The Army is rethinking how to fight the next warand win the current one
Fort Irwin, Calif.The legendary Gen. George Patton first used a desolate stretch of California desert to train his tank units in the 1930s. Some five decades later, the Army returned to the area's harsh scrublands. The opening of the National Training Center here allowed heavy brigades to square off in large-scale exercises to prepare for the war that never came, the massive tank-on-tank battles against the Soviet Union. For an ambitious colonel, a war game at the National Training Center was very likely the climax of his brigade command. These days, it is merely the beginning. The real test comes afterward. The real test, of course, is Iraq.
After three years of roadside bombs, midnight raids, and sectarian strife, one can safely say that Iraq is not the kind of war for which the National Training Center and the U.S. Army spent decades preparing. In fact, Iraq is the kind of fight that, after Vietnam, the Army hoped to avoid. It is a messy war in an urban landscape against multiple insurgencies, a powder keg of ethnic tensions that the United States still does not completely understand.
It is a war that is forcing the Army to change. Today, combat veterans, military thinkers, and Army historians are beefing up the study of insurgencies. They are emphasizing tone, intelligence, and cultural understanding. They are training designated skeptics to question planned operations. And they are rethinking the way the Army trains and fights.
War stories. Most of America's top Army generals carry with them the almost-war stories of their trips to Fort Irwin. As the ridgeline known as the Sawtooth Escarpment comes into view from the window of a Blackhawk helicopter, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus is reminded of a long-ago rotation in which his light-infantry battalion squared off against a company of tanks. But the play tank battles that produced the almost-war stories are no more, a casualty of Iraq. Now, Fort Irwin is host to a different kind of drama. As the Blackhawk swings away from the ridge, the new training center comes into Petraeus's view. Two hundred feet below him is Medina Jabal, one of 12 simulated villages at Fort Irwin where 250 Iraqi-American "role players" from San Diego live during the two-week training exercises. This is the new battlefield. Now, brigade commanders must learn how to maneuver between the Sunni and Shiite imams and politicians. They must win friends and outfox an opposition force that has turned in its tanks, grown beards, and joined an insurgency.
The broad outlines of what went wrong in Iraq are becoming increasingly clear. Even last week there were new reports that the Pentagon focused too little on postwar planning and was ill-prepared for an insurgency. It remains to be seen whether the Iraq war, now passing the three-year mark, will go into history as a success or failure. But the Army can't wait for history's judgment; it has already begun to draw its conclusions, its military lessons, in order to learn how to better fight the current war and prepare for whatever may follow.
At the forefront of the effort to absorb the lessons and remake the Army are two veterans of Iraq. Gen. William Wallace, one of the first to raise questions about the potential for insurgent attacks in Iraq, began the hard look and the overhaul of the nation's training centers when he led the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Today, as the head of Army Training and Doctrine Command, he leads the effort to make sure that all Army schools are teaching counterinsurgency and new ways to fight. General Petraeus, who led the 101st Airborne Division during the first part of the war and then oversaw the training of the Iraqi Army, has more Iraq experience than almost any other American military man. As Wallace's successor at the Combined Arms Center, he is shepherding the effort to write a new doctrine and remake how soldiers train. Together the two men have helped put into motion a quiet evolution in Army thinkingone that seems to recognize missteps that have occurred in Iraq.
The School of Advanced Military Studies is an elite program at Fort Leavenworth that attracts some of the brightest majors in the American Army. Its students are often called the "Jedi Knights," because commanders in the field tap their innovative thinking. This month, inside one sams class, students refought the Iraq invasion with a whole different battle plan. In this war game, one team, playing the American military forces, moved into southern and northern Iraq to secure the oil fields. And then they used diversions to pull their opponentsthe Iraqisaway from Baghdad. That allowed them to drop the 82nd Airborne Division into central Iraq so they could execute a raid aimed at forcing Saddam Hussein to surrender and replacing him with a U.S.-friendly strongman. The plan has nothing to do with creating a democracy in Iraq. It has everything to do with trying to preserve the systems that make the country work. "We want to get our guy in there and then try to transform the way that government works over time," says Maj. Kris Arnold, one of the students playing on the American team. "As opposed to shocking it, taking away the structure. Then we have a big mess on our hands."
Experiments. For the record, the American team's effort failed. In the war game, Baghdad fell into chaos and a guerrilla movement developed, forcing the team to execute a more conventional invasion. Up next for the class: an Iraqi civil war. James Schneider, a professor of military theory, notes that such classroom exercises are intellectual experiments designed to help teach the students to think the way commanders do. But what is interesting is how much emphasis the sams students' plan puts on stability. And the importance of preserving stability is one of the biggest lessons the Army has learned from Iraq, one the military is weaving into its official doctrine.
The office of the Army's chief doctrine writer, Clint Ancker, is filled with 350 military coins, the calling cards of commanding officers that are handed out in friendship or awarded for good work. The coins are a symbolic representation of the war stories Ancker has listened to, stored, taken apart, and assimilated. Ancker, a retired colonel, studies such war lessons and puts the best into the field manuals that tell soldiers how to win wars both big and small.
Fifteen years ago, Pentagon doctrine suggested there was a strict division between combat operations and peacekeeping, or stability, missions. The Army's experience in Kosovo, Bosnia, and, especially, Somalia, Ancker says, proved that during humanitarian operations designed to stabilize a country, there was still a need for military muscle. But Ancker argues that the Iraq invasion showed that the Army did not grasp the flip side of the Bosnia lesson, that during combat operations there was a need for peacekeeping-style activities. "We did not have that down nearly as well as we thought we had," he says. The next operations field manual will tell commanders that even when engaged in combat operations they need to immediately focus on making the civilian population physically safe, establishing some sort of governance to allow society to function, and restoring essential services.
Stability. Embedded in the new doctrine is an implicit critique of how the Iraq invasion was conducted. The Army now argues that racing from city to city, with relatively little concern for security, is a mistake. "In particular, if you are conducting a major combat operation and you are thinking about the aftermath of how you are going to relate to the population after the fight, you are going to conduct the fight differently," Ancker says. "And part of that, frankly, is to decrease the opportunity for disgruntled elements to gain support from a population that is looking for things such as security, governance, and essential services."
Studying how to gain the support of civilians is a growing part of the curriculum at Fort Leavenworth's Command and General Staff College. Throughout the armed forces, military schools are gearing up their study of counterinsurgency. At the front of a classroom at Fort Leavenworth, Maj. Andy Johnson starts up a clip from the documentary film Gunner Palace. The clip shows an American unit raiding the home of suspected bomb makers. In the courtyard, as the Iraqi men try to explain something, the soldiers shout at them, "Keep your mouth shut!" and "Hey, shut up!" Crouching low, one of the Iraqi men says in English, "I know that 'shut up.' "
When the video ends, Johnson asks the class what they thought of the Americans' actions. "They weren't mistreating them," says one student, an Army major; "they didn't know what they were going to do." After more discussion, Maj. Christopher Schmitt, a teacher who helped design the course, pipes up from the back of the class. "These guys were just fence-sitters; these guys are noncommittal," he says of the Iraqis in the video. "But after being handcuffed in front of their wives, do we think these guys are fence-sitters anymore?"
The answer, clearly, is no. "Watch Cops," says Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Schlemmer, one of the students. "The state troopers always keep their cool, no matter what is going on." Johnson moves toward the center of the class and asks, "Did you hear them say, 'I know that "shut up"?' Who do they know that from?" Maj. Derrick Fishback answers: "Saddam." Johnson nods: "It goes from one oppressor to another. This is not easy stuff. It is counterinsurgency."
Schmitt and Johnson teach that when fighting an insurgency, the second-order effects of a mission are as important as the initial tactical maneuver. Some officers believe American forces in Iraq do not always fully consider such unintended consequences, in part because some commanders do not encourage dissenting views from their staff. Such units are susceptible to "groupthink," says Gregory Fontenot, a retired colonel who wrote a history of the Iraq invasion. Fontenot has begun a pilot program at Fort Leavenworth to teach officers how to serve as a commander's designated skepticor in military parlance, the "red team." A good red-team officer puts forward a contrary point of view, not something a rigid hierarchy necessarily reacts well to. "You want someone who can be critical," Fontenot says, "without bringing out the antibodies." Says Wallace, "If we don't have someone thinking like a potential adversary, we are doomed not to take into account culture and nontraditional military thought."
Consequences. With or without red teams, many Army officers are growing increasingly aware that they must become better at predicting consequences and ensuring they do not create more insurgents than they eliminate. The concept is being taught not just in the classroom but also at the Army training centers. From the simulated mosque in the Fort Irwin "town" of Medina Jabal, the sounds of the evening call to prayer crackle over a loudspeaker. As Petraeus and the "mayor" sit down for a cup of tea, Staff Sgt. Albert Ortega watches.
Ortega, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, is a member of Fort Irwin's resident opposition force. He plays the role of a Sunni Arab bus driver named "Imran," whose loyalties shift depending on the actions of the American force in training. The 2nd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade, a Fort Lewis, Wash.-based unit, is about to finish its two-week Fort Irwin training in preparation for Iraq deployment later this year. The brigade has been doing a good job, and the opposition force's fence-sitters are generally remaining neutral. But a few days before, the brigade "detained" Ortega. The Americans seized him, he claims, for no reason. Not only did the detention give him some new motivation for his character, but it prompted him to do some thinking about his next deployment to Iraq. After the mock experience of being detained, "we have some insight on how the Iraqi civilians feel," Ortega says. "When we are over there, you think every Iraqi you see might be an insurgent. But you want to be sympathetic to the people trying to live their everyday life."
As the sun begins to fade, Ortega says he is particularly interested in how the brigade will handle crowd control. Indeed, the next day Ortega is doing his best to provide a challenge. Ortega's short beard and robelike dishdasha make him a convincing Iraqi. The soldiers in training do not immediately recognize him as a member of the opposition force.
In front of the "town hall," a large group of Iraqis has gathered, awaiting the Sunni imam. The American soldiers are on edge. It is the last day of their training, and they suspect something big will happen. One soldier has already caught a would-be sniper nearby. Ortega slips into the crowd. He begins pointing and yelling at Sgt. Christopher Thomas. Thomas tries to calm him down, but the nearby Iraqi-American actors start yelling, too. Thomas points his rifle at Ortega. The Iraqi crowd falls silent for a split second, then surges forward. Thomas reaches out and shoves Ortega backward.
At that point, a trainer intervenes to talk to Thomas. Before the changes at the training center, these observer-controllers would stand back and take notes. But now, when they see a soldier do something wrong, they step in immediately to correct the behavior. Later that morning, the observer-controllers conduct an after-action review, to discuss how the unit handled the rally. On a whiteboard mounted on the side of his humvee, Staff Sgt. Adrian Tennant lists crowd control among the skills the platoon needs to improve before it ships out to Iraq. "How are you going to fix the problem?" Tennant asks the platoon.
"The key is not to get frustrated," suggests Staff Sgt. Jon Hilliard, one of the platoon's squad leaders.
"Do you really want to point your weapon at the crowd?" asks Tennant. "How would you feel if it was pointed at you?"
"You don't want to incite a riot if there is no reason to," Hilliard answers.
Today, most American military officers in Iraq argue that making sure the population comes to support their efforts, or at least does not actively support the insurgency, is one of the most important parts of their job. To some, that is what "winning hearts and minds" means. But Lt. Col. Charles Eassa, an Army information operation officer at Fort Leavenworth, argues that winning hearts and minds is an "intangible phrase" and may be an impossible goal. "I don't need you to like me," Eassa says. "I need you to trust that I will do what I said." The idea is that if Iraqis have confidence that American forces will fulfill their promises, they will feel more secure and put their faith in their government, not the insurgency.
Brig. Gen. Robert Cone, the commander of the National Training Center, has devised a novel way to test how well his troops are building "trust and confidence." The observer-controllers record every promise a unit in training makes to the Iraqi-American role-playersand they count how many are broken. To discourage commanders from mak-ing promises they cannot keep, the opposition force puts them to a test. If a commander promises to keep a town secure, the insurgents try to attack it.
Cultural terrain. Winning the hearts and minds, or establishing trust and confidence, requires understanding the Iraqis. Military units are good at sharing knowledge of the physical landscape. But they are not so good when it comes to sharing knowledge about such things as the allegiances of local subtribes and the reliability of various local leaders, and much is lost when a unit rotates out. "We used to just focus on the military terrain," Petraeus says. "Now we have to focus on the cultural terrain."
One idea to fix the problem is to create maps or databases of this human terrain. Don Smith, a strategic consultant with Fort Leavenworth's Foreign Military Studies Office, is working on creating ways for Army units to record and share the cultural knowledge they gain. Smith says a human terrain map could also help measure where America is winning the war and where it is losing.
A short way from Medina Jabal, one of the 2nd Infantry Division's battalions has established its headquarters. In the tactical operations center, a large poster shows the interconnections between the people the soldiers have encoun-tered during two-week training. Sifting through intelligence, the battalion has been able to decipher the links between some of the "insurgents" and "townspeople" in Medina Jabal. American units now in Iraq, Petraeus says, have used this type of analysis to make significant inroads against the insurgency. The better a unit understands the insurgency in its area, for instance, the more it can target specific houses and the less it has to search entire neighborhoods with broad sweeps that alienate Iraqis.
The 2nd I.D.'s intelligence poster is the work of Staff Sgt. Shawn Ray. Petraeus leans back, nodding his head as he examines the connections that Ray has made. "All right," Petraeus says. "You've cracked the code here."
"Yes, sir," Ray answers, in a voice made hoarse by the desert dust.
"What would help you get . . . precise, actionable intel?" the general asks. "So you can do a cordon and knock, not a cordon and search. Who has given you the highest-quality stuff?"
"It's company commanders, even Joe on the ground who has someone come up to him," Ray says.
"Yup, yup," Petraeus says, motioning to his aide, who produces a coin. It reads, "Presented by the Commanding General for outstanding performance." Petraeus offers Ray his hand and slips the coin into the sergeant's palm.
Three years on, the Army increasingly recognizes that mistakes were made during the invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath. Those errors helped the insurgency to bloom and handed America a difficult, complex conflict. "It is not the fight we wanted," Wallace says, "but it's the fight we got." So the Army has set out to prove it can remake its doctrine, schools, and training centers in the midst of war. "The goal is to help our Army be a learning or-ganization," says Petraeus, "and we think there is a lot of that going on."
Perhaps someday, soldiers will tell stories about the new National Training Center: tales of how their unit took out a sniper before he could shoot an imam, or how they persuaded one sect not to attack another. But for now, of course, there are real stories from a real war.