US Army counterinsurgency
January 11, 2006 5:51 PM   Subscribe

Writing in the most recent Military Review, British Army Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster very politely points out some observed cultural difficulties inherent in the US Army, such as rigid heirarchies, "institutional racism" and destructive aggression.
posted by wilful (46 comments total)
I found the article to be quite interesting, with a lot of nuanced thought about why the US army was failing in Iraq due to strong organisational culture issues. Very politely and subtly, he suggests that the US army cannot adapt to effective counterinsurgency.

"I think he's an insufferable British snob," said Colonel Kevin Benson, commander of the US Army's elite school of advanced military studies, referring to Brigadier Aylwin-Foster.
posted by wilful at 5:54 PM on January 11, 2006

Newsflash: military people found to be destructively aggressive, film at eleven.
Seriously, this is surprising to anyone?
posted by nightchrome at 6:12 PM on January 11, 2006

There are so many disclaimers (from all parties), and beating around the bush and excessive qualifiers that, if all of that is actually necessary in order to not have the feedback disregarded as insult, then that itself would reflect pretty badly on the US Army.
Hopefully that's not the case - it may be that everyone is just a little nervous and erring on the side of caution.

Yeah, I'm naive :)
posted by -harlequin- at 6:14 PM on January 11, 2006

Newsflash: military people found to be destructively aggressive, film at eleven.
Seriously, this is surprising to anyone?

Obviously you didn't read the article.
posted by wilful at 6:20 PM on January 11, 2006

Obviously you didn't read the article.

The description above implies it is critical of the military; me reading the article would be like them preaching to the choir.
posted by nightchrome at 6:35 PM on January 11, 2006

Yanks can't do colonialism as good as Brits. Who knew?
posted by Space Coyote at 6:36 PM on January 11, 2006

Newsflash: specific military people found to be counter-productively destructively aggressive, even by the standards of other military people film at eleven.

There, fixed it up for you...
posted by pompomtom at 6:36 PM on January 11, 2006

and that's why pompomtom will never be anyones subeditor.
posted by wilful at 6:41 PM on January 11, 2006

As an interested observer from another country (ie. I could be speaking out of my azz) who has quite a few army friends (ie. what the hell would I know?!) including the |337 SAS, who have served with US troops, I would have to agree with the "destructive aggression" call.

Anyone up for a Zippo party?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:46 PM on January 11, 2006

Yeah, didn't you know that we Americans train our kids for counter-productive destructive aggression from an early age via video games?

Or was it heavy metal music?

(i'm kidding.)
posted by zoogleplex at 7:33 PM on January 11, 2006

A little wordy, but here's what I picked up and have thought about:

When the U.S. military went into Iraq, the mode of operation wasn’t for a small war scenario, it was as if it were attacking a first-world nation such as the Soviet Union or similar during World War III. For those who have studied military history and operations for how a world war III battle would have unfolded, the invasion of Iraq had all the hallmarks: massive air operations to bomb the crap out of not only certain military targets but also civilian infrastructure such as power, water, hospitals, TV stations, etc. The down side of all this is that when the country was conquered this left a population that did not have that infrastructure intact anymore and a military force that demonstrated quite clearly that it didn’t have any plan to restore these services once it had destroyed them. Ham-handed and shortsighted and the first step at losing ‘hearts and minds’ when they could have easily won them.
Instead it was ‘who’s going to pick up my garbage?’ ‘What about my refrigerator and air-conditioning?’ ‘I can’t flush my toilet’. If the U.S. military had gone in with sufficient force, as was recommended many, many times by senior military officers there would have been enough infrastructure present to take care of getting sewer, water, electricity, etc. operational again in short order and deploy the forces necessary to safeguard these areas against insurgent retaliation. For the loss of a shoe the horse was lost . . .
Instead it was the approach of ‘Wow, we finally get to fight WWIII! Yippeee!

“I have a lot of tools in my toolbox and I’m going to use them.”
(quote from Colin Powell at a press conference from Gulf War I while displaying glassy eyed stare “)

When the Special Forces and U.S. Marines went into Afghanistan and Iraq they had the right idea: SF came up with the idea of ‘going native’ by growing beards and mustaches, wearing afghan clothing, riding horses, adopting local customs and the marines by growing mustaches when they occupied the Baghdad area, as well as making efforts to adopt and understand and respect local customs. This allowed them to blend in to some degree and gain the trust of the local population. For the marines these lessons were learned from ‘The Small Wars Manual’ that came out almost a century ago as a means of combating insurgencies then. One of the areas that the occupying force should focus on would be a real effort to learn the local language as well as reading and understanding The Koran. If you have locals that see you reading ‘their bible’, able to relate stories from it to bridge the cultural divide, use moral tales to enlist the aid of the population it seems it would be much more successful and much less expensive than dumping a few jet loads worth of precision-guided munitions who’s destructive ‘splash damage’ destroys an area as wide as three city blocks from the targeted area and leaves the remaining survivors maimed, wounded or missing family members.

Whether one wishes to acknowledge it or not, the author nailed a lot of things squarely on the head, the most important being the military bureaucracy’s need to micro-manage everything, including opinions and truths. If one can’t acknowledge failure, failures continue to happen. When one wishes to live in denial rather than face facts they’ve lost already and the worst enemy is themselves. When an organization wishes to whitewash the truth even to it’s own citizenry, that also creates a loss of trust. Military corporate culture, just as civilian corporate culture is fond of doing, actively denies that those who are not in middle management or above have anything significant to contribute or that the lower echelons need the least training or resources possible to do their jobs. Because of this, frontline troops within the article have not only lost faith in their senior officers, that same corporate culture within the U.S. has caused a loss of faith amongst it’s corporate leaders and politicians.
posted by mk1gti at 8:23 PM on January 11, 2006

>and that's why pompomtom will never be anyones subeditor.

Did you mean "anyone's"?
posted by pompomtom at 8:32 PM on January 11, 2006

I agree with much of mk1gti's post. In regard to the last paragraph: the military does not look highly on failure. If you want to get promoted (especially as an officer) you can't have any documented screw-ups. So, it's in every single officer's best interest to never tell anyone if things don't go well. I've been developing a theory that almost everything wrong with the military comes down to our promotion system, and the rest of the problems have to do with our contracting system.
posted by tcobretti at 9:00 PM on January 11, 2006

I agree, our 'contracting' system is going to be the downfall of the military. Read Corporate Warriors by P.W. Singer for a look at the privatized military industry.
posted by mk1gti at 9:05 PM on January 11, 2006

Great post, mk1gti.
posted by teece at 10:06 PM on January 11, 2006

If you want to get promoted (especially as an officer) you can't have any documented screw-ups. So, it's in every single officer's best interest to never tell anyone if things don't go well.
It's the same way with corporate culture, that compares itself to the military, yet military officers compare themselves and their operations to a corporation.
Meanwhile troops and employees see them for what they are: a bunch of blow-dried blowhards that are not only ineffectual, they cost lives and jobs with their arrogant bumbling.
posted by mk1gti at 10:15 PM on January 11, 2006

thanks teece, I was trying to pull in my 'windbag at warpspeed' mode (^_^)
posted by mk1gti at 10:16 PM on January 11, 2006

mk1gti, the Brigadier identifies this as an issue, but spends more time concerned about whether or not anyone is actually learning anything from all of this internal critique, or whetehr they're too hidebound to ever effectively change. Institutionally, the Army doesn't want to do anything more than conventional warfighting. Which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
posted by wilful at 10:39 PM on January 11, 2006

Yanks can't do colonialism as good as Brits. Who knew?

Oh I think the American model of colonialism has worked quite well over the years. It's when they do old-school british style directly-ruling-a-country type colonialism that it all goes wrong.
posted by Artw at 12:44 AM on January 12, 2006

Since the British army spent 30 odd years in Northern Ireland you can rest assured that there were lessons learned about counterinsurgency*. The fact that we coined the phrase "hearts and minds" in Malaysia and other nations (where it was effectively used) might also help. The only time the US military ever used hearts and minds successfully in my mind was SFG groups in Laos and Cambodia where the CCC teams worked well with Montagnards. The US Army as a whole is, as mk1gti noted, utterly unsuited to this role. The wholesale destruction of Fallujah is an excellent example of this - it was absolutely the worst thing to do and only happened because of the shame of what happened to those mercs.

*this was not a comment designed to rile those of an Irish heritage - I know nasty stuff happened, thanks. I am just saying that we got an awful lot of experience out of this and took it on board.
posted by longbaugh at 12:56 AM on January 12, 2006

I read the article as a pretty damning indictment of the US Army. Yes, the author used many qualifiers, and went out of his way to try and present his points in a polite a way as possible, but strip these away, and what's left is not at all complimentary.
posted by salmacis at 1:20 AM on January 12, 2006

A key insight was this bit:
The Army’s ‘Warrior Ethos’ is also illuminating in this respect. It was introduced in 2001, therefore well before OIF, in response to concerns that some branches of the Army lacked basic soldierly skills and the realisation that whatever their specialisation they must first and foremost be combat effective. It was noticeable in Iraq that it was emphasised frequently, in a range of ways. At its core is the Soldier’s
Creed. Note that it enjoins the soldier to have just the one type of interaction with his enemy—‘to engage and destroy him:’ not defeat, which could permit a number of other politically attuned options, but destroy.

At a macro level, this is a critical problem with the "war". The political imprimatur is for destroying the enemy (insurgency, al Qaeda, etc.), and a range of victory conditions short of destruction are seemingly not considered. The facts on the ground, by contrast, do seem to indicate an adaptation of the occupation toward an acceptance of a certain level of insurgency as inevitable -- the troops know they'll never destroy the insurgency. The White House hasn't been honest with the level of "defeat" it is seeking. It's almost certain that they don't expect to destroy the enemy, but they're hampered politically now in what they can admit to, because the President wasn't honest all along. (If he'd been speaking to the public the way he did in his December address, that might be different, but polls show this new pragmatic tack hasn't made much headway.) It's going to be even worse if there's an incipient civil war brewing.

Clearly what we need to do now is have a clear idea of what realistic objectives remain (and as I've said before, the window is rapidly closing for many of them, if it hasn't shut completely already), and communicate that to the troops, the Iraqi people, and the American people. I really doubt that's going to happen, though. Instead, the WH will continue to lie about what it wants to achieve (and believes can be), the troops will be settling for something falling far short of V-I Day, and we'll end up with another generation of a demoralized military -- and as dessert, a resentment of the truth-tellers as having caused the defeat. Vietnam all over again, really. Not quite as bloody all around, but still.

The US military has been trying to learn counterinsurgency ever since WWII. They watched the Malaya Emergency closely, but couldn't apply its lessons well, and we always ended up with the expedient School-of-the-Americas model, which handed local panjandrums a deadly toolbox and suggested they throw a party, while we put on a face mask and earplugs. Effective in its own cynical way for brief periods, but it always means decades of winning back trust.
posted by dhartung at 3:06 AM on January 12, 2006

mk1gti: first-world nations such as the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union would be second world...
posted by Harald74 at 4:34 AM on January 12, 2006

Institutionally, the Army doesn't want to do anything more than conventional warfighting. Which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Not necessarily so, see conclusion from paper below.
In addition, over the years the army has had to make large scale changes from time to time to alter it's culture, examples are getting rid of racism during and after WWII, removing and preventing negative elements of society from joining it's ranks after Vietnam (lots of drug addiction, criminal activity and even murder besides who knows what else (see Buffalo Soliders with Joaquin Phoenix for more info) as well as accepting to some degree gays in the military.
A visit to various U.S. Army establishments in May 2005 to research this paper revealed a similar open-mindedness, frankness, and hunger to learn and adapt, in order to improve military effectiveness. It was also clear that Army senior leadership was actively engaged.

Meanwhile, HQ Department of the Army is actively discussing the establishment of a formal proponent for OOTW, clearly a timely step. It is also considering adjusting the balance of the Army’s core focus to include OOTW missions, but recognises that it cannot forsake its conventional warfighting prowess, nor resource fully the required spectrum of roles; hence the capability for the one force to adapt between roles becomes of paramount importance. At the Defence-wide level, the QDR IW Study notes that key improvements could be achieved by efforts to:
• Capture and preserve corporate knowledge on IW, as distilled from historical experience and refined by current practice.
• Develop mechanisms for feeding this knowledge
into the wider force and government.
• Do all this before conflict or in the initial stages, in order to avoid the ‘fatal learning curve’ (experienced at the start of OIF Phase 4, and many previous IW campaigns).
• Improve skills and tactical repertoire for IW across the wider force—broaden the knowledge base outside Special Operations Forces and Marines.
In short, much seemingly apposite work is in progress.
posted by mk1gti at 4:37 AM on January 12, 2006

Another area that needs work within the military culture is it's relationship with civilians, both in host countries as well as within the U.S. itself.
For many years it has been indoctrinated that once one joins the military, those outside of it 'the civilians' are just gullible sheep that 'need our reluctant protection' but would be much better off if they were just like the military (subtle suggestion to encourage recruits to bring in friends and family members?)
Once one joins the military, the civilian world is feared and scorned; overseas the local population becomes something to entertain the off-duty troops with prostitution, wild bars, raping the civilian women if they think they can get away with it ) Okinawa, Japan being a good example of this. This has only created an environment that has caused the host country and it's people to resent what would otherwise be considered a valuable ally.
Within the U.S., the military intelligence/pyschological operations community feels that to deceive the public about it's goals and operations somehow 'denies the enemy knowledge of it's operations.' when in fact it does nothing of the sort. Using blatant propaganda and deceptive terminology such as 'collateral damage' to describe civilian casualties does nothing but show quite clearly this divide and mistrust between the military and the civilian world.
This too is an area that needs much analysis and resolution.
posted by mk1gti at 4:52 AM on January 12, 2006

The Brigadier missed one reason for the exodus of the Captains (though he nails the effects very clearly.) -- after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War, the 16 Division Army just wasn't needed, so there was a big drawdown in the early 90s, as 5ID, 7ID, 8ID, 9ID, 24ID and 2AD were all deactivated. [1]

When an army draws down, people need to leave. In the US army, the general officers are the ones drawing up the plans. They tend to stay, esp. since they are reaching retirement age, so that part of the force will shrink quickly over time.

The field officers are sort of stuck. They've spent too much time in the Army to really make an easy career change, but they don't have enough contacts or influence to easily slide into the defense industry. So, they tend to stay until they miss the promotion lists one too many times and are forced out.

The junior company officers stay, because they're under obligation.

The senior company officers, though, have a choice. They're older, but not so old that they can't start a new career. They look at six division disappearing, and note that nobody above them is going anywhere -- there's still 16 divisions worth of flag officers in a 10 division army, and 16 divisions worth of field officers waiting for up-and-out to save them or bite them. So, they know that, at best, they're spending a long time as Captain, at worst, they'll spend a few years as Captain, and end up out of the force, at about 35, with little-to-no retirement pay, and a real hard time finding a new job.

The smart and talented Captains see this first, and they tend to make the smart decision for them. They're no longer under obligations, so they resign and join the chivvy life.

The big factor here is the young, smart Captains with drive were the ones most likely to get out fast. So, the first part of the officer corps to reduce happened purely by self selection, thus, the exodus, and, of course, that left you with the less young, smart and begetting captains in the force.

[1] Note, this is "end result" numbering, we won't go through the weird dance that resulted in the troops of 2AD ending up as the 4th Infantry, and the 25th Infantry becoming 3ID. The reason was that the Army wanted to keep the most historically important division active, thus, we end up with 1ID, 1AD, 1CV, 2ID, 3ID, 4ID, 10ID(mt), 25ID, 82ID(AB) and 101(AA).

To be complete, 24ID was reactivated in 2001, so we're now an 11 Division Army, and have 14 Divisions when you count the Marines, close to 16 total when you count the various independent combat brigades and such in the Army and Marine Corps.
posted by eriko at 5:32 AM on January 12, 2006

Another thing to keep in mind with the current US Army is that all the really talented men will leave once their obligation is up and go join private security companies. It would be no surprise to see men who have served in Iraq back in country within 12 months of leaving but earning a significantly larger amount with slightly less risk and considerably less bureaucracy. Why would anyone risk there life for 15K when they can do the same job for 50-100K?
posted by longbaugh at 6:01 AM on January 12, 2006

raping the civilian women if they think they can get away with it

Whoa. I can think of a handful of highly publicized incidents and from those you make this incredibly sweeping generalization?
posted by ereshkigal45 at 8:03 AM on January 12, 2006

The issues you refer to concering Okinawa have been ongoing since the end of WWII.

For the record, my comment about that issue was in a general manner concerning occupying troops across history, Okinawa was a good example of that.
posted by mk1gti at 8:53 AM on January 12, 2006

mk1gti, your link to unsubstantiated, inflammatory statements made with the clear political purpose of getting the U.S. military out of Okinawa is hardly proof.

I won't deny that such crimes have occurred. But to tar the entire military by suggesting that "raping...civilian women when they can get away with it" is part of current American military culture is so wrong it makes my head explode.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 12:23 PM on January 12, 2006


I take it you've lived around miltary bases all around the world in your childhood and adulthood like I have and so could contribute your own personal experiences to this discussion?
posted by mk1gti at 12:39 PM on January 12, 2006

Here's something else for you to chew on, if you're so inclined.

Also please refer to my previous comment regarding military cultures negatively affecting their host countries in general over the course of human history.

A culture is going to be judged on the actions of it's people, whether they are civilian or military. If negative interactions occur and have occured over a period of years there is logically going to be some resentment because of this.
posted by mk1gti at 12:45 PM on January 12, 2006

Why, yes, mk1gti, yes I have. Except for the three years of law school and a short period thereafter, I've been immersed in military culture as child, wife, and employee. I was born in an Army hospital. The week after I got married (by an Army chaplain) I turned in the ID card showing my father as my sponsor for an ID card showing my husband as my sponsor. I've worked for the military for 20 years everywhere from installation level organizations to HQDA.

Enough cred for you?
posted by ereshkigal45 at 12:47 PM on January 12, 2006

Yes it is. So you're also aware of the crux of the article and other issues that have been covered in this thread? I was born in a naval hospital in 1960, lived in Germany, Morroco, Japan and east and west coast. I've seen the military culture at it's best and worst, and the Okinawa thing is a black mark on the military culture, which as was discussed above is very insular and because of that is failing itself, it's country and countries around the world. Don't dance around the issue. Okinawa is a serious matter, as are military bases and their interactions with civilian populations around the world. There's a reason Rumsfeld wants to move bases away from first world nations and into third world nations: they're an embarassment.
posted by mk1gti at 1:01 PM on January 12, 2006

I'm not dancing around the issue, mk1gti. I just don't agree with you. Of course Okinawa is a serious matter. I just don't think they are reflective, or a symptom, of current military culture. Rapes and violence happen. If you can show me some data that suggest they happen more often in communities with a large military presence, I might be more persuaded to your viewpoint.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 1:15 PM on January 12, 2006

Again, when I refered to Okinawa it was in a general manner, but Okinawa is a symptom of a military culture that needs to tone down the strip bars and clip joints and focus on building community relations nationally and internationally instead of ignoring the problem, which is what the military has done over the years.
People in the military deserve better than the culture they live in now. I'm speaking from experience, and seeing as how you're still in a military family, I'm sure you can relate to what I'm talking about. Military personnel deserve a lot better quality of life than they have now, both on and off base.
Regarding data that suggests these instances happen in military communities, I'll post a couple of books for you to review when I get back to the house this evening. More about military bases around the world rather than rape and violence, but it is discussed better there than 'pulling facts out of thin air' that happens on the net.
So just curious, what bases did you live on around the world?
posted by mk1gti at 1:25 PM on January 12, 2006

Three different installations in Germany and one in France. None in Asia, although my parents were in Japan before I was born.

Also, I'm no longer married to the military although I do still work for it, and my family still strongly identifies as an "Army family" even though both my father and brother are retired.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 1:37 PM on January 12, 2006

This is one of the books I was talking about, Imperial Grunts, one of a series. Apparently the author's been commisioned by the military to examine the culture and make recommendations as to what changes can take place to make it a more effective force, as well as perhaps more livable. Apparently this is the first of a series of books he will be writing on the subject.

A similar book was written some years back about the navy called 'Supercarrier'.
posted by mk1gti at 1:45 PM on January 12, 2006

This is the other book I was looking for: Sorrows of Empire
posted by mk1gti at 2:12 PM on January 12, 2006

An anecdote about the "hearts and minds" issue.

A good friend of mine in the British Army spent most of 2004/5 in Iraq. He is a Captain: in other words, only 2/3 rungs from the bottom of the Officer career ladder. Before he deployed, and in addition to all of the counter-insurgency 'fighting' training, he had 4 weeks of cultural sensitivity training. This included language skills - his Arabic was excellent by the time he left - cultural education, infrastructure rebuilding and lessons to help him understand the tribal structures which are so important in Iraq. Indeed, his unit wasn't deemed operationally effective until every soldier, down to the most junior squaddie, had undergone similar (though more limited) training and could speak 20-30 important phrases in Arabic.

I still have emails which he sent when he first arrvied; his first month was spend travelling around the Basra region visiting all the tribal elders to get them on our side. He's got some great stories about being offered dates which were crawling with flies and having to eat them, since to refuse would be a great insult. Needless to say, he spent an awful lot of time in the bathroom during those first few months.

I've no idea how the American system works, but I do know that the British Army's behaviour has made life easier for them - a similar point is made by the Brigadier about the US Army in Mosul.
posted by blag at 2:15 PM on January 12, 2006


That's a great story, and an indication of the kind of changes that need to take place from a military culture of 'kill,kill,kill' to one of 'conquer the enemy, then reform them and give them reason to move to our side'.
posted by mk1gti at 2:20 PM on January 12, 2006

This book also looks good and I'll probably pick it up in the next week or two The New American Militarism
posted by mk1gti at 2:22 PM on January 12, 2006

Recent mefi thread on Imprerial Grunts. I thought it was a good discussion, as is this one.
posted by bardic at 2:32 PM on January 12, 2006

Yeah, I agree, pity there haven't been more contributors to it, but it's all been pretty good for the most part.
posted by mk1gti at 2:34 PM on January 12, 2006

Nifty discussion. I don’t see much I can add. I think you’re a little overboard mk1gti with the “rape civilian women” thing. It’s not institutionalized. But you do have a point. I won’t dicker over whether we should use nice words or not.
I’d almost say that “military community” is an oxymoron in some cases. It’s extremely fractured and most of the younger guys have no support and nothing to do but hit the strip clubs. On the other hand there is a community there and people are trying but they get very little support from command. I think you’re right, probably because there is such an emphasis of keeping things quiet.
I was fortunate enough to get taken in by a family as a younger guy and got to eat some home cooked food from time to time. But the group I was in was pretty tight anyway.
One of my buddy’s kids got molested by a babysitter and it became a mime festival. Total silence. Nothing happened through channels, it just got sort of smothered. I think something about ‘counseling’ came up. Me, I like the vigilante justice. I used to anyway. As it was he was a religious guy and into the forgiveness thing so nothing happened.

But except for maybe a brief time during WWII, the military has been looked down upon in American culture. I’ve had a few guys buy me drinks, but that’s no compensation for not having the same kind of community feeling you get from even a company softball sponsorship.

Even in this “support the troops” b.s. zeitgeist, it’s just window dressing. Bases should be small villages. But they’re more like tract housing surrounded by strip malls and bars.
(there’s a reason it’s called Fayettenam).
posted by Smedleyman at 3:13 PM on January 12, 2006

I think if there's one term I really, really wish I had left out of this whole thread it was the 'rape civilian women' thing.

As far as the 'support the troops' dialogue that's ongoing, speaking to and interacting with the lefties I know it's sincere, they seem to feel that they have more ownership of the right to support the troops than the righties do. I think a lot of people out there are doing more reading about the military life (and the disadvantages and detriments) of it than ever before.
Perhaps somewhere along the line 'the troops' who aren't aware of it will realize and acknowledge a simple matter of fact: we are all born, we grow up, have our experiences, hopefully do more good deeds than bad in this life and are remembered for them. And a lot of people don't care whether one wears a military uniform, they're willing to look past a tough situation or situations where someone had to kill someone in self-defense in a combat environment or take a life (or lives) to save others. Maybe I'm wrong, but it's just a feeling I have.
I just don't get much in the way of a 'soldiers are baby killers' vibe from anyone these days, either on the net or in public.
So perhaps there's hope.
posted by mk1gti at 4:07 PM on January 12, 2006

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