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U.S. military grapples with strategic, tactical challenges in Iraq

Since the beginning of the Iraq war there have been significant military concerns about the capacity of U.S. forces to respond innovatively to the challenges of counterinsurgency warfare. Within the uniformed U.S. military, a fissure may have opened up between middle-ranking and senior officers over the best tactical and strategic responses.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rebuffed U.S. Army leaders in 2002 when they expressed the view that an insufficient number of troops were being allocated for the occupation of Iraq. The generals’ failure to win adequate forces was just one aspect of a broadening debate over how well the U.S. military responds to expected and unexpected challenges:

• Disincentives to innovate? The armed forces’ hierarchical organization, with embedded career structures and promotional patterns, may not encourage innovative approaches — particularly in officers who achieve senior ranks. Each conflict presents new strategic and tactical challenges, which require novel approaches.

• Generational divide. Generational differences are manifest across the current middle and senior officer ranks. Many of the latter either served at the tail end of the Vietnam War or not at all, while many middle-ranking officers have now served several tours of duty in Iraq. This has led to a situation in which many company and field-grade officers have more direct combat experience than their commanders.

Resistance to change

The U.S. armed forces have historically encountered problems driving change within the officer corps, which may offer apposite lessons for the present:

• Racial integration. One of the most wrenching internal changes achieved by the military was racial integration — but it took a generation:

• Initial impetus. At the close of World War II almost all senior military personnel presumed that the segregated military that had existed since the 19th century would persist. Yet integration became a political priority at the end of the war: Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study, “An American Dilemma,” coupled with a report by President Harry Truman’s investigative committee on the armed services, signaled desegregation was imminent.

• Marching orders. Truman signed an executive order desegregating the military in 1948, but progress was slow. While the Korean War stimulated the process, integration became widespread only in the 1960s.

• Slow execution. The lengthy integration process ultimately required the retirement of senior commissioned and non-commissioned officers and their replacement by a new generation untroubled by a desegregated military. The U.S. armed forces are now cited as a superior model of integration, relative to the private sector. However, this positive transformation took more than 30 years.

• Reacting to the unpredictable. Every conflict zone presents unforeseeable challenges. Technological changes in warfare, intelligence-gathering mechanisms and unfamiliar enemies differentiate each conflict historically:

• Contingency conundrum. This issue of unpredictability is now a widely acknowledged problem in aspects of economic life, social organization, politics and human behavior. It is hard to address anticipated potential contingencies and even more difficult to respond to unexpected events and enemy tactics. This point is a feature of counterinsurgency warfare against militant organizations prepared to use terrorist tactics — exemplified by the Algerian war of independence. The willingness of such groups to exploit urban settings as opportunities for novel forms of asymmetric warfare, waged through civilian slaughter, has grown. Moreover, the technology available to terrorists has improved dramatically — in Iraq, they are now able to destroy helicopters and incapacitate heavily armored vehicles. The increased use of suicide tactics is a feature in both of these trends.

• Flexible response training. Yet unpredictability comes in two different forms: the exceptionally improbable and the possible. Developments in terrorists’ tactics and technological resources, while difficult fully to anticipate in detail, were not highly improbable in the context of historical insurgent conflicts. Therefore, most of the problems they present can be anticipated in tactical training, logistics and organizational structures. Indeed, flexibility in preparedness and modes of response is intrinsic to counterinsurgency training and planning.

• Imperative for change? At the beginning of World War II, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall replaced many senior officers, on the grounds that they lacked the necessary skills to address the strategic emergency:

• Yingling broadside. This issue was recalled in May with the publication of an article in the Armed Forces Journal highly critical of senior generals’ responses to the Iraqi insurgency. Remarkably, its author was a serving lieutenant colonel, Paul Yingling, who had recently completed a second tour in Iraq.

• Supine generals? Yingling observed that the military had failed to stand up to civilian leaders, including Rumsfeld, in respect both to winning sufficient resources for the Iraq war and to conveying how serious the current tactical problems on the battlefield have become.

• Insufficient leadership? He claimed that fellow middle-ranking officers believe that a significant number of U.S. flag officers (i.e., generals) lack sufficient or appropriate field experience relevant to the sort of conflict unfolding in Iraq, and are locked into conventional models of warfare taught at U.S. military institutions.

Continuing problems

Senior military officers are unsurprised by the proposition that they should be innovative and flexible in planning and operations. However, achieving this goal will be exceptionally difficult:

• Maginot mentality. By the time members of the military reach senior ranks, they have decades of experience behind them that have socialized their ways of responding to military and other challenges. Undoing this socialized pattern is difficult, as the incentive is to remain within comfortable old paradigms. Yet the circumvention of France’s “impregnable” Maginot Line in 1940 is powerful evidence of the danger of holding too closely to a fixed, conventional view of how future conflicts will appear.

• Muted advice? U.S. generals can fairly respond that there is a clear division between the military and civilian U.S. leaders. Constitutionally, the military is under civilian control. This innately mutes any tendency for serving military leaders publicly to criticize the president or his appointees. Notably, virtually all criticism of the conduct of the war in Iraq has come from retired generals.

• Censuring critics? The U.S. military has a well-defined career structure for ambitious officers. Rising in the hierarchy is a process structured around identifiable incentives and patterns of behavior — including not criticizing conventional doctrine. If critics of present strategy, such as Yingling, are seen by other officers to have damaged their career prospects, this will reinforce the notion that innovative thinking is not tolerated.


These internal U.S. military struggles have revealed a serious problem of innovation and training within a hierarchical organization wedded to conventional approaches to strategy — which has focused on effective responses to past strategic situations, rather than anticipating future contingencies. Driving change requires either radically refashioning the armed services, or generational turnover.

Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com.