Small Wars Journal

Dempsey on Two Big Lessons of Iraq

Dempsey on Two Big Lessons of Iraq: Think More and Train Leaders Better by Tom Ricks, Foreign Policy's Best Defense. BLUF: "I've been scarred by rereading a quote from Einstein, who said if you have an hour to save the world, spend 55 minutes of it understanding the problem and five minutes of it trying to solve it. And I think sometimes, in particular as a military culture, we don't have that ratio right."


Michael C. Sevcik (not verified)

Mon, 08/01/2011 - 5:54pm

1. We tend to spend 55 minutes trying to -- how to solve the problem and five minutes understanding it.

2. We have pushed enormous capability, responsibility and authority to the edge, to captains and sergeants of all services. And yet our leader development paradigms really haven't changed very much. They are beginning to change, but I think that second lesson on the enormous responsibility that we put on our subordinates' shoulders has to be followed with a change in the way we prepare them to accept that responsibility. in the world could the Army (TRADOC-ARCIC) publish Army Learning Capability 2015 in light of these two comments from our boss? ALC2015 is all about 55 minutes doing the wrong thing -- technical rationality and certainly spells out nothing that will change the behemoth culture when it comes to leader development -- IMHO. MCS

These are NOT the droids we are looking for!

Bill C. (not verified)

Sat, 07/30/2011 - 6:17pm

Bill M.


I see nation-building/institution-building COIN in this same light: As another means of attempting to achieve the same ends (transforming other states political, economic and social systems as we desire [democracy, markets, capitalism and the correspondingly required "openness"]).

Herein, I should have noted that the military's new job post-the Cold War was not just:

a. Taking out dictators and other contrary actors that stood in the way of democracy and capitalism but also

b. Doing this is a manner that allowed democracy and capitalism to replace the traditional political, economic and social orders of these states and societies.

Thus, the current "Root Cause" (they are not like us and not part of our system) and "Better Peace" (so: make them like us and part of our system) theory and arguments.

Now, based on the question posed to GEN Dempsey (what is the lesson of Iraq) should we not consider first -- before determining what type officers we will need and if such things as "mission command" are the right way to go -- whether our current foreign policy focus and direction are (1) still considered "smart" (is more likely to enhance rather than compromise our security) and (2) feasibly/do-able.

Ken White (not verified)

Sat, 07/30/2011 - 3:32pm

Ack. Timed out on me. I am the 2:30 PM Anon.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 07/30/2011 - 3:30pm

<b>Chris Paparone:</b><blockquote>"I detect the "can do" culture even with the more humble admission."</blockquote>Excellent post and I agree with all, particularly that last item I quoted.

Further, from the Dempsey Quote linked in the SWJ Blog article:

"<i>"And yet our leader development paradigms really haven't changed very much. They are beginning to change, but I think that second lesson on the enormous responsibility that we put on our subordinates' shoulders has to be followed with a change in the way we prepare them to accept that responsibility."</i>"

That too shows that one should not expect any significant changes...

His ideas of 'decentralized' and mine differ widely. Quite widely. My experience was that I received more trust and had more authority delegated to make independent and rarely questioned decisions as a Marine Corporal in Korea and as a PSG, often acting Platoon Leader, in the Army pre-Viet Nam than I did as a SGM post Viet Nam and even later as a GM 15 DAC in an oversized, over ranked Headquarters nominally rating four LTCs. My currently serving Son doesn't see much trust or delegation of authority today and has instead noted a decline in both over his 20 plus years of service.

Nice of the General to note the problems. We'll see what's done about it. Unless we radically revamp the Personnel system and improve and lengthen our Officer and Enlisted initial entry training, I don't expect much. PME also needs much improvement but it will not achieve much unless a batter base is formed...

There's an old adage that situations become problems only when people perceive they are amenable to human intervention.

That is, solutions define problems, not the other way around.

So, while I respect Gen Dempsey, I think he still has an incorrect view.

We need to become more humble and realize that even with a 55:5 split, we may still just have wicked situations that are not definable.

I detect the "can do" culture even with the more humble admission.

Bill C., after resisting your argument for months I think you're right. It is clear our national strategy is very much focused on transforming foreign political and social systems, from spreading democracy to pushing rights for homosexuals (which is just as offensive as democracy in some societies), women's rights, capitalism, etc.

I agree with our values, the point of friction is when we try to "force" these changes upon others. We should try to sell (convince others to embrace them) by demonstrating success, and when and if they do embrace them be prepared to assist them. That is a slow path, and it is very painful for us to stand by and see people oppressed and not take action (in some cases like Bosnia where the abuses is so severe we will have to intervene), but if we can't realistically transform a nation's political and social systems we are simply hurting our international credibility in the process of trying.

The State Department's slow approach using diplomacy and mentoring in my opinion is more effective than deploying the Army to force change, but it takes time. The world has been becoming more liberal and respectful of human rights over time, so the trend line is moving in the right direction (subjective, but it is the right direction IMO) and we can take much credit for that.

Lessons learned is that the military (all the services) performed pretty darn well in accomplishing their military tasks, so let's not break what wasn't broken. The biggest shortfalls in the military were in our planning process (not recognizing the importance of stability operations post combat operations) and a lack of institutional knowledge on irregular warfare.

If we has a nation are going to continue to crusade around the world and "force" our values upon others, then the shortfall in this case doesn't simply fall the shoulders of the military, but the so called whole of government. Probably something we want to figure out before we put boots on the ground.

Bill C. (not verified)

Sat, 07/30/2011 - 10:40am

The primary lesson of Iraq, etc., has been that -- with the "win" of the Cold War at our back -- we made the grave error in believing (and acting on this belief) that the "universal" appeal of democracy and capitalism would make it both easy and prudent to spread the Western way-of-life all over the world.

Herein, we came to believe that the new purpose of our military was to help with this spreading of democracy and capitalism -- by having the military take out dictators (like Saddam Hussein) -- and other actors who had different ideas as to how states and societies should be ordered, organized and oriented.

Thus, post-the Cold War, the mission became: to transform and assimilate all the remaining non-democratic/non-capitalist -- and all the remaining less democratic/less capitalist -- countries and populations of the world.

Containment was over. Now was the time to "step out smartly" -- during this "unipolar moment" -- to rapidly "expand the franchise."

Potential Fundamental Mistake/Miscalcuation: Democracy and capitalism -- especially if such is to be delivered by the United States via the barrel or threat of the gun -- may well be seen by a significant number of countries and populations -- not as the path to their salvation but, instead, as the road to their individual and collective damnation, destruction and downfall.

Herein, we may need to understand that, while these countries and populations may be happy to use American power to help them overcome their present situations, what comes next may not be democracy and capitalism as we know it and wish it to be; but, rather, something which is much more in keeping with their own local ideas, concepts and customs of what constitutes -- and what is required -- of "the good life."

This being the case, we may not have, by our actions, created more allies but, instead, birthed more organized and more potent enemies who, having shed the chains of their current oppressors, "move out smartly" in a direction more consistent with their -- rather than our -- history, and of their -- rather than our -- choosing.

Grant, that is one way to look at it, but another view is that our culture is somewhat engrained, so change will take a fair amount of time, and that assumes there is concerted effort to change. To somewhat mitigate the negative impact of culture we design planning systems (to include injecting a new step if needed) that forces us to consider the nature of the problem in more depth.

No process will overcome our inherent stupidity and cultural bias completely, so the best we can hope for I think is to simply be better at the end of the day. The system is an interium improvement until we overcome our inherent human weaknesses.

I don't want to discourage the big ideas, such as changing our culture, but simply inject a possible idea that will help us improve in the short term (maybe).

G Martin

Fri, 07/29/2011 - 3:44pm

Before we insert another step in a current process (wups- too late!)- I'd say we need to change our culture. If you aren't positioned culturally to accept that the "problem" may be more related to us, how our politicians have defined the problem (or our higher), or our own limitations (and blindness to those limitations), then you won't ever be able to be honest with yourself and be honest with the problem. In other words, we can add a step in to define the problem, spend 55 minutes doing so, and still get it all wrong 95% of the time because we're so wedded to our traditional conventional wisdom/assumptions/worldview.

Bill C.,

I think our mission analysis process is a large part of the problem and this is why design has developed a small following in some circles. Having participated in several planning groups where we adhered strictly to the MDMP I was constantly frustrated with the process because it didn't really have a step for defining the problem, but rather focused on analyzing the problem (the mission) that was given to you. During a crisis action response (or for direct action and other tactical missions) this usually is understandable and desirable (still frustrating), but we tend to treat everything as a tactical mission and a crisis and rush through the process which is why 90% of the effort is focused on solving the problem and 10% on understanding it. We're held hostage by our own processes that are supposedly are there to teach/guide us on "how" to think.

MDMP has its strong points, but we need a process (since we're apparently incapable of thinking as an organization without one) for understanding the problem, and then transmitting that understanding in the mission and intent before we even begin MDMP.

Bill C. (not verified)

Fri, 07/29/2011 - 12:44pm

Could we sum up GEN Dempsey's first point -- re: the lessons of Iraq -- as follows:

a. We gravely overestimated the power and appeal of our liberal, supposedly "universal" ideas and concepts and

b. We gravely underestimated the dynamics of local factors and the more conservative bent of these states and societies generally.

Thus, we should have paid exceptionally more attention to the latter and much less attention to the former in determining both (1) whether we should intervene and, if so, (2) how.

Herein, it would seem, is where -- not only our overall military direction and actions may be need to be questioned and re-examined -- but also the specific foreign policy viewpoint from which such direction/actions flow.

Considering, and if worthy, acknowledging that there is a central underlying flaw to our thinking (too much about "us" -- not enough about "them") may go a long way in meeting Einstein's requirement that GEN Dempsey says now haunts him.

One would think that such a "mission analysis" would need to be done first and foremost -- before moving on to such things as what type of officers we would need to accomplish what type of missions.

Finally. Why does it take Martin Dempsey to say it in front of Congress? How many thousands of junior and middle-level officers have been forced out or chosen to leave because of the Army's primary dysfunction (aka dumb leadership)? There's little irony there for my peers who have languished from the tactical to the strategic levels and left the Army because they knew they didn't want to be smothered daily by the unthinking ones. Kirk, you are spot on.

Now, however, it will likely become en vogue to quote all kinds of smart, dead guys again -- like we went through when 3-24 was being written -- and misconstrue their true intentions or disregard the context of their wise words.

I can sympathize with your experience, brother. I made reference in another posting here at SWJ that I've had three senior officers in the past 14 months tell me that I am "not supposed to think." Never mind that I was a deputy TF commander and, later, an Assessments OIC at a 4-star HQ when those officers told me so. To my peril, I ignored them then, as I do now.


Thu, 07/28/2011 - 12:01pm

Am I the only one disappointed by the honest acknowledgement in lesson #1? No offense, but is it really a revelation that if you don't get mission analysis right, don't worry you'll get to do it again when you realize you are solving the wrong problem...

More than once, as a young staff officer, I was asked by LTC-GEN officers, "what I was doing?" because I was looking at a blank screen (timed out)... when I responded, I'm thinking... the response almost invariably was... "how about a little more doing"

Sad but honest assessment