Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

An enlisted view: No boots allowed?

This column inaugurates a new Best Defense feature, “Council of the Former Enlisted,” which seeks to give more voice to the great majority of military personnel and vets who are not or were not officers.

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By Sebastian J. Bae

Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

By Sebastian J. Bae

Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

(Tom note: This column inaugurates a new Best Defense feature, “Council of the Former Enlisted,” which seeks to give more voice to the great majority of military personnel and vets who are not or were not officers.)

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought by soldiers, sailors, and Marines, but devised by an army of policymakers and politicians. And in those far-flung wars, the enlisted ranks, the boots on the ground, are increasingly required to navigate and adapt to shifting strategic landscapes – as combat leaders, trainers, diplomats, and development workers. Yet, the ‘boots’ of the Armed Services find themselves systemically excluded from forming the national strategy they increasingly bear. The national security debate must become a conversation, not a top-down dictation.

The Counterinsurgency Field Manual argues, “An effective counterinsurgent force is a learning organization.” Every patrol, every encounter, and every unexpected challenge offers lessons on everything from the best placement of grenade pouches to telltale signs of political unrest. Whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom, experience is an invaluable commodity. Nevertheless, academics, policymakers, and officers possess a monopoly on national strategy policy, excluding the reservoir of on-the-ground learning from enlisted ranks. Any veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan can provide a litany of operational and strategic shortcomings – from the slow introduction of armored vehicles to unrealistic rules of engagement, which endangered soldiers and Marines.

The reality on the ground is profoundly divergent from the sterile portrayal of war in policy briefings. In Washington, the complex interpersonal relationships of war are glossed over with terms like sectarian violence, geopolitical conditions, and economic deprivation. Reports wrapped in professional jargon do not reflect how a soccer game with local children can build more community trust than any meeting between star-studded generals and local leaders. The inability to win hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated the systemic failure to incorporate lessons from the battlefront, quickly and efficiently. The conundrum of a population-centric strategy is that the boots who know what the locals need do not have the power to fulfill them. Yet, the policymakers who wield that authority possess no notion of who the locals are. Tragically, national security policy has become a rigid, one-sided dialogue where lessons from the field are ignored or heard too late.

After ISIS captured Ramadi, Iraq, I asked my Georgetown professor and decorated Army Colonel, David Johnson, whether the blood and sweat my unit poured into patrolling its streets were wasted. He said, “Our challenge – meaning you, me, and others who want to be in the policy business – is to work to make the hard decisions and policies that enable those in decision making positions learn from past mistakes, help them craft good policy, and make and execute good decisions.”

Academics and policymakers possess expertise and objectivity, but the enlisted ranks possess firsthand experience. However, experience has a remarkably short shelf life. My own experiences in Iraq as an infantryman will soon become obsolete as new events like the rise of ISIS transform the reality on the ground. Similarly, with mounting budget constraints, the Armed Services are purging the enlisted ranks, losing an entire generation’s worth of counterinsurgency experience. Experiential lessons must be able to shape policy before they are lost; otherwise, the United States will always be fighting the last battle, losing the next war before the first boots hit the ground.

Boots have been silent too long, marching off to distant battlefields on the whims of their Washington masters. The enlisted need voices, and they need to be heard now – before we repeat the mistakes of the past.

Sebastian J. Bae served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He is now pursuing his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in counterinsurgency and humanitarian interventions. He holds the Marine co-chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted.

Tom: We are still looking for Air Force and Navy nominees to the council. Got a candidate? Send an e-mail. Best if they are in the DC area or travel there on occasion.

Photo Credit: Dvidshub

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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