LeRoy Collins Commentary 65

Commentary #65
30 June 2007

Critiques of Iraq War Reveal Rifts Among Army Officers

Ted, somebody in the Army hierarchy had better pay attention to this brief essay I have attached from yesterday's Wall Street Journal. Some of the low-level UNCLAS INTEL I am getting about Navy Admirals and Marine Generals taking over so many U.S. Joint Commands lately is because it is (perhaps) SECDEF's effort to be "obviously different" than the past..for starters.

I wish there were more instances of General/Flag Officers hosting meetings of subordinates where they announce provocative topics of known interest to their subordinates, then the boss sits down and TAKES NOTES...and/or asks a few questions. Now, THAT is different.

I am doing some of that in my new job heading the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, and I am amazed at the good ideas which come in from my "troops on the battlefield." I am not compelled to accept all (or even ANY) of their new ideas, but I MUST LISTEN...for my own good,...and that of the organization. More often than not, they understand the tactical problems better than I, and they want to help me...but moreover, they want our broader cause to SUCCEED.

I learned this simple but valuable technique from a seasoned Marine General Officer who has succeeded in many roles of leadership in civilian life, as well as military.

/s/ Roy

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Wall Street Journal
June 29, 2007
Critiques Of Iraq War Reveal Rifts Among Army Officers
Colonel's Essay Draws Rebuttal From General; Captains Losing Faith
By Greg Jaffe

Last December, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling attended a Purple Heart ceremony for soldiers injured in Iraq. As he watched the wounded troops collect their medals, the 41-year-old officer reflected on his two combat tours in Iraq.

He was frustrated at how slowly the Army had adjusted to the demands of guerrilla war, and ashamed he hadn't done more to push for change. By the end of the ceremony, he says, he could barely look the wounded troops in the eyes. Col. Yingling had just been chosen to lead a 540-soldier battalion. "I can't command like this," he recalls thinking.

He poured his thoughts into a blistering critique of the Army brass, "A Failure in Generalship," published last month in Armed Forces Journal, a non-government publication. "America's generals have been checked by a form of war that they did not prepare for and do not understand," his piece argued. (Read the article.)

The essay rocketed around the Army via email. The director of the Army's elite school for war planners scrapped his lesson plan for a day to discuss it. The commanding general at Fort Hood assembled about 200 captains in the chapel of that Texas base and delivered a speech intended to rebut it.

"I think [Col. Yingling] was speaking some truths that most of us talk about over beers," says Col. Matthew Moten, a history professor at West Point who also served in Iraq. "Very few of us have the courage or foolhardiness to put them in print."

The controversy over Col. Yingling's essay is part of a broader debate within the military over why the Army has struggled in Iraq, what it should look like going forward, and how it should be led. It's a fight being hashed out in the form of what one Pentagon official calls "failure narratives." Some of these explanations for the military's struggles in Iraq come through official channels. Others, like Col. Yingling's, are unofficial and show up in military journals and books.

The conflicting theories on Iraq reflect growing divisions within the military along generational lines, pitting young officers, exhausted by multiple Iraq tours and eager for change, against more conservative generals. Army and Air Force officers are also developing their own divergent explanations for Iraq. The Air Force narratives typically suggest the military should in the future avoid manpower-intensive guerrilla wars. Army officers counter that such fights are inevitable.

Post-mortems of battlefield failures are nothing new. The Army used Col. Harry Summers's "On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War" to explain its failure in that war and to chart a future course. Col. Summers blamed the loss on political leaders who hadn't mobilized the country for war and Army officers who hadn't pushed hard enough for an all-out assault on North Vietnam's army and its capital. Instead, the generals had wasted energy battling a guerrilla threat that was just a distraction, he argued.

"Summers was immensely influential," says retired Col. Don Snider, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His book buttressed a shift in focus within the Army during the 1970s and 1980s away from preparing for small wars and toward being ready for a conventional fight with the Soviet Army in Europe.

The first of the Army's explanations for Iraq was embedded in its new doctrine for fighting insurgencies. That effort was overseen by Gen. David Petraeus, now the top general in Iraq. Written in 2006 by a bevy of active-duty officers, historians and a human-rights advocate, the doctrine criticized the Army for turning away from guerrilla war after Vietnam. "The story of how the Army found itself less than ready to fight an insurgency goes back to the Army's unwillingness to internalize and build upon the lessons of Vietnam," an introduction to the document reads.

The Army is learning in Iraq how to fight such wars better, the document says. But its authors, including Gen. Petraeus, worried that the lessons may have come too late -- after the American people had run out of patience.

Since then, other officers have weighed in with competing failure narratives. Earlier this year, Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, an Air Force officer in the Pentagon with a penchant for stirring up debate, suggested that Gen. Petraeus's narrative missed the point. The U.S. was struggling in Iraq because it had no business using a large ground force to fight a guerrilla war, he argued in Armed Forces Journal. "Absent overwhelming numbers, it is virtually impossible for even well-equipped ground forces to defeat insurgencies in the midst of sullen populations often sympathetic to the enemy," he wrote. He advocated replacing large numbers of U.S. troops with indigenous forces bolstered by American precision bombs and surveillance planes.

The conflicting theses are fueling a debate over whether the Pentagon should stick to its plan to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 troops by 2012. The buildup will siphon money from big weapons programs. Each additional soldier costs the Army about $120,000 a year.

Gen. Dunlap's theory suggests the additional troops are unnecessary. Gen. Petraeus's counterinsurgency doctrine holds that about 20 to 25 troops are needed to protect every 1,000 civilians from guerilla attack. In Iraq, that would mean a force of several hundred thousand, a substantial increase from current troop levels.

The conflicting explanations for the Army's struggles in Iraq could also breed mistrust in the ranks. Many young officers are frustrated and exhausted by four years of war and don't understand why their small victories in the field aren't adding up to a safer and more stable Iraq.

"There is enormous pride among young officers in their units and in each other," says Lt. Col. Peter Kilner, who recently returned from two months in Iraq interviewing young Army officers for a research project. "But I see strong evidence that they are rapidly losing faith in the Army and the country's political leadership."

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.

Col. Yingling first deployed to Iraq in July 2003 as part of an artillery battalion ordered to train Iraqi security forces. When he returned to the U.S. in late 2003, he began banging out articles for journals in his spare time. He and a fellow officer pushed the Army to get more serious about training indigenous forces and rebuilding the country. His field-artillery bosses, he says, told him that he should be worrying about more important things.

In 2005, Col. Yingling volunteered to go back to Iraq with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He was given responsibility for overseeing economic-development projects, Iraqi security forces and governance in Tal Afar, a small city in northern Iraq. The 3,500-soldier regiment's year was so successful that President Bush cited it in a nationally televised address.

When Col. Yingling returned to Fort Hood, he says, he found an Army that hadn't really changed. "The thing the Army institutionally is still struggling to learn is that the most important thing we do in counterinsurgency is building security forces and local government capacity," he said in an internal Army interview in 2006. "And yet all our organizations are designed around the least important line of operations: combat operations."

A few weeks later, after attending the Purple Heart ceremony for the wounded soldiers, he decided he had to do something. His essay, "A Failure in Generalship," drew upon dozens of conversations he had overheard in mess halls and on patrol in Iraq. "It included no original thoughts," he says. But it quickly made him something of a cult hero among the Army's junior and mid-grade officers.

At the Army's School for Advanced Military Studies in Kansas, where its brightest majors attend a one-year course on war planning, Col. Kevin Benson dropped lesson plans to let students discuss the article. "Most of the majors' reaction to the article was 'Right on,'" says Col. Benson, who until last month headed the Army school. Col. Benson says he counseled the young officers to be cautious about judging their superiors. "All right, you are going to have to work for some of these general officers," Col. Benson says he told them. "If you feel this way, what is your obligation to them?"

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.

The generational divide is fueling a fight over how the Army should use the extra troops it is getting. The Army wants to build five more brigades, which consist of 5,000 to 7,000 soldiers each. But some young officers, such as Lt. Col. John Nagl, an Iraq veteran who helped write the new counterinsurgency doctrine, want more radical change. He contends the extra troops should be used to build a new, 20,000-man advisory corps focused on training foreign forces.

"The most important military component of the Long War [on terrorism] will not be the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our allies to fight with us," he wrote in an essay published by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

Although senior Army officials don't like Col. Nagl's idea, it has some support among Pentagon civilians in Defense Secretary Robert Gates's office. "A big question right now in the Pentagon is: How do you get the Army to begin this debate about itself and what it should look like after Iraq?" says Andrew Hoehn, a former Pentagon strategist and senior analyst at the Rand Corp., a government-funded think tank. Frustration among junior officers could drive bottom-up change, he says.

The right failure narrative, voiced by the top brass and backed up by concrete action, could help rekindle the faith of young officers, who are leaving the service at a worrisome rate. Late last month, Col. J.B. Burton, who commands a 7,000-soldier brigade in Baghdad, warned in a memo to the Army's top generals of a looming crisis in the junior officer corps. Today's officers "have spent the past four years in a continuous cycle of fighting, training, deploying, fighting etc. ...and they see no end in sight. They have seen their closest friends killed and maimed, leaving young spouses and children as widows and single parent kids," he wrote. (Read the memo.)

Many young officers complain that the Army, which is desperately short of captains, treats them like interchangeable cogs. "As long as I don't get a DUI or fornicate on my boss's desk, I will be promoted with my peers," Col. Burton's memo quotes one officer as saying.

Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff and formerly the top commander in Iraq, has been wrestling with how to respond. He's spent the last several months meeting with soldiers world-wide. He also solicited Col. Burton's blunt memo. "Everyone is watching to see how Gen. Casey will lead this younger generation along," says Col. Snider, the West Point professor.

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/s/ LeRoy Collins, Jr.
www.leroycollins.org


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