Civilized Warriors The US Army Learns from its Mistakes in Iraq

Weapons alone aren't enough to win a war -- you also need to dig wells and build schools. Lessons from the war in Iraq have caused nothing short of a cultural revolution in the United States Army. In Fort Leavenworth, leading officers are training troops for the wars of the future.


An American soldier restrains an Iraqi in Baghdad: The American soldier of the future will know when to shoot and, more importantly, when not to shoot.

An American soldier restrains an Iraqi in Baghdad: The American soldier of the future will know when to shoot and, more importantly, when not to shoot.

Fort Leavenworth, where America's armies of the future are being shaped, is a perfect optical illusion. The camp looks like an idyllic, small American city, where walnut trees provide shade for the verandas of old houses, the Stars and Stripes flutter in the wind from every gable and the gray fast-moving waters of the Missouri River are visible from the hills to the north.

Bulky American-made cars are parked along quiet streets in a community complete with its very own Burger King restaurant, health club, shopping mall, golf course, baseball field, movie theater and church. But the aura of serenity is deceptive. Everything in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas revolves around war.

The headquarters of the US Army's officer training program was long seen as a last stop for deserving soldiers en route to retirement. In the 20th century, anyone who was transferred to Leavenworth was no longer considered part of an active-duty unit. "Nowadays," says Army spokesman Stephen Boylan, a colonel with a moustache who served for several years in Germany, "everyone knows that the road to Baghdad leads directly through Leavenworth."

The best way to fully understand Boylan's comment is to take a grueling tour of the 16 schools, institutes and colleges at the fort where about 2,000 young officers enroll each year for special training. The tour passes through windowless conference rooms, classrooms and lecture halls, and it requires enduring hours of slide presentations and talks by generals, historians, diplomats, Vietnam veterans and soldiers serving in Iraq. It also means wading through documents filled with unfamiliar acronyms, but in the end the visitor is left with the feeling that a revolution is being launched here in Fort Leavenworth, one that will radically change the face of the United States military and the wars it will fight in the future.

The military's conscience

Scott Lacky, a civilian with a doctorate who speaks fluent German and wears a dark suit, is in charge of one of the schools, the Center for Army Lessons Learned -- that is, lessons learned from past and current operations. Lacky studied in Munich and Vienna and was even a visiting scholar at the German parliament, the Bundestag, when it was still in the former capital, Bonn. When his workday has ended, Lacky, a heavyset man, can be seen strolling through the fort wearing a Tyrolean hat. Lacky is the US military's conscience.

His job here has changed by quantum leaps in recent years. It all started with the computer and Internet revolution of the early 1990s, and it continued after Sept. 11, 2001, a day Lacky sees as marking a radical turning point. Before this seminal date, Lacky says, it would take two to three months until the information gleaned from an experience with value for the entire army had been processed, printed and distributed.

But these days, when a brigade reports from Iraq that the insurgents are hiding their roadside bombs in dead cats, all it takes is a few inquiries, a few e-mails and a few mouse clicks and, within the space of a few hours, the news has been distributed to everyone. Lacky and his staff used this approach to develop concepts for building checkpoints after US military personnel had repeatedly fired unnecessarily at civilians in Baghdad. The regulations for convoys were rewritten, as were those for how to behave during mass gatherings and while on foot patrols.

Lacky's department now has precise location descriptions for every sector of every Iraqi city, descriptions that are a far cry from the information the military would gather and disseminate in the past. While the old documents described the world topographically merely as a battlefield, officers nowadays can consult information that tells them where kindergartens, mosques, Koran schools and meeting points are located. They can also learn a great deal about the social makeup of a neighborhood, including ethnic affiliations, local customs and unwritten laws.

Military leaders used to view these "soft factors" as secondary details, at least until they began learning from experiences in Afghanistan and Iran. The Army's worldview was still colored by the logic of the Cold War, which divided the world into clear-cut blocs. Military leaders were primarily focused on a big picture that envisioned a decisive battle against the Soviet military, where tank divisions would clash with tank divisions and where the chains of command practiced over and over again for the eventuality that a nuclear war could take place.

Struggling to gain the upper hand

Not much changed in this basic approach until the fall of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the ensuing debacle in Iraq. The military's top brass and the Pentagon continued to view everything in black and white. For them, there was a clear distinction between combat missions and the tools and mechanics of war, on the one hand, and the peacekeeping missions, on the other. The latter were multinational and had a decidedly civilian flavor, and consisted of things like providing policing for nation-building in Kosovo -- not exactly something that was particularly appealing to the US military.

The notion that the world's most modern and powerful military machine could end up struggling to gain the upper hand over scattered insurgents was inconceivable and hit the US military like an earthquake. Until a few years ago, no one in the US military would have believed that instead of dropping bombs and engaging in fierce combat, it would one day be drilling wells, directing traffic, building schools and organizing local elections -- and that it would be doing all of these things not after but in the middle of a war. Finally, no one would have imagined that these civilian tools would end up being described as the most-effective weapons on the road to victory.

"In Bosnia, we had a feeling for the first time that perhaps we are poorly prepared after all," says Dennis Tighe, a slim, jovial man who wears wide suspenders over his shirt. Tighe, a young-looking 60, is in charge of maneuvers and troop exercises for officers at Fort Leavenworth -- Combined Arms Center Training, or CAC-T in short.

In the former Yugoslavia, says Tighe, the US military was unprepared for the confusion of scattered small battles. It had trouble dealing with a conflict that was so culturally charged, a war without fronts and battle lines in tiny countries whose problems the Americans found deeply puzzling. The military also failed to realize that rebuilding stadiums could sometimes be more important than winning minor military skirmishes. It also had trouble understanding something that organizations like the United Nations had long known, and that is that providing seeds for crops can ultimately be more critical to achieving success than ammunition. It took time, especially for a military that had been exposed to doctrines set in stone for so many decades, until new ideas were allowed to penetrate into its ranks.

The courage to question

It took commanders who could implement changes and who had the courage to question the Pentagon's old-school way of thinking and its approach to the war in Iraq. The process began in Leavenworth, in 2004, with William Wallace, the general who had commanded the US Army's "Thunder Run" to Baghdad in the initial stage of the war. But once it became increasingly evident that Iraq was in turmoil, Wallace began to doubt his own hard-hitting strategy and reinterpret the operation's successes and failures. As it turned out, Wallace was the first to question all the military doctrines that had been in place until then. His direct successor is currently in the process of eliminating them altogether.

Paul Bremer (center) and David Petraeus (left) in Fallujah, Iraq in 2003.

Paul Bremer (center) and David Petraeus (left) in Fallujah, Iraq in 2003.

David Petraeus, a three-star general who completed his own officer-training program at Fort Leavenworth and graduated at the top of his class of 1,000, has been in charge at the facility since the autumn of 2005. When he was in command of the 101st Airborne Division as they advanced northward through Iraq up to Mosul, Petraeus already held a doctorate in political science. Today, at Leavenworth, he serves as a professor in combat gear.

His office is in a dark-paneled room, its walls covered with diplomas, awards, medals and old maps. A year before arriving in Leavenworth, Petraeus was removed from his position in Iraq, where he oversaw the task of building the Iraqi army. The decision to remove Petraeus, who was clearly the best man for the job, triggered an outcry in the press and the political arena. He was portrayed as the shining hope for a new Iraq and for the American military -- even as a new Lawrence of Arabia. Nowadays, he is considered a candidate for a fourth star, and those who worked with him hope that he may one day lead the entire US Army.

Notwithstanding the many accolades, Petraeus, 55, is a reserved, idiosyncratic man. He was shot in the lung in an accident during a military exercise years ago, and he later broke his pelvis while parachuting. The injury is still painful and forces him to walk with a slight stoop. But Petraeus is fanatic about not allowing his injuries to get in his way. He walks at a fast pace for four to seven miles each morning, spends hours stretching and runs ten miles at the pace of a man 20 years his junior.

Standing between the best and worst

On the day of our meeting, Petraeus says he stands between the best and the worst that the Army has to offer. It is a cold Friday in Fort Leavenworth. Winter is coming to Kansas, to America's heartland, and the hearings on the Baker Commission's report on an exit strategy for the Iraq disaster are on TV. On CNN and CBS, experts spend all day debating the pros and cons of a troop withdrawal, occasionally interrupted by brief reports on the wedding of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes in Italy.

Petraeus has two important events on this day. In the afternoon, he will promote Joe Ramirez to the position of general, an important ceremony in the US military. Ramirez, a son of Mexican immigrants whose father fought in the Korean War, is a walking example of the American dream. But Petraeus's first event is a morning funeral.

An officer at the School of Advanced Military Studies was killed in a bombing attack in Iraq. His body will be laid to rest in the fort's large, old cemetery -- a fresh grave among 22,000 others that tell the history of every war America has fought. Petraeus, who will offer his condolences to the dead soldier's family, is wearing black. For a moment he seems almost too soft for a general. That can only be an illusion, but still, he says, "It's terrible every time."

Petraeus is the man at the helm of the Army's top-down revolution. Together with a general from the US Marines, James Mattis, he has written a new doctrine on counterinsurgency, a doctrine that turns almost every previous rule of warfare on its head.

The 241-page document contains an outline of the history of all rebellions and a guide to the wars of the future. For the first time, it draws no distinction between civilian and classic military operations. In fact, it almost equates the importance of the two. Petraeus believes that the military can no longer win wars with military might alone. On the contrary, according to the new theory, it must do its utmost to avoid large-scale destruction and, by as early as the initial attack, not only protect the civilian population but also support it with all available means in order to secure its cooperation for regime change. As uncomplicated as it may seem, Petraeus's new doctrine represents a sea change when it comes to the US military's training and combat procedures. Some might also interpret it as a way of settling scores with the failed strategy in Iraq.

A new way of teaching

In the early morning, the fort is filled with soldiers walking around in combat dress, books tucked under their arms and earphones in their ears. They arrive in pickup trucks and on bicycles, walking through the doors of campus buildings with names like Bell and Eisenhower Hall to their classes. They are young officers, most around the age of 30, their heads shaved, hurrying past without so much as glancing at the cemetery and buildings where Generals Macarthur and Colin Powell once lived, walking along paths where William Cody once walked before he became Buffalo Bill.

Almost all the students here have already been in combat in Iraq. They are familiar with the practical side of war, but not with the new theory. In one class the students discuss counterinsurgency, known here by the acronym COIN, learning about Petraeus's doctrine, one that preaches smarter ways to combat insurgents, conduct operations against rebels and wage the war on terror with other, civilian tools.

In one classroom, 15 uniformed soldiers, including guest students from Colombia, Argentina and Ukraine, sit in a U-shaped formation in front of computer screens. The instructor is a retired lieutenant colonel with active duty experience in Malaysia and Thailand. During his lecture he jumps from one place to another around the globe. He talks about Chechen and Mexican Zapatista rebels, Columbia's FARC revolutionaries and the Taliban, about Syria, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. He asks his students: "In your opinion, how has the US's view of the world changed since Sept. 11?" A female student says, in a piercing voice: "We now know that we have to take them out before they take us out." It isn't the answer the instructor was looking for. He says: "Well, let's take a closer look."

"Our work isn't easy," says John Kerry, another instructor at the military academy. He is the spitting image of the stereotypical literature professor in a Hollywood film. He came to Kansas after serving as a military attaché in Morocco. He talks as if he were a little embarrassed by the superficial approach the instructors are forced to take here. "We're dealing with people who sometimes can't even point to the Middle East on a map."

Global sensitivity training and a new doctrine

The group of instructors sitting around the conference table is responsible for the new army's core issue: cultural awareness, or the art of handling multiculturalism and practicing tolerance and respect for foreigners. The people sitting around the table have served as diplomats and intelligence agents in Israel and Jordan and as military attachés in Syria. Their job is to give these young soldiers a crash course in how to deal with other cultures in general and Islam in particular.

"Arabs are not always Muslims, and Muslims do not always think the way Arabs do," says Kerry, citing an example of the kind of message he and his colleagues are here to instill in the officers. The uniformed students must work their way through long lists of lectures and read 300-400 pages a day -- new textbooks about the modern world, as well as classics like Clausewitz and the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. In an effort to teach skepticism and critical thinking, the instructors are constantly asking their students trick questions and presenting them with paradoxes, rewiring their brains to help them understand the new military doctrine.

Students are asked to discuss fundamental ethical problems, explain their answers, explain their explanations and then dissect their reasoning once again. They are asked to conduct non-military, cultural analyses of actual conflicts. This is a challenge for someone from Texas in his late 20s, someone whose idea of the world has never extended far beyond his own hometown. Some soldiers resist all this talk about culture and respect and tolerance -- they would much rather spend their days firing off ammunition at the shooting range.

Mark A. Olson is a pale, dour, combat-tested colonel in the Marines who has seen his share of the world. His subject at Leavenworth is counter-terrorism, and he knows his people well. "There will always be those who aren't interested in hand-shaking and baby-kissing," says Olson. "Those are the tank commanders who think it’s their job to drive down the street and shoot at everything that moves." Olson makes a contemptuous face. "But then we wash that stuff out of their heads. We make it clear to them that idiots like them are not only not ending the insurgency but are in fact strengthening it. And, believe me, that's something they never forget."

Olson is one of Petraeus's better students. He says that officers of the future must have broader qualifications, civilian skills and a quick head that tells them when to shoot and, more important, when not to shoot. A military that acts too brutally in the wrong place merely creates new enemies. "We have to build contacts to the civilian population. They have to understand that they don't need to respect us, but that they should accept their new government."

A killer who can write poetry

The great litany of Fort Leavenworth is that everything must change. Generals and colonels talk about civility and networking. They encourage open-minded thinkers, critical minds in uniform, and they describe the officer of the future as a multitalented individual, as someone who can be a killer and write poetry. They constantly talk about respect for other cultures and about "culture teams" that could support the armed forces in the future, and they dabble in psychology and sociology.

In the end, after days packed with lectures and discussions, one is left with the conclusion that perhaps the US military is no longer interested in this Iraq war, at least not the kind of war it has been conducting and is now losing day after day.

In Fort Leavenworth, it is as if a hectic race is underway that began too late and that may help change future wars, but not the war at the top of everyone's mind, the war in Iraq. David Petraeus, the man who launched this race, chooses his words carefully, because he knows that he is skating on very thin ice. He must dispel the suspicion that his intellectual concepts could damage the military's sheer fighting power and morale.

Critics are already accusing him of simply confusing people, so much so that once in the field, standing eye to eye with the enemy, they might end up confusing their heads with their weapons. Perhaps this explains why Petraeus always makes a point of emphasizing that soldiers are warriors first and that their main job should continue to consist of shooting, bombing, killing and winning. But these are always the weakest points in his speeches.

Who knows, perhaps the uniformed professor, is torn between his two roles of a civilian teacher and a military commander. Perhaps he has even higher ambitions, as everyone already believes, not in the army but in politics, which still pulls rank over the military. That would put Petraeus at the very top, and perhaps in a place where he would have even more power to create a new military.

Winter is coming to Kansas, and it's cold in Fort Leavenworth. By early evening, quiet returns to this small city behind barbed wire. But the serenity is deceptive. A revolution is underway that will change the face of the US military -- and with it the wars the world has yet to face.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH

Die Homepage wurde aktualisiert. Jetzt aufrufen.
Hinweis nicht mehr anzeigen.