In this writing this, I struggled to strike a balance between my own personal reflections and objective reasoning. I desire for these reflections to be of use to practitioners, academics, and laymen alike. And since I am writing about my personal experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is a firsthand account. First and third person grammar will be used throughout.
Carl von Clausewitz wrote that “although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.” In my struggle to understand my experiences in the Long War, uncertainty certainly stands out as not only fascinating but also terrifying at times. This, among other reasons, is the primary reason that we as soldiers prepare for war — to limit its precarious nature to insure mission success as well as protect lives.
History has shown that it is natural for those who have participated in war to reflect on what they accomplished, what was happened to others, and what was done to themselves. To consider these things is cathartic for the individual as well as for others who share like feelings or thoughts. War and conflict has always been the subject of much debate and theoretical study. Yet, there are some aspects that only experience can convey about the nature of war. Often, as soldiers we think we know what we are getting into only to be surprised. As this is the beginning of my reflections on the Long War, ambiguity and preparation stood out to me as significant. Since they are bedfellows in the lives of soldiers, I will examine each of these in the context of my experiences in war.
As with any other conflict, war is ambiguous at least until someone starts shooting at me. I could never really be sure who was bad or good just by looking. I could not even tell by talking with people. They would smile and nod or waggle their head when asked for confirmation or commitment but they were impossible to read. Not until I started to get comfortable around them and vice versa did our units begin to make progress on the ground. Whether they were Iraqis or Afghans, everything was difficult to figure out until I had more time on the ground to sort through who were my friends and who were my enemies, or both at the same time.
I must have met with tribal elders, foreign politicians, contractors, ordinary citizens, security officials, and suspected terrorists. Unfortunately, many of these meetings were unproductive in terms of Western standards. My colleagues and I often left with a sense that nothing was accomplished and often asked “what just happened?” Working through translators contributed to this phenomenon. But by undertaking a persistent presence as well as taking action to bring security to a population that was under threat, the level of violence was gradually reduced. To reduce this ambiguity that all participants face in war, we prepare as best we can.
Often as military leaders, we try to do everything we can to insure that our units are prepared for anything they may face when deployed. Where ambiguity and preparation meet the commander must accept risk. Generally, in preparing for deployment training focused on some form of kinetic action — which is where the military’s core strengths lie. Yet, when we arrived on the ground, we found kinetic means was not and could not be the only solution.
I was not ill-prepared to do my job, yet we were fighting a war that was certainly unique to our time. For example, other than their safety, people brought us their problems with inadequate electricity, waste disposal, schooling their children, and building the local economy. In trying to address these niche issues, we were expected and required to learn and implement systems to which we were not necessarily accustomed. For me, results could have come quicker if we had learned from past conflicts.
Looking back, I wish that I had had a better understanding of the Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures. When broken down to its most fundamental level, it is understanding. It is often said in the military that the war-fighter must learn to think like the enemy. Yet, I posit that it is equally important for the soldier and leader to learn to think like those whom he is trying protect.
We must be able to place ourselves in the shoes of those we are trying to help. This is especially hard for a Westerner to do since ours is a culture and society focused on the self — the individual. It can only be accomplished first through a willingness to understand and secondly through study — either personal or institutional. The US Army’s move to Regionally Aligned Forces (RAF) is a step in the right direction. It will be difficult and it will take time, but based on my experiences I think that it will pay off in the end.
My experiences in the Long War left me with a unique understanding of uncertainty. While fascinating, the military desires to reduce it through preparation and training, but when we miss cultural awareness, we limit ourselves. There is so much I could address about these topics, and I suppose I am not saying anything new. I have found, however, that the nature of war is complex and unforgiving. It should not be entered into lightly.
The views expressed are the author's and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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