British General Critical of U.S. Army in Iraq

Thomas Ricks, WaPo’s normally superb writer on military affairs, is astounded that the U.S. Army has published an article brutally critical of itself by a British general.

A senior British officer has written a scathing critique of the U.S. Army and its performance in Iraq, accusing it of cultural ignorance, moralistic self-righteousness, unproductive micromanagement and unwarranted optimism there.
His publisher: the U.S. Army.

In an article published this week in the Army magazine Military Review, British Brig. Nigel Aylwin-Foster, who was deputy commander of a program to train the Iraqi military, said American officers in Iraq displayed such “cultural insensitivity” that it “arguably amounted to institutional racism” and may have spurred the growth of the insurgency. The Army has been slow to adapt its tactics, he argues, and its approach during the early stages of the occupation “exacerbated the task it now faces by alienating significant sections of the population.”

The decision by the Army magazine to publish the essay — which already has provoked an intense reaction among American officers — is part of a broader self-examination occurring in many parts of the Army as it approaches the end of its third year of fighting in Iraq. Military Review, which is based [at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas] along with many of the Army’s educational institutions, has been part of that examination, becoming increasingly influential and pointed under the editorship of Col. William M. Darley. In the past two years, his magazine has run articles that have sharply criticized U.S. military operations in Iraq. A piece last summer by then-Maj. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli about how to better counter the insurgency has become required reading for officers deploying to Iraq — especially since Chiarelli was recently selected to become the No. 2 American officer there.

But none of the earlier articles has been as bluntly critical of the Army as the essay by Aylwin-Foster, whose assessment is also unusual because it comes from a senior military commander with the closest ally the U.S. government has in Iraq. The Army is full of soldiers showing qualities such as patriotism, duty, passion and talent, writes Aylwin-Foster, whose rank is equivalent to a U.S. one-star general. “Yet,” he continues, “it seemed weighed down by bureaucracy, a stiflingly hierarchical outlook, a predisposition to offensive operations, and a sense that duty required all issues to be confronted head-on.”

Those traits reflect the Army’s traditional focus on conventional state-on-state wars and are seen by some experts as less appropriate for counterinsurgency, which they say requires patience, cultural understanding and a willingness to use innovative and counterintuitive approaches, such as employing only the minimal amount of force necessary. In counterinsurgency campaigns, Aylwin-Foster argues, “the quick solution is often the wrong one.”

He said he found that an intense pressure to conform and overcentralized decision making slowed the Army’s operations in Iraq, giving the enemy time to understand and respond to U.S. moves. And the Army’s can-do spirit, he wrote, encouraged a “damaging optimism” that interfered with realistic assessments of the situation in Iraq. “Such an ethos is unhelpful if it discourages junior commanders from reporting unwelcome news up the chain of command,” Aylwin-Foster says. A pervasive sense of righteousness or moral outrage, he adds, further distorted military judgments, especially in the handling of fighting in Fallujah.

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who runs much of the Army’s educational establishment, and also oversees Military Review, said he does not agree with many of Aylwin-Foster’s assertions. But Petraeus, who commanded Aylwin-Foster in Iraq, said “he is a very good officer, and therefore his viewpoint has some importance, as we do not think it is his alone.” Reflecting that ambivalence, the article was published with two disclaimers — one in the form of an introduction, the other as a footnote — which make clear that the views expressed do not reflect those of the British government, the British military, the U.S. Army, its Combined Arms Center or Military Review.

First, it should be noted that the disclaimer above appears at the bottom of the table of contents of every issue and applies to all articles. It is there because, in fact, the articles represent the views of their authors, not their institutions. Since it is an official publication of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, that’s an important distinction to make.

Second, it should be noted that Military Review and its cousins Parameters, Sea Power, Proceedings, Naval War College Review, Joint Forces Quarterly, Marine Corps Gazette, and Air & Space Power Journal are academic journals designed to further the professional military education of our officers. Open debate has long been a part of their tradition. For example, I first became aware of Ralph Peters, now an iconoclastic columnist and book author, through his numerous articles in Parameters over the years. He published those as a major and lieutenant colonel in the Army’s Military Intelligence branch.

The current issue of Military Review contains sixteen articles. Its appears to be packaged as a special issue with lessons learned from foreign militaries.

Photo: Military Review cover Nov-Dec 2005 Note: All links below PDF documents

2 Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations
Brigadier Nigel R.F. Aylwin-Foster, British Army
U.S. Army Transformation needs to focus less on warfighting and more on developing a genuinely adaptive workforce.

16 Operation Knockout: Counterinsurgency in Iraq
Colonel James K. Greer, U.S. Army
In November 2005, Coalition and Iraqi forces demonstrated the flexibility and agility needed in successful COIN operations.

20 To Create a Stable Afghanistan: Provisional Reconstruction Teams, Good Governance, and a Splash of History
Major Andrew M. Roe, British Army
While trying to establish a legitimate government in Afghanistan, the Coalition force should look to earlier British management of the North-West Frontier for an example.

27 Republic of Korea Forces in Iraq: Peacekeeping and Reconstruction
Major General Eui-Don Hwang, Republic of Korea Army
Korea̢۪s Zaytun Division supported Operation Iraqi Freedom by maintaining security in its area of responsibility, conducting postwar reconstruction projects, and providing humanitarian assistance.

32 Lessons Learned: Multinational Division Central-South

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Strzelecki, Polish Army
The mission of the Polish Armed Forces in Iraq began in March 2003 with the first phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

35 Maginot Line or Fort Apache? Using Forts to Shape the Counterinsurgency Battlefield
Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey B. Demarest, U.S. Army, Retired, Ph.D., J.D., and Lieutenant Colonel Lester W. Grau, U.S. Army, Retired
Fortifications can be an effective part of an offensive strategy in counterinsurgency.

Contrary to the widely held view that military officers are automotons without any thoughts of their own and that the Services like it that way, many of these publications have been around for decades. Retired Colonel John M. Collins, in an essay entitled, “Sharp Pens Sharpen Swords,” linked from the Miltary Review website and offering advice to mid-career officers on how to enter the fray writes,

The message to readers of this missive is, “It’s never too early or too late to make your mark.†Fifteen publications selected for discussion from nearly 100 outlets offer aspiring authors a much richer menu of options that their predecessors enjoyed.

The Infantry Journal, activated in 1904, was a typical trailblazer. Charter members who gave that brainchild an auspicious start included two famous flag officers and two precocious second lieutenants. Major General Arthur MacArthur, Doug̢۪s daddy, wore a Medal of Honor; Major General Tasker Bliss culminated his career as Army Chief of Staff, 1917-18. Second Lieutenant George Catlett Marshall, who became Army Chief of Staff shortly before World War II and retired with five stars, later served as Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State while four-star Walter Krueger, commissioned from the ranks, commanded Sixth U.S. Army during all of its campaigns in the Southwest Pacific.

Indeed, if one counts less academic venues such as Infantry and Armor or smaller publications such as Strategic Insights, there are easily 100 publications out there maintained by the U.S. military and its affiliates to promote professional discussion. Challenging current policy and offering other ways to do business is not only permissible but encouraged. Self-examination is not a new Army policy; it’s a way of life.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Patrick McGuire says:

    On the one hand, I have no doubt that the British officer is correct in his assessment. But then, the question arises, do we want our military to be ambassadors of good will, or the meanest, toughest, kick-ass killing machine ever seen in the history of man?

  2. Herb says:

    Oh My God:

    Looks like we have another “General Bernard Montgomery” on our hands.

    Let the world rejoice with his total expertise, just like “Operation Market Garden”

  3. Fersboo says:

    Criticism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The US military can learn, which is a good thing. But, as with everything else, all things must be looked at in context.

    I saw this over at Redstate and don’t think the WaPo’s hype is terribly justified; just trying to stir things up as usual. Further discussion here

  4. M1EK says:

    The point of this is not talk about how the military can or can’t handle criticism – it is more evidence that the ‘good’ stories from soldiers on the ground in Iraq that contradict the ‘bad’ stories from the independent media are themselves (rather than those of the media) likely to be the ones that are biased.

  5. McGehee says:

    Um, M1ek, how does evidence that the troops want the good news to be true — which is basically what your reference to “bias” in that regard means — disprove the existence of negative bias from the media outlets who systematically ignore good news far more stubbornly than, say, Military Review ignores bad news (which, this proves Military Review doesn’t)?

  6. M1EK says:

    The answer is that I trust a British military scholar to be more objective than the troops in the middle of it. Period. It’s just icing on the cake that he describes in detail _why_ those troops are biased towards good news.

  7. cl says:

    It is pretty bad form to bring up the American Revolutionary War or Allied Operations during WW II just because you don’t like the fact that the US Army…and military in general is being criticized by a British General officer.

    Any one involved in an honest AAR knows that the gloves come off and you say what you think and feel. Just be prepared to back up that thought. That is the point of articles like this one (which I am reading as we speak). The point is to improve. To always be improving.

    Any military worth it’s weight in beans and bullets knows it has to study it’s art. And knows that anything said that improves the proficiency of art is worth listening to, regardless of where it comes from.

    Anything less than an open and honest debate about the Art and Science of War is a disservice to those tasked with it’s prosecution.


  8. Sneem says:

    Military Review is a scholarly magazine published by the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Some of the news report seemed surprised that the Army would publish a critical article on itself. They should pay more attention. The magazine’s purpose is to publish works that cause thought and comment. The Army has a bigger brain and thicker skin than some of its critics might think. Perhaps even more than the critics themselves. Such an article is not a rare occurrence.

  9. Dave t says:

    Nice to see thunderbird and herb prove the Brigadier’s point….I note Colonel Benson also called A-F a British snob…well tut tut – how racist can you get….! Talk about foot in mouth or failure to engage brain first!

    If you had bothered to READ the article you would have noted that many senior US ARMY officers provided the evidence for the paper! The main point was NOT that the US Army are racist but that some units do not have as much cultural awareness training and this causes problems on the ground. The mere PRESENCE of the coalition also causes problems not their actions.

    We have articles from US Army/foreign officers in almost every issue of the British Army Review which sometimes do exactly the same thing- provide a launching pad for self criticism about aspects of our war fighting methods etc which need improving.
    The media as always pick one tiny part and blow it up – wonder why the BBC for example did that? Hmm? Nothing to do with their anti Americanism? The WaPO? Nothing to do with their anti Bush attitudes? Hmm?

    In all this was a good article and the rebuttal may answer some of the Brigadier’s charges but I bet the discussion will go on for a while!

  10. Dave t says:

    PS herb: Operation Market Garden involved the American Airborne as well as the Polish and British.

    PPS thunderbird. We couldn’t afford to take you guys and the lost colonies back and our tea making industry would never allow it!