November 1, 2007  

Risking critique

Red Teaming makes open criticism normal in military culture

Openly critiquing one’s boss or his concepts is dicey. Such criticism carries risk and requires wisdom, as well as courage, to successfully transmit a controver¬sial but important message. Challenging an organization’s cul¬ture only magnifies the stakes.

In the past few months, a series of retired and active-duty officers have openly criticized the military’s senior leader¬ship. Notably, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s critique of the Army’s general officers (“A Failure in Generalship,” May) sparked a professional discussion that is very much alive. In July, Ralph Peters echoed some of Yingling’s argument in a widely published opinion piece. By then, the blogosphere was on fire, but the Internet captured only a fraction of the lively debate that stemmed from both pieces. Much of the discussion, though, has centered on whether the criticism was professional or whether senior leaders are willing to tolerate critical review. Although we do not endorse Yingling’s nor Peters’ arguments per se — the authors of this article each hold differ¬ing views on the merits — we emphati¬cally maintain that such professional discourse is vital to the long-term health and credibility of the military profession.

More importantly and near-term, American commanders and military organizations must welcome critical review — by practicing formal and informal Red Teaming: critiquing deci¬sions and bringing alternative perspectives (including non-Western) to the commander and staff in a relevant and timely manner. In the immediate future, mission success hangs in the balance. Longer term, Red Teaming can reshape the American military culture into one that normalizes internal criticism for the betterment of the organization.

For our organization — the Army’s 4th Infantry Division — re-examining modern warfare and urban counterinsurgency is far more than discourse; by December we will be back in Baghdad for the division’s third tour in Iraq in five years. Those who are on the cycle of deploy-reset-redeploy must successfully deal with the challenges of cross-cultural, unconventional, urban warfare in all of its dizzying forms or risk defeat.

We have encapsulated this complex problem set into three challenges: engaging our senior leaders professionally and honestly, integrating cross-cultural dynamics in the staff and command decision cycles, and empowering the staff by changing the culture of thinking among our senior noncom¬missioned officers, warrant officers and staff officers through critical review.

The first challenge: The division’s senior leaders — today’s general officers and colonels in the field — demand an objective review of their decisions and to have their biases challenged. To increase the effectiveness of such review, the senior leaders decide whom to trust with their thinking, and how and when they are willing to receive honest assessments. Like most people, leaders want people around them with whom they feel comfortable. But warfare is not about comfort, and today’s leaders — especially those going back into the fray — are all too aware of that. Some senior leaders have entrusted selected individuals to challenge and shape their thinking as it develops. That takes guts and involves personal and professional risk.

This need for honest, hard-hitting counsel and reflection is not new, but it is rare for several reasons. Some simply don’t have the moral fiber to either ask for it or give it. Although some argue that the mark of a true professional is one who gives his bosses honest feedback, whether asked or not, the historical reality is such men and women are rare. Culturally, we need a boost of courage.

A near-term solution to producing the objective reviews asked for by the command teams is to establish a framework for intentional but productive disharmony. History demon¬strates the need for such free give and take between a leader and his charges. In medieval courts, the jester held an impor¬tant and appointed role. He was also somewhat immune from the noble’s ire as long as his antics were in the noble’s and the court’s best interests and delivered cleverly.

Today, the need for trusted, timely and constructive review that is also brutally honest is vital to the health of an organization. Who is chartered to intellectually spar with our senior leaders? Minus a jester’s buffoonery, the answer across the joint community has become Red Teams.

These Red Teams serve as the designated critics charged with productively challenging ideas and decisions, bringing fresh perspectives, and ensuring the cultural factors are inject¬ed into the decision cycle. Red Teaming as a practice has emerged episodically in Western militaries for more than a century. But only the demands of counterinsurgency opera¬tions in an era of global information warfare have made the need so stark, especially among tactical formations in a strate¬gic fishbowl.

Building the team

The need for a Red Team stemmed from experience, not as a substitute for it. In the case of the 4th Infantry Division, almost every one of its senior leaders has served at least one combat tour in theater. The division’s commanding general covered more than 50,000 miles in the streets of Baghdad on foot and in vehicles. Many on the staff are returning after only a 12-month hiatus.

As the division prepares to resume its former mission, the senior leaders decided early — less than two months after returning from theater — that among the many requirements for redeployment, they wanted a Red Team capability in and among the staff as a physical entity and as a living idea. That small team of three officers is the nucleus charged to bring the division’s senior leaders that critical review and unleash that capability among the staff.

The second challenge: better account for foreign, cross-cultural perspectives in decision-making. Cultural intelli¬gence and aptitude go far beyond the faux pas of showing one’s soles, insensitivity to cross-gender interactions or even holding advanced degrees in humanities. Senior leaders, inundated with the demands of command, are asking how others — our enemies, allies and other parties — will per¬ceive a situation and American actions in the streets of Baghdad. That requires American leaders and staffs to understand worldviews, deep-seated beliefs and the unspo¬ken interests of others. To gain this perspective, the Army is bolstering its staffs and sending many experienced leaders back to theater. For example, brigades are receiving human terrain teams and are partnering with provincial reconstruc¬tion teams from the State Department, which began this summer. Our information operations teams, psychological operators and civil affairs leaders are now returning to the¬ater more experienced and more cross-culturally attuned. They understand, ahead of time, how the Iraqi and Middle Eastern audiences will respond to what we say and do, as well as the negative — what we don’t say and do. More importantly, we all better understand the American military is but one actor that wields considerable, but not dominant, power in today’s conflicts. We aim to use that power effec¬tively and judiciously.

The third challenge: Introduce critical review and alterna¬tive perspectives into the staff and staff processes and shape our own American military culture from within. Clearly, the addition of a Red Team or something like it introduces new and potentially disruptive dynamics to the staff. To the point, the military’s deliberate deci¬sion-making process does not yet explicitly require a critical review, and Army divisions and corps won’t see Red Teams in their organizational tables until 2009 and beyond. Crisis-action planning provides even less margin for re-evaluation.


Changing the professional culture, though, extends beyond staff processes and organizations. Clearly establishing methods and techniques for critical review is the first step to create a new set of expectations. The real challenge, though, is in replacing the military cul¬ture’s girders without bringing down the organization. Americans — civilian and military alike — revere “can do” and “make it happen” mind-sets, thereby marginalizing honest and pro¬ductive criticism. American culture focuses on “winning” and “victory,” sometimes to our own detriment. The sports mind-set prevails: More wins equal the playoffs and a chance to play for the championship. As much as Americans enjoy sports and allusions to them, we must be wary of becoming mired in our own metaphors.

Casting ongoing operations in Iraq as an athletic match can clarify issues to the immediate, American audience. But if taken too far, especially in regard to the Iraq problem sets and warfare in general, sports analogies can limit our thinking unnecessarily and present our operations in a short-term, winner-take-all framework.

In contrast to a sports emphasis toward warfare, our enemies — and even some of our allies — have taken a longer view emphasizing intelligent perseverance. Their framework is gen¬erational. Despite facing numerous tactical failures, they continue to learn, grow and test new ideas. Our enemies then re-engage. Although we should adopt our enemies’ persistence and patience, we must reverse the sequence as much as possible: The learning, growing and testing must come first.

To reach that point, as professionals, we must re-examine our individual willingness to have our ideas and work tested before taking action. That com¬bines the best of the American “can do” with other cultures’ perseverance.

Red Teaming as a practice can appear to undermine teamwork and efficiency, both of which are unaccept¬able costs under tactical pressures and timelines. As a result, many reflexively respond to critical review and alterna¬tive perspective by throwing up intel¬lectual and professional defenses. Red Teaming activates a staff’s “antibodies,” especially if trust and rapport have yet to be established by those conducting the critique. Yingling and Peters disre¬gard the staff in their analyses. Arguably, the staff officer culture should be the focus, especially because the military’s next generation of senior leaders is now serving as staff officers. The staff officer, just as much as the commanders, must seek out critical review on his own products and among his own teams.

Just as important, anyone Red Teaming must foster trust by working within tactical timelines to deliver actionable, salient critique to the staff.

Such a shift in American military culture is already occurring. How long it will go and what form it ultimately takes are yet to be seen, but momen¬tum is building among all ranks, including general officers, to re-evalu¬ate how we approach warfare. Acceptance and wide use of critical review will continue when the senior NCO and midgrade officers are on board, not just the senior officers. A few senior officers will lead the charge, but the driven colonels, majors and captains, with the steady hands of for¬ward-thinking and realistic warrant officers, sergeants major and senior battle staff NCOs, will affect the junior officers, NCOs and soldiers in suffi¬cient numbers to carry through the change in culture.

The notion of well-timed, incisive self-critique among staff officers can and should be the ultimate form of teamwork.

The open demand for alternative per¬spectives and challenges to current thinking is relatively new to the profes¬sion; at a minimum, it is new to the cur¬rent generation in uniform. At the strategic command levels, the recent additions of Red Teams already have proved themselves: They exist at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Army Staff and in some combatant com¬mands. Yet they are new to corps since 2006 and just now are showing up in divisions and brigades.

Three months short of redeploying to Baghdad, the 4th Infantry Division Red Team stood up — with the help of the Texas Army National Guard — not wait¬ing for the new organizational structures to fall in place. Staff integration is ongo¬ing, and all elements of the command and staff have a stake in Red Teaming as a concept: critical review through the lens of alternative perspectives of all their key products and decisions.

The goal is that everyone does “Red Teaming,” not just the Red Team.

It is up to the men and women on Red Teams and all who conduct critical review regularly to earn trust and deliver solid, actionable critiques. They will be most successful when leaders clearly articulate how and when they will receive such frank critique.

Today, Red Teamers and other staff members charged with critical review are in the fray, sweating, eating dust and sometimes bleeding right alongside the soldier, the staff officer and the general. Most often, their struggles are in the meeting, working group or briefing room, focused on making better deci¬sions and orders.

Commanders and staffs in the 4th Infantry Division have bought in to bringing critical review to the battle¬field. Although our focus is Baghdad and the foreign culture we encounter there, we are confident the long-term result will also shape the American mili¬tary profession for the better.

Col. Allen Batschelet is the Army’s 4th Infantry Division’s chief of staff and served as a brigade commander in Baghdad in 2005-06. Maj. Barry Hafer and Maj. Mike Runey serve on the Red Team. All three deployed to Baghdad this fall.