David Ignatius, Washington Post syndicated columnist, recently wrote that the U. S. Army was better able to admit its mistakes and change its ways than almost any institution in our society. Intuitively this seems preposterous until you think about it.
For eighteen months the army messed up the plan in Iraq very badly. While civilian leaders and politicians are still assigning blame all around for what did not work in Iraq the Army has faced its numerous mistakes, in tactics and judgment, and made serious changes. Ignatius suggests the reason is that the Army can’t afford to inflict self-justification or blame like the civilian leadership. The Army must learn or it truly fails. Recent Army publications show how the Army failed in not reacting properly after its initial assault on Baghdad. And then it failed again in the follow-up over the next few years. But, and this is the interesting part, the Army learned and made recommendations that led to the "surge" and the present success in Iraq.
How did the Army fail after it took over Baghdad? The easy answer is to blame civilian leadership for having no plan. (This appears to be true.) But the U. S. Army did not take this approach. They admitted mistakes and developed a new way to fight against counterinsurgency.
The key man was General David Petraeus. The Army learned how to work with tribal leaders, it pursued al-Qaida into every village in Iraq and it used "soft power" in working with local teams. The Army historians write: "One could say that the U. S. Army essentially reinvented itself during this18-month period."
While politicians, adds Ignatius, repeat philosopher George Santayana’s maxim that "those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it" the U. S. Army admits its mistakes and learns. How refreshing. Next time you want to show gratitude for the defense of our nation thank someone you know in U. S. Army leadership. These guys and gals are bright and they are willing to learn from their mistakes, unlike so many civilians. You can’t ask for much else in a good army.
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The very reason the Army must admit to it’s mistakes and the politicians do not is the fact that the Army has to produce something: victory, and that is fairly easy to measure.
Politicians generally produce rhetoric and it is more difficult to see if it ever adds up to results. There generally is no death toll involved in politics and it is easy to skew statistics and fudge numbers to make failed programs look more effective.