Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Learning and Relearning

My colleagues among Intelligence Educators have taken note of a recent, remarkable book review in the Chicago Tribune. The review is truly remarkable, above all because the book reviewed is a hot-selling University of Chicago (U. of C.) Press reprint of an Army country study of Iraq from World War II, full of advice for American soldiers stationed in Iraq. Much of the advice remains good for soldiers today, and “sounds like it could be lifted from a lesson book from the war on terror,” according to reviewer Jodi S. Cohen.

A review due out in Military Review will recommend the WWII primer on Iraq as a “great read” and “helpful.”

Be that as it may, Cohen (or her editors at the Tribune) chose to play their review as more of a “how we unlearned what we already knew in 1943” critique. Here’s the meat of the article’s opening:

"They all went out the door," said Carol Kasper, marketing director at the academic press. "We are bringing it out at a time when people are really disillusioned with the whole handling of the war. You look at something like this book and it's like: 'We knew that. How did this happen?'"
The book includes an updated foreword from Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, who served in Iraq with the 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division. He writes about wishing he read the book before going to Iraq's Al Anbar province in 2003.
"Some of the guidance in this little book is eerie to anyone who has fought in Iraq recently," he wrote in the introduction. "It is almost impossible, when reading this guide, not to slap oneself on the forehead in despair that the Army knew so much of the Arabic culture and customs, and of the importance of that knowledge for achieving military success in Iraq, six decades ago -- and forgot almost all of those lessons in the intervening years."
Nagl says it would have been helpful to know that there could be an uptick in violence during the holy month of Ramadan, which he experienced during his unit's deployment. If military leaders had read the 1943 guide, they also may have better recognized the power of the tribal leaders, known as sheiks, and especially the importance of allying with the Sunni leaders.
"One of the recent successes we have had is bringing the Sunni tribes largely on board against Al Qaeda in Iraq," said Nagl, commander of the 1st Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment in Ft. Riley, Kan. "We could have learned that earlier had we remembered our history more quickly."

According to Bio, LTC Nagl was to assume command of 1-34 Armor in November 2006. His prior accomplishments include the following:

[LTC Nagl] led a tank platoon in the First Cavalry Division in Operation Desert Storm, taught national security studies at West Point, and served as the Operations Officer of Task Force 1-34 AR in Khalidiyah, Iraq.

A West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Nagl holds the M.Phil. and D.Phil. in International Relations from Oxford University and an MMAS from the Command and General Staff College.

LTC Nagl wrote a best-selling book on Counterinsurgency, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. More about Nagl and his ideas can be found in this interview.

There is no way I will question or challenge the sincerity, perspective, or insight of a counterinsurgency expert like LTC Nagl, a major contributor to current (successful) counterinsurgency doctrine.

Yet, respectfully, I’d suggest that “bringing the Sunni tribes largely on board against Al Qaeda in Iraq” had far less to do with US forces learning (or remembering) any kind of lesson, but rather with the depraved ruthlessness of Al Qaeda and their ability to so thoroughly turn Iraqis against them.

Likewise, I think LTC Nagl projects more lack of knowledge on OIF I and II Commanders than may generally be the case, although I’m sure he’s correct that many leaders could have been better prepared and trained. I would also think his advanced studies surely included enough reference to the Middle East, Islam, and tribal societies than what’s suggested in his quotes above.

Perhaps his experience and that of others helped form the basis for subsequent training, but I distinctly recall warnings about Ramadan, potential for increased violence, Arab customs and the importance of tribal leaders prior to deployment to OIF III during mobilization training in 2004. Then again, I was able to get leader training from the LDESP folks at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey; such training may not have been widely available or known of in prior rotations to Iraq.

All of that besides the point that much of the insight and knowledge that stands behind ongoing operations in Iraq, as well as recent changes in strategy and tactics, has remained constant for quite some time. What needed to change, was that we needed to emphasize a counterinsurgency fight in Iraq, as well as defeat Al Qaeda. Both aims need to be achieved, but their focus is different. As LTC Nagl noted in the interview above:

We could practice classic counterinsurgency against the Sunni insurgents but the AGI members had to be killed.

Nevertheless, the Army’s 1943 primer on Iraq sounds like a necessary addition to the combat load for those leaders deploying to Iraq. Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts, according to the Tribune review:

* Keep away from mosques.
* Avoid offering opinions on internal politics.
* Keep out of the sun whenever you can.
* Start eating only after your host has begun.
* Talk Arabic if you can to the people. No matter how badly you do it, they will like it.
* Be generous with your cigarettes.
* Remember that every American soldier is an unofficial ambassador of goodwill.

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