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June 29, 2007

Whither the Military? Maybe We Can Have A Real Debate
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

I'm encouraged to see that the debate over what kind of military we need, and why it hasn't been able to get the job done in Iraq, is moving steadily out of the defense-wonk universe (even though some of my best friends are defense wonks) into the broader media and national security universe.

Today the Wall Street Journal picks back up on Lt. Colonel Paul Yingling's A Failure in Generalship article, which Lorelei and I pointed to back in April, to introduce a broader discussion of the now-trendy-to-mention-in-conversation "generational split" in the military.

Here's the key point:

In his controversial essay, Col. Yingling pinned much of the Army's failings in Iraq on generals who he says didn't prepare for guerrilla fights in the decade prior to the war, and then didn't adjust as quickly as front-line troops. Young officers had to adapt to survive, he wrote. The generals, products of a system that encouraged conformity and discouraged risk takers, were often a step behind the enemy, he said. "It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator," he wrote. The solution, he said, is to change the way the Army selects and promotes generals, taking into account reviews by subordinates.


At Fort Hood, Maj. Gen. Jeff Hammond, the top general at the sprawling base, summoned all of the captains to hear his response to Col. Yingling's critique. About 200 officers in their mid- to late-20s, most of them Iraq veterans, filled the pews and lined the walls of the base chapel. "I believe in our generals. They are dedicated, selfless servants," Gen. Hammond recalls saying. The 51-year-old officer told the young captains that Col. Yingling wasn't competent to judge generals because he had never been one. "He has never worn the shoes of a general," Gen. Hammond recalls saying.

The captains' reactions highlighted the growing gap between some junior officers and the generals. "If we are not qualified to judge, who is?" says one Iraq veteran who was at the meeting. Another officer in attendance says that he and his colleagues didn't want to hear a defense of the Army's senior officers. "We want someone at higher levels to take accountability for what went wrong in Iraq," he says.

This and related debates are influencing the discussion of what the future of the military should look like.  On the continuation, I'm going to recommend two papers and a new think tank for people who really like this issue.  But for everyone else, an encouraging thing here is how much emphasis you see defense intellectuals paying to the non-military aspects of security and counter-terrorism.

This week saw in Washington the splashy launch of a new think tank, the Center for a New American Security (new acronym to dazzle friends with:  CNAS), that has already issued two thoughtful pieces on the military's future direction.  CNAS is full of very smart center-left Clinton-era (and more recent) defense intellectuals, as well as our former DA colleague Derek Chollet.

One piece, by Michele Flournoy and Tammy Schultz, highlights what isn't happening in the Administration's thinking on the military's future:

...the Army, Marine Corps, and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) are at risk of missing this opportunity. Current expansion proposals are focused primarily on reducing the strains driven by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They do not appear to take adequate account of how tomorrow’s demands may differ from today’s. Absent are the sorts of organizational innovations that would signal that a more fundamental shift is afoot.

The other, by an Iraq veteran who participated in developing the Army's new counterinsurgency strategy, suggests that we need more fighting soldiers less than more soldiers who specialize in training and advising. 


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Was there a contest held to pick the name Center for a New American Security? My understanding is that there is already an organization called New Security for the American Center, dedicated to opposing ideological extremism in party politics. There's also a New American Security Center selling high-tech burglar alarms in Portland, Oregon.

Well that's what I heard. I just thought a think tank wanting to make a name for itself could make a better name for itself, something that would get people's attention and not just blend into the Washington background of organizations that warehouse aspiring junior officials of the next administration. Look at rock bands -- how many of them pick me-too names like "New Eagles," "Super Beatles," or "Opal Jelly"? None of them, that's how many. You want to be new, you have to look new, which obviously means you can't put the word "new" on the masthead.

So I think the people behind the Center for a New American Security need to reopen their contest and get themselves a better name for their think tank, a name that will stick in people's minds, a name that suggests unconventional, outside-the-box, innovative thought. A name like "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative."

I would be the first to propose that this blog rename itself before further disturbing the poor corpse of FDR, who must twirl in his crypt everytime someone clicks on "Democracy Arsenal."

Any advice for a name change might be cribbed from the writings of
Thucydides: "The nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools."

I see many scholars bepopulating this forum, no warriors.

Iraq war vet Phil Carter covers this ground too, drawing some of the same connections you do between Yingling's article, Nagl's work, and the CNAS papers.

But he also sticks the bayonet into the Army and gives it a good twist:

Discourse and dissent are healthy for a military organization. As I wrote a few days ago, warfare is a complex endeavor where the common denominators are chance, uncertainty, and chaos. Vigorous discussion of core assumptions and strategies is critical; sharp criticism is essential for that discussion. The intellectual arrogance displayed thus far by America's caste of generals and senior Pentagon officials has been startling, and stunningly myopic. It virtually guarantees that we will adopt stale, inflexible strategies with zero chance of success.

When I've engaged senior leaders on these questions, I've gotten back answers which were some variation of "You don't understand, captain, because you haven't been there at my level." Quite right, I haven't. The closest I've come to that level is a year as a division planner, and a short tour in the Pentagon. My riposte? "Sir, you don't understand, because you haven't been there either."

Today's company-grade and field-grade officers have a perspective that most generals lack, because we've served in this war at the level where the rubber meets the road. (Cf. "What about the grunts?") But more important, today's generals refuse to acknowledge the basic truths that are known to any sergeant or junior officer who's served downrange. Often driven by political considerations and the machinations of civilian appointees, these generals have failed to adjust their assumptions to reflect these realities in the field. And in doing so, they have broken faith with today's generation of sergeants and officers, our sons and daughters whom we send into harm's way to fight our wars.

Some senior officers get it. Col. J.B. Burton, mentioned in Jaffe's article, penned a memo to his boss on the opinions and attitudes of his junior officers in an effort to explain why they're getting out in droves. Nagl, Yingling, and others within the Army's small intellectual community get it. But the mainline conventional leadership of the Army has a long way to go. To some extent, these intellectuals are waging an insurgency of their own, a fight against the entrenched and anachronistic norms, values and leaders of the Army. The odds are long, but the fight is worth it.

Nice blog here. I am writing from Afghanistan.

The US army had exactly the same discussions thirty-five years ago at the height of the Vietnam war, with the same results. The army likes its tanks, guns and helicopters and there's much more money in big ticket items and unwinnable wars, so there's no sense trying to talk the army and the military-industrial complex in general out of their favorite toys and ribbon-producing aggressions.

Anyhow, the real question is: Why do we get in this unwinnable fiascos in the first place? Robert McNamara, one of the principle architects of the Vietnam dabacle, later wrote that "we were wrong, terribly wrong". It isn't impossible that Rumsfeld will do the same someday. According to a recent survey 67 percent of the American people want a foreign policy based on diplomacy and not war.

Since american security is being lessened by the actions of these clueless generals then we need to get a lot smarter than we have been, and listening to the ranks (as well as the American people) is one good way to do it.

Jim Henley has said it better than I could.

'If we were determined to run the world well, as opposed to just running the world, there are all kinds of structural changes we could make to the military, the civilian government and the citizenry. The fact that we won’t be making those changes for perfectly intelligible institutional reasons is about Argument Number 5 on a long list of reasons we shouldn’t try to run the world in the first place.'

The army still doesn't get it.

Excerpts from an article in Inside Defense (subscr reqd):

“The major concern is, while we’re doing all this COIN [counterinsurgency] . . . do we have battalions that can still do an attack or a major defense, or brigades that can coordinate three battalions attacking an objective?” said Dennis Tighe, deputy director of the Combined Arms Center for Training . “Maybe we’ve got some problems there.”

Earlier this year, Maj. Gen. Robert Williams, the commander of the Army Armor Center at Ft. Knox, KY, raised similar doubts.

“I am concerned,” he wrote in the January/February issue of Armor magazine, “based on reports from the field as well as observations of training units, that the long war is taking a toll on our core competencies.”
"the long war is taking a toll on our core competencies"
Hey, general, it's been a long war because the army is incompetent in the core competency of 'counter-insurgency'. But the general loves his tanks too much to get a grip on reality.

Sodier: "warriors are fools"--which explains why generals love their tanks which are useless for asymmetric warfare. In fact, it explains a lot.

I'd like to say I really enjoy your blog.

One criticism I'd throw at Michele Flournoy and Tammy Schultz's piece--and one applicable to others as well--is that their own lack of experience as soldiers or Marines. It gives their piece the aura of 'talented' amateurishness.

As an example while one of their three main recommendations is that the Army change its training to meet guerrilla ops. Neither knows that most light infantry units have been training some form of small wars or insurgency scenarios for years. Perhaps not to the situation in Iraq, but at least it has been a recognized skill to acquire.

It's those sort of small 'blind spots' that through lack of experience or earned insight always make these sort of studies never quite indicative of the realities they mean to fix--civilian time in DoD is no replacement for time in on the ground.

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