May 1, 2009  

Ask the corporals and captains

When former President George W. Bush unveiled his revised strategy for Iraq in January 2007, he adopted several proposals made by the Iraq Study Group (ISG) while discounting many others. For each of the 79 recommendations the ISG offered, there seemed to be twice as many external opinions about which course to take in the war.

In the end, Bush elected to send more troops to Iraq, which was one of four alternative courses of action identified by the ISG, but which the study group warned against.

We now know that “the surge” has proved largely successful despite enormous odds and much bitter debate during its enactment. In Anbar province, where the Marine Corps maintained war-fighting responsibility, related changes such as the “Sunni Awakening” greatly contributed to the surge’s success, but by and large it was the president’s decision to go against what his bipartisan panel of “experts” was telling him to do that ultimately reversed the downslide in the Iraq war.

In recommending against more troops for Iraq, how could the experts have been so wrong?

The ISG spent many months (March to November 2006) researching and interviewing scores of people to create its report. Not to discredit the hard work and best of intentions by the ISG, but it was disheartening to see that of the dozens consulted, only a handful of military members were interviewed. The ISG talked with 10 flag officers (half in Iraq), seven retired flag officers, a colonel at the Defense Intelligence Service and four lieutenant colonels at the National War College. That’s it.

Despite the fact that most everyone realized the Iraq solution could not come from the military alone, military force remained (and remains) the only practical element that effectively served to create that elusive “security” so vital to the more-elusive “stability.” To put it simply: The war could not be won without military success, no matter what the military’s assigned mission might have become. So the ISG, for all its noteworthy efforts, missed a golden opportunity to get some real input — to hear the real story, perhaps including unanimous recommendations for more troops (a surge) — by failing to talk to the men and women who were actually in the fight. They forgot to ask the corporals and captains what we should do.


As we now prepare to return more of our young people in uniform to the ever-worsening conflict in Afghanistan, Beltway policymakers and senior military leadership are once again in search of some answers for how to fix the failing campaign there. Many senior officials have commented about the lack of coherent strategy during the transition of presidential power, or ever, and up to four high-level reviews or studies (three started under the Bush administration) are wrapping up their reports for President Barack Obama to examine as he makes some tough decisions on how to best prosecute the war in “the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism.”

Gen. David D. McKiernan, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has more than 200 military and civilian experts working on a broad plan for the region, and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, had his own experts conducting a review; both were expected to be complete by mid-February. While it remains to be seen who is actually offering suggestions in the compilation of these reports, it is unlikely to include the opinions of any junior officers or enlisted war fighters.

Corporals and captains are the heart of our armed forces, yet too often they are ignored when discussing strategy. Before talking to members of the press, they are reminded to “stay in your lane”; that is, don’t answer questions above your paygrade. That might be decent advice for a normal evening news sound bite, but not when attempting to get to the bottom of a matter that’s so crucial to our nation’s best interests. One captain in Afghanistan had already differentiated some significant disparities between the Iraqi and Afghan enemies we’re facing. He explained:

“When the Taliban does take on the Marines, it’s a different kind of fight. … For one, the Taliban will wait until they’re ready, not just when an opportunity appears. They’ll clear the area of women and children, not use them as shields. And when the attack comes, it’s often a full-scale attack, with flanks, trenches and a plan. Afghans are willing to fight to the death. They recover their wounded, just like we do. When I am fighting here, I am fighting a professional army. If direct fighting does not work, they will go to an IED. They plan their ammunition around poppy season. To fight them, you are pulling every play out of the playbook.” But the captain asked not to be identified because he wasn’t sure he was allowed to discuss tactics. When smart warriors such as this anonymous captain can so readily determine life-saving tactics to employ on the battlefield, perhaps there are things they can teach us for the operational and strategic levels of the campaign as well. Their good ideas aren’t necessarily limited to battle tactics.

Another reason those in the ranks are rarely asked for their professional opinions is the flawed assumption that they can provide feedback any time they choose. This is true in theory, but in practice, many have learned from experience that their advice is too often dismissed or ignored and are hesitant to offer up what might be perceived as controversial whining or “out of their lane” pontificating, unless it is vigorously solicited.

There have been many examples of this, often with tragic results. For example, after the end of major hostilities in Iraq in 2003, many Marine helicopter pilots complained that ammunition stockpiles were being pilfered by unknown Iraqis. The officers were denied requests to engage those stealing the ordnance for fear that there would be a perception back home that the war wasn’t indeed over. This “lost” ordnance surely became fodder for improvised explosive device makers. In April 2004, Marines in the fight voiced their frustration at being told to withdraw from Fallujah, just as the city was seemingly about to be secured by friendly forces. Many would return to fight a second, bloodier battle in that same city come November.

Similarly, in August 2004, after three weeks of heavy fighting and just days — perhaps hours — away from a decisive victory against Moqtada al-Sadr and his battered Mahdi militia in Najaf, Marines and their Army and Iraqi reinforcements were ordered to lay down their arms after a cease-fire was brokered against their wishes. The corporals and captains grumbled, predicting disastrous consequences if Sadr and his henchmen were allowed to escape. Sadr went on to torment the U.S. military in Iraq for years, and the Pentagon even officially identified Sadr and his militia as “the most dangerous threat to the American mission in Iraq” during the peak of the bloodiest fighting a few years ago.

A final telling example: Shortly after the November 2005 “clear, hold and build” strategy for winning in Iraq was offered by the White House, many in the junior ranks doing the fighting realized that no matter what was on paper, 2006 would be a continuation of the flawed 2005 “clear, clear, clear” strategy because of insufficient troop strength in the contested regions. The corporals and captains told anyone who would listen, well in advance of the surge, that we needed more manpower to enact the prescribed strategy for success. The eventual realization of this truism by those inside the Beltway certainly precipitated the shift in tactics, which included thousands more dedicated for the war, as well as larger-scale, overdue increases in Army and Marine Corps end strength.


The point of all of this is that smart predictions and sage advice from our younger men and women in uniform are all too often ignored, and are rarely sought out in a genuine, candid manner. These are the same men and women who interact with the Afghanistan population every day; who courageously fight battle after battle against the enemy; who have sacrificed more than any of us; have lost friends, loved ones and limbs; and who have not only the most to lose, but the most to gain. They want success more than any of us, especially after everything they’ve been through.

At his swearing-in ceremony, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he wanted to hear from military personnel of all ranks during an imminent trip to Iraq: “I look forward to hearing their honest assessments of the situation on the ground and to having the benefit of their advice, unvarnished and straight from the shoulder, on how to proceed in the weeks and months ahead.” Still, troops are less likely to speak up when offered 15 seconds with Gates, in front of a large audience, than during a focused question-and-answer session with people of less intimidating stature. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen recently told “60 Minutes” reporter David Martin that the line he remembers most from a poignant letter he received when first promoted to flag rank was: “Congratulations. Just remember one thing: From now on you will always eat well and you’ll never hear the truth again.”

To get our leaders the truth they need to hear, we must commission a study group of our most valuable assets: the warriors who’ve been on the front lines. Despite the abundance of information available to the president from his advisers, generals and numerous other reviews, additional input from the field would help the commander in chief and his expert thinkers see Afghanistan for what it truly is, as the war progresses, and help them make the wisest decisions possible.

Accordingly, we should now commission a joint Marine Corps-Army Afghanistan-Pakistan study group that queries Marines and soldiers on their recommendations for a way ahead in the Afghanistan war. Centers of excellence, such as Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1, the Marine Corps Training and Operations Group and the Marine Staff Training Program could join forces to supervise such an effort.

Like the ISG and other high-level reviews currently in progress, its goal would be to provide an honest assessment of the situation, and make clear recommendations to increase our chance of success; however, it could be conducted in a much timelier manner, with less budget and distraction. The new study group should talk only to those serving in Afghanistan or those who have served there. It should interview no one above the rank of major, and preferably concentrate on those who operate farthest away from the conference rooms, providing a forum for frank and candid dialogue rather than multiple-choice answers, without repercussion. And it should take the views and recommendations of our warriors seriously. As Bush once said, “the men and women who serve in our all-volunteer armed forces are plenty smart, and are serving because they are patriots.” Indeed. No doubt, the “strategic corporal” identified by former Gen. Charles Krulak years ago has much to teach us.

Too much is at stake in this conflict to leave it solely to the professional diplomats, armchair quarterbacks or talking heads to recommend what to do. Ralph Peters commented recently that “Washington has the highest proportion of surviving welfare institutions in the nation. They’re called think tanks. They … profit from chatter — briefings, panels, seminars, white papers — not deeds.”

While think tanks and other senior “experts” might profit financially from offering opinions, those serving in our armed forces profit only in lives saved and bloodshed prevented. Let’s give them the chance to earn that priceless reward.

Ask the corporals and captains what they think.

LT. COL. GLEN BUTLER was the commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Facility, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, from 2006-2008, after two deployments in Iraq as a UH-1N pilot. He is the director of operations and training for Marine Corps Base Hawaii. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Marine Corps or Navy.