Three years after insurgents appeared as a potent force in Iraq, the U.S. military has begun to expand its counterinsurgency training by focusing more closely on younger service members and junior officers.
The new emphasis on training the lower ranks reflects the growing view among top commanders that the war cannot be won by military might alone and that U.S. troops at all levels must be taught how to win the allegiance of the local population.
After the armed resistance started in earnest, commanders and senior officers began receiving specialized instruction in defusing insurgencies. But the principles have not always trickled down to the sergeants, corporals and privates who become the face of the American military to many Iraqis.
“Officer training is not enough,” said David J. Kilcullen, an Australian army counterinsurgency expert working as a chief strategist at the State Department. “Anything you do as an individual, private soldier can have a big impact on the war.”
A new Marine Corps manual designed for enlistees and junior officers is being distributed within the Army and Corps to fill the critical gap in military education. The focus on the younger personnel comes alongside development of a new counterinsurgency field manual for more senior officers that is due out next month.
To some critics, the belated response explains in part why America has stumbled in Iraq and highlights the continuing fallout from the Vietnam War aftermath, when the Pentagon decided the military’s job was to win battles, not hearts and minds.
“The Army is trying very hard institutionally to catch up, but the problem is after Vietnam it got out of the counterinsurgency business,” said Andrew Krepinevich, a former Army officer who has written extensively about how to defeat the insurgency in Iraq.
The new efforts have wide support but face challenges. Commanders are debating how to find time to train enlisted personnel who already are squeezed between multiple deployments abroad and shortened stays at home. Counterinsurgency experts do not always agree on who should be trusted with sensitive decisions, such as how much force to use against local populations. And counterinsurgency principles sometimes seem in conflict with the “warrior values” taught in boot camp.
According to military tradition, officers -- second lieutenants and up in the Army and Marines -- handle the strategy. The enlisted ranks, including noncommissioned officers, take the lead in squad-level tactics.
These younger soldiers and Marines are taught first and foremost to protect themselves and their units.
But counterinsurgency strategists emphasize that to win over locals, the military must learn in many instances to accept risk.
Marine Capt. Mark Liston, a veteran of two tours in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, spoke in depth about the importance of having a lighter touch when conducting counterinsurgency operations.
“Destroy no more than the mission requires,” Liston said.
In an interview in Ramadi in July, Liston, who commands the Weapons Company of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines Regiment, said his unit will kick down a door if it has an intelligence tip that an insurgent is inside.
But in most random searches, the Marines are supposed to knock.
“We talk to our guys about putting themselves in the position of having an occupying power in their country,” he said. “Would they understand if someone kicks down their door?”
But on the streets of Ramadi, the Marines of Weapons Company interpret the rules differently.
During a routine patrol in July, a group of Marines stopped in front of a house to search it. Although the Marines did not believe there were insurgents inside, the house offered good sight lines for a potential triggerman hoping to set off an improvised explosive device.
After throwing smoke grenades to obscure their movements, the Marines entered the courtyard by kicking open a gate, then battered open the home’s front door.
In one room, two women huddled with several crying children.
“See Ali Baba?” one Marine asked, using the jargon for “bad guy.”
“No Ali Baba,” the frightened woman said.
A moment later, the Marine turned to another woman and asked, “Do you see IEDs?”
“No, no,” the woman replied, looking bewildered.
"[Expletive] liars!” the Marine shouted, then walked away.
Although the women did not understand English, the sentiment was clear.
Lance Cpl. Jose Torres, a member of the Weapons Company, said there is a simple reason the Marines do not knock on doors.
“The quicker we get in, the less likely we are to get shot,” Torres said after the search. “A month ago, we lost a guy to a sniper, so we don’t fool around with knocking.”
On June 21, Lance Cpl. Nicholas J. Whyte, a member of Weapons Company’s 3rd Platoon, was shot by a sniper on the streets of Ramadi, the Al Anbar capital. The bullet entered his neck and severed his spinal cord, killing him. He was 21.
The new Marine Corps guide, titled the “Small-Unit Leader’s Guide to Counterinsurgency,” cautions that callousness can develop in counterinsurgencies. Enemy fighters, the guide says, work to make Americans hate the local population.
A counterinsurgency campaign seeks to avoid alienating the locals.
“In this type of warfare,” Marine Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis Jr. says in the guide’s introduction, “empathy may be as important a weapon as an assault rifle.”
The most important idea is to get fighters to think about the consequences of their actions, said Col. Douglas King, who oversaw the creation of the guide.
“We want to educate them and let them think on the battlefield,” King said.
Even with basic education, some military officers believe it is unfair to ask the most junior enlisted ranks to make complicated decisions, such as how to enter a home in a hostile area.
But King argues that even corporals leading squads and dealing with average Iraqis need to understand how their jobs affect the larger mission.
“And if they don’t understand how to mobilize support, you will not be successful,” he said.