Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Dempsey on two big lessons of Iraq: Think more and train leaders better

I think Gen. Martin Dempsey really hit it out of the park in Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Here is his meditation on two of the big lessons he learned in Iraq. So I would — I would — looking back on it, at least my own personal view about Iraq in 2003 ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

I think Gen. Martin Dempsey really hit it out of the park in Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Here is his meditation on two of the big lessons he learned in Iraq.

So I would -- I would -- looking back on it, at least my own personal view about Iraq in 2003 was that Iraq had a particular problem, and it was a regime that was destabilizing in the region and that we should take action, that -- it was my recommendation that we should take action to change the dynamic inside of Iraq and that the region itself would become more stable. I'm not sure it turned out that way. I mean, it probably -- it is, but it didn't happen exactly as we intended it, and that's because I don't think we understood -- let me put it differently. I didn't understand the dynamic inside that country, particularly with regard to the various sects of Islam that fundamentally, on occasion, compete with each other for dominance in Islam, and so -- Shia, the Shia sect of Islam, the Sunni sect of Islam -- when we took the lid off of that, I think we learned some things that -- and I'm not sure we could have learned them any other way.

I don't know, I've reflected about that a lot, but I've learned that issues don't exist in isolation. They're always complex. And I've been scarred by rereading a quote from Einstein, who said if you have an hour to save the world, spend 55 minutes of it understanding the problem and five minutes of it trying to solve it. And I think sometimes, in particular as a military culture, we don't have that ratio right. We tend to spend 55 minutes trying to -- how to solve the problem and five minutes understanding it. That's one of the big lessons for me in developing leaders for the future, not only in the Army but, if confirmed, in the joint force.

I think Gen. Martin Dempsey really hit it out of the park in Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Here is his meditation on two of the big lessons he learned in Iraq.

So I would — I would — looking back on it, at least my own personal view about Iraq in 2003 was that Iraq had a particular problem, and it was a regime that was destabilizing in the region and that we should take action, that — it was my recommendation that we should take action to change the dynamic inside of Iraq and that the region itself would become more stable. I’m not sure it turned out that way. I mean, it probably — it is, but it didn’t happen exactly as we intended it, and that’s because I don’t think we understood — let me put it differently. I didn’t understand the dynamic inside that country, particularly with regard to the various sects of Islam that fundamentally, on occasion, compete with each other for dominance in Islam, and so — Shia, the Shia sect of Islam, the Sunni sect of Islam — when we took the lid off of that, I think we learned some things that — and I’m not sure we could have learned them any other way.

I don’t know, I’ve reflected about that a lot, but I’ve learned that issues don’t exist in isolation. They’re always complex. And I’ve been scarred by rereading a quote from Einstein, who said if you have an hour to save the world, spend 55 minutes of it understanding the problem and five minutes of it trying to solve it. And I think sometimes, in particular as a military culture, we don’t have that ratio right. We tend to spend 55 minutes trying to — how to solve the problem and five minutes understanding it. That’s one of the big lessons for me in developing leaders for the future, not only in the Army but, if confirmed, in the joint force.

Another one is the degree to which military operations in particular, but probably all of them, have been decentralized. You know, you’ll hear it called various things: decentralized, distributed operations, empowering the edge. Whatever we call it, we have pushed enormous capability, responsibility and authority to the edge, to captains and sergeants of all services. And yet our leader development paradigms really haven’t changed very much. They are beginning to change, but I think that second lesson on the enormous responsibility that we put on our subordinates’ shoulders has to be followed with a change in the way we prepare them to accept that responsibility.

I think those would be the two big lessons for me."

He also referred to H.R. McMaster as "probably our best brigadier general." Good for him.

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

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.