Small Wars Journal

Of "Intellectual and Moral" Failures

Thu, 05/24/2007 - 6:31pm
With some interest I have been tracking these exchanges over what Paul Yingling, Jack Cushman and Doug McGregor have had to say about our military operations since 9/11. It takes a great deal of courage to say things that are sure to be unpopular whether you are beyond the reach of those who might be offended or not, and therefore we ought to listen for that reason alone. And Paul Yingling is most at risk, therefore his message interests me the most.

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.


SWJ Editors Note - Related Small Wars Council Discussions:

Army Officer Accuses Generals of 'Intellectual and Moral Failures'

Of "Intellectual and Moral" Failures


Barry (not verified)

Tue, 05/29/2007 - 5:58pm

"In my view Abu Ghuraib was a failure of investing in people. It shows a long term consequence of lack of balance between the pursuit of technology and building leadership that both empowers subordinates and promotes understanding of what we are trying to accomplish and why. "

I'd like to point out that Abu Ghraib had two causes:

1) Not having enough people, planning and preparation to do the job properly. In the book 'Moving Mountains', Gen. Pagonis commented that there was an officer running around in Winter 1990-91 convincing people that the plans for Desert Storm had to include the ability to handle large numbers of POW's. He succeeded, and the job was done well.

In the invasion of Iraq, this was deliberately neglected (under orders from above), which made sure that that job would be botched.

2) A deliberate policy of torture and mistreatment of prisoners, initiated by President Bush/Vice President Cheney/Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld, propagated downward through intermediaries such as Gen. 'Gitmo' Miller. The administration policy was that it's all the same - locals in Iraq fighting an invader, AQ terrorists coming into Iraq, AQ terrorists on 9/11, and miscellaneous schmucks swept up in foolish, large-scale sweeps such as practiced by Gen. 'He screwed up, give him another star' Odierno. Call them 'detainees' instead of 'prisoners' to help the policy go down more easily and use the CIA and contractors to torture prisoners. Nicely classified, and the same administration which claimed the power to abduct, torture and kill anybody, anywhere, on a whim, claimed that it couldn't discipline the contrators.

Related - A must read by Huba Wass de Czege - Lessons from the <a href="; rel="nofollow">Past: Making the Armys Doctrine "Right Enough" Today</a>

No doctrine is perfect, but getting it "right enough" is strategically important. Dire consequences followed for France in the spring of 1940 because heavy investments in its high-tech Maginot Line failed against the German Blitzkrieg. French doctrine was based on flawed post-World War I interpretations of technological change and its impact on the nature of war. We also have learned from recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq that operating without applicable doctrine can have strategic consequences, and that the intuition of senior generals is of little value in the councils of state today. The quickly submerged November 2002 public dispute between Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz about the number of Soldiers required for the coming invasion of Iraq is often recalled to vilify the civilian side, but no one can claim that the resulting campaign violated accepted joint or Army doctrinal precepts. In fact, the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were conducted according to widely supported emerging concepts within the Department of Defense (DoD). We should take little comfort that events are proving the former Army Chief more right than wrong. Politicians are more likely to respect the intuition of senior Army leaders when they render judgments backed by a sound body of doctrine, especially one that is also respected and supported by the other services.

The lessons from the Armys struggle to get the doctrine "right enough" after Vietnam are worth heeding as the present generation carries out the current revision of the services capstone operational doctrine. Because there are important parallels between the current period of military reform and the one just previous that began in 1973, ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the lessons are relevant and numerous...

Rob Thornton (not verified)

Fri, 05/25/2007 - 12:21pm

As part of the practicing side of the house, I think the General's comments are invaluable at understanding why we cannot afford to turn out M&Ms in place of students of war - technologically hard (but brittle)on the outside and morally and intellectually soft in the center will not satisfy our policy requirements. We cannot succumb solely to the sweet allure of technological promise.

While superior technology is an incredible advantage its benefits are in proportion to those who employ it. Risk and consequence are also in proportion. Technology may provide the user with large amounts of information, but it is the human user who places context, value and relevance to the information, and ultimately makes the hard decisions which carry out the intent of the higher echelon CDR or fulfill the goals of policy. We must invest in people first, and by default when there is a hard choice.

In my view Abu Ghuraib was a failure of investing in people. It shows a long term consequence of lack of balance between the pursuit of technology and building leadership that both empowers subordinates and promotes understanding of what we are trying to accomplish and why.

For too long we have dramatically inverted our investment strategy. The transfer and circulation of knowledge and experience has been increasingly short changed; reduced to .ppts on consideration of others with bullet content and no context, distance learning, and rules of standardization that cannot keep pace with the changing world. If we want a morally strong military who can make decisions when they are tired, deprived, under fire, deployed worrying about their families, and the host of other conditions each individual faces in war, then we must apply the foundation before we try and put a coat of white wash on them.

Technology on the other hand is seductive. Industry offers up MTBF (mean time between failure rates), MPG, rates of fire, etc to achieve economies that on the surface reduce risk. We back this up by running simulations where the friction is constrained to test beds. We then take the results and apply the lens of subjectivity. Technology is much cleaner, people are messy. But war is a human endeavor; it deals with people no matter how you try and word-smith it.

We are indeed fortunate to have the General provide his insights and reflections to war.

R/S Rob


I very much appreciate your comments in Of "Intellectual and Moral" Failures. If you'll permit me, I'd like to share with you a couple of vignettes that illustrate the challenges we're facing in our senior ranks.

As a brand new FA LT in 1st ID in 1990, I was given the mission to O/C a fire support team as part of a Task Force EXEVAL. The first mission was a task force attack of a battle position defense, and I was pretty nervous because I had no experience in the task I was supposed to O/C.

At the O/C meeting the night before the attack, the S3 briefed what would happen the next day. After the brief, the senior O/C and ADC(M) gave us a little class that went like this:

You just heard the base plan representing BLUFOR's best estimate of what MIGHT happen. Then again, the RED obstacles might not be tied into terrain or covered with fires; that would be a great opportunity. Or BLUE's obscuration and suppression fires might not be effective during the reduction of the obstacle; that would be a great danger. Focus on the CCIR - they let the commander see these opportunities and dangers coming, and allow the task force to sieze and retain the initiative and accomplish the Task Force Commander's intent, even when things don't go according to plan.

The ADC(M) and senior O/C then laid out the possible outcomes of the attack, and where each of us O/Cs ought to look to tell whether or not BLUFOR would succeed. Their advice was flawless, and the experience left me with great trust and confidence in their ability to see the battlefield and impose their will on the enemy. That trust and confidence would later be confirmed in Desert Storm.

Fast forward 17 years - I was listening to a major general describe the network-centric battles of the future. I asked him how he would know, other than failure in combat, if this vision of future warfare was fundamentally flawed. He repeated that he was sure he was right. I repharsed the question, explaining that every commander preparing for battle thinks he's right but most are not. How would he know if he was wrong in time to make corrections? This officer, who had no combat experience, didn't answer the question; I'm not sure he really understood it.

The dilemma we face right now is that we have a generation of senior leaders who don't know how to find out if their vision of battle is fundamentally flawed. Unlike me in 1990, today's captains and senior NCO's have a wealth of combat experience. When senior leaders say things that don't square with that experience, the captains and sergeants believe what they've experienced rather than what their senior leaders say. Our culture doesn't encourage dissent, so this gap between the general's theory and the captain's reality is covered by silence.

If I could pick just one of the recommendations from 'generalship' for implementation, it would be the 360 evaluation system. An institutionalized system of bottom-up feedback is the best way to ensure that we will see the dangers and opportunities that face us in time to make corrections.

Again, I very much appreciate your comments. As a former Big Red One soldier and SAMS graduate, this is not the first time I've benefitted from your insights.