New Army Manual Shows War's Softer Side With Focus on Nation-Building

U.S. general: Military should improve "the human condition," but manual omits democracy promotion.

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The U.S. Army is showcasing its softer side with the unveiling of its new Stability Operations Field Manual, one of a number of how-to guides it puts together for soldiers.

The new manual is garnering lots of attention—and drawing controversy—in part because it marks a major shift in military thinking. Tellingly, it omits any reference to President Bush's democracy-promotion agenda. But, for the first time, the Pentagon is saying explicitly that nation-building is just as important as conventional military operations like tank wars—and perhaps more so.

It's a long way, U.S. military officials note, from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's rather disdainful "We don't do nation-building" remark as Iraq was falling apart in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The manual also has implications beyond the role of a military embroiled in complex operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who spearheaded the writing of the manual, spoke this week about the need for U.S. military action that betters "the human condition." He talked, for example, about the U.S. military's role in helping out after natural disasters brought on, he added, by global climate change and rural-urban migration. It's striking language for a career soldier.

It is also all a bit much for some traditionalists, who argue that the military is—and should be—primarily an instrument of brute force. They bristle at the notion of soldiers handing out food and doing what they call the "blue beret" work of the United Nations.

The Army is also hearing complaints that it is forgetting its roots. Some worry that the Army is stretched too thin to take on both humanitarian missions and a big war with a big enemy.

"There's a time and a place for using overwhelming combat power," says Lt. Col. Steve Leonard, who helped draft the new manual. "We cannot forget that there may be a big enemy around the corner, and we never said there isn't. But commanders have to be able to turn on a dime, one minute fighting, the next minute building an economy."

The thought of the U.S. military handing out more aid makes some nonprofits nervous. At the rollout this week, James Bishop, a former U.S. ambassador who is now vice president of humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction, the largest association of nongovernmental organizations, said his greatest concern during the draft process was that NGOs "remain independent and free" to provide aid to nations, whether they are "sympathetic" to U.S. policy or not. He also requested that the U.S. military not refer to NGOs as "partners" anywhere in the manual.

The military agreed to this, as well as to wording requests that came from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. It worked with all of these agencies in writing the manual.

But such requests underscore the nervousness with which many view what they call the militarization of aid—work, they argue, that should not be undertaken in uniform because it could alienate those who don't agree with U.S. policy or those who are simply frightened of soldiers.

Leonard says he understands these concerns. "If we characterize them as partners, as collaborators, it saps that independence of action" that NGOs need to provide humanitarian access and assistance, he says.

The biggest source of disagreement was "whether democracy has a role" in nation-building, says Leonard. The Bush administration's National Security Strategy, for example, notes the goal of spreading democracy to the rest of the world.

The Army ultimately decided that such an aim is unrealistic. "We have to step back and say, you know, it's not about democracy, it's about effective governance and a stronger economy and well-being for the people," Leonard says. "If they develop democracy, that's great, but they have to have a government that suits their culture. And of course we had that debate.

"But we all agreed that that's setting the bar way too high," he adds. "We're going to lower the bar down to something that's more realizable."