Saturday, April 28, 2007


Second Thoughts and Generalship

Four must reads sometime this week:
Retired LTC Yingling's article in Armed Forces Journal
Hugh Hewitt interview with Max Boot on Yingling’s article, via Instapundit
Greyhawk's reflections on Yingling's piece
Point of view contrary to Yingling from Neptunus Lex

Call it all some considerations of the second draft of history, all relating to how we have conducted our military efforts in Iraq, how we’ve adapted, and where we stand now.

The mainstream media (MSM) delight in stories like this. They move from darling to darling, from one convenient message to another, and find ways to highlight and stress those particular threads of military commentary and opinion that supports their own biases, or the partisan aims of those they seek to assist.

I don’t want to insult or call into question the integrity of LTC Yingling, or impute ulterior motives to the particular timing of his article. I think Yingling accurately captures a strain of thought within the officer corps, particular for younger officers a level or two below those who have achieved the political stature of elevated senior rank. I say political because for those not as familiar with the world of the military, it may not be apparent the degree to which Generals and aspiring Field Grade officers by necessity excel as political animals.

I will certainly grant that, in hindsight, it will always be possible to find oppositional voices in military senior command who take positions contrary to those which ultimately prevail, and after the fact can seem deep wisdom indeed. Hindsight, after all, can always be measured as 20/20. I would even go so far to admit that a certain degree of hubris, institutional prejudices, vanity and pride underlay much military decision-making immediately leading up to our invasion of Iraq, and decisions in the first 3 years of executing the various components of our plans.

All that said I still have several big objections to his argument.

Bad results don’t necessarily indicate bad plans, or even bad decisions. Poor results are more often a failure of adaptability, not necessarily foresight. You can generally foresee all manner of possibilities, but leadership is a matter of making decisions, of choosing courses of action (COA) among alternatives. After the fact, it will always be possible to point at outcomes, and say, well, clearly, you should have opted for COA #2, or #3, or so on, rather than the one chosen.

Yingling describes the failures of Generals making decisions during the Vietnam War as inadequately preparing their forces for counterinsurgency. That may or may not be a complete picture of all that went on, and certainly doesn’t accommodate evolving thinking about Vietnam, that we may have won militarily but lost politically by giving way on PR and pulling out on the verge of victory. Sure, the results were disastrous, but was the disaster the fault of military operations, or the political decision-making that pulled US forces out, and then cravenly abandoned our allies in South Vietnam?

We fought a very tough and prolonged fight against a Philipino insurgency at the turn of the 19th century, and won against them, and the military created doctrinal components that were informed by those experiences. I think it reasonable that the US military was justified thinking they would prevail in Vietnam. Certainly, tactics and strategy could have evolved more, but the great unanswered question is what would have happened if we had held on longer, maintained support of South Vietnam? Our North Vietnamese enemies candidly admit they were near complete defeat and surrender shortly after Tet.

Again, we might grant Yingling his premise that the military didn’t exhibit sufficient foresight as the war in Vietnam continued, or didn’t adapt, or ignored warning signs and alternative courses of action. I don’t think it supports his conclusion, in any case.

I thought at the time and I think now that arguments by Administration detractors and in-house military critics that 300,000 to 400,000 troops would be needed to prevail in Iraq was a recipe for guaranteed paralysis. Say we ponied up that kind of force. How long would that big a force be needed to accomplish a “pacification” of the country? How many more casualties would the US have sustained with two to three times as many targets for IEDs and other suicide attacks?

How on earth does anyone think the US could implement that in the politics of the time? We’d see even worse conflict and obstructionism, only louder, more, and sooner. No, those kinds of troops levels would ensure that we would, in fact, choose not to go to war. That was the overriding intent of these estimates, anyway. Prove me wrong, but I think that would be perfectly logical based on the cynical Powell Doctrine. (We fight ONLY when we are certain of complete victory, not on necessity, nor on principle.)

If there is one truism in modern warfare, it’s that we don’t always get time and opportunity to choose a fight that is brought on you unexpectedly. We can’t always support or sustain overwhelming force, and we can’t control every eventuality or eliminate terror as PR and media tactic. Careful “pragmatists” like Powell and Shinseki would, by their doctrines, ensure we only take on boutique wars against very minor adversaries. That was the intent of Shinseki and others on this side of the argument, an argument for inaction and status quo. And the fatal fallacy of these arguments, are they don’t in any way answer what we face in AQ and similar global terror affinity organizations.

The example Yingling cites of Valmy is grossly inapt for our situation in Iraq. Valmy led to Jena because the Prussians did not see Valmy as a warning for what the future might hold, or their own vulnerabilities. You can argue that Secretary Rumsfeld (and the President) didn’t take a sober enough look at the security situation in Iraq, or change strategy, or prompt adaptation in the military. But you surely can’t view the surge, the substantive and impressive changes in strategy and tactics, and the orchestration of the surge by GEN Petraeus as an inability to reassess, and adapt.

Lastly, I find it incomprehensible that a military leader of advanced rank, a Brigade Deputy Commander no less, could thoroughly inform himself of ground truth in Iraq, and then honestly or accurately describe us on the verge of defeat, in any sense. We have difficulties transferring authority to Iraqis, building up their security forces (more so the Iraqi police versus the Army), and no one is happy with security, but this is not a military defeat.

We and the Iraqi forces we support have been unable to fully secure important population centers, and there are significant populations of potential adversaries not pacified. Terrorists are not fully eliminated nor prevented from conducting harassing operations. But this can be said about many places in the world. If a steady stream of foreign ideological suicides, or vulnerable innocents (children, handicapped, subjects of blackmail) can be kept available, this could be kept up indefinitely, anywhere in the world. It just happens that Al Qaeda wants to continue to focus on Iraq, because they believe they can thereby turn Americans against the war, with the help of the Democrat opposition and western media.

Max Boot gives some great insight into the architects of the original plan for Iraq, GEN Abizaid and GEN Casey, and the positions of the principals as that plan was developed. He also zeroes in on precisely what the stakes are in Iraq, and how irresponsible are the Democrats in seeking to force a withdrawal on any timetable certain.

Hugh Hewitt underscores Boot’s assessment with his conclusion:
If you scroll through the interviews I have conducted this week, you will see that Democrats in the Senate and the House are willfully, even perversely, ignorant of --or willfully blind to-- the stakes and the conditions in Iraq. They seem to believe that this is a winning political strategy. I don't think so, not even in the short term and certainly not in the long term. Munich was very popular for a short time --from the signing of the agreement on September 29, 1938 until the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, or until Hitler's nature become unmistakable even to the most appeasement-oriented Chamberlain supporter. The consequences of the left's surrender sickness will be obvious sooner or later. It is only the costs that are obscure at this point.

Seventy years down the road, the actions of the Democrats these past few weeks will seem even more craven and inexplicable than those of Baldwin and Chamberlain in the '30s, for in that long ago age of appeasement, those men at least had the excuse that Great Britain was exhausted, broke, and unable to risk a confrontation with the growing evil for fear of a military defeat.
For additional background, you definitely want to read Greyhawk’s background piece on both Tom Ricks, the one-time Commander of the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment (ACR) H.R. McMaster, and the author of the Armed Forces Journal article, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, deputy commander of the 3rd ACR. It’s a little complicated, and I’m not sure what to make of it all, but it certainly opens up some doubts about motives, storylines, prejudices, and potential conflicts of interests within and behind the Yingling analysis.

Greyhawk also links to a view contrary to Yingling’s over at Neptunus Lex, and it’s the must read response to Yingling. Lex effectively turns back Yingling’s assertion that Senior Officer careerism led to grave mistakes in Iraq, and softly rebukes what he describes as Yingling’s “tactical level” perspective on complexities faced by senior commanders:
To this [Yingling] attributes a combination of careerism - always a threat to a peacetime force - and the tendency of senior officers to groom subordinates for advancement who are “just like them.” The remedies for what he sees as this tendency towards monochromatic conformity in the upper ranks - where innovation and audacity might better serve - are 360-degree personnel evaluations combined with Congressional oversight of the 3 and 4-star selection process. That oversight should, in LTC Yingling’s view, demonstrate a favorable bias towards advanced degrees in the humanities and fluency in a foreign language. Like LTC Yingling has.

As a naval officer I speak under the risk of correction here, but it seems to me that the colonel is being a trifle hard on those who went before him, and who have faced complexities which are not always apparent to those operating at the tactical level. The “conventional” phases of OIF went brilliantly: The Ba’athist state was quickly dismantled, its legions routed from the field, Saddam sent impotent into a spider hole from which he was eventually rooted out and the threat of WMD - such as it was (and in any case, only one of 21 public reasons for the war) - affirmatively eliminated.

Stabilization and reconstruction has certainly not gone according to plan, nor is it at all clear that the post-hostilities plan was sufficiently robust. But any military operation has assumptions, and at each level in the chain of command a senior’s assumptions are to be treated by his subordinates as “truth.” The strategic assumption that 25 million people would be grateful to be unchained from 35 years of grinding tyranny did not take into account the de-humanizing effect that such a tyranny itself imposes. When those assumptions prove false - and this one certainly did with respect to a sufficient number of Sunni nationalists, Ba’athist rejectionists and irreconcilable jihadists - you get into what is known as “branch” planning. Branch planning can often look like an ad hoc, even chaotic process but it is one which - given time and adequate resources - generally stumbles on to a solution.

It has also become commonly accepted wisdom that US forces in Baghdad did not respond with sufficient vigor during the initial rioting that took place when the Ba’athist regime was decapitated, and that it was a mistake to disband the Iraqi Army. But front line combat troops dealing vigorously with rioting will appear much to the uneducated but all-seeing media eye as mere butchery, while preserving an institution like the old Iraqi Army - an institution that was used more than anything else as an instrument of state repression - could have been problematical for that majority of the civilian population inclined however skeptically to view our forces as liberators. Even if the old army hadn’t mostly changed into civilian slops and wandered off at the end of major combat operations.
I think Lex puts Yingling’s criticisms in an important (and more accurate) perspective. That’s not to take away the value of Yingling’s critique, merely to match it with the rest of the story, and highlight it’s potential limitations.

Lex also helpfully rejects the Washington Post’s assessment of Yingling’s article:
The WaPo got an advance look at LTC Yingling’s text and labels it a “blistering attack.” Is that the way it reads to you, or does it just sound cooler if you call it that?
And, as I started, more in keeping with the storyline to which the the media long ago committed.


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