Friday, December 23, 2011

Plunging Down the Rabbit Hole Wearing Institutional Blinders

War cannot be waged without institutions. From the leaders who start them to the soldiers that fight in them, wars begin and end when institutions say so. Violence can take place without a general to direct it, whether it is the mob that commits the deed, the assassin, or the terrorist, but once a commander takes over, violence becomes institutionalized, and the stakes grow from there. 

Effective institutions tip the scales towards victory. Training, transportation, supplies,strategy, and propaganda all build the military and social strength needed to sustain momentum from battle to battle towards ultimate triumph. Technological and social innovation have dramatically improved our ability to coordinate and distribute violence as we will, but even brilliant, massive military machines can grind themselves to ruin if applied to an ill-defined or unachievable goal.

The word quagmire has come to define America’s recent wars due to their length, ambiguity, and unsatisfactory conclusions. With nine years of American occupation in Iraq coming to a close this December and Afghanistan looking to follow by around 2014, it’s important to look at what can make wars turn rotten. America’s last three sustained conflicts, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq all lacked inherent metrics that defined victory. These were wars of occupation more than conquest; that setting  imposes challenges on an army that don’t easily fit into war games.

Wars of occupation can’t be won until the occupiers stop taking regular casualties and the occupied society stabilizes. This is very hard to accomplish. When you inhabit the battleground as America has done in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, victory becomes much harder to recognize. There’s no front line to push forward, few enemy armies to be identified and assaulted, and no new territory that is eager to be liberated. What is more, America depended on local allies who in each case proved to be less than perfect, to say the least.

In response to the vagueness of this battle environment, occupying militaries create metrics of success to identify its effectiveness and progress towards victory. I didn’t begin to understand Vietnam, despite history classes, documentaries, and “Apocalypse Now” until I read Matterhorn a novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. Published in 2010, Matterhorn reflects Marlantes’ experience as a decorated lieutenant in the Vietnam-era Marines and reveals several institutional incentives that polluted American strategy.

One primary example is body count. After each engagement with the enemy, soldiers would be expected to collect intelligence and report on hostile casualties. For the grunt in the field, this was a dangerous chore with little personal significance. For his superiors, however, body count became the measure of one’s ability and a factor in promotion decisions. And so, body counts would inflate at each link in the chain of command without ever having sturdy roots in reality.

This institutional process created a false impression of success at the top, warped the promotion process, and did little to stabilize the country. After all, commanders had incentives to aggressively attack--too often killing civilians and destroying villages in the process--to root out guerrilla fighters rather than to protect those villagers and reduce civilian casualties.

Although Iraq and Afghanistan have plenty of strategic and tactical mistakes to call there own, body counts have, for the most part, not driven military decision making. Indeed, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual developed by General David Petraeus and strategies advocated by David Kilcullen focused on protecting locals, building domestic social, economic, and security institutions, and isolating insurgents from the civilian population. Kilcullen’s 2009 book, The Accidental Guerrilla provides an excellent guide to counterinsurgency (COIN) theory.

Still, institutions always create incentives--it’s in their nature. Structures require metrics of strategic and individual success to reach victories and make promotions that aren’t inherently obvious. Peter Van Buren, a 23-year veteran of the State Department, witnessed some of the boondoggles that were created during Iraqi reconstruction to satisfy such objectives and create the appearance of success. His book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People is full of unhelpful, counterproductive projects that America financed to satisfy incentives set by political and institutional considerations.

What leads institutions to prefer less-effective solutions to the actual problems that they face? In a word, politics. The public face of reconstruction is the finished project, the ribbon cutting that fills the news back home and makes success apparent to American voters as well as one’s superiors. To meet this demand, Iraqi reconstruction efforts were rife with projects that were unsustainable and that crowded out less prominent but more effective initiatives.

My favorite example, heard in interview with Van Buren on “Fresh Air,” is an American-financed chicken-processing plant that cost taxpayers $2.58 million. The project was apart from local reality, in part, because Iraqis don’t have the refrigerators to keep slaughtered birds cold from the factory to the table. Traditionally, Iraqis buy meat that is slaughtered at market to reduce the chance of spoilage. A final nail in the coffin is that the plant lacked a supply of chickens, so the only times it ran were when the Americans would buy live chickens to run a brief demonstration for visiting journalists. The program was billed as a job creator for local youths, but featured a largely mechanized dis-assembly line. Nonetheless, as a photo op for public consumption, the plant could be called a success.

American reconstruction also accomplished many actual successes, but internal considerations too often drowned out the requests of Iraqis. Dissent is rarely good for one’s career prospects, and so participants in the process would grit their teeth and do what they could on the margins without protesting more significant errors of judgment by their superiors or peers.

Wars make dissent and critical self-assessment extraordinarily hard, but technological and social evolution are improving the situation. The culture of disciplined respect for the chain of command reduces accurate feedback from reaching commanders. Today, however, blogs written by soldiers and military online social networks help bridge past gaps of awareness between grunts and generals as well as sharing techniques and success stories within the ranks. Institutions function best when there is a clear, accurate dialog between the granular and strategic perspectives that are both essential in warfare.

Institutional distortion colors many facets of modern life, from armed combat to international aid work. And yet, when such activities are deemed necessary or worthwhile, it takes an institution to execute society’s goals. Our “Army of One” is in fact a immensely complicated network of relationships, contracts, and experiences, and it couldn’t win wars without them. The key criteria to promote military success are to limit the operations you engage in to those you can define, will win, or can’t avoid. Iraq and Vietnam certainly don’t fit that mold, and Afghanistan is nowhere close to perfect either.

Once in a war, a country should try to remain sober, neither getting blown away by a publicity defeat like the Tet Offensive, nor swept into a frenzy by rosy reports from the institutions in charge. Armies can’t be totally transparent, but they can encourage self-critical assessment and communication both within and between the layers of command. Establishing metrics that connect to the needs of those on the ground, whether friendly soldiers or neutral civilians, is key to realizing some form of success for those involved. All things considered, war is never easy.