Archive for Thursday, February 23, 2006

Army teaching new trick: creative thinking

February 23, 2006

— In a classroom full of war-hardened men wearing camouflage, crew cuts and dubious expressions, the lesson Tony Baker was trying to teach a week ago Tuesday, he admitted, seemed pretty "squishy."

The class was about creative and critical thinking. The students were majors in the U.S. Army, some with battle patches from Afghanistan and Iraq. And Baker, a recently retired lieutenant colonel, could sense their doubt as he talked about encouraging curiosity and "seeing the good in the bad."

"You're sitting here with skepticism," Baker told his students. "When I asked you to plan an operation on Fallujah, off you went."

But the challenges of terrorism and counterinsurgency - like the ones faced by America abroad - don't lend themselves to a one-size-fits-all template. It's Baker's job to get the majors ready for that new world.

"Our Army is in love with technology, and our Army is in love with processes," he told the soldiers. "It's not in love with creative thinking. I think it should be."

If there is any place in the Army that is in love with creative thinking, though, it's Fort Leavenworth.

The historic northeast Kansas base is home to the Combined Arms Center - which develops the Army's war-fighting doctrine, trains officers to use that doctrine in battle and collects "lessons learned" to make the doctrine and officers better.

Call it the "Egghead Corps."

"In a lot of ways, you could call Fort Leavenworth one of the important, intellectual critical masses of our Army," Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, CAC's commander, said in an interview.

The events of 9-11, and the war in Iraq, however, have forced all that thinking and training to happen at a quicker pace.

WRITING THE BOOK

Maj. Tom Westen was in Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division. "Major combat" was relatively easy - defeating another army was what Westen and his colleagues had been trained to do.

But, Westen said, they weren't quite ready for the elusive guerrilla war that developed after Saddam Hussein's government was toppled. The Army's field manual on counterinsurgency had last been updated in 1986.

"A lot of what we trained for," Westen said, "wasn't necessarily what we faced."

Now, however, Westen is literally writing the book on counterinsurgency. He's part of a 19-person team at CAC's Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate writing the Army's new field manual outlining methods to fight insurgents.

It's a process, Westen said, that involves "a lot of reading" and discussions with Army leaders who are busy fighting Iraq's insurgents. And the final doctrine won't focus solely on guns and bombs - officers will need to be skilled in diplomacy, economics and politics to win over civilian populations whose support is necessary to be an insurgency.

"It's not," Westen said, "just the military use of power."

Creating a new field manual, though, usually takes 18 months. That's too long while the war is dragging on; Westen's colleagues rushed out the Army's first-ever "interim" field manual on insurgency in 2004. Several more interim manuals have been written since then.

"The pace is making it so we're trying to get doctrine to the field faster," Westen said, "to fill the need."

But, Westen suggested, even the best-written manual won't eliminate the need for officers who can improvise.

"Doctrine is never an ending point," Westen said. "But it is a start."

SOFT SKILLS,

HARD WORK

That's where Baker's class on creative and critical thinking comes in.

The class is part of the 10-month curriculum at the fort's Command and General Staff College; every major in the Army must go through such a college, and most go to Leavenworth to get the training.

The need for critical thinking, he said, wasn't so acute during the half-century the Army prepared to battle the Soviet Union. The murkiness of a counterinsurgency war was rarely considered.

That's been slow to change, Baker said.

"When these guys were lieutenants, 10, 12 years ago, the Berlin Wall had just fallen," he said of the majors in his classroom. "Everyone they worked for was still geared to that."

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said, show the need for officers to handle situations as diverse as setting up a sewer system, stabilizing the local economy and making allies with local leaders.

Developing those skills includes a new "cultural immersion" class, said J.P. LaMoe, chief of staff at CGSC. And it requires officers to grapple with the Army's past failures and controversies - the reading list includes magazine articles like "The Fall of the Warrior King," a New York Times Magazine piece detailing the ruin of Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, a CGSC graduate who commanded soldiers charged with drowning Iraqi detainees.

"People who come here ... are the citizen class of America," LaMoe said. "You don't get anywhere trying to indoctrinate people."

SELF-CRITICISM

That spirit of self-criticism is institutionalized at CAC. Military Review, a bimonthly journal published at Fort Leavenworth, in November printed a blistering critique of the Army's performance in Iraq by a British general - an article that raised hackles across the service, despite a prominent disclaimer from the journal's editors.

"Whilst they were almost unfailingly courteous and considerate," Brigadier Gen. Nigel Aylwin-Foster wrote of U.S. soldiers, "at times their cultural insensitivity, almost certainly inadvertent, arguably amounted to institutional racism."

The Center for Army Lessons Learned also takes a hard look at battlefield successes and failures. Its work after the Iraqi ambush in 2003 that led to the capture of Pvt. Jessica Lynch, for example, led to changes in the way the Army conducted and armored its supply convoys.

"It's an interesting concept, because some of the lessons that you learn are that you didn't do very well at something," Petraeus said. "You have to do that, or you cannot figure out how to fix that."

There's plenty of other work done at Fort Leavenworth.

The Combat Studies Institute studies the history of warfare to come up with modern-day lessons - taking officers on "staff rides" of historic battlefields to get a feel for how combat unfolded; the School for Advanced Military Studies trains the so-called "Jedi Knights" who actually draw up attack plans for the Army; the School for Command Preparation gets senior officers ready to lead brigades and battalions.

"Our soldiers are on the tip of the spear," said Maj. Shawn Stroud, an aide to Petraeus. "But we're making the spear sharper and sharper and sharper."

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