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Military Analytics: How Organization Science Altered the War in Iraq

Summer 2009


More than just a change of troop levels, “the surge” was a change in how the U. S. military functions as a learning organization.

Douglas A. SamuelsonBy Douglas A. Samuelson

By most assessments, the change in the U.S. approach in Iraq, beginning in late 2006, has largely succeeded, after previous efforts seemed doomed to fail. More than just a change of troop levels, more even than a change of strategy and resources and a willingness to buy off opponents rather than confronting them, however, “the surge” was a change in how the U.S. military functions as a learning organization. Among the differences are how leaders are selected and evaluated, how military doctrine connects to civilian activity, how the military interacts with the civilian leadership, and how decisions are made. What the key military leaders did reflects recent results from organization science and OR/MS, and the lessons they learned will, in turn, further advance understanding of how organizations function. In cognitive science terms, they didn’t just develop a different set of rules, they developed a different way of generating rules.

Washington Post Pentagon reporter Thomas E. Ricks was among the most prominent and influential journalistic critics of the U. S. effort through 2006. In “The Gamble,” a book released early this year, he related how a number of senior U. S. commanders in Iraq, especially then-Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, managed to reassess what needed to be done, rewrite their orders to adapt to the situation and obtain higher-level support, up to and including the president. Gen. Odierno is of particular interest not only because of his central role in developing the new approach, but also because he had been one of the most conventional thinkers among the senior commanders. The Fourth Infantry Division, under his command, was widely viewed as less concerned than many other U. S. units about collateral damage. They also interned large numbers of military-aged males with no plans to release most of them, thereby, as senior U. S. leaders now see it, helping to motivate new insurgents.


New Ideas and Suggestions

After the 2006 elections, Ricks reports, President Bush was more receptive than he had been to new ideas about Iraq. A senior military leader in Iraq said of Bush, “I think America’s view of the president, whether they like him or dislike him, is what they see of him reading a document at the podium, which isn’t impressive, in my opinion. In these meetings, he is masterful – good political insights, good handle on the subject.” New ideas and suggestions, some of whose proposers had, in fact, been trying to get through to senior decision-makers for some time, began to find channels through which they reached the right audience. Ricks adds that military leaders he spoke with were somewhat annoyed at the late 2008 book by his Post colleague, Bob
Woodward, attributing the new approach to Washington, D.C., think tank analysts, in particular the American Enterprise Institute, and policy-makers. According to his sources, the analysts in the U.S. followed the military’s turnaround rather than doing much to initiate it.

In a TV interview the day “The Gamble” was released, Ricks responded to a question about the military’s reaction to his previous book: “Yes, a lot of people in the Pentagon hated it. But many of the senior commanders in Iraq not only gave me long, candid interviews, but also, at the end, pulled a copy of “Fiasco” [Ricks’ earlier book on the Iraq War] off their bookshelf and asked me to sign it.”

While the military leaders assert that the change of approach was essentially their idea, certain analysts did have substantial influence on their thinking. As long-time readers of OR/MS Today ( may recall, Eliot Cohen influenced the pre-Iraq reorganization of the U. S. military as he strongly advocated that civilian leaders more deeply and strongly challenge the military leaders’ strategic assumptions. Harry Summers had challenged the Army’s doctrinal emphasis on large conventional battles, moving a generation of new commanders toward a focus on small-unit tactics and counterinsurgency. Hence even at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a different way of thinking had at least entered the discussions.

Another influence, along different lines, was H. R. McMaster, who wrote a book sharply critical of Robert McNamara’s assessment of the Vietnam War. McMaster contended that military leaders should have done far more to challenge the civilian leaders’ wrong assumptions and, in some cases, outright misstatements. This message found an audience, and Ricks stated that by 2006, McMaster had become “the most influential colonel in the U. S. Army.” John Nagl, who served in Gulf War I, left the Army as a major to pursue a doctorate in history at Oxford, producing an unusually influential book on how a military can succeed or fail in a counterinsurgency setting depending on how well it learns, as an organization. A number of reporters, of whom perhaps Bob Drogin is the best known, produced telling accounts of how the U. S. had been misled by faulty intelligence, inadequately reviewed. Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, an expert on Islamic culture and countries, wrote critical comments about counterinsurgency that got him invited to participate substantially in rewriting the U.S. Counterinsurgency Field Manual, shifting the emphasis away from combat and large-scale internments and toward stability and support activities and more selective actions against hard-core hostiles.

Rethinking by Military Leaders

Thus the stage was set for the rethinking by military leaders to connect with civilian analytical support. According to “The Gamble,” when President Bush asked senior military officers who should take over command in Iraq, the recommendation of David Petraeus was virtually unanimous, and the reason given was, “He’s learned the fastest and adapted the most in the commands he’s held so far.” This change in the culture within the military is a crucial part of the story. Also important, and not widely reported, is the role e-mail played in undermining high-level resistance: by Ricks’ account, Washington analysts who wanted the opinion of a senior military officer in Iraq generally had little trouble obtaining it quickly, if he trusted them.

All this did take some time. If President Bush was responsive to dissenting points of view in late 2006, he had not been as recently as June of that year, according to several sources Ricks quoted. As one source close to Ricks commented to this reporter, “Bush did figure out that he needed to be Commander-in-Chief rather than Cheerleader-in-Chief – unfortunately, four years too late.”

The consequences in Iraq are encouraging but not certain. Anthony Cordesmann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whose assessment (on which the OR/MS Today article relied heavily) of the Iraq war in 2003 proved impressively accurate, notes in new reports that the insurgents are still committing numerous acts of violence. He cautions that the dramatic decline in violence in Iraq could represent either a genuine, lasting realignment or a decision by the insurgents to wait until the U. S. pulls out, exposing the country to renewed risks of political and economic failure. He summarized, “The present range of attacks is not a reason to assume Iraq is failing or reverting to civil conflict. It s a clear warning that it can do so unless Iraqis do move towards political accommodation, unless there is more rapid economic progress and Iraqi forces develop in ways that encourage political unity. They are also a warning that the U. S. still needs to focus as much on Iraqi stability and security as on leaving Iraq.” Other analysts agree: how disengagement is handled will most likely have far more important and lasting effects than almost any aspect of the engagement. Some, like retired Gen. Jack Keane, the former Army Vice Chief of Staff who was an early advocate and architect of the “surge,” are more optimistic; Tom Ricks is less so. As Ricks concluded in “The Gamble,” “The events for which the Iraq War will be remembered probably have not yet happened.”

What is perhaps even more interesting is the consequences in the United States. Ricks retired from the Post around the time he completed the book and is now a Senior Fellow at a relatively new but already highly prominent Washington, D.C., think tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). John Nagl is the president of CNAS. On June 11, CNAS held a day-long symposium in Washington, D.C., titled “Striking a Balance: A New American Security.” David Petraeus was the keynote speaker. CNAS has studies underway to continue re-evaluating U. S. command decision processes and structure, as well as reexamining best practices for integrated counterinsurgency, stability and security, and political and economic development efforts.

Gen. David Petraeus: “learned the fastest, adapted the most.” Photos courtesy of the U.S. Army.

Gen. David Petraeus: “learned the fastest, adapted the most.” Photos courtesy of the U.S. Army.

Iraq Differs from Afghanistan

In his June 11 presentation, Gen. Petraeus pointed out that the situation in Iraq is different from Afghanistan. The latter has far less infrastructure, fewer places troops can establish bases to be close to the people, fewer potential recruits for their own security forces, more difficult terrain for ground mobile forces. His view, however, is that the lessons learned in terms of doctrine and command structure are the important ones, and they do carry over. What we did in Fallujah didn’t work in Sadr City, he explained, and what we did in Sadr City won’t work in rural Afghanistan. He does have confidence, however, that the “full spectrum operations” concept, integrating offense, defense, stability and security operations, respecting and exploiting the difference between generally disaffected people and irreconcilable hostiles, and cultivating and coaching civilian political and economic leadership, will succeed, as commanders continue to learn and adapt.

Ricks wrote of how Gen. Odierno, as one of his earliest actions when he returned to Iraq in 2006 as a corps commander, invited Emma Sky, a female British peace activist, to participate in his command council meetings as his political advisor. “Odierno, by bringing me in, has probably brought in the most opposite person he could find,” she told Ricks, adding that she had surprised herself by taking the job. Whether or not Gen. Petraeus and his associates had read the recent organizational science literature or not, they have consistently relied on one of its most important findings: in group decision-making, diversity trumps ability. Too many experts with the same point of view have the same blind spots. Cultivating different points of view and creating a culture of cooperation and initiative seem, in this context, to have proven to be keys to success. The extent to which this is really so will be a ripe field for further study; meanwhile, it looks like the advice to follow.

The study of what worked will be complicated somewhat by yet another phenomenon Ricks documented. Key players like Gens. Petraeus and Odierno and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have stated that they are unlikely to write about their experiences, as doing so could create discomfort for them and for people who were close to them. “If they stick to that,” Ricks wrote, “one of the oddities of the Iraq war will be that the officials who failed – L. Paul Bremer, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, even Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman – will leave behind memoirs while those who were more successful remain officially silent.”

Even without a memoir, though, Gen. Petraeus has shared some valuable insights. He emphasized the change of culture, to promote initiative and learning, in his presentation. He noted that a flat command structure is essential, in his view, not only for operations but also in dealing with the press: “we have to get the truth out there first,” which means people have to be authorized to respond to inquiries quickly and candidly. He told of seeing a sign a U. S. commander in Baghdad had posted at his headquarters. He liked it so much that, in a somewhat unusual exercise of the arbitrary authority of rank, he appropriated it, and it now sits in his office at CENTCOM. It reads: “In the absence of orders of guidance, figure out what they should have been and execute vigorously.”

Douglas A. Samuelson (samuelsondoug@yahoo. com) is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., a consulting firm in Annandale, Va. He has worked extensively on national security decision-making, military manpower planning and distribution, and modeling and analyzing mass egress, evacuations, emergency preparedness and response, mostly for Homeland Security Institute and Serco-NA.


1. Center for a New American Security,

2. Cohen, Eliot, 2002, “Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime,” Free Press.

3. Cordesmann, Anthony H., 2009, “Iraq: Trends in Violence and Civilian Casualties: 2005-2009,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 2009,

4. Cordesmann, Anthony H., 2008, “The Iraq War: Key Trends and Developments,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 2008,

5. Drogin, Bob, Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War, Random House, 2007.

6. McMaster, H.R., 1997, “Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McN amara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam,” HarperCollins.

7. McNamara, Robert, 1995, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” Times Books.

8. Nagl, John, 2002, “Learning to E at S oup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam,” Praeger.

9. Page, Scott, 2007, “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies,” Princeton University Press.

10. Ricks, Thomas, 2006, “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003-2005,” Penguin.

11. Ricks, Thomas, 2009, “The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008,” Penguin.

12. Ricks, Thomas, interview on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Feb. 10, 2009.

13. Samuelson, Douglas A., 2003, “The Netwar in Iraq,” OR/MS Today, June 2003.

14. Summers, Harry, 1984, “On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War,” Dell.

15. Wooodward, Bob, 2008. “The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008,” Simon & Schuster.



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