• State and the Army: Looking Away and Looking Forward

    October 5, 2011

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Much is made of the difference between State and Defense; an Internet favorite is an essay called “State is from Venus, DOD is from Mars.” Later this week I’ll be on PRI Radio with author Stephen Glain, who wrote the book State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire to discuss this topic.

    Stephen and I will hammer through the usual stuff about budgets and bureaucracies, but one point of difference, maybe one of the key points we will need to dissect, is the military’s (good) obsession with learning, with lessons learned, with self-criticism. This happens behind the scenes, of course, so while you should not expect to see much at press briefings, it is happening.

    I had a chance to understand this this past weekend, when I was invited to speak to the US Army Civil Affairs Conference in Los Angeles, courtesy of the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion. Civil Affairs, CA, is the branch of the military that does reconstruction, nation building, the hearts and minds stuff that makes up my book. A bunch of soldiers, almost all of whom had already served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, spent a weekend talking critically among themselves and listening to speakers chosen for their varying points of view. So, in addition to a number of military speakers, I shared the stage with Nathan Hodge, author of Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders, Carter Malkasian, a former contractor PRT leader from Afghanistan and author of Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare PB (Companion), Teru Kuwayama, a brilliant combat photographer now on fellowship at Stanford and author of The Freedom: Shadows And Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, Steve Zyck of the NATO Civil Military Fusion Centre, as well as a professor who studies the role of gender in post-conflict situations and a Marine working on the use of women soldiers to better interact with the gender-separate societies typical of Islam (interesting point: women soldiers were seen as a third gender when in uniform; however, when they wore a head scarf they sexualized themselves in the eyes of Muslim men and were treated poorly). The whole thing was like a Small Wars Journal piece come to life. Ground zero for development and reconstruction nerds.

    Reality. The soldiers were laser-like in criticizing mistakes they had made in the past, both personal and institutional. Every break saw mini-debates form around the water fountains and while these tended to segregate by rank, I moved among them to hear no shortage of straight talk about the business of nation building, good and bad things about various PRTs they had served with in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanders who got it and those who did not.

    Though every PRT in Iraq had been lead by a State Department Foreign Service Officer, and though every PRT in Afghanistan had had at least one FSO on staff, the State Department did not send a representative (I was present in my private capacity). The Army did invite local press, as well as ROTC cadets from nearby colleges. Both were encouraged to join in the discussions.

    And there’s the money shot: as the US seems edging toward a new stream of reconstruction work (the rumors in the room spoke of work to come in Libya, Yemen and maybe even Syria), the Army is preparing by looking back on its work since 2001. Units preparing for yet another deployment to Afghanistan were there to soak in lessons learned. Where was the State Department? Self-criticism and frank talk seem to be missing inside Foggy Bottom; PRT leaders are not systematically debriefed upon return to the US, and only the US Institute for Peace has made an (uneven) effort with its PRT Oral History Project. A lot of knowledge has been lost, in part due to the lack of interest in writing it down, but perhaps in larger part due to a culture that seems to fear taking a hard look at itself. Maybe they are afraid of what they would see?

    Go Army!

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  • Recent Comments

    • MattieB said...


      Was State even invited to send a representative?
      Because sometimes when an institution is perceived as weak, careerist, and politicized to the point of functional irrelevance, folks genuinely forget to send them an invitation.
      Just asking.

      10/5/11 2:29 PM | Comment Link

    • George Novinger said...


      In my year of study at Industrial College of Armed Forces (2007-08), I found the same self-examination going on with the Army and other branches of the U.S. military. They were concentrating on Iraq at that moment, as you might imagine, and how best to work in Iraq. Afghanistan was looked at as a coming 2nd opportunity to get it right (well at least better) than in Iraq. I am hopeful it will be so.

      10/5/11 3:27 PM | Comment Link

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