Active Lieutenant Colonel Writes About Failure in Iraq

April 27, 2007 at 9:57 am | Posted in Afghanistan, American politics, Bush Administration, Iraq, Military, Rumsfeld, Vietnam, violence, War | 3 Comments

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling writes in the Armed Forces Journal about the failures of the generals in Iraq. He steers clear of attacking civilian political leaders (because well, it’s not his field or expertise). But he holds nothing back in stating quite accurately how terribly wrong the generals have been about the war in Iraq. He writes:

For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. (My note: I wonder how the Michelle Malkins of the world are going to spin this, seeing how they’ve called Senator Reid a treasonous traitor for daring to say such truths). In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq’s grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.

These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps. America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America’s generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.

His critique is quite searing. Let me quote a few sections of importance, though the entire article is highly recommended. He begins by discussing how wars are fought, by nations as a whole, and not by just a part. The public must be a part of the conflict. Political leaders have a responsibility to ensure the public backs the war. The generals have a responsibility to speak candidly about the probabilities, i.e. just what is going to happen once the boots hit the ground. Finally, the policy must be sound. In all three cases, Vietnam was a failure (and in the end the United States lost Vietnam).

To prepare forces for war, the general must visualize the conditions of future combat. To raise military forces properly, the general must visualize the quality and quantity of forces needed in the next war. To arm and equip military forces properly, the general must visualize the materiel requirements of future engagements. To train military forces properly, the general must visualize the human demands on future battlefields, and replicate those conditions in peacetime exercises. Of course, not even the most skilled general can visualize precisely how future wars will be fought. According to British military historian and soldier Sir Michael Howard, “In structuring and preparing an army for war, you can be clear that you will not get it precisely right, but the important thing is not to be too far wrong, so that you can put it right quickly.”

The most tragic error a general can make is to assume without much reflection that wars of the future will look much like wars of the past. Following World War I, French generals committed this error, assuming that the next war would involve static battles dominated by firepower and fixed fortifications. Throughout the interwar years, French generals raised, equipped, armed and trained the French military to fight the last war. In stark contrast, German generals spent the interwar years attempting to break the stalemate created by firepower and fortifications. They developed a new form of war — the blitzkrieg — that integrated mobility, firepower and decentralized tactics. The German Army did not get this new form of warfare precisely right. After the 1939 conquest of Poland, the German Army undertook a critical self-examination of its operations. However, German generals did not get it too far wrong either, and in less than a year had adapted their tactics for the invasion of France.

After visualizing the conditions of future combat, the general is responsible for explaining to civilian policymakers the demands of future combat and the risks entailed in failing to meet those demands. Civilian policymakers have neither the expertise nor the inclination to think deeply about strategic probabilities in the distant future. Policymakers, especially elected representatives, face powerful incentives to focus on near-term challenges that are of immediate concern to the public. Generating military capability is the labor of decades. If the general waits until the public and its elected representatives are immediately concerned with national security threats before finding his voice, he has waited too long. The general who speaks too loudly of preparing for war while the nation is at peace places at risk his position and status. However, the general who speaks too softly places at risk the security of his country.

Well said. How many generals stayed silent until they retired before they spoke up about the awful policies regarding Iraq? Lt. Col. Yingling then provides examples of how Vietnam was lost precisely because of these issues. He then moves to Iraq:

Following World War II, there were ample indicators that America’s enemies would turn to insurgency to negate our advantages in firepower and mobility. The French experiences in Indochina and Algeria offered object lessons to Western armies facing unconventional foes. These lessons were not lost on the more astute members of America’s political class. In 1961, President Kennedy warned of “another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin — war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat, by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by evading and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him.” In response to these threats, Kennedy undertook a comprehensive program to prepare America’s armed forces for counterinsurgency.
America’s generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq. First, throughout the 1990s our generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly. Second, America’s generals failed to estimate correctly both the means and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning the war in Iraq. Finally, America’s generals did not provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.
Despite engaging in numerous stability operations throughout the 1990s, the armed forces did little to bolster their capabilities for civic reconstruction and security force development. Procurement priorities during the 1990s followed the Cold War model, with significant funding devoted to new fighter aircraft and artillery systems. The most commonly used tactical scenarios in both schools and training centers replicated high-intensity interstate conflict. At the dawn of the 21st century, the U.S. is fighting brutal, adaptive insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, while our armed forces have spent the preceding decade having done little to prepare for such conflicts.

And it shows. Cave dwellers should not be able to do such damage to the most powerful military in the history of the world. But they do. Simply because the two sides are not fighting on the same battlefield.

Having spent a decade preparing to fight the wrong war, America’s generals then miscalculated both the means and ways necessary to succeed in Iraq. The most fundamental military miscalculation in Iraq has been the failure to commit sufficient forces to provide security to Iraq’s population.

This point cannot be stressed enough. This particular problem with respect to Iraq can be linked back directly to the political leaders, namely those who never saw combat, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld (though Rumsfeld did have military service back in the late 50s, he never saw combat). That doesn’t excuse the generals who should know better, as Lt. Col. Yingling points out quite clearly.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) estimated in its 1998 war plan that 380,000 troops would be necessary for an invasion of Iraq. Using operations in Bosnia and Kosovo as a model for predicting troop requirements, one Army study estimated a need for 470,000 troops. Alone among America’s generals, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki publicly stated that “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be necessary to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. Prior to the war, President Bush promised to give field commanders everything necessary for victory. Privately, many senior general officers both active and retired expressed serious misgivings about the insufficiency of forces for Iraq. These leaders would later express their concerns in tell-all books such as “Fiasco” and “Cobra II.” However, when the U.S. went to war in Iraq with less than half the strength required to win, these leaders did not make their objections public.

And why, again, are those numbers so important? Why go in with hundreds of thousands of combat troops?

Given the lack of troop strength, not even the most brilliant general could have devised the ways necessary to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. However, inept planning for postwar Iraq took the crisis caused by a lack of troops and quickly transformed it into a debacle. In 1997, the U.S. Central Command exercise “Desert Crossing” demonstrated that many postwar stabilization tasks would fall to the military. The other branches of the U.S. government lacked sufficient capability to do such work on the scale required in Iraq. Despite these results, CENTCOM accepted the assumption that the State Department would administer postwar Iraq. The military never explained to the president the magnitude of the challenges inherent in stabilizing postwar Iraq.

Again, it cannot be stressed enough. What’s worse is…

After failing to visualize the conditions of combat in Iraq, America’s generals failed to adapt to the demands of counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency theory prescribes providing continuous security to the population. However, for most of the war American forces in Iraq have been concentrated on large forward-operating bases, isolated from the Iraqi people and focused on capturing or killing insurgents. Counterinsurgency theory requires strengthening the capability of host-nation institutions to provide security and other essential services to the population. America’s generals treated efforts to create transition teams to develop local security forces and provincial reconstruction teams to improve essential services as afterthoughts, never providing the quantity or quality of personnel necessary for success.

After going into Iraq with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization, America’s general officer corps did not accurately portray the intensity of the insurgency to the American public. The Iraq Study Group concluded that “there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq.” The ISG noted that “on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.”

Again, political leaders had a lot to do with this, but that does not excuse the generals.

Population security is the most important measure of effectiveness in counterinsurgency. For more than three years, America’s generals continued to insist that the U.S. was making progress in Iraq. However, for Iraqi civilians, each year from 2003 onward was more deadly than the one preceding it.

Again, it cannot be stressed enough the reasons why you need several hundred thousand troops in a country the size of Iraq.

For reasons that are not yet clear, America’s general officer corps underestimated the strength of the enemy, overestimated the capabilities of Iraq’s government and security forces and failed to provide Congress with an accurate assessment of security conditions in Iraq. Moreover, America’s generals have not explained clearly the larger strategic risks of committing so large a portion of the nation’s deployable land power to a single theater of operations.

I can tell you why, Lt. Col. Yingling. Because doing so would undermine the rationale for the war.

Lt. Col. Yingling then goes on to describe the way things should be done. Generals right now are promoted by higher ups and retired generals, and not by peers and professionals around them. He thinks this should change. Also, there are no punishments right now for failures of such a grand scale as a full war for generals, who go off to retirement happy as clams.

Congress must enhance accountability by exercising its little-used authority to confirm the retired rank of general officers. By law, Congress must confirm an officer who retires at three- or four-star rank. In the past this requirement has been pro forma in all but a few cases. A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank than one who serves with distinction. A general who fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of strategic probabilities ought to suffer the same penalty. As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war. By exercising its powers to confirm the retired ranks of general officers, Congress can restore accountability among senior military leaders.

Pundits and political leaders may escape unscathed and not held accountable for pressing wars of choices that end up being dramatic failures, but those who execute the wars should be. There has to be some way to plug the system to not allow such grand failures to happen to our country. Generals who can be held accountable for such grand failures will be more cautious about advocating wars in the future.

Lt. Col. Yingling also recommends that generals get advanced degrees (like General Petraeus) and speak foreign languages (like General Abizaid). Such knowledge is a necessity when it comes to warfare:

The need for intelligent, creative and courageous general officers is self-evident. An understanding of the larger aspects of war is essential to great generalship. However, a survey of Army three- and four-star generals shows that only 25 percent hold advanced degrees from civilian institutions in the social sciences or humanities. Counterinsurgency theory holds that proficiency in foreign languages is essential to success, yet only one in four of the Army’s senior generals speaks another language. While the physical courage of America’s generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding their moral courage. In almost surreal language, professional military men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters. Now that the public is immediately concerned with the crisis in Iraq, some of our generals are finding their voices. They may have waited too long.
Congress should also modify the officer promotion system in ways that reward intellectual achievement. The Senate should examine the education and professional writing of nominees for three- and four-star billets as part of the confirmation process. The Senate would never confirm to the Supreme Court a nominee who had neither been to law school nor written legal opinions. However, it routinely confirms four-star generals who possess neither graduate education in the social sciences or humanities nor the capability to speak a foreign language. Senior general officers must have a vision of what future conflicts will look like and what capabilities the U.S. requires to prevail in those conflicts. They must possess the capability to understand and interact with foreign cultures. A solid record of intellectual achievement and fluency in foreign languages are effective indicators of an officer’s potential for senior leadership.

Lt. Col. Yingling concludes with the following:

This article began with Frederick the Great’s admonition to his officers to focus their energies on the larger aspects of war. The Prussian monarch’s innovations had made his army the terror of Europe, but he knew that his adversaries were learning and adapting. Frederick feared that his generals would master his system of war without thinking deeply about the ever-changing nature of war, and in doing so would place Prussia’s security at risk. These fears would prove prophetic. At the Battle of Valmy in 1792, Frederick’s successors were checked by France’s ragtag citizen army. In the fourteen years that followed, Prussia’s generals assumed without much reflection that the wars of the future would look much like those of the past. In 1806, the Prussian Army marched lockstep into defeat and disaster at the hands of Napoleon at Jena. Frederick’s prophecy had come to pass; Prussia became a French vassal.

Iraq is America’s Valmy. America’s generals have been checked by a form of war that they did not prepare for and do not understand. They spent the years following the 1991 Gulf War mastering a system of war without thinking deeply about the ever changing nature of war. They marched into Iraq having assumed without much reflection that the wars of the future would look much like the wars of the past. Those few who saw clearly our vulnerability to insurgent tactics said and did little to prepare for these dangers. As at Valmy, this one debacle, however humiliating, will not in itself signal national disaster. The hour is late, but not too late to prepare for the challenges of the Long War. We still have time to select as our generals those who possess the intelligence to visualize future conflicts and the moral courage to advise civilian policymakers on the preparations needed for our security. The power and the responsibility to identify such generals lie with the U.S. Congress. If Congress does not act, our Jena awaits us.

Personally I don’t think it is that bad yet, but I do think that we’re not learning and adapting as we need to. I still see too many soldiers in Iraq knocking down doors instead of knocking ON doors. That small difference is vast! The worst thing is that our actions in Iraq are in no way protecting the civilians of Iraq. Far too many have been killed. And as the numbers show, far too many have been killed BY US. By my rough count on that previous post, American soldiers have killed, since the start of the war, at least 24,000 Iraqi civilians. That’s not even counting the 35,000 civilians accounted for dead last year alone.

Finally, a note about General Petraeus. He is the kind of general Lt. Col. Yingling writes about, a smart educated man who recently updated the counterinsurgency manual for the Army. General Petraeus is not being forthcoming with the American people and I doubt he is with his political leaders, because if he were he would probably be fired and they would find someone else to do their dirty work for them. Why is he not being forthcoming? Simply because he himself wrote in his counterinsurgency manual that a successful counterinsurgency requires a certain amount of soldiers (for a city like Baghdad with 6 million people, that number is about 120,000 combat troops—we do not even have 120,000 combat troops in the entire country!—yes there are about 160,000 total American forces in all of Iraq, but about half of them are support troops). General Petraeus knows this, but stays silent. Why? He knows this surge will eventually fail because he lacks the amount of troops he himself wrote that he needs. Why does he trust his political masters?

Hopefully General Petraeus reads Lt. Col. Yingling’s words and it sears his heart. Please change, General Petraeus. Please don’t listen to your political masters. They are lying to you. Not only that, but they are holding you up for all the arrows meant for them. You’re going to go down for them. Do you realize that?


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  1. I just started to read this blog, and this was a really eye-opening piece. Very good.

  2. Bradley,

    Welcome to my blog. I’m glad you enjoyed this piece. I’m just glad to see active military personnel speaking out on the criminal ineptitude of our political and military leaders. It’s still way too late, but at least someone has started.

  3. Interesting article. I’m wondering how the military’s ability to adapt and adjust will compensate, or not, for the problems they face.

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