Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Army and Self Critique

From age 10 to age 14, we lived in Edgewood Area, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. In the early 80s lots of cool stuff was going on at APG. They were testing the HMMV, the M-1, the Bradley's. Once we made it to one of the ranges and saw some demos.

In many ways it was an idyllic life. Living in a large early 20th Century White house with steam heat radiators, that overlooked the Gunpowder River, where we'd go down to "the beach" (next to the officer's club tennis courts) and throw rocks at the bloated carp that washed ashore until they were obliterated in the sand.

I remember skiing at night into the middle of the parade field with snow falling, knowing full well there would be no school the next day. And during the past two winters in Skokie, when I would look out at the streetlights as the snow streaked down, hoping there would be school I remembered how back in Edgewood I'd wished the opposite.

In summers, I'd drive around post with a special trailer on the back of my bike, where I'd put aluminum cans and cash them in for 29 cents a pound or whatever the price was back then. Once someone was throwing a bunch of those thick 10-ounce Coke bottles that you could get a dime back for each. In a single discover, I managed to get 25 to 30 bucks.

That was a lot of money back in 1982.

I spent a lot of time at the post library, and in particular I remember reading the official U.S. Army histories of World War II. Fascinating stuff. The Battle of the Bulge was always my favorite. But of course there were all the Jane's books and Aviation Week and Space Technology. And then there were those silly little cartoons on "preventive maintenance" (for nearly illiterate enlisted folks, no doubt) that I would only understand the I would only understand once I was enlisted myself. I don't know how many hours I spent at that old white building with decaying white paint, but I checked out a lot of books.

In 1988, back in Maryland again for my last year high school (fter a year at Ft. Leavenworth and two years in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I enlisted (since he was an officer, my dad actually swore me in at the MEPS station not far from where I work now) in the Army Reserves and an Intelligence Analyst (98C) with the goal of joining a unit in Austin, Texas close to where I would be going to college at Texas A&M.

My original plan was to become a Linguist (98G) but a failed the DLAB so badly I went non-linguist route, just as my original plan was two go through ROTC and become an officer, but A&M Corps life was not for me. But I did end up making it to that CEWI Battalion that was attached to the 49th AD (TXNG) and stayed until after college, when I joined the USAR school in San Antonio and taught 98C (both 10 Level and BNCOC) to Reserve & National Guard troops in the summer's off, while a middle school teacher. In one class, I remember a bunch of Special Forces soldiers from Alabama and Mississippi. In 2001 I thought about them, wondering how many of them ended up going to Afghanistan during the final year of my enlistment.

While I'm not sure all of my military experience was so positive (I can remember a few times sleeping (hungover) with my head down next to a SPARC-5 in Camp Bullis, hoping the door code would wake me, or hiding out in the bed a 1.5 Ton Truck in the motor pool at Mabry to avoid "bullshit details"), one of the best lessons I learned from the Army was the AAR.

After you did a Warfighter or an RTEP, after you taught a block of instruction, after you did Annual Training -- there was a time where you conducted an "After Action Review" where (sometimes, unless the officers were gaming them) you 'fessed up what when right and what rent wrong. And why.

Too many times working in the private sector, I found AAR's (or something like them) don't get done. You slog through quarter after quarter wondering why you aren't making any progress.

* * *

Joining these various threads, David Ignatiaus has an an interesting article on the "lessons learned" that hopefully will show up in the history books:

But the Army learned from its mistakes. Rather than sulking about the Iraq mess, commanders made necessary changes. The Army developed a new doctrine for fighting a counterinsurgency; it learned how to work with Iraqi tribal leaders; it pursued al-Qaeda into every village of Iraq; it experimented with soft power, by working closely with Provincial Reconstruction Teams. "One could easily state that the U.S. Army essentially reinvented itself during this 18-month period," the historians write.

This study illustrates what's most admirable about the Army. It has maintained a tradition of intellectual rigor and self-criticism. That's nurtured in the Army's unique program of midcareer education. It's not an accident, but part of the Army tradition, that the current commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, took a doctorate in international relations at Princeton, or that the former Centcom commander, Gen. John Abizaid, had a stint as commandant of West Point. This tradition is exemplified, too, in the decision of Gen. George Casey, the current chief of staff, to publish this sometimes searing critique of his own service.

Politicians repeat, ad nauseum, philosopher George Santayana's maxim that "those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." The U.S. Army is that rare institution in American life that is actually putting this precept into practice.

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