Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Light Army vs. heavy (III): A view from 1st Cav in Baghdad

Here’s a comment from Lt. Col. Chris Coglianese, a smart infantryman currently serving in Baghdad as XO of the 1st Cavalry Division’s special troops battalion. I am of course posting it with his permission. One definition of moral courage: Putting your name behind what you say on my blog!  I think experience in both ‘heavy’ ...

578971_091019_ricksredtank2.jpg
578971_091019_ricksredtank2.jpg

Here's a comment from Lt. Col. Chris Coglianese, a smart infantryman currently serving in Baghdad as XO of the 1st Cavalry Division's special troops battalion. I am of course posting it with his permission. One definition of moral courage: Putting your name behind what you say on my blog! 

I think experience in both 'heavy' and 'light' assignments (back in peacetime) gave different proclivities that are helpful in ‘this kind of war.' Light guys have to think in micro-detail and are probably just a bit more tuned into human factors. They will tend to have a better appreciation of the insurgent's tactical capabilities, because the insurgent is a light formation. They understand retail logistics.  Heavy guys think broad and deep and have to be able to cycle the OODA loop fast (I am oversimplifying the OODA Loop for purposes of making a point). They understand a lot of moving parts simultaneously, some very fast, over a big sweep of terrain (or battlespace or whatever). They understand bulk, wholesale logistics.

Here’s a comment from Lt. Col. Chris Coglianese, a smart infantryman currently serving in Baghdad as XO of the 1st Cavalry Division’s special troops battalion. I am of course posting it with his permission. One definition of moral courage: Putting your name behind what you say on my blog! 

I think experience in both ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ assignments (back in peacetime) gave different proclivities that are helpful in ‘this kind of war.’ Light guys have to think in micro-detail and are probably just a bit more tuned into human factors. They will tend to have a better appreciation of the insurgent’s tactical capabilities, because the insurgent is a light formation. They understand retail logistics.  Heavy guys think broad and deep and have to be able to cycle the OODA loop fast (I am oversimplifying the OODA Loop for purposes of making a point). They understand a lot of moving parts simultaneously, some very fast, over a big sweep of terrain (or battlespace or whatever). They understand bulk, wholesale logistics.

I say this as a guy who served in  the “key developmental” positions throughout my career as a mechanized infantry platoon leader, cavalry scout platoon leader, air assault rifle company commander, combined arms battalion S3 (attached to a light brigade in combat) and XO, and division special troops battalion XO. I have also served on Air Assault Brigade, Garrison and heavy Division Staffs plus advised our National Guard. All that shows is that I can’t hold a job.

Truth be told today, at least in Iraq, everyone is motorized and has been for awhile (especially in the urban centers).

But ultimately, if you rely on personal experiences only, you are very likely to fail. That is why I get nervous when I read people hoisting forth all their deployment-combat experience. Ingrained, active, and reflected-on experience (much different than ‘saltiness’ or just being there) in conjunction with learned study and training is what will give a guy (or gal) the highest probability of success in future operations. As the saying goes … Frederick the Great’s horse was on seven campaigns, but at the end of it all he was still a horse.  What was very acceptable in OIF II in Baghdad, could probably set off a civil war in Basra in OIF 09-10. Guys will fall back on what worked for them in the past (fortunately, our enemies have this fault also). 

There will be the very rare guy who will just be able to do it intuitively (maybe a guy who was from a very ethnic urban working-class neighborhood, who had experience/major interest in gangs and or criminal networks), but really look at the backgrounds of GEN Petraeus, GEN McChrystal, MG Bolger, BG McMaster, and BG MacFarland among others who have an established record of excellence in this war. Their success is not by accident. It is from relentless preparation over a career. (Raw talent does count, also. We are not all created with equal ability.) They have had broadening experiences as graduate students and instructors or as fellows and are known to have vast and substantial personal libraries (predominantly, but assuredly not completely, of military and strategic topics) and be of rarefied intellectual capability (today, my Division Chief of Staff and I were just talking about GEN McChrystal, whom he knows, and his almost impossible to imagine intellectual horsepower). 

I think that’s a very good summary of the best practices of officership.

Also, Starbuck, who has no dog in the fight, being an Army aviator, rounds up the literature on the subject.

Photo via Flickr user mashleymorgan

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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