In an earlier blog regarding the U.S. Army Officer Shortage, I highlighted a few problems with officer talent management that link to leadership development. In the interest of improving leadership development for our officer corps, I have been reading an great book by Dr. Mark Moyar of the U.S. Marine Corps University, A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq from Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2009.
As evidenced by the over-registered Marine Corps University’s conference on “COIN Leadership in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Beyond,” where GEN Petraeus gave the keynote address to the “COIN Nation,” there is a thirst for understanding the role of individual leadership in the COIN arena.
Readers from all ranks will be interested in Moyar’s succint identification of what it takes to succeed in the contemporary operating environment. Anyone who understands that effective leadership in a counterinsurgency setting — or the conventional battlefield — often does come down to the behavior of one individual will find that this book resonates with important themes.
Some background on why the book is a “must read:”
Moyar’s book has valuable lessons for the Army as well as other organizations and industries that operate in extremis. Operating effectively in extreme environments requires more than a “competent” leader. It requires a talented leader. Anything less than the right talent could make the difference between life and death. Lending viability to Moyar’s claims, a newly released Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) paper discusses the related implications of talent management, highlighting key definitions: the “definition of talent is a special natural ability or capacity for achievement. Competent, on the other hand, is defined as merely proficient or having requisite or adequate ability.” Unfortunately, the U.S. Army doesn’t always acknowledge the varied distribution of skills that our officer corps brings to the table; and therefore, we don’t always do a great job placing them where their talents are effectively used, nor where the military needs them most. Moyar’s insights, based on qualitative and quantitative analyses, offer explicit criteria for the variables that we should screen for in our officer recruitment efforts and better develop in our leadership training efforts to ensure we identify an employ the right talent for the right position.
With that caveat emptor in mind, I present below a brief overview of the book, insights from field leaders who have reviewed the book, and a tacit response to a Small Wars Journal review of the book by Matthew Caris.
A Question of Command challenges the two main conventional COIN approaches — the population-centric and hearts-and-minds theory, and enemy-centric warfare — as means to an end. It presents instead a thesis that the most effective counterinsurgency is “leader-centric” warfare, a contest between elites in which the elite group with superiority in certain leadership attributes usually wins. Moyar basis his thesis on survey responses from field practitioners and data gathered from seven historical and two contemporary case studies (Iraq and Afghanistan) that cover 100 years of counterinsurgency operations.
Moyar’s argument states:
The better elite gains the assistance of more people and uses them to subdue or destroy the enemy elite and its supporters. Whereas the population-centric theory considers the people’s social, political, and economic grievances to be the foremost cause of popular insurgencies, the leader-centric theory maintains that a talented insurgent elite, which may or may not be motivated by such grievances, is the principal cause. The masses, however aggrieved, do not turn into insurgents on their own; they become insurgents only by following an elite that has decided to lead an insurgency, and only if that elite appears to be more virtuous and capable than the governmental elite. Consequently, insurgencies tend to be strongest where the insurgents enjoy the greatest advantage over the counterinsurgents in leadership quality, not where the people live in the most objectionable conditions.
More specifically, Moyar makes the argument that the side that recruits, retains and employs the right talent – individuals who possesses the “Ten Attributes of Effective Counterinsurgency Leaders” – has a higher probability of achieving their objectives. The desirable attributes (which he finds do not differ much between friendly or enemy forces) include: initiative, flexibility, creativity, judgment, empathy, charisma, sociability, dedication, integrity and organization. Moyar’s analysis shows that “The most valuable attributes did not vary from case to case despite wide variations in the nature of the insurgents and the counterinsurgents, although the relative importance of each attribute did vary according to the dynamics of the insurgency and the level of the counterinsurgency commander in the counterinsurgency hierarchy.” Whether red or blue force, the tasks of recruiting, retaining, and employing the right leaders (and getting them into key command positions) are far more complex and daunting than is generally recognized.
Still, scholars are often dubious about new theories, so I thought I would ask those who have served in counterinsurgency environments for their reflections on the book. I pinged a few and heard back from various Army SOF and conventional force officers, Marine Corps officers, and general officers, all of whom have served in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and/or the Philippines and other small wars. In summary, many members of the active duty U.S. military think highly of its arguments.
Feedback from the Frontline (opinions expressed are those of the author).
One of our more gifted senior officers, BG H.R. McMaster, gave me the following quote: “We are in Mark Moyar’s debt for placing the demands on today’s military leaders in historical context. The leadership qualities he identifies serve as valuable guideposts for leader development and education.” BG McMaster is a decorated combat veteran from the first Gulf War. He was a former Commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar where he illustrated the adaptive leadership qualities that Moyar highlights in his book by presciently identifying the non-kinetic missions that would help his unit achieve greater results.
COL Todd Ebel, the Director of the School for Command Preparation at Fort Leavenworth, told me that the Army’s schoolhouse for senior command has added Moyar’s book to their suggested reading list. COL Ebel was a former Commander of Task Force Ramadi, Commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division in Baghdad 2005-2006, and Special Assistant to then MG Petraeus, CG of the 101st Airborne Division, and BG Hamm, the Commander of Task Force Olympia in Mosul Iraq 2004. He gives high accolades for the qualitative attributes that Moyar identifies, but goes on to say that he feels “strongly that the ten attributes of effective counterinsurgency leaders apply equally as well to leaders serving in other operational environments.”
Moyar’s focus on leadership as a key enabler in countering insurgencies is “spot on,” according to LTC Dale Alford, a Marine Corps special advisor to COMISAF with two Iraq and two Afghanistan tours under his belt.
MAJ Bill Chesher: MAJ Chesher is an Army Infantry officer and with four deployments including a tours Kuwait, two tours in Afghanistan, and a tour to Iraq. He says, “This book will benefit today’s leaders with a different perspective of counterinsurgency operations and provide a foundation for officer development that will assist the next generation of operational leaders as they aspire to next level of leadership. I can speak from experience when I tell you that leader development and mentorship is critical for our profession. It enables subordinates to understand more about their leaders and the situation that faces them. Whether it is through open dialogue or formal classroom instruction, officer development is the vehicle by which we professionally grow as an organization.”
CPT Kelly Howard, special assistant to the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, GEN Casey, offers her personal insights. CPT Howard served in Baghdad as a special assistant to two commanding officers of MNF-I, GEN Casey and GEN Petraeus.
I think Dr. Moyar did a good job of correcting the current narrative that the Surge was a fundamental departure from the strategy that was already in place. In this respect, and by providing a broader perspective, he gets the story more “right” than many current works by journalists.
Military leaders should read this book, at a minimum, for its insights into current army leadership. Little has been written thus far about Casey’s tenure in Iraq. In particular, Moyar does a good job of bringing certain decisions to light, such as Casey’s think tank of distinguished military officers selected to do a study of successful and unsuccessful counterinsurgency practices in 2004, making ISF improvement his top priority in early 2005, securing the transfer from the MoI from the State Dept to MNF-I a few months later, confronting MoI Jabr about firing those responsible for the prison scandal in late 2005, and his willingness to supplement forces when necessary, such as the time he sent a large number of forces to Al Qaim to secure the border that same year.
Thankfully, the emphasis on developing and rewarding most of these qualities has gained traction in the Army’s new (but work-in-progress) holistic leadership development training and education programs. The fact that the current Chief of Staff of the Army is presently so focused on hybrid-warfare centered (scaleable, of course) leadership development lends credence to the value of Moyar’s ideas and analysis
Howard goes on to say:
Current leaders will be glad to hear that GEN Casey as CSA is using his position to reward adaptive leadership and high intellectual abilities that are necessary for leadership in a COIN environment with his instructions to promotion and command boards. This should improve military decision making at the strategic level and finally start to move away from rewarding officers solely for time spent in a war zone or in command.
Critique of a Book Review
Recently, a Small Wars Journal review by Matthew Caris criticized Moyar’s book on several grounds – several of which I would like to address. The below quotes are from Caris’s review:
[Moyar’s] own argument (‘leader-centric warfare’) does not seem so groundbreaking an idea. Leadership is recognized as key in all forms of warfare, and while this certainly warrants reinforcement, arguing that leadership is the determinant factor in unconventional warfare in particular is not a novel idea.
Which other scholars have argued that leadership is the determinant factor in unconventional warfare? I don’t know of any but would like suggestions for my own literature review. May I invite Mr. Caris to find other writings on counterinsurgency that make many of the same points contained in the first and last chapters of A Question of Command? As for the nine wars in the middle chapters, very few histories emphasize the role of the leadership to the extent that Moyar does (those few that do are listed on p. 304, note 10).
Caris goes on to comment that FM 3-24, not A Question of Command, does the ground breaking in presenting leadership as a key element in COIN. While FM 3-24 is an excellent manual, I am afraid that Caris overlooked some sections of Moyar’s book when he makes this claim. Here is what Moyar actually wrote about FM 3-24: “With respect to leadership, the manual attached the greatest weight to adaptation, calling upon leaders to be flexible and to use judgment and creativity to identify solutions…. The counterinsurgency field manual advocated decentralized command…. The counterinsurgency manual also called for greater risk tolerance in the interest of promoting initiative.” (See page 242.)
That said, Moyar does fault the manual for devoting too little attention to important leadership issues. (See 244) In fact, a comparison of FM 3-24 with the first and last chapters of his book will show that the manual does not cover many of the issues addressed in the book. (Maybe the progenitors of FM 3-24 knew of the complimentary focus on adaptive leadership described in the new FM 6-22, Army Leadership; this is an excellent field manual that interleaves the new “adaptive leader” attributes that the Chief of Staff of the Army is promoted with the COIN and hybrid threat environment.)
In my opinion, as a territorial and proud former Army officer, he is also slightly judgmental towards the Army while accepting many the myths about Marine COIN performance. However, I don’t think the book should serve as a divisive force between the services or between protagonists and antagonists of the COIN nation’s doctrine. All camps must surely agree that the right leader in the right place at the right time is essential to achieving our objectives. As I have written on this blog in the past, leadership development and talent management are key.
Caris also states:
Moyar describes how in 1983 El Salvadoran leaders and their American advisers plotted a textbook oil-spot operational plan, yet were foiled by pre-emptive insurgent activity in other regions. Many factors contributed to this defeat, including relative slowness in implementation, over-deliberation, and superior intelligence on the part of insurgents who sniffed out the plan and struck first. It is an excellent example of the many problems counterinsurgents have to overcome to be successful, yet Moyar chalks it all up to inferior leadership. While in the most general sense this is accurate enough, it fails to convince the reader that the specific virtues Moyar advocates are the root cause of COIN success or failure.
Slowness in implementation and over-deliberation are clearly signs of leaders who are short on some of Moyar’s ten key attributes—initiative, judgment, and organization. The fact that the insurgents had better intelligence suggests that the insurgents had better leadership, for, as Moyar argue repeatedly in A Question of Command and his earlier Phoenix and the Birds of Prey, leadership is critical to intelligence collection, both because intelligence collection itself requires formidable leadership skills, and also because good leaders increase the willingness of the populace to provide information by virtue of their successes in security and governance.
As a side note, anyone who has worked in the intelligence field will agree that social network analysis provides additional support for Moyar’s claims. Network analysis quickly illustrates that the “key leaders” may not always be the individual at the top of the food chain. On the contrary, an organization’s most influential member may be an intermediate leader. This is true whether focusing on friendly forces, indigenous partnerships (as illustrated through MNF-I key leader engagement strategies), or enemy forces. The right individual (with the right attributes) placed to fill structural holes (e.g., to serve as a link between friendly, indigenous, or enemy organizations or teams) can be the greatest network enabler – regardless of the organization.
Finally, as GEN Creighton Abrams once said, “In war, it is extraordinary how it all comes down to the character of one man.” If GEN Creighton meant to say “one man or woman,” (in light of my New York Times article about women’s roles in COIN) then nothing could be truer than his statement and the implicit importance he places on individual values and character attributes. Indeed, the aforementioned SSI report supports Moyar’s theory when it succinctly states, “effective organizations should hire not merely for technical and cognitive skills, but also for values, attitudes, and attributes that fit their culture.”
Moyar’s theory does not preclude the still salient value of conventional COIN theories focusing on hearts and minds or enemy-centric warfare; in fact, I think it compliments them. He insists that many of these critical attributes can be enhanced through self-improvement, experience and guidance from superiors. Understanding, developing, and employing leaders who illustrate the key attributes that we need to accomplish certain missions, therefore, is in the interest of the collective good. Moyar’s book illustrates how important talent management is in this regard.
Interested in how you can best develop yourself and subordinates for the next counterinsurgency? Pick up Moyar’s book today.