This first appeared in The Havok Journal on March 11, 2015.
I am a U.S. Army lieutenant and I have never, not even once, been asked to participate in a “war game.” I have not been trained how to do this, and neither have I been expected to figure out a combat scenario on my own in which I control the layout of forces as well as the overall strategy. Not once. Not on paper or in the woods. Not even in my current job as a platoon leader. And I am not alone. My fellow platoon leaders, some of which are pinning captain this year, have a smattering of experience wargaming but it is often an anecdotal OPD or a single-case-type-scenario. With that in mind, I will start my in-depth (and tongue-in-cheek) analysis of this phenomenon. Here goes…
Often we officers debate when we are supposed to be learning how to genuinely develop our imagination, or “Free Think” capability, in lieu of what I see as a missed opportunity. I often bring this up over breakfast, or while at a training center, or even during downtime at work. I have never been given a satisfactory answer on this subject, and more than likely I am told to shut up and color. It’s enough to begin asking a fundamental follow-up question: When the hell are we going to start preparing our junior officers to develop their own tactics and strategies?
Before we get too far along, some background: I was a non-commissioned officer (NCO) for 10 years (the 75th Ranger Regiment and Air Force Pararescue). I have helped brief operation orders (OPORDs) and I know what it takes to put together an “Actions On The Objective.” When I was a private first class in Ranger School I actually got my first “GO” being a PL for planning in Benning Phase…at a time when there were 20 LTs to assign that leadership position to. After all of those years, I finally commissioned, and because of all of that prior experience as an NCO thought: “Now, finally I’ll get to strategize and war-game. Now finally I’ll get to see behind the velvet rope and get to take part in strategy conferences, free-think seminars, Officer Professional Development (OPDs) where we are given free-reign to make mistakes and take tactical risks and whatever…blah blah blah.” This never happened.
Instead, I was taught in a nauseatingly dumbed-down manner how to run a range, an STX lane, and a live-fire. Although these are important I figured somewhere in there I would get to use my little college-educated brain-housing-unit to explore the battlefield and experiment with tactics. Nope. Wrong. Shut up, lieutenant.
I didn’t avoid opportunities, you see, they just never arrived. I went through the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course (IBOLC) with the rest of the guys and asked (continually) to get to do this. My roommate, a former Army Intelligence NCO, proposed squad-on-squad tactics training in the woods at Ft. Benning to actually accomplish some “free-think” training. We had plenty of time, it seemed, and there was a lot of sitting around or “Patrol Base Operations” where we could have been doing this.
My roommate (he was German so I’ll call him “Heinrich”) thought we should patrol around like on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and hunt each other in the woods (the irony that this statement came from a German should not be understated). We would have to stay within certain boundaries, and there would be minimal rules, but we could set up our own ambushes, observation posts (OPs), and booby-trap simulators in order to really practice. Our cadre got pretty fed up with our hippy bullshit and eventually just stopped listening. They had a training calendar to stick to, and there were sector sketches to be made.
Sector sketches are important but damn it, so is strategy. As a history-type dude, I have been reading about strategy conferences for most of my adult life. I grew up reading a lot about WWII. I loved reading about that war, it held a certain romantic allure to me. This was probably because I had never been to Europe and I had never seen Point du Hoc, or Bastogne, or Monte Cassino. I was fascinated with the stories about the invasion of France, and specifically what was going on in OB West in the weeks before the invasion because it always has been so thoroughly investigated.
OB West was the name given to Germany’s military command that was in charge of controlling a large swath of land known as the Western Front in WWII. This area ebbed and expanded during the war but at one point was a massive area. The generals who worked in OB West were some of the most famous in WWII: Kesselring, Rommel, Model, Rundstedt. As I keep reading about the war I seemed to be continually running into how a series of “War Games” was being conducted during the summer of 1944, and how that caused some of the Generals and Colonels to be absent from their command HQ’s at the precise moment that the allies landed. This has been speculated (by Atkinson, whom I’m reading now) to have caused a major problem when the allies landed because the commanders were away from their desks when they were needed there the most. In an era of land-lines being blown up by French resistance fighters, being away from your desk was a very big deal. I mean, carrier pigeons are only so trustworthy.
Atkinson and others highlight the frequency of these conferences and what they meant to the overall war strategy of the German army. The Generals would look at the Area of Operations and try to figure out where the allies would likely try to invade, make incursions, conduct recon, blow train tracks, etc… As I read about this I catch myself asking: “Where did they “learn” how to do that? When did they start cultivating that skill? And why have I not done it yet?”
I thought surely by the time I made captain I would have done countless free-think exercises, and strategized during a “war games” event. But I’m realizing more-and-more that this is not required to make captain. Or major. It seems to me, after doing my own research among the captains and majors in my unit that Infantry officers are not trained how to war-game until they are in ILE. ILE stands for “Intermediate Level Education” and is part of the Command and General Staff College (CGSC). The homepage makes it sound pretty vanilla, and describes it thus:
“CGSS’s mission is to educate and train field-grade officers to be adaptive leaders, capable of critical thinking, and prepared to operate in full-spectrum Army, joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational environments. This education prepares officers for the next 5-10 years of their career” (http://www.cgscfoundation.org/about/the-college/)
From some interviews I have done, it seems that this is where the strategizing egg is first cracked. I am arguing that it should be much, much sooner.
I am an Infantry officer so I will drive this thought-train with my specific branch in mind. The only reason I can think of for this misstep is that the Army has decided that the first seven-to-ten years of an infantry officer’s existence should be spent learning tactics and doctrine. Perhaps there is an idea floating through the halls at Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) or the Infantry School that it takes this long to get through all of the FM’s we are supposed to be reading and also that this prioritization is purposeful and of the highest absolute necessity. Why else would we spend so long purposefully avoiding doing training that myself and a few others thought was so simple and worthwhile? This is especially prescient in the age of “Mission Command” where junior officers (read: lieutenants and captains) are being asked to take a larger role in the planning and execution process. Why stunt this growth on purpose?
I believe that in lieu of war-gaming us lieutenii (that’s plural for lieutenants) and captains are thought to draw our strategy and creative-thinking from field manuals (FMs), reading lists, and senior NCO wisdom. Although I would never discount the wisdom of our senior NCOs (my current platoon sergeant is the mack-daddy of helpfulness) I still see a gap that is being filled with literature instead of creative training processes. This literary stop-gap measure becomes apparent when I visit the houses of the other officers I work with and see the exact same books on their bookshelves.
West Point (which I did not attend…go Bruins) has a very definitive reading list, and when everybody has read the same 25 books about strategy it begins to sound like a Clauswitzian echo chamber pretty dang fast.