REVIEW ESSAY on The Clash of Military Cultures


In Iraq, the separation of the main body of British troops from the US force succeeds in anticipating a confrontation of two separately developed military cultures that would be exacerbated if both were engaged in counter-insurgency in closer proximity. Mark Etherington’s book Revolt on the Tigris and, more recently, Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster’s article in Military Review, ‘Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations’, describe this tension and the institutional dogmas which sustain it. Citing Aylwin- Foster’s thesis on their front page, The Guardian (12 January 2006) has recently attempted to re-inflame the debate. However, Whitehall spin-doctors will have no difficulty in demolishing the Guardian report, which is high on sensation and fails to convey the seriousness of the original article. But taken together, these two British views of the different US-UK approaches to counter-insurgency and reconstruction provide a balanced assessment of a potential fracture line in future coalitions.

 

Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster’s article, despite editorial denials of official provenance of any kind, will represent the views of many British officers of his age and experience. Written from the perspective of a staff officer at the US-UK interface, he was fully exposed to a collision of cultures and values, and has recorded his assessment in a measured and considerate manner that is at odds with the tenor of the Guardian report. His British-oriented proposition is that the loyalty of the civil population is central to the success of the campaign and military action should reinforce rather than jeopardize that support. US forces in his view tend to threaten the civil-military relationship by their aura of moral certainty, over-achieving operational conduct and top-down command ethos.

 

The US approach to counter-insurgency in Iraq has been kinetic. The US Army’s 2001 Warrior Ethos dictates an aggressive attitude in which the American soldier is to destroy the enemies of the United States, thereby precluding the possibility of a more politically-attuned option. This leads directly to attrition in which the primary aim is to kill or capture activists and results must be quickly achieved.

 

The US Army has a preference for visible activity – raids, cordons, sweeps – and combat units have a low threshold for the use of force, including indiscriminate fire-support weapons and armour. However, within the US force in Iraq, Aylwin-Foster recognizes a tension. To some extent, commanders such as Major Generals David Petraeus (101st Division) and Peter Chiarelli (1st Cavalry Division) understood the importance of popular support over the institutional imperative for higher and higher kill scores. General Petraeus ‘swung his troops routinely between offensive operations and an equally vigorous domestic construction and restoration programme’, while Chiarelli regarded himself as a soldier/city chief executive and kept a balance between the need for security and civil amenities, including power supplies and functioning sewers.

 

However, in the wider context of the campaign, the subtle approach proved to be egregious and US institutional practice weighed in favour of attrition. The US command in Iraq is inexorably top-down, micro-managed with centralized decision-making overwhelming a junior leader’s urge to exploit the possibilities of mission command. A ‘can-do’ reputation is a pre-requisite for an upward career, but it also becomes an obstacle to bringing bad news and saying No when Yes is likely to be a disastrous option. The need for speedy results also tended to exclude the possibility for patiently planned, intelligence-led operations: there was never time to develop a human-intelligence perspective.

 

But a low threshold for the use of force did not mean US forces acted with brutality. Brigadier Aylwin-Foster emphasizes that, on the whole, professional US troops have behaved politely and warm-heartedly towards the local population. However, from a European perspective their moral confidence originates from a misplaced certainty about the rightness of the ‘War on Terror’ which can be exploited by the insurgent. Moral certainty leads on to a crusading spirit as absolute as the jihadist extremism that it seeks to defeat. Aylwin-Foster cites the case of a convoluted come-on in which, by killing four US contractors, insurgents successfully incited a US over-reaction that the planners correctly anticipated would drive the local population away from supporting the peace process.

 

At a deeper level, Aylwin-Foster explains the long-term institutional traits which encourage and perpetuate this industrial approach to counter-insurgency. Among senior leadership it is still fashionable to maintain that frontline troops don’t do subtlety and that in the reconstruction phase other organizations and agencies are needed to take on sensitive tasks. The absence of a credible counter-insurgency doctrine tends to facilitate this entrenched attitude. The Vietnam baggage and Westmoreland’s dictum to ‘send the bullet, not the man’ has re-emerged. British staff officers in similar positions to Brigadier Aylwin-Foster assert that this use of attrition, reinforced by a sense of moral certainty, has led to a failure to restore a monopoly of violence. In a lawless and unaccountable environment the reconstruction programmes cannot genuinely succeed. US behaviour towards the civil population has had the effect of pouring fuel on a smouldering fire.

 

The long-term prospect for recognizing and improving this situation is bleak. Aylwin-Foster cites John Nagl’s analysis (see review of John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam in RUSI Journal, Vol. 149, No. 5, October 2004) of the failure of the US Army, in particular, to develop a bottom-up process of adapting to the new environment and campaign imperatives of a global insurgency. The current Defense Department-led initiative for ‘transformation’ seems to reinforce these institutional disabilities, emphasizing the importance of Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster’s article and the continuing prospect of a doctrinal fracture line between the US and the British.

 

In Revolt on the Tigris, Mark Etherington comes to a more positive conclusion about the US-UK relationship and the utility of raw power. His book is altogether different in concept and content to Aylwin-Foster’s military assessment. Reviewed extensively in June 2005 and serialized in the Sunday Times, many readers will have already encountered Revolt on the Tigris. It is an account of the intervention in Iraq which can be read with many different expectations. Etherington, a former British army officer and EU official in Bosnia, accepts the appointment of Governate Co-ordinator of Wasit province, south east of Baghdad and sets out to establish a Coalition Provisional Authority office at Kut, on the banks of the Tigris. His colourful colleagues include Iraqi governors, treacherous police officers, Ukrainian generals, a rock-like Texan from the US State Department and the awesomely tattooed Puleng, his bodyguard on many dangerous journeys through Wasit province. In April 2004 Kut is transfixed by the Sadr uprising, Etherington’s offices are overrun by militiamen and he has to withdraw to the Ukrainian compound. Alas it is necessary to resist a fuller review of this compelling story for the purpose here is to point out that in addition to his narrative of the struggle to rebuild a structure of governance, Etherington has much to say about the campaign to restore a monopoly of violence. His account does not set out to be an analysis of the conflict but it is nevertheless peppered with intuitive observations on the British-American relationship, the constitution of his ad hoc ‘garrison’ of office staff and military personnel and the dramatic problems of finding themselves on the banks of the Tigris facing the incoming fire of the Sadr militia.

 

Etherington is equivocal about British self-satisfaction over the value of their long-standing influence in the region as well as their military experience of counter-insurgency. On arrival in Baghdad, he leaves the reader to conclude from his descriptions of meetings in the Coalition Provisional Authority that there was a degree of complacency in the British camp. The discussion about whether or not we should have intervened in Iraq needed to be over by now and there was an absence of resolute leadership coming from the top. The Foreign Office, in his view, was out of its depth in an operational environment. Their intellectual distaste for the practicalities of restoring a monopoly of violence compared unfavourably to the US team led by the youthful, tough-minded, super-executive Paul Bremer. The British, by contrast, managed themselves in a conspiratorial fashion, risk averse and without the determination to organize the resources and protection to allow their staff in the field to get on with the job. Above all there seemed to be a policy vacuum and a failure to relate their political direction to the changing realities of power and security within Iraq.

 

Etherington agrees with Brigadier Aylwin-Foster that the support and co-operation of the population was central to their success, but has a more nuanced view of the problem. The people of Wasit, having been abused by decades of dictatorship, had withdrawn into their tribes and families. In the vacuum after the removal of the Baathist infrastructure, they were slow to embrace the CPA’s efforts towards the creation of new government, but also reluctant to support the Al-Sadr uprising. After years of brutalization, tribe family and self were much higher priorities than the state, whatever its colour or creed. The traditional approaches to win over this abused population with the provision of schools, clinics and local government, needed to be visibly underwritten by the main battle tank and the helicopter gunship. Etherington acknowledges his failure to exploit the honeymoon period and hints at the need for civil authorities to work hand in hand with the intervening military force, but frustratingly fails to complete his short analytical digressions and identify the path for future international forces to take in this respect.

 

Several lessons emerge from Etherington’s excellent description of the establishment of the CPA compound at Kut and its later encirclement and siege. Although the multi-disciplined, multinational individuals and military sub-units comprising Etherington’s ‘garrison’ had a workable veneer of unity while they enjoyed security, their cohesion evaporated as the threat increased. Etherington raises huge issues of command precedence, communication failures and the mission-threatening behaviour of unaccountable contractors in the field. In this extraordinary and completely uncharted operational landscape his account and others like it demand careful scrutiny, for these are stories that are destined to repeat themselves in future international interventions.

 

Mark Etherington and his staff were rescued, evacuated and then restored to Kut by the exercise of raw power. In his account he is awed by the extraordinary reach of the US troops on the ground and the professional manner of the crisply uniformed staff, radiating a wholesome expertise, as they explained how Kut had been retaken and showing on the digital map the CPA compound with the positions of four Abrams tanks correct to the nearest metre. Etherington was looking at the same US force that Brigadier Aylwin-Foster describes in his article, but for him being overly kinetic and morally overwhelming translate to a wholesome expertise that is deeply reassuring and, on a wider canvas, instrumental in restoring the heartbeat of Wasit province after the uprising.

In counter-insurgency, the frontlines of the US-UK military rift are manned on the British side by the aficionados of the Malayan approach and on the US side by the veterans of the Vietnam era advocating the compensating use of overwhelming force. Neither holds the key to the future. Below them, on both sides of the divide, there emerges a new generation of operational experience, which is free at birth from the baggage of Vietnam and Malaya. Young British officers with firsthand experience of US forces, in many cases deploying with them to Iraq, are writing and speaking about the value of underwriting a civil presence with an impressively powerful but humane military force; meanwhile, officers at a similarly youthful level in Washington and further afield are increasingly articulate about the lessons of Generals Petraeus and Chiarelli and their imperative to win over the civil population.

 

John Mackinlay
Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College London, and author of ‘Defeating Complex Insurgency’ (RUSI Whitehall Paper 64)




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