Losing Small Wars: Why US Military Culture Leads to Defeat
“Sir – it’s the TEA”
The Target Engagement Authority was a US one star who sat in the joint operations center in Erbil, with the task of approving and controlling all Coalition fires in Northern Iraq. I took the headset, preparing myself for the argument that I knew was coming.
“Andy, are you firing mortars”,
“What the hell is going on?”
“Sir, the Pesh are getting mortared in the breach. I’ve got an OP less than 500 meters away.”
“Are US personnel taking fire?”
“Not yet, sir”
“Then you’re not authorized to make that decision”
“Sir – it’s a matter of one correction before our guys get hit too -- I’m not going to wait for that to happen”,
“That’s not up to you Colonel, that’s my decision -- cease fire now!”
The incident caused me to fume, ponder, and ultimately to write this article. I argue here that the General’s reaction was no anomaly, but rather a symptom of a culture within the US military at conflict with our professed doctrine of mission command; and that unless determined effort is made to change that culture, mission command will never be anything more than an aspirational concept -- officially embraced but shunned in practice. The ramifications go beyond leadership and doctrine to the very ability of the Joint Force to defeat adversaries – both conventional and irregular -- in a multi-domain environment.
Mission Command is a philosophy of decentralized decision making. Plans and orders are simply starting points, likely to soon become irrelevant amidst the fog and friction of war – what really matters is the intent of the higher commander which is linked to the overarching purpose of the operation. A subordinate is expected to be able to think on his feet, work out the best way to follow that intent, and adapt his actions to changing circumstances. As a method, mission command has ample precedence as a highly evolved philosophy of command and control that can produce disproportionate combat results. But while we understand the buzz words, we fail to understand the changes required in personnel management, education, and training in order to make it a cultural reality.
Lest the reader think that I am simply presenting a problem without a solution – I conclude this article with recommendations as to how to foster a culture that encourages decentralized decision making, subordinate initiative and a bias for action – the central tenets of Mission Command. My recommendations, although practical, entail some fundamental changes in how the US military does business, so I should begin by explaining why they are necessary.
A Cultural Problem
My introduction seems a lot to surmise from an isolated case of poor leadership, a single data point carrying by itself insufficient weight to yield such generalizations about the US military. Except, that this exchange was one of many similar incidents over my career, and the TEA, a General Officer with impressive background and unsullied reputation, was not someone I could simply dismiss as being a poor leader. Instead, he was the product of an institution imbued with a cultural preference for centralized control and procedure. It’s a culture that has evolved – as cultures often do – because of a view of the world, that appears rational to members of the organization. But that view no longer matches reality – if indeed it ever did – and the culture it has produced is proving harmful to the institution, its members – and the nation itself.
The US defeat in Afghanistan should be a wake-up call that it’s time to change that culture. It’s all too easy for those in uniform to blame the politicians for that defeat – but it would also be disingenuous and counter-productive. The US military’s leadership should certainly be held accountable for what was at best, blind obedience to policy makers and at worst, hiding the truth about a military effort that was neither achieving its goals nor nested with any coherent policy. But the problem doesn’t begin and end there. It involves scores of General Officers, all of whom have served the same institution their entire adult lives and who have shown sufficient talent and character to rise to the top of that institution. Given that context, it seems unlikely that all these senior leaders are guilty of deliberate malfeasance, or even of moral cowardness. A more credible explanation is that these officers are the product of an institution that does not encourage critical thinking, or, to use General Milley’s own words “disciplined disobedience,” -- and that any sense of intellectual or moral autonomy – pillars of mission command – have simply been bludgeoned out of them by a lifetime of following procedures, of clinging to the letter of the law.
As is often the case with cultural norms, the institutional preference for centralization and procedure is based on some ostensibly sound assumptions, about the important role that experience plays in sound decision making, about the threat that tactical actions can pose to strategic success, and about the need to maintain an overall perspective rather than succumb to short-term expediency.
The problem with these assumptions is that they are based on a world view that is orderly and predictable. It’s a perspective that tends to founder when confronted with a non-linear, emergent, and complex set of circumstances -- such as war.
The special operations task force that I commanded was presented with just such a set of circumstances. It happened three months prior to my run-in with the TEA, at a place called Tal Aswad north-east of Mosul. The story is worth re-telling here because it offers an illustration of the value of mission command – and, sadly, a glimpse of why the US military fails to embrace it.
For several weeks, Islamic State commanders had been planning an attack intended to punch a hole in the Forward Line of Troops or FLOT, the line of Kurdish positions that had since 2014 prevented them from pushing further East. The plan was to exploit this breach and seize the entire swath of territory that was the Kurdish autonomous region in Northern Iraq. From there, the Islamic State would be well positioned to push South down the Tigris valley to envelop Baghdad.
At 1600hrs on 17 December, a chorus of whistle blasts signaled the attack.
‘They came from five directions,’ one Peshmerga commander commented later. The vehicle-bombs led the way, detonating in earth-shaking explosions that sliced the air with shards of jagged metal. And right behind them came the Islamic State assault troops: wide-eyed berserkers yelling jihadi war-cries.
In this fight, the Peshmerga Brigade was partnered with a contingent of Canadian special operations forces. It was dark by the time the Canadians heard about the attack. They dispatched a team to link up with the Peshmerga whose commander requested their help. And so it was that the plan for a sector counterattack was put together and executed in short order by a Canadian sergeant. By late morning, the Peshmerga had recovered their positions, driving the Islamic State back over the FLOT.
The Canadian response to the attack was a perfect illustration of how Special Operations Forces can deliver operational effect out of proportion to their strength in numbers -- if allowed to do so. Given the circumstances, it is inconceivable that a more centralized approach would have achieved the same results. I was proud of the Canadians but dismayed by an episode that followed.
The Canadian detachment commander received a stern warning from the TEA, with the admonition that had he had been an American, he would be facing disciplinary action.
Ironic, I thought at the time, because the actions of the Canadian sergeant that day exemplified Mission Command, the official doctrine of the US Army since 2003.
How Others See Us
In 2015, while recruiting British personnel for the special operations task force that I commanded in Iraq, I was warned more than once that the Brits’ perception of their American counterparts, even in the world of special operations, was that we had a penchant for centralized decision making, an aversion to risk, and an obsession with working hard regardless of output.
Some ten years earlier, Brigadier Nigel Alywin-Foster, a British Army officer (in case the name didn’t give this fact away) wrote in the Military Review – a US Army publication: “Whilst the US army may espouse mission command, in Iraq it did not practice it…… Commanders…rarely if ever questioned authority and were reluctant to deviate from precise instructions….Each commander had his own style, but if there was a common trend it was micromanagement….. Planning tended to be staff driven and focused on process rather than end effect. The net effect was highly centralized decision making… (which) tended to discourage lower-level initiative and adaptability”.
This article stirred significant reaction among US military readers. Alwyin Foster was “an insufferable British snob,” said the colonel commanding the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. But many in the US military community – practitioners and analysts – voiced similar concerns to those raised in the article. One long time Red-team analyst called Foster’s article an “enlightening, if somewhat painful, critique of the U.S Army in Iraq,” commenting that “it is much easier to dismiss (his) assessment as limited or altogether wrong that it is to make changes in response to it.”
My interest in Alywin Foster’s article was more than academic. I had served as an advisor to the Iraqi Army during the second battle for Fallujah, during which time I worked under the same command as Foster. Insufferable snob he may have been, but his arguments were right on target. And years later, my own experience as a task force commander suggested that little had changed during the intervening period.
Yes – Even the Marine Corps Fails
But are these criticisms too broad? Could it be that this reluctance to embrace mission command is confined to the conventional US Army? As a Marine and special operations officer, I would happily accept such an argument if there was good evidence to support it. Sadly, there is not.
In the late 1980s, General Al Gray, then Commandant of the Marine Corps, introduced a doctrine known as “Maneuver Warfare”, Marine terminology for Mission Command, which was disseminated in a series of well written publications. However, the Corps made no comprehensive effort to adapt the organization to this written doctrine, by implementing policies that reinforced the right behavior. Indeed, time and again over the course of my career I have been surprised by how relatively few officers appear to understand what Maneuver Warfare is about.
30 years after the initial publication of “Warfighting” I found myself attending a conference in Quantico, hosted by the Commanding General of Training and Education Command with the theme “Why does the Marine Corps not Practice Maneuver Warfare”. After two days of discussion, the assembled group of officers arrived at the answer: Implementing Mission Command as a habit of thought and action involves more than distributing doctrinal publications. As for a solution – well, the Corps is still struggling to find one.
Since 2017, the Marine Corps has been running a series of realistic force on force exercises which replicate the conditions of multi-domain warfare against a peer adversary. Called the MAGTF (Marine Air Ground Task Force) Warfighting exercise or MWX, these events involve competition across all domains – to include cyber and the Electro-Magnetic spectrum. As a civilian supporting these exercises, I have been offered extraordinary insights into which methods succeed, and which are doomed to fail. Time and again, units that practice mission command in planning and execution dominate those that don’t. Despite the high-tech nature of the exercise, it is old fashioned principles such as mission orders, commanders’ intent and implicit communication that carry the day. After-action reports, compiled by multiple expert observers, all return to these same themes. “An identified trend across all five MWXs are commander intent statements that are not concise, not enduring, and not understood two-levels down,” one AAR states, concluding the Marine Corps’ Maneuver Warfare doctrine “is more important today than it ever was in OIF and OEF.”
But while the MWX has validated the continued value of Maneuver Warfare, it has also highlighted a wide gap between doctrine and practice, even in the service that claims to have adopted Mission Command first.
Why Are We Like This?
Mission command requires people who have a bias for action, tempered by intellect and emotional intelligence. Only such people can, in the words of IDF General Shamon Naveh, “thrive in chaos” without simply adding to that chaos. Until the US Military deliberately selects officers based on these qualities, and thereafter promotes them accordingly, mission command will continue to wither on the vine. Yet, recent research indicates that US military leaders are . Why should this be? It is because Mission Command is inimical to "The American way of war," a phrase popularized by military historian Russell Weigley in his 1973 book of the same name to describe a cultural reliance on methodical process and sheer resource domination to subdue adversaries.
A study of US military practice over the last century supports this view. After the First World War, the US Army modeled its leadership training and officer education on Frederick Taylor’s principles of scientific management, which led to an analytical, methodical and process driven approach to command and control.
During the Second World War, in contrast to German practices, US doctrine emphasized loyalty as opposed to independent action. There were, of course, exceptions – the small unit tactics developed to overcome German defenses in the bocage of Normandy, and – of course – the rapid advance made by Patton’s Third Army across Northern France; but these examples are noteworthy only because they departed from the norm.
In Vietnam, centralization and managerial command went hand in hand with an increasing dependence on firepower, a hunger for information from the top, and an obsession with statistics, notably the infamous body count. Units conducted clumsy hammer and anvil operations in thick jungle, during which all movement would cease upon enemy contact, while commanders focused on coordinating fire support and reporting to superiors.
The first Gulf War is often used as an example of the US military at its best. However, conduct of the war still fit the traditional, cautious, firepower-intensive mold. Almost six weeks of bombing was followed by a massive-armored onslaught. Even the “Hail Mary” flanking maneuver that swept around Iraqi forces entrenched in Kuwait was hardly an example of operational panache in the style of Guderian or Kahalani. The eight-division Coalition force simply crushed those Iraqi units brave enough to stand it its way. And ultimately this move failed in its intent – the majority of the Republican Guard, Saddam’s center of gravity, escaped across the Kuwaiti border.
Technology is Not the Solution
So firmly entrenched are such habits in US military culture that a change in doctrine alone is unlikely to bring about any fundamental change. Nor will advances in technology -- optimistic proclamations to the contrary notwithstanding. If anything, these advances have reinforced the tendency for increased centralization, offering the commander -- in theory at least -- greater situational awareness than his subordinates without the frontal-lobe numbing sense of imminent danger. The practice in Vietnam of commanders literally hovering by helicopter over subordinate units, has now transformed to doing the same by means of drones. “He’s just a One-Star JTAC,” observed one US staff officer to me in Iraq, watching his boss standing transfixed in front of a full-motion video display.
Technology has exponentially improved our ability to collect information, and thus gilds the chimera of centralized decision making. The problem is that decisions in war are still made by human beings whose information-processing capabilities are as limited as they were in the time of Clausewitz. Technology cannot reduce our adversaries from being complex, adaptive systems or remove uncertainty from our competition with them. An uncritical reliance on technology causes us to bypass the valuable human aspects of military decision making which are based on an understanding of context derived from problem framing and experience.
But what of the argument that a coherent campaign requires coherence of action at every level – especially in this era of Great Power Competition? Having a legion of subordinates who think that they are free to exercise their own initiative will surely impede the overall commander’s ability to coordinate complex actions across the force. So claims Dr. Conrad Crane in a 2017 War on the Rocks Article, concluding that mission command “appears to be impractical for the synchronization required against a competent and capable near-peer.”
This contention sounds authoritative until we take a closer look at how military decisions are made. A military action is not the monolithic execution of a single decision by a single entity but involves many independent but interrelated decisions and actions being taken simultaneously throughout the organization. Whether viewed in the context of John Boyd’s OODA loop or in terms of the kill chain, decentralized decision making at the tactical edge is inherently faster and more agile than that of a remote centralized C-2 node. It is hard to imagine, for instance, how a Joint Force commander could possibly manage to choreograph the actions of small units spread across thousands of miles in the Pacific, especially when communications are threatened by interception and jamming.
Intent, Mission and Risk: A Discussion Not Power Point
The concept of Commander’s Intent is a mainstay of mission command, but – in my experience -- few commanders give clear intent. Intent includes the purpose of the mission, but in explaining this, the commander also needs to give his subordinates a sense of the importance of that mission: what it’s worth in terms of risk – and at what point that risk becomes unacceptable. This includes policy implications – especially in this era of instant news. Too often this conversation gets buried in power point briefs with color coded blocks in which more effort is involved in compiling slides, than in discussing the balance between mission and risk. A misunderstanding about this balance results in over-direction from higher, and a perception of micromanagement from below. It can lead to consequences that undermine the mission itself – and even to disaster. The death of four US soldiers in Niger in 2017, is just one example of what happens when this occurs.
Commander’s Intent is a two-way conversation, in which those tasked with the mission acknowledge their commander’s concerns and in turn share theirs along with their proposed plan for mitigation, and any attendant requests for support. If this sounds preposterous to those inured to the current process of CONOP presentation, think about the purpose of these briefs, and ask yourself how often the really important questions are discussed.
To be clear, this paper is not a treatise against rules or procedure. I teach the planning process to students of all services and several nationalities, and am a firm believer in its efficacy. However, when rules, and procedures start to supplant experience, ethics and judgment in a commander’s decision making – he will start to lose perspective of that balance between mission and risk.
As an illustration, I will return to the example at the beginning of this article. In a campaign that relied upon the success of our partners, in this case the Peshmerga, to achieve mutual objectives, our relationship with those partners was all important. It follows that any action that undermined that relationship should be avoided, unless the rationale for making such a decision outweighed the purpose of our mission. In this case, it was hard to divine any justification beyond simple adherence to the letter, rather than the purpose, of a tactical directive. By following it without discrimination, the TEA was subjecting all involved to greater risk, while jeopardizing the overall mission. The same devotion to rote procedure occurred during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which saw a torrent of tactical directives circumscribe how operations were to be conducted.
Learning from Others: The Brits and Israelis – A Mixed Record
The fight for Tal Aswad was just one instance where a junior officer or NCO, empowered by a supportive culture, has taken the initiative and saved the day. Such examples are more common in the recent history of the British and Israeli Armies than our own, perhaps because there is in the culture of both armies a tendency to applaud rather than control such behavior.
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines culture as being ‘the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.’ In the Israeli Army, perhaps more than any other, these stories are invariably about individuals and events that exemplify mission command: Ariel Sharon’s actions (against orders) as a Brigade Commander in seizing the Mitla Pass, key to the Sinai, during the 1956 war; and, some 17 years later, Colonel Haim Erez’s attack across the Suez Canal with just 20 tanks thus dislocating the Egyptian invasion of Israel, are two examples among many. Those were halcyon times, any Israeli officer will tell you with nostalgia, before risk aversion and centralized decision making stunted all such initiative and led to the IDF’s muddled performance during its 2006 incursion into Lebanon.
“In contrast to the Anglos, we thrive in chaos” And yet, in the aftermath of the IDF’s pyrrhic victory, an independent investigation concluded that the army’s poor performance was a reflection of a “flawed organizational culture” that evinced a lack of trust in subordinates and clung to centralized decision making. This culture had stunted subordinate initiative and enabled Hezbollah – by far the weaker force in every tangible respect -- to consistently out-cycle the IDF.
Despite a legacy infused with the tenets of mission command, the Israeli Army had succumbed to centrifugal forces within its own culture. Perhaps the lesson here is that as institutions grow, they tend to evolve towards centralized control, unless there is deliberate and sustained counter-effort.
The British Army’s experience seems to support this proposition. Despite a tradition of decentralized decision making by junior officers on the edge of Empire, the post war years saw a sharp divergence in this regard between elite units, and their conventional counterparts. While units such as the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines tended to be involved in the rear-guard skirmishes of the colonial era, the British Army on the Rhine (BAOR) prepared for a set-piece battle in the Fulda Gap.
The Falklands War, although a victory for the British, was also a wake-up call for their higher command. The campaign illustrated that even among elite units, battalion level commanders were a mixed bag. Some commanders attempted to control the chaos of war through detailed plans and centralized command while others displayed greater flexibility.
The British attack at Goose Green provides an illustration of the contrast between these two approaches, in a single unit: 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. The battle began badly. A combination of an overly detailed, complex plan involving thirteen stages and a Commanding Officer who brooked no interference from subordinates led the battalion into a bloody impasse, with all three companies bogged down on exposed ground, raked by fire from Argentine positions. “Don’t tell me how to run my battle,” the CO, Lieutenant Colonel “H” Jones snaps at one of his company commanders who reports that he has found a gap in the Argentine defenses. Ironically, it is only after Jones is killed in an assault on an Argentine machine gun, that his subordinates are able to maneuver their way around the Argentine flank and win the day.
The experience of the Falklands War gave rise to a series of reforms imposed by the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) Field Marshall Sir Neville Bagnall. The Bagnall reforms were a comprehensive effort to change the culture of the British Army – affecting not just education and training but also talent management, the means by which the institution encouraged desirable behavior.
The reforms created a network of influential officers within the British Army who saw it as their mission to ensure that those who espoused mission command were the ones that got ahead. How lasting this change has been, is a matter for debate. In at least two recent books, former British officers argue that a preference for centralized control was partly to blame for the British Army’s overall lackluster performance in Afghanistan and Iraq. If true, this highlights the same lesson learned by the Israelis – that it takes deliberate and persistent effort to ensure that institutional culture and doctrine remained aligned.
Horses for Courses: Applying these Lessons to the US Military
Culture change happens at service level, and there is a rationale here for variation. The Army may find it possible to focus on selectively applying mission command to those occupational specialties that will benefit most from its use: ground combat and combat support units for instance. The Marine Corps however, with its unique culture, homogenous approach to entry level training, and emergent tactical doctrine will probably want to take a more holistic approach.
For the Navy and Air Force, it’s not so much a question of whether or not to adopt mission command – but rather how to do so in a manner that aligns with requirements for technical skills and procedures. Surface Warfare Officers in the Navy might argue with some justification that there simply isn’t enough scope for the exercise of initiative on a vessel at sea. A similar argument could be made for the air force, where strict conformity to checklist procedures plays so important a role. Nevertheless, officers in both services will need to understand and employ mission command as they attain greater command responsibility or serve on joint staffs. Indeed, the principles of mission command can be adapted to enhance performance in most occupational specialties. John Boyd was a fighter pilot
Some organizations -- Special Operations Forces (SOF) for instance-- will fail unless mission command is practiced down the lowest level. Hence the focus on many of these same traits during SOF assessment and selection.
Wars are Won and Lost by Personnel Management
All services need to place more emphasis on the aligning the selection and promotion of leaders – officers and NCOs -- with the qualities required for Mission Command. This will mean devising a more comprehensive and rigorous selection process for officers, similar to the three-day boards run by the British military with psychological profiling and practical tests of initiative and leadership under stress. Currently, across all services, there are no officer selection tests designed to assess emotional Intelligence –a term that has become vogue in the civilian world to describe exactly those qualities required for good leadership -- and for mission command. Many corporations do administer such tests – why should the military, which places such emphasis on developing these traits, not look for their presence in potential candidates?
The leader development process should offer opportunities to refine judgment in the face of risk, with wide potential for failure in training to identify and develop resilient leaders capable of coping with setbacks. The result will never be perfect, but the pursuit of this goal can only have a leavening effect on the quality of leadership and decision making in the institution overall.
Methods of performance evaluation which rely solely on top-down perspective must change to encompass the views of peers and subordinates. The current system by its nature tends to reward caution and loyalty rather than judicious risk taking. It is a time-honored truth that risk adverse leaders fear one risk above all others: that of appearing incompetent to their seniors – and thus become adept at presenting upwards. Conversely, it’s particularly difficult to misshape the perceptions of all those around you. Any concern that 360-degree evaluations will encourage pandering for popularity are misplaced – subordinates and peers tend to see through such acting.
We Need to Outthink the Enemy
Lastly, for the sake of mission command, a plea for intellect to claim its rightful place among leadership qualities. Beyond establishing a minimum GPA requirement, and testing candidates on to validate their education levels, services do little to select officers according to their intelligence. Officer selection boards should include tests of critical thinking – a quality every bit as essential for good leadership as emotional intelligence and integrity.
The research results cited earlier showing military officers to be resistant to change is just one indicator that we aren’t focused on the right kind of education. Our personnel management systems need to focus on ensuring that leaders continue to develop their capacity for both creative and critical thinking throughout their careers. Services need to offer more opportunities for non-technical advanced degrees from civilian colleges, fellowships, and exchanges. We have separate occupational specialties for Foreign Area Officers and for Strategists – and then make these officers ineligible for command. Instead, we should be encouraging potential commanders to take career tracks that encompass these areas rather than remain on the conveyor belt of traditional assignments.
There is no shortage of talent in the US military. However – even the majority of officers who exemplify the boldness and aggression expected of our profession, are subsumed by a culture that encourages them to follow procedures and the letter of the law rather than their own experiential judgment, professional ethics, and a sound understanding of the balance between mission and risk.
Until the institution rewards behavior that aligns with its own doctrine, and sanctions that which does not, mission command will never gain traction in the US military. And that should matter a great deal to all of us – not just the doctrinal purists. But it will require a complete overhaul of selection, training, and personnel management to close the current gap. It will take cultural transformation.
While attending a conference in Quantico shortly before my retirement, I came across a rhetorical question scrawled on a white board. The author was anonymous, but his words continue to resonate: “Has there ever been a military leadership philosophy that has been so loudly lauded, so convincingly defined, so battle proven and so routinely unapplied as mission command?” Now is the time to reverse this trend.