The Army Trains a Skeptics Corps to Battle Groupthink

One lesson from Iraq: More questioning may help avert mistakes.

Lt. Col. Jeff Ragland recalls his reception in Baghdad: ''Who the hell are you, and what are you doing?''

Lt. Col. Jeff Ragland recalls his reception in Baghdad: ''Who the hell are you, and what are you doing?''

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In the wake of chaos and a lethal insurgency in Iraq, blamed in no small part on poor decisions and a lack of planning at the highest levels, the U.S. Army has had a startling insight that is upending conventional thinking about how the military works. That epiphany is that the force needs fewer yes men.

To that end, one of the Army's top colleges has been quietly training its own cadre of devil's advocates for the past two years. Its graduates say their role is often misunderstood and that their mission has been greeted with trepidation and, on occasion, hostility. "What we're really doing is producing an in-house skeptic, and that creates instant antibodies," says Greg Fontenot, the program director. "It's been like storming the beach at Normandy," agrees Lt. Col. Paul Baumann, who was sent to assess the program's success in Iraq. "It's been ugly, but they didn't kick us out."

The program at Fort Leavenworth's University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies is more commonly known by its nickname, Red Team University. The directors didn't like the moniker, concerned that it would conjure images of enemy war gamers trying to sabotage the system. And it did: Some early graduates were denied security badges upon their arrival in Baghdad by American soldiers fearful that they would hack into the Army's network.

The Red Teamers' job is decidedly less sneaky but often equally unsettling. It involves questioning prevailing assumptions to avoid "getting sucked into that groupthink," says Fontenot. "This is having someone inside that says, 'Wait a minute, not so fast.'" Occasionally, Red Teamers get assignments from the command. U.S. headquarters in Baghdad, for example, recently asked its Red Team to investigate the impact of using dogs in U.S. military operations in Iraq, among citizens who generally regard dogs as unclean and, occasionally, evil. Another task involved pinpointing what Iraqis considered to be their own "greatest generation," equivalent to World War II vets in America. Ideally, though, they are meant to be independent agents provocateurs.

To prepare Red Teamers, the program's curriculum calls for about 220 pages of reading a night. Some of that involves the usual suspects, including classic western military theorists like 19th-century Prussian historian Carl von Clausewitz. But the students delve into eastern philosophy and case studies as well, including the decision, on recommendation from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, not to topple Japan's Emperor Hirohito in the wake of World War II. "We want them to understand that their view of the world is very narrow," says Bob Topping, who develops the curriculum at the university. "We look at the world through a straw. We're shielded; our borders are protected," he adds. "Very few countries have had this luxury."

They also study competitive models. One of the students' favorite reads is the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis, about how a small-market baseball team like the Oakland A's regularly gets itself into the playoffs by placing a premium on traits that most big-league teams overlook, like discipline at the plate. They want the player who's reliable at avoiding the out and getting to first base, not the star who's always batting for the far bleachers. "But normally in America," says Topping, "we bring in the superstars. That's how we build our teams." The point is to expose officers to a subject they think they know very well, like baseball, and turn it on its head. "Then," he adds, "we ask what are some other ways you can look at problems—whether you use western, eastern, or competitive models—that you haven't before? That's the task of the Red Teamer."

That is the theory. In practice, such input has not always been so well received. "We challenged a few things that they were simply unwilling to engage on," says Lt. Col. Jeff Ragland, commander of the first Red Team at U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad until October 2007. He recalls questioning the surge in its planning stages. "I was wondering if you look ahead two years whether we'll have the right number of people, what happens to transitory security when it ends—things that are coming to pass now." The response he got, he says, was "Who the hell are you, and what are you doing?" Nor did he get much traction when he wondered, for example, about the feasibility of employing 12-year-old Iraqis to do odd jobs, a practice contrary to U.S. child labor laws. "We have a preconceived image of an American 12-year-old. But in Iraq, they may be, in everything but age, the head of the household—engrossed in the economy, governance, day-to-day life," says Ragland. "We've mirror-imaged it." And in so doing, he adds, perhaps ceded some chance to help and influence everyday Iraqis.