Best Defense

The urgent need for military education: An Army colonel’s view

Here’s a guest post from Army Col. Joe Buche, who commanded the Iron Rakkasans, an infantry battalion, under Gen. Petraeus in the 101st Airborne in Iraq early in the war there, and is now a fine fellow at CNAS: I was fortunate enough a few weeks ago to attend the United States Marine Corps’ Counterinsurgency ...


Here’s a guest post from Army Col. Joe Buche, who commanded the Iron Rakkasans, an infantry battalion, under Gen. Petraeus in the 101st Airborne in Iraq early in the war there, and is now a fine fellow at CNAS:

I was fortunate enough a few weeks ago to attend the United States Marine Corps’ Counterinsurgency Forum.  It included several great panel discussions that included insights into the institutional requirements for, tactical methods involved in, and strategic considerations to produce successful COIN operations. 

I found the panels with former battalion and brigade commanders the most interesting on a personal level.  I am an OIF 1 Army infantry battalion commander, so the chance to hear how the art and science of command at those echelons have evolved in only a few years would get me to attend a forum like this without any other incentive.  While these discussions interested me, it was two other topics, spread over a few panels that day, which I found the most compelling. 

Officer education protocols and consideration of the nature of limited war and COIN operations offered the most pragmatic discussions of the day.  Neither is as vibrant a narrative as are anecdotes about Soldiers’ and Marines’ valor in the face of an enemy, the now revealed internal deliberations of a tactical commander about how to allocate his or her very scarce resources, or stories about how Families of those deployed deal with enduring separation from loved ones.  These emotional realities aside, ensuring that our institutional education systems help produce the leaders we need for this fight and a common, dispassionate understanding of the nature of this type of conflict are likely more important in the long run.

The panel that discussed the education systems included some short lived but spirited debate about the cost effectiveness of our nation’s military academies, but its real utility was the discussion about where to focus our officer education.  I am one who dismisses a notion that our entire Army and Marine Corps looked around in April and May of 2003 and-when confronted with the unanticipated requirement to control a population and help create a fabric of civil society-waited until some doctrinal wisdom appeared online before divining a way forward.   While our institutional education systems hadn’t spent a great deal of time focused on comprehensive counterinsurgency, there had been a modicum of attention there.  In addition, that legacy education system had helped produce a cadre of leaders with the intellectual flexibility to figure out how to proceed in the absence of a plan, refined doctrine, or the appropriate resources.  We’d done something right; our institutional education and selection systems had at the very least produced a set of leaders who could adapt.

The fact is that we can’t depend on the genius of individuals or depend on our educational system producing tangential characteristics that will allow for our success.  Much is made of the distinction between training and education.  The former, focused on teaching a defined and presumably critical skill, clearly has its place in the institution.  When we know with great accuracy the challenges we will confront, then training as the primary means to develop competence in a force is a terrific method to achieve that.  In the less well defined future state of warfare and conflict, education-the provision of opportunities to learn how to think, not what to think-will pay off better in the long run.

Some of the symposium’s participants also hinted at what may be an Army-specific requirement for education.  Our education system likely needs to fill a void confronted by the Army in the short term as a means to ensure the quality of our officer corps.  Formerly, our competitive promotion system helped ensure the quality of our officer corps.  Based on a number of factors, the competition for promotions up to colonel is no longer all that statistically competitive.  The best alternative system we have with which to ensure collective quality is our education system.   

The nature of limited war and COIN operations is fundamental to the development of appropriate strategy.  I’m skeptical that all of us engaged in a strategic debate really understand some of these basic precepts.  Many of us live in a town where political urgency is sometimes mistaken for strategic importance.  While the reality of our system of government means that our strategy is sometimes constrained by political policy, inside those broad confines an intellectual debate about strategy can and should take place.  A fruitful examination can’t occur absent at least the agreement to disagree on some elemental principals about the nature of limited war and COIN operations.

Fortunately, a few of the panelists during the day talked about these topics.  I found Dr. Eliot Cohen’s and LTG (Ret) Dave Barno’s comments the most telling.  Cohen reminded us all that, from the perspective of the host nation in which we are involved in a COIN fight, the war is likely seen as one of national survival.  We Americans may be willing to take one risk or another without centralized review and consideration, but a host nation political leader may well see the potential of catastrophe and judge our risk to be a gamble he or she is unwilling to take.  Barno offered that, in Afghanistan, we need to focus on defeating the Taliban’s strategy of merely waiting us out.  The Taliban may see a timeline for withdrawal as simply their timeline for victory.

These points led me to think about one of the fundamental requirements for limited war-not just deciding upon the desired ends, but determining how to characterize victory in a credible way.  Unlike unlimited war, where capitulation of the enemy is almost certainly the desired end, limited war requires strategic leaders not only to figure out that a causus belli exists, but also to define winning and figure out how to convincingly communicate that state to their own people, the other belligerents, and relevant parties in the international community. 

Imagine playing a baseball game with no predetermined number of innings and no recognized system of scoring.  “Unlimited baseball” would go on until the other team either could not continue to participate or they capitulated.  “Limited baseball” would go on until one team (or both) achieved their desired ends and departed.  Whether in a baseball league or in international human conflict, it’s important that there be somewhat of a common perception of who won and who lost.  If we played limited baseball, then teams would need not only to figure out their ends, but have in their employ someone who could characterize those ends as indications of victory to influential observers.  Limited war-particularly that involving counterinsurgency-requires nothing less.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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