Los Angeles Times
January 19, 2007
A team of skeptics has joined fellow officers to ask tough questions in a war that has seen its share of missteps.
By Julian E. Barnes, Times Staff Writer
FT. LEAVENWORTH, KAN. — While the Bush administration is reworking its overall strategy in Iraq, military leaders in Baghdad are searching for new ways to improve the decisions and choices they make closer to the ground.
The U.S. military has sent to Iraq a five-person team of dedicated skeptics, known in military jargon as a "red team." In a war known for its missteps and unanticipated results, the team will be assigned to review, and question, military operations. It will attempt to predict how enemies will react to various missions and what the unintended consequences might be.
Such teams have been used on an ad-hoc basis to critique specific battle plans. But this team is the first to work full time as devil's advocates, and is the first headed by officers trained as designated skeptics by Ft. Leavenworth's University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies.
Red teams try to predict how the enemy, known as "red" in military-speak, will react to an American operation.
"A red team is trying to get into the enemy's head," said Gregory Fontenot, director of the Ft. Leavenworth program. "What is the other side liable to do and how are they thinking about the problem?"
In Senate testimony last week, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a red team had been assigned to examine President Bush's new Iraq security plan "from the enemy's viewpoint." Bush plans to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq, although the increase and new strategy are not expected to be fully in place for several months as the Pentagon routes units into battle.
But red teams go beyond predicting how the insurgency might react.
Team members are trained to think differently from other officers in military planning sessions, said Steven Rotkoff, one of the instructors at Ft. Leavenworth who helped create the course curriculum. Since red team officers are outside the normal staff planning process, they theoretically can look more objectively at it.
"It is very hard to tell someone your baby is ugly and they don't dress them properly," Rotkoff said. "The red team members are valued by their commanders because they do not participate in group-think."
The military's strict hierarchy allows for quick decision making. But it also can prevent insights farther down the pecking order from receiving a fair hearing. With a red team in place, someone is always taking a skeptical look at the commander's ideas, Rotkoff said.
"We struggle with getting out of the comfort zone. To do what we are asking people to do is an unnatural act for the American military," Rotkoff said.
In Iraq, the new red team has begun working for Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who recently became commander of day-to-day military operations there. The team may also get a higher profile with the arrival of Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, named the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Petraeus, a supporter of such devil's-advocate approaches, pushed for more creative thinking while heading up key Army training programs at Ft. Leavenworth. Lt. Col. Jeff Ragland, Odierno's red team leader, said that although top officers and junior staff members are intrigued by the new group's mission, some mid-level colonels in Baghdad "seem to be less excited about our existence."
If a team's job is to argue against a particular plan, it becomes easy for other officers to dismiss its suggestions.
As a result, the red team course at Ft. Leavenworth includes instruction on how to criticize without being ignored. And in the field, Ragland's team is trying to figure out how to sugarcoat skepticism.
"At virtually every instance, we have had to present our ideas in an acceptable way, not with the 'sharp stick in the eye' approach," Ragland said.
The course examines conflicts such as the Philippine insurrection in 1899 and the post-World War II occupation of Japan.
The course covers Western and non-Western military theory and teaches anthropology so future red team members can better study other cultures.
In Iraq, for instance, it is the red team's job to think like Iraqis and figure out what might offend them.
"We are not going to make [red team members] anthropologists; we are going to make them understand how ethnocentric they are," Fontenot said. "As soon as you assume the other guy thinks like we do, you are making a mistake."
Military organizations, Fontenot said, are not always good at predicting the after-effects of an operation. Traditionally, no staff officers are specifically assigned to think about long-term consequences.
Among military staffers, there is a tendency to become wedded to a plan and reflexively defend it, rather than critique it from a distance, said Lt. Col. Mark B. Elfendahl, a student in the red team course.
Though the focus of many red teams is to predict an enemy force's reactions, in Iraq it will be just as important to predict how allies might react to a given operation.
Ragland, the red team leader in Iraq, said other staff officers have the ability to critically assess a plan, but they often do not have the time to do so.
"Red teams are a direct, and necessary, response to the current operations tempo," Ragland said, adding that because team members are not invested in military plans, "we have the latitude regarding time and the charter to take this critical look."
At Ft. Leavenworth, Fontenot wants to spread critical thinking throughout the Army.
In the long term, the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies aims to influence how all officers think and plan.
For now, Fontenot says he is watching how the red team works in Iraq, and is adjusting the course based on feedback from the field.
"We will have to see how it goes in Iraq," he said. "I know we are doing the right thing. I don't know if we are doing it the right way."