The Political-Military Army Officer:
|profusion of articles in recent professional military and strategic studies periodicals have dealt with the “new world order” and/or the changed political-military environment. In essence, the new environment dismisses the likelihood of great power conflict and posits a reduced likelihood of conventional regional war. The trend, most would seem to agree, points to an increasing number of what have been termed unconventional wars, small wars, low intensity conflicts, operations other than war, stability and support operations, or whatever the buzz word of the year happens to be. They also agree that the ideologically based wars of the 1950’s and ’60’s have given way to ethnically and or religiously based conflict, which while having an economic component, are not necessarily amenable to the approved solutions of the Mao/Guevara era of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. This doctrine emphasized economic factors such as wealth redistribution—the hearts and minds approach, that is. For example, Palestinians will not be satisfied with the most effective and generous welfare system ever devised if it is administered by Israelis. It is simply a reaffirmation that man does not live by bread alone.
In the years following the time when President Kennedy asked an aide what we were going to do about insurgency1 there have been truckloads of studies, books, periodicals and the growth of a cottage industry in the field of what I choose to call political-military conflict.2 These are conflicts in which the military is a vital, but not primary, instrument for achieving a national objective. They are conflicts in which the political dimension is paramount and in which goals, objectives, and rules are usually ambiguous, and often friends and enemies are not clearly discernible. They are conflicts or operations in which certitude and glory are in short supply. They are best described in the words of Rudyard Kipling as “the savage wars of peace.” The military interest in these small wars, as they were termed by the US Marines, was never high within the Army leadership. Cajoled and pushed by President Kennedy, there was a flurry of activity, the Special Forces came into being, and reams of studies analyzing guerrilla warfare were produced by various think tanks. Essentially very little changed, however. As summed up by General Maxwell Taylor, a leading architect of the Kennedy strategy, the Army reacted to the push for counterinsurgency programs as “something we have to satisfy. But not much heart went into the work.”3
Then as now the leadership mouthed the appropriate words, but what little progress had been made toward acceptance of the political wars concept was washed out by the humiliation of the war in Vietnam, souring both the military leadership and military intellectuals, who returned with unseemly alacrity to conventional warfare strategies and doctrine. Robert Komer, a special assistant to President Johnson on counterinsurgency, has remarked, speaking of the effect of the Vietnam war at an historical symposium, that “the impact on the Army’s self image of what armies are for was practically nothing at all.”4
A resurgence of emphasis on political warfare occurred in the first four years of the Reagan presidency, primarily as a result of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and the less than professionally executed operation in Grenada shortly thereafter. Despite the well-publicized fiascoes in both operations, it still took congressionally mandated restructuring of the military to revive the framework for political warfare training, operations, and planning, which culminated in the passage of the Nunn-Cohen amendment to the Defense Authorization Act of 1987. Special operations was revitalized and a new emphasis was put on counter-guerrilla warfare, now termed low intensity conflict.
The revitalization of political warfare training and emphasis was, however, to enjoy a very short moment of ascendancy. At Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, we were tasked with putting together a counterinsurgency course renamed the Foreign Internal Defense and Internal Defense and Development (FID-IDAD). We ran the course twice. The international students, including a Sri Lankan brigadier and several Turkish officers, were highly laudatory in their assessments of the course, but the few US students who attended were Navy SEALS, who informed us they were “trigger men” and were not sure why they were there. Similarly a course for Special Forces officers, a staff course with emphasis on political war, also died quickly for lack of support. Any lingering interest evaporated with the invasion of Kuwait and has never been resurrected. A perfect made-to-order enemy for the American Army appeared on the scene. The Gulf war intervened.
A combination of Saddam Hussein’s colossal misjudgments, an amazing correlation of favorable international factors, solid political and military leadership, and the successful rebuilding of our military following the chaos of the Carter era, enabled us to demonstrate our supremacy when allowed to fight an American style of war. It was a short, decisive war; the enemy was well-defined and demonized and had no domestic US constituency.5 Moreover, it was a laboratory for technology and new weapons; typically the American has overweening trust in a technological fix for every problem, and certainly the Gulf war reinforced this cultural tenet.6
This sort of overconfidence is eerily similar to the brash estimations of the Army leadership in assessing what it would take to win the war in Vietnam. We ignored French experiences in the first Indochina war for the simple reason than no one thought they were of value. The French Army, we firmly believed, lost the war due to ineptitude. They were defeatist, poorly trained, and their leadership incompetent. We, of course,. were different. American will, competence, and firepower would win the war.8 This idea, usually articulated as a “can do” attitude, was at the root of the Ranger debacle in Somalia.9 The spectacle of the bodies of some of America’s best soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu was a very sobering sight and made a distinct impression, not just on the public but on the Army leadership as well.
Unfortunately, the lesson learned was the wrong one. The experience of Somalia and the Khobar Towers bombing has inculcated a “Kevlar mentality,” a newer term for a bunker mentality, on the commanders of contingencies around the world. Rather than urge their appropriate staff members to get out among the people and gather information, and to get to know and understand the local environment, there is a tendency to simply retreat behind barbed wire and isolate American troops. The lesson of the Beirut bombing of the Marine barracks seems to have been interpreted as the need for bigger and deeper bunkers. In my visit to the Gulf region last year I saw an inordinate amount of emphasis being put on “force protection,” to the point that I wondered if anything else was going on. The reprimand given the Air Force commander of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia sent a clear signal to commanders that the highest priority was in fact “force protection.” (Having read the investigation report, I got the impression that its authors were of the belief that Saudi Arabia is a mandated territory of the United States and hence the American commander could simply order the Saudis to do his bidding.)
In actuality, the lessons of Beirut drawn from the DOD Commission Report—the “Long Report”—were of two major varieties: a split chain of command and a total ignorance of the “cultural intelligence.”10 It must also be pointed out that protection requirements extend to the State Department embassies in many Middle Eastern countries, as well. Unfortunately, they now have the appearance of fortified redoubts in which the coded doors and elevators all too frequently reduce Embassy personnel to corresponding with one another by E-mail.
Among those of us who have operated within the somewhat murky field of political-military warfare, the warning signs are all there. As after the Vietnam experience, there is a reluctance in mainstream military sectors to come to grips with the increasing incidence of political-military operations. Similar to the 1960’s, there is much of the thinking epitomized by the statement of General Curtis Le May that “the dog that killed the cat can kill the kitten.” In other words, a well-disciplined army trained and equipped for conventional war will defeat the insurgent force. Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case. The army that deployed to Vietnam in 1965 was an excellent army. My battalion of over 600 men deployed from Fort Riley, Kansas, without a single soldier missing the movement. Contrast this with the same division in 1973, when we had to have twenty-five soldier standbys for every C-141 flight of ninety-four men because experience told us we could have that many miss movement to Germany for the Reforger exercise. But in the view of a Vietnamese general, it was irrelevant that we won all the battles, and indeed it was.11 The mind set exemplified by General Westmoreland, who was quoted as saying that the answer to insurgency was firepower,12 has by no means disappeared. In the Senate hearings on the Ranger raid in Somalia, Secretary Aspin made the statement that the Task force in Somalia was relying too heavily—“almost exclusively”—on military force and not enough on the political.13
hile the military culture has evolved over the years and we now have an Army almost unrecognizable to pre-Vietnam war veterans, one issue has remained pretty much the same—the place (or lack thereof) of the political-military officer in the military establishment. His role, usefulness, education, and career opportunities have always been considered somewhat nebulous. A recent study conducted at the Air Force Academy highlighted the deficiencies of their system of identifying and using political military officers.14 The problems identified in the report are similar to those in the Army, as I very well know from my own experience and those of my peers. The death knell of a career is to be identified by the career makers and breakers as being out of the mainstream. When I returned to the States after six years in a foreign area officer assignment, my artillery assignments officer made it clear that I was henceforth a second class citizen.
The political-military officer is sometimes identified by outsiders as an area specialist, but I use the phrase as an umbrella term for officers who work in the field of security assistance, as liaison officers, in peacekeeping assignments (in which there is contact with local people and officials), or as political-military army officers in State Department, CIA, or in the Pentagon in such agencies as ISA, or DSAA. I also include military attaches abroad in our embassies, who, it should be noted, do more representation and trend reporting than any espionage operations. The political-military officer may specialize in civil affairs, psychological operations or security assistance; he may serve as a liaison officer or in other roles requiring regional and in-country expertise. But he will find that he is an orphan in terms of guidance and branch (e.g., infantry or artillery) interest in his career progression. Alternating tours usually means that he is behind his contemporaries in terms of new doctrine, equipment, and area knowledge. For instance, when I left the Vietnam-era Army artillery to go to the Middle East, artillery fire direction computation was manual. When I returned it was semi-computerized. After leaving the artillery again for about three years, I returned to find it fully computerized, and there were many other fundamental changes in all aspects of the branch.
Generally speaking, a choice must be made early on. Does the officer want to pursue a progressive career pattern with a shot at senior rank or will he be content to forego any such possibility to work within a field that only a certain type finds satisfying? However, the problem is even deeper than that. Many of these officers would accept the reduced chances for higher rank and command if allowed simply to continue doing what they do best. Unfortunately, this course of action violates the Army’s grossly inefficient “up or out” policy, which has no place for officers not considered to have the potential for higher rank and elevated roles.
It is a field for the adventurous, the slightly offbeat, sometimes downright eccentric, officer (T. E. Lawrence wrote of the effectiveness of the British officer in working with the Arabs because “nearly every young Englishman has the roots of eccentricity in him. . . .”).15 He does not feel threatened by ambiguity or feel unloved by a lack of feedback on his performance, knowing that often his evaluator is far removed from him, not only in terms of miles, but also in a sense of what the job entails. Moreover, the military political officer must understand that more than likely he will never appear on a command list—the epitome of success in the military world. Political-military fields have very few command positions and access to them is rarely achieved as a result of work in a political-military assignment.
Worst of all in the environment of the combat soldier’s ethos, he may be regarded as “touchy feely,” a sort of habitué of embassy cocktail circuits. As are most stereotypes this one is also wrong. In fact, I experienced far more close calls as political-military officer in the Middle East than as an artilleryman in an infantry division in Vietnam. The “pucker factor” was far more frequent in the alien and always unsettled political turmoil of the Middle East environment. Moving through the Michelin rubber plantation in Vietnam with an infantry battalion was scary, but one always felt the security of numbers of people around that you trusted and knew you could count on. Not so in the essentially individual tasks required as a political-military officer in the field. Driving through Amman, Jordan, during fire fights between government troops and the Palestinians to ascertain the latest developments during the “Black September” war of 1970 was a very dicey proposition, particularly since I was there to replace an American officer shot down in front of his family by Palestinian terrorists. Who was the enemy? Which group? Being abducted by Arafat’s Fatah organization or by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine made a difference of being roughed up and released, or being tortured and killed. Holed up in the U.S. Embassy for two weeks surrounded by very hostile Palestinians who fired at anything that moved added to the drama. Some years later maneuvering through the chaos and hysteria of the crowds at the parade site immediately after the Sadat assassination in Cairo (my wife and I were about thirty meters away from Sadat at the time) and driving back to the Embassy through totally empty streets, which were usually filled with people, was an eerie experience. It was a sure sign that that no one knew what would come next—a mass uprising, a military coup, or both. We were fully cognizant of the happenings of “Black Saturday” in January 1952, in which the normally docile Egyptian crowds roamed the streets destroying symbols of Western presence and killing foreigners.
In essence, the political-military officer cannot expect suitable recognition for the role he plays. This is, of course, not new; it has always been this way. In the Vietnam War the extremely complex and personally demanding job of being an advisor with the South Vietnamese units was advertised by the Army personnel managers as being equivalent to a command position with American troops. In actuality it was not so. Even those senior advisors who came up with high marks in their respective provinces ended up experiencing low promotion rates.16 It is indicative of the emphasis put on the education of the advisor that at Ft. Bragg’s Military Assistance Training Advisor Course (MATA) the future advisor who would eat, sleep, fight, and sometimes die with his South Vietnamese soldiers received ten hours of instruction on the geography, culture, and history of Vietnam, and four hours on the insurgent forces, this out of a total of 270 hours of training.17 Nevertheless, John Paul Vann, a typical maverick of the type that makes successful political-military officers, in his capacity as a corps group commander of the advisory effort in Vietnam expected his advisors to know within their districts even the price of “pork, beer, soft drinks, labor, sampan motors, [and the] number of school class rooms. . . .”18 His untimely death cut short the energy and understanding of one political-military officer who made a difference.
Certainly it must be understood that the Army must keep its focus on the primary threats, meaning those enemies or potential enemies who will in the future be able to challenge us on the battlefield with tanks, artillery, and weapons of mass destruction. Political warfare concerns must never be allowed to sidetrack or deflect the Army from its primary function, the destruction of enemy armed forces with decisive and violent action. I note, however, that the modest sum of money and assets devoted to the political-military field is much too small to have an adverse effect upon the primary Army mission. Nor is it the paucity of funds that so inhibits the development of political-military officers. Rather, it is the lack of vision. As long as the term “soldier-scholar” is considered an oxymoron, improvement is unlikely. The problem is that the Army system, like all institutions constantly, “reclones” itself in its own image, and diversity of thought, imagination, and original thinking are not the characteristics produced—despite many claims to the contrary. As we junior officers watched the peripatetic senior officers constantly climb aboard or alight from helicopters, the adage was that action substitutes for thought and movement for progress. In a system with a low tolerance for mistakes, a system in which less than effusive remarks on an evaluation form can end a career, few have the courage to experiment with untested ideas.
he question then arises: How do we identify the right people and construct an educational system to produce the political-military officer? Over the years—twelve of them in traditional societies or third world countries—my observation has been that the personal attributes of an officer in the political-military field were of primary if not overwhelming importance. His grasp of the current situation, his ability to assess intelligence, an intuitive feel for complex situations, a curiosity about the environment around him, a self-deprecating kind of certain worldliness, with a healthy skeptical outlook on the efforts and goodness of man and especially a well-developed sense of humor—all these are those human characteristics I have found among the more successful political-military operators.
An education in sociopolitical and regional factors usually is essential, even though there are those who by means of their personality do exceedingly well without any special training at all. I knew a warrant officer in Yemen who had broken through the very reserved Yemeni society to be invited to weddings, circumcisions, and the like. The other members of the mission, some of whom spoke Arabic well and were very knowledgeable about the area, had nowhere near the same access to the Yemenis.
On the other hand, there are people who undergo extensive training, but egos and an inflexible personality render them unfit for the political-military roles. I have had some students who see the undefined, amorphous, and ambivalent world of the traditional societies as a threat to be overcome. Somehow that ambivalence must be reduced to understandable considerations or factors. In the end, one cannot escape from the idea that personality and personal attributes should be major qualifications for political-military assignments.
What then should be the foundation of educating a political-military officer?
First and foremost he must be well-schooled in history—the history of the United States, of the area he specializes in, and especially military history. This is not an easy undertaking. The tendency of the average American is phenomenal in that history seems irrelevant, even recent history. He has to be convinced of the fact that one cannot understand another culture unless he understands his own. I remember a very wise professor at the American University of Beirut being asked by an American student how best she could prepare for the study of Islam. His answer was succinct: “study your own religion.” We cannot analyze other cultures without an appreciation for the environment which formed the prism through which we view that culture. Otherwise, we will continue to make the same mistake we made in Vietnam in believing that our adversaries and friends think the same way we do.19 Our strategy for much of that war was one of attrition based on the assumption that the enemy, like us, had a threshold of pain beyond which they would not go. This cultural arrogance is manifested today in our fixation on what the historian Russell Kirk calls “democratism”—the conversion of a political system into an ideology and declaring it everywhere equally applicable.20
As part of his studies the political-military officer must develop an understanding for the political culture of the United States. The place of the military in the American psyche and the attitudes toward it as an institution are factors which cannot be disregarded at any level. It was General Fred Weyand, the last American commander in Vietnam who said, “The American army is really a people’s army in the sense that is belongs to the American people. . . . When the American army is committed , the American people are committed; when they lose that commitment, it is futile to try to keep the army committed.”21 Those believing that an all-volunteer force negates that concept must have been surprised by the haste in which we evacuated Beirut in 1983 and Somalia after American loss of life.
The political-military officer must also be aware of the lingering anti-militarism in the American society and perhaps more importantly he must be aware and know how to deal with the anti-military attitudes of the intelligentsia. Charles Moskos once called it the “anti-Semitism of the intellectuals.”22 I have found this to be particularly evident in the academic community. At times it takes a condescending form, but in others it is blatantly visceral. There is a lot of blather about the “military mind” spoken by academics who do not have the vaguest notion of the term. In my area, the Middle East, at a number of symposiums, I developed the distinct impression that some of the academics were unhappy about our lop-sided victory over Iraq; before the hostilities, most had been loudly proclaiming the disaster about to befall the West. But on one later occasion, an academic pointed to the high number of Iraqi casualties and compared it to the few we had suffered as evidence of an unfair fight. A military student in the audience asked if the speaker would have advocated more American troops standing in the open holding bullseyes over their hearts to help even the body count.
Secondly, the officer must be schooled in the art of political-military warfare. A salient lesson from the Vietnam war was a nearly total lack of knowledge concerning 1) other peoples culture, 2) low intensity conflict (revolutionary, insurgency, or whatever was stylish at the times), and 3) the profession of arms itself beyond the level of current information relative to one’s own duties. As mentioned earlier in the paper, half-hearted efforts in the late 80’s and early 90’s to resurrect the importance of low intensity war died an early death. At present I would agree with a study of the recent U.S. military interventions in which the author posits that the U.S. Army “continues to maintain an attitudinal and organizational lack of preparedness to deal with unconventional warfare.”23 The congressionally mandated office called the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/ Low Intensity Conflict (ASD-SOLIC) still uses the term low intensity conflict, a term established by law, while everyone else is using the newer terms, e.g., operations other than war (OOTW) and similar phrases. In essence, few people can even define the issue.24 The existence of an imposing superstructure in the form of various command headquarters ostensibly involved in some form of training, doctrine, and logistics for unconventional warfare has not altered the fundamental fact that the political-military officer is a declining species.
Thirdly, the political-military officer must be educated in the functioning of the U.S. government. He must be aware of the bureaucratic sub-cultures and their general attitudes toward the military as an institution. Over the past eight years, twice a year I have accompanied my students on briefing tours through the various U.S. agencies involved in formulation of or influence on U.S. foreign policy. At CIA, State, USIA, USAID, I have seen a precipitous decline in the institutional knowledge of military affairs. That also applies to the congressional branch. All too often the young analysts seem to draw their knowledge on the military either from Clint Eastwood or Oliver Stone movies, depending on their political leanings. The result of this may be seen in the shoot-from-the hip deployments of our troops to trouble spots around the world in roles for which they are ill-prepared and for which there is no clear mission. It betrays a total lack of understanding of the military as an institution of national power and more importantly as an institution of human beings. Sitting behind barbed wire in the Sinai, Bosnia, Haiti, Kuwait, and a number of other places is not conducive to keeping an Army battle-ready.25 Nor is it a morale boosting exercise for soldiers—a majority of whom are married and spending an inordinate amount of time away from home.
Fourthly, for the above reason, the officer must have on-the-ground unit experience. Ideally he should have spent time at the small unit level of an ordinary line unit. The prolonged wars are not won by elite units. American wars are won or lost by the ordinary soldier. Nothing is quite so educational as time spent in a non-elite combat or combat support unit. Perhaps there would be a more realistic approach to our interventionist policies if more of our political leaders would have experienced the joys of getting a weary contingent of rain-soaked, cold, hungry, young men with varying degrees of enthusiasm for military life back on their feet at three in the morning so as to order them to load up their equipment and move for the third time that night. Understanding the difficulties involved puts a human face on the chess pieces. It has a way of tempering the bluster of political leaders in exuding fire and brimstone righteousness against nations or individuals who violate our sense of justice and freedom. The reality of what can be done and the realization of the limitations of military solutions to situations where “certitude is in short supply” is an essential part of the political-military officer’s knowledge. It has often been stated that the military leadership does not understand the limits on military operations and the political overseers of these operations seldom understand the limits of military operations. That was certainly the problem in Somalia, as various civilian high officials, United Nations, and American political leaders pushed for the capture of the warlord Adeed.
The result of too little time in the “real” Army is evidenced by some officers who spend a great deal of their career within political-military upper echelons and often identify with their colleagues; in seeking acceptance, they try to become one of them in outlook, which is of no value to either side of the equation. Over the years I have known some who, having spent years in civilian clothes, tend to absorb the culture of their organization and the reason they are there, i.e., to provide a military voice to the process of making decisions is negated. The last thing needed is another echo.
Finally, an absolutely critical part of the officer’s education must be an ability to integrate the expertise of the professionals of many disciplines into coherent unified assessments. In my area of interest, area studies has been sliced into the various academic disciplines and it is exceedingly difficult to obtain assessments which can actually synthesize and blend varying opinions and political factors such as political economy, the role of religion, the law, the political system, the culture, the elites, historical development, etc., into a single coherent analysis. What is the overall effect of each factor and what is the impact of each on the others? This is the essence of “cultural intelligence”—the bread and butter of the political-military officer. Acquiring this and putting it together into an understandable presentation for the decision-makers is becoming a lost talent. In my nine years of teaching military officers as well as college undergraduates, there has been a steady decline in the ability to articulate both verbally and in writing, the latter especially. The increasing incidence of a lack of writing skills on the part of so many otherwise intelligent officers renders their products and ideas almost unusable.
Of course, putting out the very best of assessments will not guarantee the acceptance by those who make the decisions. As studies of the Vietnam decision-making process make clear, the problem was not the information , but rather the lack of attention to it that led to a cascade of misjudgments. One need read only David Halberstam’s The Best and The Brightest to understand the fate of the messengers bearing bad news. And frequently the political-military officer must play the role of Jeremiah, lending a disturbing pessimism to the councils of “can do” practitioners. He may not be invited back!
Reading through the lessons learned from Vietnam, Beirut, and Somalia, I cannot say with confidence that those lessons have been taken to heart. When the downsizing of the Army began some years ago, the slogan from on high was “no more Task Force Smiths”— a reference to the ill-fated American unit deployed early which was decimated by a better-armed and -trained North Korean force. In our approach to political wars, the present environment gives small comfort that the slogan will be matched by reality.
2. The current buzz designation, OOTW (operations other than war), has not replaced low intensity conflict, which is similar in that they both include insurgency/counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism, peacekeeping, and contingency operations. The primary point is that far too much time has been wasted on the terminology, rather than the substance of the problem, i.e., how should we use the military to achieve political goals.
5. See Herbert I. London, Military Doctrine and the American Character (New York: National Strategy Information Center, 1984). See also Irving Louis Horowitz, “Human Resources and Military Manpower Requirements,” Armed Forces and Society (Winter 1986).
9. Despite a considerable amount of buck passing, it is clear from the Senate report that the leadership wanted action– in one case launching a punitive raid in retaliation for a mortar attack. See United States Senate. Committee on Armed Services. Memorandum for Senator Strom Thurmond and Senator Nunn from Senator Warner and Senator Levin. Subject: “Review of the Circumstances Surrounding the Ranger Raid on October 3-4, 1993, in Mogadishu, Somalia.” September 29, 1995
14. James E. Kinzer and Marybeth Peterson Ulrich, Political -Military Officers and the Air Force: Continued Turbulence in a Vital Career Specialty. (US Air Force Academy, CO: USAF Institute for National Security Studies, April 1997). “In short the system does not fully appreciate the efforts made by those in political-military affairs.” The report goes on to indict the Army system as well, noting some slight recent improvement.
19. Don Vought. “American Culture and American Arms,” in Richard A. Hunt and Richard H. Schultz, Jr., eds. Lessons From an Unconventional War; Reassessing U.S. Strategies for Future Conflicts. [New York: Pergamon Press, 1982), p.172.
22. Charles Moskos, “Armed Forces and American Society: Convergence or Divergence?” in Moskos, ed. Public Opinion and the Military Establishment (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publishing, 1971), pp. 271-294. Writers on this subject make the point that the “middle American” respects the uniform but not the institution or the use of power.
23. Kimbra L. Krueger, “US Military Intervention in the Third World Conflict: The Need for Integration of Total War and LIC Doctrine,” Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement, vol. 4, No. 3 (Winter 1995), p. 399