It’s an interesting cultural difference that the British armed forces do after-action studies, just as the U.S. military does, but use a different terminology. We call our studies “Lessons Learned;” they call theirs “Lessons Identified.”
General Martin Dempsey, retiring chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, gave a revealing interview just published in the Joint Force Quarterly. In it, he makes profound, and in some ways surprising, comments about civil-military relations and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His comments strike me as genuinely learned lessons that he has been applying in recent years.
He calls “valid criticism” the argument that in both nations the United States tried too hard to make their militaries like our own.
So you might ask, what would you do differently. First of all, I would have absolutely not disbanded the Iraqi army, and I would have absolutely not de-Ba’athified. We lost all of the bureaucrats who knew how to run the country. And I would have, in a transactional and conditional way, made it clear how we would help the Iraqis regain control of their own country, put it back on its feet. But there would have been no doubt from the start that it would be their responsibility and not ours.
He applies that lesson to the fight in Iraq today against ISIL:
So let’s fast-forward to Iraq today. Some people are saying, “Why aren’t you doing more, and sooner?” Our support needs to remain as support and not ownership. Furthermore, support needs to be conditional. If the Iraqi government does not meet its commitments to create a more inclusive political environment and to address some of the grievances of the Sunni and Kurd populations, then nothing we do will last. It will be painting over rust. We have eight lines of effort, two of which are military, and generally the military lines of effort leap out in front—and I do mean leap. That is who we are, right? If it is worth doing, it is worth overdoing. The military lines of effort will always be achieved. And that can be detrimental to the other lines of effort. I don’t know if that answers your question, but it is why I believe now that the use of the military instrument of power in issues of nonstate actors and failed states needs to be far more conditional and transactional than anything we do with state actors.
He believes that friction among policymakers is inevitable and acceptable.
I think the system is actually designed to create that friction in decisionmaking. …First, I would advise future leaders that friction and disagreement in decisionmaking is not a negative. Frankly, you should embrace friction. What I found was, and I can’t put a percentage on it, but in general the person at the table with the most persuasive argument tends to prevail in those environments. …In the military culture, as you know, we spend decades learning how to do campaign planning, and we start with a well-stated and clear objective. Then we build a campaign to achieve that objective, with intermediate objectives and milestones along the way. Then we come up with three courses of action: high risk, medium risk, and low risk. We pick the middle-risk option and execute. If you are an elected official, the likelihood of your conceiving a well-crafted and well-defined objective at the beginning is almost zero. Rather, as an elected official, your first instinct is to seek to understand what options you have.
So militarily I know I’ve got it, I have a nuclear option, but let’s just park that for a moment. What other options do I have in this magnificent toolbox called the U.S. military? What tools do I have that I can apply pressure with, that I can manage escalation with, and that I can integrate with the other instruments of national power? Elected officials are hardwired to ask for options first and then reverse-engineer objectives. And the military is hard-wired to do exactly the opposite.
Now what do we do about that situation? Nothing frankly. But that is the environment that we live and work in. I learned that pretty early on.
…my advice to my successors is get to know how our government functions. Don’t come to Washington thinking you’re going to get Washington to conform to your beliefs because that is generally never going to happen. You have to have a moral compass, but you have to understand the way people in this city make decisions. Also, you must understand that most big decisions are made in conjunction with budget cycles, not in conjunction with current events. If you want to change something in our system of government, you change it in the budget. Can you do things in between budgets cycles? Of course you can; we built in a certain amount of flux, but big changes are made in budget cycles, and that includes big changes in campaigns.
Wise comments and lessons learned, in my opinion.