A Decade of War: What the U.S. Military Learned

James Kitfield
National Journal

The 10-year anniversary of the Iraq war has rightfully prompted extended soul-searching about a conflict that cost the nation dearly in blood, treasure, and international prestige. After every battle and conflict, in fact, the U.S. military goes through a similar routine of self-examination called the "After Action Review" ("What just happened?" "Why?” "What does it mean?"). These often uncomfortable exercises in second-guessing are the essence of learning institutions. In the case of the Iraq war, the closest thing to a Pentagon After Action Review was released last summer by the Joint Staff under the title "Decade of War: Enduring Lessons From the Past Decade of Operations." Decipher the sometimes byzantine military speak, and you will find a brutal self-examination of much that went wrong in Iraq, and a few things that went well.

Situational Unawareness: "A failure to … accurately define the operational environment led to a mismatch between forces, capabilities [on the one hand], and missions and goals [on the other]."

What that means is a small U.S. invasion forced designed for "shock and awe" raced to Baghdad to topple a dictator and destroy nonexistent stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and found itself strangers in a strange land, occupying a country of more than 25 million people whose culture, sectarian divisions, and tribal dynamics the U.S. military didn’t understand. “Here we were, an Army that prided itself on being on the absolute leading edge of technology, of being able to see first, understand first, and if necessary shoot first, and suddenly we were confronted with all these uprisings we didn’t see coming,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, who severed as a division commander in Baghdad in 2004, once told this reporter. Early in Iraq, he noted, “technology was less important than understanding anthropology and sociology, and what was on the minds of the Iraqis on the street.”

When You're a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail:"Conventional warfare approaches often were ineffective when applied to operations other than major combat."

No mystery here. Aggressive operations and tactics such as broad sweeps and door-kicking entries by U.S. forces netted thousands of Iraqis, and probably created more insurgents than were taken off the battlefield. "In Iraq we tended to make every problem look like a nail because we were a hammer," said Marine Lt. Gen. George Flynn, the Joint Staff director who oversaw "Decade of War." "We needed to put more time upfront understanding the problem, before racing out and trying to solve it."

The Military's From Mars, Diplomats From Venus: "Interagency coordination was uneven due to … policy gaps, resources, and differences in organizational culture."

Translated, this means the Defense Department was from Mars, and the State Department and U.S. AID were from Venus, and despite 10 years of circling each other, there was never a lasting eclipse.

An Inch-Deep Coalition: "Establishing and sustaining coalition unity of effort was a challenge due to competing national interests, cultures, resources, and policies."

This "necessity is the mother of invention" lesson is actually the silver lining that allowed U.S. forces to avoid an ignoble defeat in Iraq when confronted by an insurgency for which they initially lacked doctrine, training, and basic understanding. "The fundamental finding of 'Decade of War' is that the U.S. military did well those missions we had prepared for, such as the initial three-week invasion of Iraq, and less well in those missions we had not prepared or trained for, which was the counterinsurgency part we struggled with,” Flynn told National Journal. "What eventually turned it around were the young leaders especially at the small-unit level, who learned and adapted in real time and were empowered to act on those lessons. Going forward, retaining those experienced and adaptable leaders is the key to facing an uncertain future."