Best Defense

Cranky tankers: an armor officer on light vs. heavy Army

Maj. Chad Foster was reading my book The Gamble the other night, and was moved to write a note of rebuttal to me about one aspect of it, about whether officers whose backgrounds were in the light infantry (that is, without many tanks or other heavy vehicles) have done better in Iraq and Afghanistan than ...

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Maj. Chad Foster was reading my book The Gamble the other night, and was moved to write a note of rebuttal to me about one aspect of it, about whether officers whose backgrounds were in the light infantry (that is, without many tanks or other heavy vehicles) have done better in Iraq and Afghanistan than have officers from the artillery or, like Maj. Foster, from the armor branch.

I liked the note so much I asked him if I could run it in this blog, and he agreed.  

… Although I have loved reading it [the book] because of its quality of analysis and research, I take issue with a very small thing that seems to reappear at multiple points in the book:  the “light” vs. the “heavy” Army.

You point to the fact that Petraeus “came out of the light infantry Army” and that this was somehow a critical factor in him being better equipped to lead a change of direction in Iraq.  You quote Tom Donnelly’s analysis, disparaging the “heavy Army” as that branch of the military that focuses too much on technology and not getting it when it came to something other than fighting the Soviet hordes in central Europe. 

(Read on)

Perhaps, since I am an armor officer, I am too sensitive to this, but I am frustrated by what comes later in your book. You point to H.R. McMaster’s efforts in Tal Afar (according to you to be the first successful large scale counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq) and COL MacFarland’s efforts to exploit the opportunity presented by the newly emerging “Sunni Awakening.” Additionally, you single out COL Mansoor as a key adviser to Gen Petraeus. Did it never dawn on you that all of these guys came from the “heavy Army?”  Meanwhile, COL Steele (of Blackhawk Down infamy) really got it wrong … he is one of many examples of the “light” guys getting it wrong, many of which I saw firsthand on the ground in 2005-06 during my second tour.

There is no doubt that many “heavy” units did is wrong and didn’t get it.  However, the worst thing we can do is to nurture the notion that one part of the team has the market cornered on good thinking. Petraeus himself showed that he understands this by the diversity of the team he built in Baghdad and earlier at Leavenworth. Branch arrogance is one of the key things that stands in the way of real improvements within the Army (and, I’m sure in other services, too). You never point out that many in the  “heavy Army” made a contribution to this effort (and that many in the “light Army” got it wrong). I can tell you, from having seen the 82nd Airborne Div up close in Iraq that they were among the worst that I have seen in applying tactics that added to the insurgency … the “heavy” units did their own damage, too, but someone reading your book might be left with the idea that the light fighters were the only ones who had a clue.

I am sorry for going on for so long on this, but it irritates me to a great degree because this type of stuff negatively impacts our next generation of officers who are now reading your works to better understand our past mistakes in an effort to avoid them in the future. On the whole, I loved your book, but this just stuck in my gut over the past week. I had to vent a bit. I am very open to criticism of my branch (and of the Army in general) but there are many, in the “light infantry” and in other areas, who are not.  We can’t feed this ignorant and myopic self image if we really want critical self-assessment and clear thinking to be the rule.

Thank you for your efforts and your contributions to the continuing analysis and history of our contemporary conflicts.

Respectfully,

MAJ Chad Foster

Tom again: And just this morning, I got a similar note from Don Vandergriff, a friend to both me and Maj. Foster. Don concludes:

Even though I enjoyed your book, the pro light infantry/COIN side really eats at me because it is the sort of arrogant, myopia that we should realize is harmful to any real improvement in our Army. The Army already has an issue with branch arrogance among the Infantry (I travel two weeks of every month and work with all branches on applying ALM (see attached articles), and their dismissive attitude toward those who don’t follow their own prescribed path is absolute stupidity (this is also what is happening inside the beltway with the obsession with COIN — apply the formula wherever, to whomever, and whenever = we win).

Tom again: I think these cranky tankers have a point. In retrospect, I was too simplistic in my handling of this subject. The  82nd certainly did raise eyebrows in its first tour in 2003-2004. And the 3rd ACR certainly did well in its second tour. But I am not yet ready to give up on the distinction. Rather, I’d welcome help in refining it. (And the sooner the better-in the next few weeks, I have to write a new afterword for the paperback edition of The Gamble.)

Photo via Flickr user myglesias

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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