat, or pre-planned even before the invasion, because they started dehumanizing the Ukrainian people before the war even started with Putin’s messages that they’re all neo-Nazis, they’re not a nation, it’s all about the mindset.

But when you get down to the individual level, as a former commander of soldiers, the types of killings that have been done are very intimate, evil, that even if a person wasn’t okay with it, as a group, they were doing it and that just builds on itself, fuels the evil and it builds this basically a horde of evil acts that are condoned, if not ordered.

Some Russian units have refused to fight. Are you surprised?

We only can make assessments on what we’ve been told, but you have UK or U.S. intelligence saying massive, that it’s enough data points, right, you don’t want to take a few incidents and say it’s a major problem. But there’s been enough instances and data points to show that it’s systemic, to have soldiers hurting their own officers, running them over with tanks, and sabotaging their own equipment, from days going into the war. They’re puncturing their own gas tank, slitting their own tires. Even as we speak, it’s gotten up to entire units refusing to go into battle. It’s a systemic problem.

That’s a reflection of in the beginning, there are groups of soldiers who weren’t even told where they were going. That’s not how you fight a war. That’s not how you create combat effective units, when you lie to them, or don’t tell them things, or they don’t even know what country they’re in, or they thought they were in a training environment. It all adds up to basically this system that I was talking about that allows soldiers to fight, cohesion, their morale, their motivation, and the cause they’re fighting for. Once those things start to fall apart, it all starts to fall apart.

So I’m not surprised. Do I think that we’ll continue to see it? Absolutely. The longer they stay in the country, I think you’ll see more of that. Russia has already shown that it’s struggled with getting replacements for even the 25,000 that they’ve lost so far. So they’re having problems getting people to join the military. So it’s just another reflection that it’s going so terribly wrong, but absolutely not surprised to see [soldiers] refusing to fight, having an understanding of what it takes to motivate people to override human reactions to combat. To basically move forward into that environment. Once those things start to unravel, the leadership, the cohesion, why are we doing this? You’ll see more of this.

Will Ukraine cause the U.S. to rethink how it fights? For example, an emphasis on aircraft carriers in the South China Sea.

No, actually I don’t think you’ll see a reduction of naval power especially not the U.S. military or other NATO countries. And this is the issue with collecting the wrong lessons from Russia. Like the tank not being relevant on the battlefield or a flagship battleship, like the Moskva not being important. It’s just the wrong lessons because of Russian mistakes. So like in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy and other naval forces are the backbone to the global commons, literally to our economic vitality, is this ability to have deterrence, to have power, to have naval power. In any major war, God forbid, the naval aspect will be huge. And it has been huge in Ukraine. The blockade of Ukraine has been successful by Russia. And it has been detrimental to the Ukrainian economy, and actually the world economy. All wars are politics by other means. No, I don’t think we’ll see any major changes from the West’s approach to naval power and naval requirements and capabilities or anything like that.

Is the Ukraine conflict impacting what you’re teaching your students?

I don’t think it changed anything. I teach urban warfare. So there’s nothing that’s happened in Ukraine that hasn’t been about urban terrain, right? It’s either trying to take urban terrain like the capital, the political seat of power, or move through urban terrain, or move to urban key locations of logistics, like road intersections and railway hedging. So of course, I’ll now have another case study to show that urban is the present and future environment of wars.

I will say that one adjustment that Ukraine shows is that we sometimes get overly focused on the offense, right? The U.S. military is a global force, with the ability to project power around the world. But in most scenarios that we see in the future, it’s us responding to a crisis. Basically, we’re on the offense, we’re moving, but all wars are both offense and defense. So Ukraine has survived because of defense. And defense is the strongest form of war. So in academics and training and doctrine, the Ukraine war will cause us to, let’s not forget that the defense, we also must prepare for large scale defenses on top of offensive operations.

Is there anything else you would like my readers to know? Aside from buying your book?

No, I don’t think so. That’s the big one.