Here’s something for our military readers that I meant to link yesterday but didn’t get to. It’s a sequel of sorts to Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s now famous indictment of the brass for failing to speak up about troop levels and other flaws in the planning before the Iraq invasion began. Fred Kaplan tries to figure out what went wrong. Were they too respectful of the constitutional principle of civilian leadership, such that they felt it wasn’t their place to challenge Bush on logistics? Or were they just doing what they’d been trained to do by a military culture that rewards efficient execution more than creativity?
“The crux of the problem in our Army,” Wass de Czege wrote, “is that officers are not systematically taught how to cope with unstructured problems.” Counterinsurgency wars, like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, are all about unstructured problems. The junior and field-grade officers, who command at the battalion level and below, deal with unstructured problems — adapting to the insurgents’ ever-changing tactics — as a matter of course. Many generals don’t, and never had to, deal with such problems, either in war or in their training drills. Many of them may not fully recognize just how distinct and difficult these problems are.
Kaplan sees a crisis of confidence in the brass developing among the junior officers who’ve had to learn how to adapt in the crucible of battle in Iraq. That’s potentially good news in the long term as the juniors get promoted and remake the culture in their own image — but only if they don’t quit from frustration first, of course, and only if their senior commanders are willing to reward the more unorthodox and adaptable thinkers among them with promotions. To see which way the wind is blowing on that, Kaplan points to the case of Col. H.R. McMaster, who wrote a celebrated book about the hazards of installing yes men in military leadership positions and who masterminded the successful counterinsurgency strategy at Tal Afar. He’s been passed over for promotion to brigadier general two years running. Bad sign.
It’s long but give it a shot. It’s potentially very important. I’ll leave you with a question posed implicitly by this paragraph:
Capt. Garrett Cathcart, who has served in Iraq as a platoon leader, said: “The culture of the Army is to accomplish the mission, no matter what. That’s a good thing.” Matt Wignall, who was the first captain to ask General Cody about the Yingling article, agreed that a mission-oriented culture was “a good thing, but it can be dangerous.” He added: “It is so rare to hear someone in the Army say, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ But sometimes it takes courage to say, ‘I don’t have the capability.’ ” Before the Iraq war, when Rumsfeld overrode the initial plans of the senior officers, “somebody should have put his foot down,” Wignall said.
The question: If the Army’s culture is to accomplish the mission, no questions asked, no matter how long the odds, how do we explain the absurd degree of risk aversion that’s hobbled the search for Osama?