Politics & Policy

Building The New Iraq Army

Changing "what it means to be a man with a gun."

Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy (D., Mass.) is at it again. This time–one week after proclaiming, “The U.S. military presence has become part of the problem [in Iraq]“–he rhetorically asks an audience at the University of Massachusetts, “If America can train the best military in the world in 13 weeks, why can’t we train the Iraqis in eight or 12 or 15 months to fight and die for their country?”

Kennedy, who posed the question on Friday, is either ignorant of the fact that it takes far longer to develop a military force for combat, or he is attempting to manipulate for political reasons those he hopes will be ignorant of that same fact.

Granted, it takes approximately 13 weeks to transform young civilians into “basically trained” U.S. Marines. Nine weeks for U.S. soldiers.

But that is only the beginning. Newly minted American warriors must then attend advanced training where they learn the finer points of combat. Combined with boot camp, that can take anywhere from six months to a year, and even then, the new warrior is only a private first class in the Army or a Marine lance corporal (a sub-corporal, equivalent in rank to an Army PFC). Training for incredibly complex special operations missions takes longer, as does the amount of time required to develop noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and commissioned officers who can effectively lead small units into battle.

This doesn’t even begin to address the years of training and experience it takes to develop seasoned captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels, even more so, full-bird colonels and generals. Fact is, it would take years–perhaps decades–to build a ground combat force like the U.S. Army or Marines.

Of course, U.S. and British-trained Iraqi soldiers and policemen are doing amazing things; and despite the ranting of Sen. Kennedy, they are indeed fighting and dying for their country. But fighting terrorists is tough work, and it will take much more time and patience to develop an Iraqi force that can operate independently of coalition forces. Not to mention the fact that the Iraqis must be capable of defending themselves against the possibility of any invading conventional armies in the region.

Iraqis are tough and brave. They proved the latter to the world by turning out for their national elections. But they are not super-human, nor should we expect them to be. And the obstacles U.S. forces are facing in their efforts to build a new Iraqi army are legion.

“It’s far more difficult for a U.S. instructor to train an Iraqi soldier, than it is for that same instructor to train an American recruit,” Lt. Gen. John Bruce Blount (U.S. Army–ret.) tells NRO. “For one thing, American recruits don’t have people shooting at them while they are training. They don’t have the fear of an insurgency coming down their backs at any moment.”

Blount, a former chief of staff of Allied Forces Southern Europe, also believes those who don’t understand the complexities of it all are misinformed if they believe an army can be trained in months or years. “It takes generations,” he says. “You can tear down an army with the stroke of a pen. But it’s very hard to build an army and ingrain within it values like courage, honor, and commitment.”

Col. Jeff Bearor–current chief of staff of the Marine Corps Training and Education Command in Quantico, Virginia, and a former commander of the Marine Corps Recruit Training Regiment at Parris Island, S.C.–agrees.

“It’s even more complicated at the human level when you realize that when we recruit and train a new Marine we start with the assumption of at least a minimum of shared background and social equity,” says Bearor. “For instance, you don’t have to teach an American kid basic values of respect for human life, respect for the law, and that there are boundaries and norms of behavior. That shared level of basic values underpins the way Americans live…and fight. We respect the rule of law, kill only when we have to, and understand that the end-state is not the killing.”

According to Bearor, Iraqi recruits don’t have that shared background.

“They’ve learned just the opposite: that the strong always rule the weak, that a man with a gun can take what he wants, when he wants, and will not be held accountable by anyone,” he says. “Therefore, we not only have to train Iraqis to be good, efficient fighters: We’ve got to basically change the way they view what it means to be a ‘man with a gun.’”

Bearor adds,

When people talk about the Geneva Conventions and the Laws of Land Warfare they speak about those things as if everybody in the world accepted those norms. Having traveled, worked, and trained people on over 50 countries, I can tell you it just isn’t so. People imprint their Western ideals on societies and cultures that just don’t buy those ideals.

There is no shortage of Iraqis who are desperate to change their country into something better. These are brave and determined people. But our very first concern in training the new Iraqi army is to try and instill those basics of behavior in people whose frames of reference don’t include reverence for human life and belief in the rule of law. We’ve got to figure out how to do it in a method and manner that will live after we are gone.

Col. Roy Byrd, current director of the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Education and Training Center, says that the development of the Iraqi army and other non-Western military forces goes far beyond instruction on how to shoot and salute. He should know.

Aside from a tour in Iraq, he recently returned to Quantico from Saudi Arabia where he was tasked with training Saudi military forces.

“Training does not equate to experience,” Byrd says. “Moreover, there is very little training in Western-oriented command and control. You have a society that–at best–views command and control as ‘imposed’ one-way–top down. It is culturally alien to view command and control as reciprocal–our approach.”

Then there is the issue of being prepared, for what?

Byrd points to General Carl E. Mundy, former Commandant of the Marine Corps, and his testimony before Congress regarding the state of the Corps after the first Persian Gulf War. “When asked if the Marine Corps was ready, he [Mundy] replied that it was the wrong question, that a Marine Corps outfitted with muskets could be ready, but it would not be relevant on the modern battlefield,” says Byrd. “So the issues are training, readiness, and relevance, which goes back to trained and ready, for what? Some of the failures in performance by Iraqi units fall into this category–training was not relevant to the task, therefore they were not ready and failed–surprise. However, do not minimize the cultural issue, back to command and control, add initiative to that. We can change the mindset of younger troops over time, however, those 30 or over, not going to happen.”

Boiling it all down, Byrd says, it “will take a generation” or more before Americans “see the kinds of changes politicians demand. Faster training will not get the results demanded.”

Still, the combat capabilities of Iraqi forces are improving daily, and are dramatically improved from even six months ago.

From Iraq’s notorious Triangle of Death, Marine Capt Thomas “Tad” Douglas tells NRO, “It’s as simple as Rome not being built in a day.”

Douglas, who commands the Marine Force Reconnaissance platoon that has trained and led the now-famous Al Hillah SWAT team since its creation last summer, says U.S. military personnel have raised the operational proficiency of Iraqi security forces to a level that enabled the recent elections to become a reality. He adds a qualifier.

“Building their staff infrastructure–logisticians, intelligence officers, administrators, and the like–takes time,” says Douglas. “Also, it’s worth mentioning that even the best of them learn better through a mentoring relationship than any other kind, and obviously we need to be here to continue that.”

If those opposed to the president could move past the obvious politicizing of everything related to the war in Iraq, the American people might better appreciate the constructive observations of combat commanders as opposed to the unrealistic fulminations of the senator from Massachusetts.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist and the author of four books, including the Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...

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