web counter Media Lies: Understanding the Iraq War

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

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Understanding the Iraq War

If you really want to understand what's going on in Iraq, you need to read Annals of War, Battle Lessons, by Dan Baum (hat tip to Greyhawk). What's going on in Iraq bodes well for the future of the US Army.

Here's part, but you need to read the whole thing (it's long).
Wong flew to Baghdad last April, a year after the supposed cessation of "major combat operations," to find out how the "reactive" and "compliant" junior officers the Army had trained were performing amid the insurgency. He and an active-duty officer flew to bases all over Iraq, interviewing lieutenants, who lead platoons of about thirty soldiers, and captains, who command companies of one to two hundred. These officers, scrambling to bring order to Mosul, Fallujah, and Baghdad, had been trained and equipped to fight against numbered, mechanized regiments in open-maneuver warfare. They had been taught to avoid fighting in cities at all costs. Few had received pre-deployment training in improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, the insurgents' signature weapon. None had received any but the most rudimentary instruction in the Arabic language or in Iraqi culture. They were perhaps the most isolated occupation force in history; there are no bars or brothels in Baghdad where Americans can relax, no place off the base for Americans to remove their body armor in the presence of locals. Every encounter was potentially hostile. The chronic shortage of troops and shifting phases of fighting and reconstruction forced soldiers into jobs for which they weren't prepared; Wong found field artillerymen, tankers, and engineers serving as infantrymen, while infantrymen were building sewer systems and running town councils. All were working with what Wong calls "a surprising lack of detailed guidance from higher headquarters." In short, the Iraq that Wong found is precisely the kind of unpredictable environment in which a cohort of hidebound and inflexible officers would prove disastrous.

Yet he found the opposite. Platoon and company commanders were exercising their initiative to the point of occasional genius. Whatever else the Iraq war is doing to American power and prestige, it is producing the creative and flexible junior officers that the Army's training could not.

There may be a generational explanation. While most high-ranking officers are baby boomers, most lieutenants and captains are of Generation X, born in the mid-sixties or after. Gen X officers, often the product of single-parent homes or homes in which both parents worked, are markedly more self-reliant and confident of their abilities than their baby-boomer superiors, according to Army surveys of both groups. Baby boomers moved up the ranks during the comfortable clarity of the Cold War, but the Gen Xers came of age during messy peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti. Gen Xers are notoriously unimpressed by rank, as Donald Rumsfeld discovered in December, when enlisted soldiers questioned him sharply about the lack of armor on their vehicles. This turns out to be a positive development for the Army, because the exigencies of the Iraq war are forcing the decision-making downward; tank captains tell of being handed authority, mid-battle, for tasks that used to be reserved for colonels, such as directing helicopter close-air support.

The younger officers have another advantage over their superiors: they grew up with the Internet, and have created for themselves, in their spare time, a means of sharing with one another, online, information that the Army does not control. The "slackers" in the junior-officer corps are turning out to be just what the Army needs in the chaos of Iraq. Instead of looking up to the Army for instructions, they are teaching themselves how to fight the war. The Army, to its credit, stays out of their way.
I've said this many times before. You don't change an organization the size of the US military (and as hide-bound as the military is) overnight. It takes time.

But like many things these days, technology is driving change faster than us old farts can keep up. Soon our Army will be "good to go". (The Marines always have been.)