An Army That Learns

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 13/07/08):

The U.S. Army has done something remarkable in its new history of the disastrous first 18 months of the American occupation of Iraq: It has conducted a rigorous self-critique of how bad decisions were made, so that the Army won’t make them again.

Civilian leaders are still mostly engaged in a blame game about Iraq, pointing fingers to explain what went wrong and to justify their own actions. That’s certainly the tone of recent memoirs by Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense, and L. Paul Bremer, the onetime head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. These were the people making policy, yet they treat the key mistakes as other people’s fault. Feith criticizes Bremer and the CIA, while Bremer chides former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the military for ignoring his advice that the United States didn’t have enough troops.

The Army can’t afford this sort of retroactive self-justification. Its commanders and soldiers are the ones who got stuck with the situation in Iraq and had to make it work as best they could. And this internal history, published last month under the title “On Point II,” testifies to the Army’s strength as a learning organization. (This study covers May 2003 to January 2005. An earlier volume, “On Point,” chronicled the initial assault on Baghdad.)

The study is blunt about how unprepared the Army was for the postwar challenges: “The DOD and the Army lacked a coherent plan to translate the rapid, narrow-front attack [on Baghdad] . . . into strategic success. Soldiers and commanders at nearly every level did not know what was expected of them once Saddam Hussein was deposed and his military forces destroyed.” The situation in spring 2003 “evoked the aphorism, ‘if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.’ ”

Why was the Army so unready for the insurgency and chaos that followed the toppling of Hussein? The study rejects the easy (if largely correct) answer that it was the fault of poor civilian leadership and focuses instead on the Army’s own shortcomings. The overall commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, “did not see postwar Iraq as his long-term responsibility,” the study says. “Franks’ message to the DOD and the Joint Chiefs was, ‘You pay attention to the day after, and I’ll pay attention to the day of.’ ”

But it turned out that nobody was preparing for the day after. The Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, argued that more troops would be needed, but the Joint Chiefs supported Franks’s under-resourced war plan. The chiefs assumed that a reconstituted Iraqi army would help secure the country after the war, little realizing that Bremer would disband it in May 2003. At that time, the military still was assuming that most American troops would be gone by that September.

The United States had a force for “regime removal” but not “regime change,” write the authors, Donald P. Wright and Col. Timothy R. Reese. When the Army began to understand that it faced a well-organized insurgency, “the transition to a new campaign was not well thought out.” The Army wasn’t ready to train Iraqi security forces or to handle the thousands of Iraqi prisoners detained in places such as Abu Ghraib.

But the Army learned from its mistakes. Rather than sulking about the Iraq mess, commanders made necessary changes. The Army developed a new doctrine for fighting a counterinsurgency; it learned how to work with Iraqi tribal leaders; it pursued al-Qaeda into every village of Iraq; it experimented with soft power, by working closely with Provincial Reconstruction Teams. “One could easily state that the U.S. Army essentially reinvented itself during this 18-month period,” the historians write.

This study illustrates what’s most admirable about the Army. It has maintained a tradition of intellectual rigor and self-criticism. That’s nurtured in the Army’s unique program of midcareer education. It’s not an accident but part of that Army tradition that the current commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, took a doctorate in international relations at Princeton, or that the former Centcom commander, Gen. John Abizaid, had a stint as commandant of West Point. This tradition is exemplified, too, in the decision of Gen. George Casey, the current chief of staff, to publish this sometimes searing critique of his own service.

Politicians repeat, ad nauseam, the maxim that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The U.S. Army is that rare institution in American life that is actually putting this precept into practice.