Trial by Fire

The fight against insurgents in Iraq is teaching Army junior officers how to lead.

After Army Lt. Jordan Becker and his infantry platoon parachuted into Kirkuk and helped seize the Iraqi city in April 2003, they were handed a wholly different type of mission: Solve a local dispute by peacefully evicting families from 67 houses. In the first house, Becker found a cache of grenades, weapons and cash, along with a woman who threatened to set herself on fire if she were forced to leave.

The woman, a Kurdish refugee, had moved into one of the houses abandoned by Arab oil workers and their families who fled or were forced out after fighting began in Northern Iraq in 2003. Kirkuk, an oil-rich city of nearly 1 million, had been populated primarily by Turkmen and Kurds until the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein's regime conducted an Arabization campaign in the North, displacing local residents to make room for Arab oil workers. After the 2003 war, Kurds returned to the city and now covet it as the capital of a new Kurdish state.

Becker's job was to get the refugees to move out without a fight, get the oil workers back in and thereby get oil flowing again. But the 24-year-old lieutenant and his platoon hadn't trained for such an operation, with its overtones of ethnic conflict. They returned to base for guidance. "I didn't like the idea of doing 67 midnight raids to eject destitute families from homes they were squatting in," says Becker. He weighed options with his commander, a captain not much older than he, who ended the discussion by saying, "Keep working the issue."

Increasingly, the Army is asking junior officers in Iraq to rely more on their own ingenuity than advice from senior leaders or training manuals. The Army is trying to cultivate innovative, audacious leaders for a new era of rapid deployments by smaller units to global flash points. The Iraq war is forging a new junior officer cadre and shaping the overhaul of leadership training.

In February, the Army created a basic officer leadership course that all lieutenants must complete before taking command of a platoon. It aims to teach young officers not only to fire machine guns and operate radios, but also to lead small teams of soldiers in unfamiliar cultures and environments and in fluid situations. The Army also is tweaking courses for captains and has begun studying changes for field-grade officers-majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels. But the changes are starting among small-unit leaders who, a few weeks after completing training, find themselves leading dozens of soldiers.

"[In Iraq,] we're fighting a small unit war," says Gen. Kevin Byrnes, who commands the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. "It's being fought by staff sergeants, sergeants first class, lieutenants and captains every day. They are the ones out on patrol; they're the ones who are in this extremely complex environment where things change from the minute they leave their compound until they return in the evening. We've got to make sure our leaders are prepared for those complexities."

The 'Captains Crisis'

During the 1990s, the rate at which junior officers, primarily captains, left the Army nearly doubled, from 8 percent (1,497 of 16,933 captains) in 1996 to 14 percent (2,208 of 15,404 captains) by 2000. A prime cause was frustration with heavy-handed management and a training system that left no room for innovation. "They did not sign up to become bureaucrats, but you become one when you cannot exercise any discretionary authority," says retired Army Col. Don Snider, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., who has written extensively about Army professionalism and leader development.

Also in the late 1990s, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki began reorganizing the service into smaller, more flexible units outfitted with new high-precision weapons. But Shinseki knew that transforming the Army would take more than reorganization and new weapons. Prompted by the rumblings of the "captains crisis," he ordered up the most far-reaching review of Army training and leadership development since the end of the Vietnam War. What was needed, he believed, was a corps of inventive, adaptable and creative junior officers committed to building careers in the renovated service.

The review's Training and Leader Development Panel published findings in mid-2001 based on interviews with 13,500 active-duty and reserve officers. Junior officers complained that they were micromanaged and discouraged from learning through their own mistakes and experiences. Perhaps most damning, many believed they had no future in the Army. Afraid of failing and being drummed out, senior officers had created an overly cautious culture, says Col. Steven Jones, TRADOC's director of leader development. The Army's future leaders were not being taught to lead.

The panel laid the groundwork for the Army's basic officer leader course and other leadership development changes. The report found the service's officer education system emphasized technical skills over basic soldiering and failed to teach officers how to collaborate with units from different Army branches. Lieutenants needed platoon leadership skills and more hands-on training, the panel advised.

As it finished its work, retired Army Lt. Col. Leonard Wong, now an associate research professor at the Army War College, published a report, "Stifling Innovation? Developing Tomorrow's Leaders Today," buttressing the panel's findings. He interviewed dozens of company commanders. In one widely cited passage, a commander said, "They are giving me the egg and telling me how to suck on it."

Shinseki backed the panel's recommendations. But as the Army began planning changes, terrorists slammed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Overhauling training would take a back seat to war.

Taking Initiative

Last spring, Wong, who has been working with TRADOC, visited Iraq to follow up on his earlier report. He expected to again find frustrated junior officers. Instead, he found radical changes. The ambiguous and unpredictable nature of insurgent warfare was forcing junior officers to adapt, improvise and operate with only minimal guidance, he says. One lieutenant leading a platoon told Wong about the broad direction his unit had been given: "The colonel told us to go out, find bad guys and kill them. That was our orders. That was our task and purpose. We were like, 'Roger, all right.' "

A company commander took the initiative to help Baghdad residents who couldn't afford to buy propane to heat their homes and cook. His troops determined that a handful of distributors controlled propane sales and charged exorbitant prices. The soldiers expanded the number of distributors and developed a licensing system. Prices fell. "It was a really great idea, and it was done by our field artillery information officer," the captain says.

Maj. Guy Jones, who served as secretary to the general staff of the 82nd Airborne Division in Ramadi, Iraq, from September 2003 to April 2004, says senior officers regularly issued broad orders calling for junior officers to achieve a desired effect without telling them how to do it. For example, a commander might say he wanted civilians to see U.S. troops as an assisting rather than occupying force. Junior officers could pursue many different methods, Jones says, including talking with local leaders and assisting with aid projects. In part, senior officers' lack of familiarity with post-combat occupation and counterinsurgency is forcing them to rely on junior officers' inventiveness, Jones says.

Junior officers told Wong that they were carrying out missions they'd never expected. "I've never been given a class on how to sit down with a sheik, who two days before I had seen on CNN," says a captain. "I don't know if he is trying to gain favor with me because he wants something. . . . It is just something you are going to have to learn on the job."

Another captain described how his company learned to conduct building raids and searches on foot. The group included 150 soldiers-whose motto was "Death Before Dismount"-and their 35 vehicles. Before the raids, the captain says, he took over an abandoned Iraqi warehouse and asked soldiers from an infantry battalion to train his troops to operate on foot. The soldiers would train for a day or two in the warehouse, then conduct live raids.

Troops regularly grapple with Iraqi cultural practices that run counter to Army training. For example, Iraqis regularly fire guns to celebrate special occasions, such as weddings. "Normally, if you see somebody shooting an AK-47, you are trained to kill them," a company commander says. "But in a lot of cases, that means they are happy about something. Maybe it's a wedding. You always have to think, 'why?' "

Capt. Michael Adamski, an intelligence staff officer with the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, served in Kirkuk from March 2003 to February 2004. He says his training at the Army's Intelligence School in Fort Huachuca, Ariz., did not prepare him for almost daily meetings with local mullahs about problems in their communities or his forays into bombed-out neighborhoods to try to place blame for the explosions that wrecked them.

Adamski says much of his training, completed in 2002, focused on easy-to-predict Soviet battlefield methods, not the continuously evolving low-tech tactics of insurgents. Moreover, he says, in urban and insurgent warfare, unmanned aerial vehicles and satellite imagery are not very effective, and human intelligence becomes crucial. As a result, Adamski says, he often set aside his normal job of analyzing intelligence to go out and gather raw data himself. "I was running around the city all the time to meetings with sources," he says.

An infantry officer who led a support platoon in Kirkuk estimates that about 70 percent of the junior officers he met in Iraq had adapted to the new style of fighting and leading. For example, a fellow officer with only cursory knowledge of the region's politics forged alliances with local leaders of four ethnic groups. Those relationships led to early warnings of enemy rocket attacks. But some junior officers did not adapt, the officer says, and even tolerated abuse among subordinates.

West Point's Snider says the Army has no choice but to rely on junior officers to make decisions and learn on the fly, because the bulk of the fighting in confined urban environments is done by small units. "The Army had to [push] power down to them, even though it knew it was not giving them knowledge on how to fight the insurgency," he says. Snider praises junior officers for their creativity, but he believes the insurgency has lasted longer than necessary because the Army has relied so heavily on inexperienced officers who lacked training. He says it will take another three to five years for the Army's lessons learned from counterinsurgency fighting to take root. "Make no mistake, the Army is playing catch-up," he says.

How 'the Other' Thinks

Jones concedes Army training might have to catch up with what junior officers are learning in Iraq, but points to the service's new basic officer leadership course as a sign of change. The effort is divided into three phases. The first will ensure that all officers are taught basic Army values before commissioning; the second will be a six-week course on small-unit leadership that all lieutenants must take; the third phase, to be conducted at each of the Army's 16 branch schools, will teach small-unit leaders how to collaborate with soldiers from other branches in combat. The new leadership course begins in July 2006.

Meanwhile, junior officers have created their own Web sites to share lessons from Iraq. Content ranges from how to properly respond to mortar attacks to how to help a soldier get home for the birth of a child. Senior leaders initially were concerned about the free flow of information in a non-secure Internet environment. More recently, the Army has begun paying for the sites, Companycommand.com and Platoonleader.com.

In Kirkuk, Lt. Becker couldn't search online for tips on how to move the Kurds out of the oil workers' abandoned houses. His company commander wasn't much help either. So he headed back to the first house he had visited, where he found the woman who had threatened self-immolation now sipping tea with her family. "I didn't feel like putting my helmet or body armor on, and there wasn't any danger that I couldn't take care of with my weapon. Nobody that outranked me was watching, so I headed over with my weapon slung over my back," he recalls. Becker started talking with the family about their hopes and dreams and the future of their country. Three hours later, without any prompting, one of the older men said he'd do whatever was needed to help build a new Iraq. Soon, the man and his family were moving.

Over 10 days, Becker had similar conversations with local leaders and other families living in those houses. He hadn't received much training about talking with Iraqis at Army Ranger school or in his ROTC classes at Washington's Georgetown University, but Becker had read up on Iraqi culture, regularly perused foreign newspapers and eagerly talked with foreigners while stationed overseas. "A solid understanding of how 'the other' thinks, be it the enemy, civilian population, or world public opinion, can only be gained by acquainting oneself with the intellectual currents of various milieus and not limiting oneself to traditional chief of staff reading list material, not that that is not a good start," Becker says.

In Kirkuk, Becker's varied experiences and nontraditional approach paid off. All 67 families moved out peacefully.