The Gamble1 (Thomas Rick’s book on stage II of the Iraq War) reminds us of the importance of carefully building a good launching pad for young leaders. It speaks of the delicate process of growing an organisational culture of curiosity and learning, and—if the leaders are to be approachable, and are to truly build a team—of the need to invite those under you into a decision- making process where robust argumentation and dispute are welcome, even if it does seem to be bordering on rebellion, and of the essential stepping-stones of good training and an excellent education, especially in human relations and society; anthropology, sociology, history and leadership.

It also speaks of the requirement of two types of courage: ‘ “Courage takes two forms in war,” observes Hew Strachan, the British military historian and interpreter of Clausewitz. “Courage in the face of personal danger, whose effects are felt in the tactical sphere, and courage to take responsibility, a requirement of strategic success.” By taking on his new boss, Odierno displayed that second, more elusive form of bravery. He was laying his career on the line.’

This book also makes clear that—having done these things—you are really only at the same place as everyone else and it’s what happens next that matters most, especially when you’re being pressured by the media for ‘results now’ and superiors telling you the same old war stories from Europe and Vietnam and telling you to ‘hurry up’. More often than not, what the media and the superiors are looking for is tactical light and sound shows, not patiently thought through and strategically intelligent action.

Ricks makes the following observations about what follows this kind of macho short- sightedness: ‘The Bush administration’s tendency was to paper over differences, substituting loyalty for analysis, so the war continued to stand on a strategic foundation of sand. Nor had the president been well served by his generals, who, with few exceptions didn’t seem to pose the necessary questions. “Strategy* is about choices,” said one of the exceptions, Maj. Gen. David Fastabend. “Yet,” he lamented, one day in Baghdad two years later, “We don’t teach it, we don’t recognise it. The army doesn’t understand the difference between plans and strategy. When you ask specifically for strategy, you get aspirations.” Such incompetence can be dangerous. As Eliot Cohen, an academic who would surface repeatedly in the Iraq war as an influential behind-the-scenes figure, commented later in a different context, “Haziness about ends and means, about what to do and how to do it, is a mark of strategic ineptitude; in war it gets people killed.”2

Ricks demonstrates how a failure to appreciate the relationship of strategy to a thing called, ‘What do we actually really want more than anything?’ lead the US into an ill-founded strategic disaster and almost to total defeat in 2007. He quotes Maj. Gen. Fastabend as saying: ‘The army doesn’t understand the difference between plans and strategy. When you ask specifically for strategy you get aspirations.’

The strategy was pretty much: ‘Go get the insurgents and to hell with anyone who gets in the way.’ Years later the army was so demoralised that if an IED exploded, soldiers would randomly kick in doors and give ‘two to the chest.’ The epidemic of hate, bad morale and casualties had commanders—from the President down—urging loyalty, courage and sacrifice like a cracked record, and even accusing faithful commanders of ‘disloyalty’ when all that was being done was the citing of factual statistics. The leadership was looking and talking in the wrong places and as a result losing the respect of their soldiers and losing the war.

Finally, one afternoon, a retired general (in the US) sat down in his basement lounge to watch the Iraq hearings in congress. He became fascinated by the ‘economy with the truth’ of the speakers and then—quietly disgusted—he recognised an old symptom: ‘generals knowing they are losing a war but it’s all too risky and complicated to tell the truth’. Engrossed, the old warrior’s brain ticked and ticked away until it got dark. Then, still thinking, he switched off the TV and just sat there, deep in thought. Finally his wife came downstairs to see what was going on and asked him what he was doing. ‘Iraq,’ was his one word reply. To which she—like a good wife of a retiree—said, ‘Maybe you should do something about it.’

Thanks to her encouragement, a small group of men worked with that retired general and (after considerable effort) persuaded the president to consider the fact that strategy may be the problem. Finally, after years of argument and outrage, the strategy was changed to make the care of the local population the number one priority. The so called ‘mission’: the killing of insurgents was now #2 priority.

David Petraeus, appointed as the new commander to implement this ‘protection of the locals’, faced the impossible task of inspiring an entire army. So he did what all true leaders did, he judiciously exceeded his authority and—without consulting the president—declared that there was going to be no more of this talk about ‘turning Iraq into a model of democracy’. Instantly a huge wave of relief swept through the staff. They knew this guy was the real deal: he had the courage to take responsibility for axing a dumb mantra, and had demonstrated that courage by high-handedly risking his career right at the start.

Next he hired Emma Sky (a British peace activist who hated war), to be a key advisor—granting her deep access to confidential meetings. And as if that wasn’t ‘different’ enough, after meeting a Palestinian-born man in a public toilet (in the US), he hired him as his personal translator. Apart from sending a ‘we will be using our imaginations’ signal to his staff, both of these people proved to be invaluable influences on his decision-making.

Petraeus—quoting an Australian counter-insurgency expert—explained that, ‘just because you enter a war stupidly it doesn’t mean you should exit it stupidly’ and under this new strategy, they would be attempting to defuse a civil war as well as arrange the best way of exiting Iraq. He also warned that, although civilian casualties would fall, troop casualties would rise. And they did, which brought Petraeus a lot of respect in Iraq but a lot of grief in congress.

Soon schools, markets and the general population became much safer places to be. And instead of rumbling around in their humvees, US troops walked in long spread-out patrols across neighbourhoods, chatting with locals and being made welcome. Sheiks started to hand over weapons caches and to sign up with the US against al-Qaeda, for it was now becoming clear to many that the real enemy here was al-Qaeda.

In the long run, history will have the final say about Iraq, but it is recognised that the adoption of an appropriate strategy did in fact avert a national blood-bath and leave Iraq in a much better position than it would have been. And yes, there was a spike in US casualties, but even that reduced significantly as locals were inspired and trained, forced al-Qaeda out, and took ownership of their nation again. Late in the book, Emma Skye is quoted as saying, ‘The US does not deserve to have an army like this.’

On a personal note I would like to add that short-sighted, primarily tactical** measures are the drug of choice not just for the military but also for those engaged in religious work. And there have been a number of times in my leadership journey where I opted for putting young, poorly-supervised (and not well supported) personnel into absurdly challenging situations, which even some of our senior leaders would have struggled to handle. Effectively, like those generals in Iraq—in my enthusiasm for the aspirations and plans of our larger Cornerstone movement—I allowed expansion to come before quality and made strategically dysfunctional decisions, which seriously hurt people. Unfortunately, they (not me) were the ones who paid the price for my recklessness and—whenever I can—I have been slowly catching up with them and apologising. They are surprisingly excusing and forgiving.


PS: some commentators have voiced thoughts about ‘doing this in Afghanistan’ but the dynamics are not the same and it won’t work to ‘do it the same’.

*It’s a challenge to find a satisfactory definition of strategy, so I’ve constructed the following one: ‘Strategy is the easiest pathway to maximum success, given the resources you have available.’ And a formula to go with it: S = QB4E, which means ‘strategy equals quality before expansion’.

** A tactic is defined as ‘a convenient and practical action or manoeuvre requiring skill and care,’

1. Ricks T.   The Gamble is part II of Rick’s masterful historical work on the Iraq War. Part I is titled Fiasco

2.  Ibid. p.14