There is another reason to listen. I know Jack Cushman and Doug McGregor personally, and they are in the top few percentiles points of their respective generations in intellect and passion for the profession of arms. I suspect Paul Yingling is too. Intellect and passion for our business should be cultivated.
There is a third reason to listen closely, and that is to encourage others to share their views. I think these discussions are healthy, actually they are a sign of hope for the institution. It was exactly these kinds of discussions that led to the Post Vietnam Army Reforms of the 1980's. And during the mid to late 70's general officers had to face tough questions from Leavenworth and War College students. Most bore our criticisms with good grace. I suspect those of the present day will do so as well.
Having said this, let me add some thoughts of my own based on what I read and what the serving O-4 to O-6 crowd tells me. I'll not be nearly as eloquent as Yingling, Cushman, and McGregor. But I may be as controversial.
Serving O4-O6 officers today have far more sustained combat experience than the younger generation of retirees acting as contractors or serving on CGSC and War College faculties. They have also been commanded by general officers from two stars on up without combat experience at the battalion level. They feel they have much relevant experience those senior to them lack, and their less experienced seniors have not listened to them. My generation held this view during and just after Vietnam.
This crowd also complains about the same old US Army tendencies of over centralization at the top, broad formulas indiscriminately applied, and staff arrogance at high levels. You can over-manage a counterinsurgency. And you simply can't make up for too few battalions by micro managing the few you have.
The counter-insurgency business is about winning at the battalion AOR level, and every battalion has a unique problem. It requires disciplined soldiers, crafty sergeants, quick minded lieutenants, flexible captains, broadly educated majors and wise lieutenant colonels. It requires battalions that are led from the front by leaders who are open-minded enough to learn from others; with the time to train as a team and learn good habits. Their leaders possess common sense, understand human nature, and figure out the best way to win their war in their unique AOR -- making measurable progress, suffering fewer casualties, and keeping high unit morale. It is at the battalion level that they began figuring out that the key to success is to understand the native tribal structure. It took several years before "higher" helped them with a comprehensive study of tribal relationships in Baghdad and Anbar province.
Too much micro-management from on-high gets in the way. The complaint most often heard is that "higher" is thinking too tactical and near term, imposing controls and process, rather than enabling subordinates with their designs.
Counterinsurgencies benefit when the vision from the top is continually challenged by the view from the bottom. Best results occur when colonels get around to talk to company commanders, brigadier and major generals walk the ground and talk frequently to battalion commanders and corps commanders talk frequently to brigade commanders and so on. What the circulating commanders really should want to know is whether they and their subordinates are really working the "right" problem. The question they need to ask is "What is your re-stated mission and commander's intent?" From this he learns two important things. A restated mission and intent together define how the commander who owns the AOR has framed his problem. The exchange of views over this helps them both discover and then work the right one. The visiting higher commander can learn more details about the relevant forces and factors at work in his bigger AOR. This then will lead to a better problem framing at his level. And the exchange can coach the subordinate into a better understanding of his.
In counter insurgency work the kind of thinking we have called "operational art" is required down at battalion level as well. The crux of the problem in our Army is that officers are not systematically taught how to cope with unstructured problems. Operational art is really the art of taking an unstructured problem and giving it enough structure so that planning can lead to useful action. I find officers up to O-6 (in some cases higher) who are excellent at analyzing a structured problem - reducing it into its elements- but are lousy at synthesis - creating a construct that explains how parts relate. That's usually the difficulty in counterinsurgencies -- the "design" end of solution development requires inductive thinking. (SAMS helps with this in most cases. Some SAMS grads tell me that their background in history and theory helps them be more creative. I'm not sure what matters more, the self-selection of officers into SAMS, or what they learn while at SAMS. It's probably both.)
I also think we have muddled our thinking with code. Take the terms "kinetic" and "non-kinetic" for instance. In COIN we are now big on the "non-kinetic" but we may have substituted new formulas for clear thinking.
Human nature responds to rewards and punishments. Our attempts at "rewarding" must result in real rewards the recipient values. Our measures of success are often how many "rewards" we have dispensed, rather than how suitable they were, much less what behavioral change those rewards have produced. But even suitable rewards need to overcome the enemy's punishing those who accept them. And sometimes "the people" must fear our coercion more than the enemy's. This latter piece of logic has often been the key to counterinsurgency -- think Malaya. When you can't coerce because of the open information environment, you have to compensate in two ways. BOTH OF THESE ARE DIFFICULT TO DO. You have to take the fight to the insurgent and get him reacting to you, and you have to mount extra measures to protect the people from the insurgent's coercion.
The first, taking the fight to the insurgent, is difficult because you really have to know your opponent, where we have been ignorant, and you have to be creative, where we rather like pat methods and formulas. We have also lacked the courage to be as hard with our opponents as we've needed to be to win.
The second, protecting the people from the insurgent's coercion, is difficult because this requires large levels of manpower for a long time, and it requires large numbers of disciplined and savvy manpower (not to mention a working justice system the people trust and respect). We have harbored myths about these things and we have not owned up to the difficulties and consequences of the truth in these matters.
Of our errors, Abu Ghuraib may have been the biggest disaster of them all. Any one who has served for even a short while in troop command realizes how "not much good happens" after midnight when young bored troops go unsupervised and are open to temptation. It's simply inconceivable how any experienced commander could have left this flank unguarded. He should have had his "trusted agents" visit at all hours of the day and night.
While others have lectured on the responsibility of generals, the rank immediately below them should not be spared. If you want to block reforms, install a "council of colonels" to guard the gates of change. No one is as conservative and arrogant as a staff colonel in the comfort zone of his expertise. During my time on active duty this was the most conservative rank. Had I not gotten around older and more entrenched colonels at Ft. Leavenworth both the AirLand Battle reforms and the creation of SAMS would have been stillborn. And sometimes no one is as hesitant to speak truth to power than an O-6 commander. It's a matter of incentives and risks. The jump from O-6 to O-7 is a huge prize, the cut is so severe, and the process is shrouded in mystery.
We humans are fallible. I have made my share of grave mistakes. Our saving grace is learning from them. Of one thing I'm sure, there are no grand formulas. Progress results from hard work on many fronts. And hard work is only motivated by discomfort with the status quo.
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