Thoughts on Imperial Grunts

In his fantastic book Imperial Grunts, Robert Kaplan returns again and again to the way in which our military is constrained by a top-heavy bureaucracy, in which soldiers on the ground often cannot act without confirmation from multiple levels of high-command officers. In his section on Afghanistan, Kaplan notes that Special Forces teams receiving "actionable intel" on insurgents cannot strike against them until they secure authorization from the higher ups, which typically takes three days; in that time, the intel often goes stale.

Similarly, our deployments in Columbia and the Phillipines are subject to incredibly restrictive rules of engagement, such that our forces there can clearly point to factors that will undermine their mission yet be unable to do anything about it. The ROE's are usually laid down by the highest levels of the Pentagon, and while the leadership is most sensitive to the political environment in Washington they are least connected to the situation on the ground. Often, American troops can lose goodwill when civilians see that they have the power to act against narco-gangs or terrorists, yet refuse to do so for reasons that the civilians discount.

In general, the problem seems to be that soldiers on the front lines are not given the command authority they need, or access to the logistical support they require. There are good reasons for this, from a certain point of view; the Pentagon wants its troops to operate according to a unified strategy, which can be set according to the dictates of grand strategy and politics. Individual units, operating to complete their own missions, can conceivably act in ways that harm a larger effort. Similarly, there are only so many logistical resources to go around. Unless an authority can allocate these resources, units in combat will consume resources out of proportion to their utility.

But this merely changes the institutional bias from too much action to too much inaction. Worse, it removes control from officers on the ground, who can most deftly apply their strengths. Furthermore, while the Pentagon is acutely sensitive to large-scale politics, it is inherently ignorant of local politics in each of the hundreds of deployments around the world. Orders that seem appropriate from a high level can become hamfisted at the micro.

There is another problem with removing control from the front lines, one that is prevalent in all branches of government: the "just following orders" syndrome. If low-level agents have no discretion, they can blame all of their actions on those higher than they, who gave the orders. This enables them to act without caring whether the policy is actually helpful, or whether it is counterproductive. Meanwhile, those who give the original orders are often too powerful to discipline directly. This leads to what Hans Sherrer calls "bureaucratic inhumanity." It is true that soldiers are taught that "just following orders" is no excuse; but this just means that soldiers bear all the responsibility with relatively little of the power.

Meanwhile, in war as in everything else, the key is to respond to changing conditions more quickly than your adversary can. (See John Boyd for more.) The present structure of our military is slow and lumbering, an Industrial-Age organization in an Information-Age world. Something must be done.

Releasing control to the front line is not the hard part, and happens more often than I have implied, but only when it is relatively uncomplicated. The hard part is how to allocate logistical resources. And here, Kaplan is at his best. He repeatedly criticizes the military's bloated logistical tail, which consumes far too many resources just supporting itself to be able to nimbly support the troops on the front line. Kaplan argues convincingly that our troops would be more effective if there were fewer of them who were capable of more autonomous action. His harshest scorn is reserved for Camp Victory, the Army deployment in Iraq that is overrun with REMF's.

Robert Kaplan is an incredible observer of conditions on the ground, and the nobility and sacrifice of our soldiers. Everyone who is at all interested in the military or the future of American imperialism should read Imperial Grunts.

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