To Battle Groupthink, the Army Trains a Skeptics Corps

May 19th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: To Battle Groupthink, the Army Trains a Skeptics Corps

U.S. News & World Report
May 26, 2008
Pg. 30
One lesson from Iraq: More questioning may avert mistakes
By Anna Mulrine
In the wake of chaos and a lethal insurgency in Iraq, blamed in no small part on poor decisions and a lack of planning at the highest levels, the U.S. Army has had a startling insight that is upending conventional thinking about how the military works. That epiphany is that the force needs fewer yes men.
To that end, one of the Army's top colleges has been quietly training its own cadre of devil's advocates for the past two years. Its graduates say their role is often misunderstood and that their mission has been greeted with trepidation and, on occasion, hostility. "What we're really doing is producing an in-house skeptic, and that creates instant antibodies," says Greg Fontenot, the program director. "It's been like storming the beach at Normandy," agrees Lt. Col. Paul Baumann, who was sent to assess the program's success in Iraq. "It's been ugly, but they didn't kick us out."
The program at Fort Leavenworth's University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies is more commonly known by its nickname, Red Team University. The directors didn't like the moniker, concerned that it would conjure images of enemy war gamers trying to sabotage the system. And it did: Some early graduates were denied security badges upon their arrival in Baghdad by American soldiers fearful that they would hack into the Army's network.
The Red Teamers' job is decidedly less sneaky but often equally unsettling. It involves questioning prevailing assumptions to avoid "getting sucked into that groupthink," says Fontenot. "This is having someone inside that says, 'Wait a minute, not so fast.' " Occasionally, Red Teamers get assignments from the command. U.S. headquarters in Baghdad, for example, recently asked its Red Team to investigate the impact of using dogs in U.S. military operations in Iraq, among citizens who generally regard dogs as unclean and, occasionally, evil. Another task involved pinpointing what Iraqis considered to be their own "greatest generation," equivalent to World War II vets in America. Ideally, though, they are meant to be independent agents provocateurs.
To prepare Red Teamers, the program's curriculum calls for about 220 pages of reading a night. Some of that involves the usual suspects, including classic western military theorists like 19th-century Prussian historian Carl von Clausewitz. But the students delve into eastern philosophy and case studies as well, including the decision, on recommendation from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, not to topple Japan's Emperor Hirohito in the wake of World War II. "We want them to understand that their view of the world is very narrow," says Bob Topping, who develops the curriculum at the university. "We look at the world through a straw. We're shielded; our borders are protected," he adds. "Very few countries have had this luxury."
They also study competitive models. One of the students' favorite reads is the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis, about how a small-market baseball team like the Oakland A's regularly gets itself into the playoffs by placing a premium on traits that most big-league teams overlook, like discipline at the plate. They want the player who's reliable at avoiding the out and getting to first base, not the star who's always batting for the far bleachers. "But normally in America," says Topping, "we bring in the superstars. That's how we build our teams." The point is to expose officers to a subject they think they know very well, like baseball, and turn it on its head. "Then," he adds, "we ask what are some other ways you can look at problems--whether you use western, eastern, or competitive models--that you haven't before? That's the task of the Red Teamer."
That is the theory. In practice, such input has not always been so well received. "We challenged a few things that they were simply unwilling to engage on," says Lt. Col. Jeff Ragland, commander of the first Red Team at U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad until October 2007. He recalls questioning the surge in its planning stages. "I was wondering if you look ahead two years whether we'll have the right number of people, what happens to transitory security when it ends--things that are coming to pass now." The response he got, he says, was "Who the hell are you, and what are you doing?" Nor did he get much traction when he wondered, for example, about the feasibility of employing 12-year-old Iraqis to do odd jobs, a practice contrary to U.S. child labor laws. "We have a preconceived image of an American 12-year-old. But in Iraq, they may be, in everything but age, the head of the household--engrossed in the economy, governance, day-to-day life," says Ragland. "We've mirror-imaged it." And in so doing, he adds, perhaps ceded some chance to help and influence everyday Iraqis.
There is no doubt that the team is chartered to do something that the culture resists. While the military has a tradition of questioning the commander's concept of an operation--Napoleon would ask a corporal to challenge his war plans for understandability, for example--"what we don't have anywhere is the discrete capacity for looking at the plan from alternate points of view," says Fontenot.
Some of the trepidation that the military has about weaving such capabilities into the force involves basic human nature. "We've all been down the road where you're moving a million miles an hour planning something that is extremely complex, and you've got the good idea fairy saying, 'You know, have you thought about this?'" says Baumann. "You're not going to say, 'Huh, that's great. Let me start over.'"
A fair amount of the skepticism also clearly challenges military culture. "Once a leader is assigned to us, soldiers need to believe in them," says Ragland. "You can't have somebody questioning whether they should really attack that machine gun nest."
Even if the Red Teamers can overcome these obstacles, "that doesn't mean anyone's going to change their minds--that's why we teach negotiations, too," says Fontenot. Red Teamers take personality tests to gauge how they handle conflict and are frequently reminded of the utility of treading softly. "You don't have to play Stump the Chump and Red Team everything," says Baumann. They learn, too, that soldiers like positive reinforcement as much as anyone. "You can grab somebody aside and say, 'You know, that was really good. I was wondering about this,' " explains Baumann. "Or, 'I'm not trying to derail your plans, but have you thought about this?' If they say, 'Well, yes, I have,' then great."
Indeed, Red Teamers are generally taught to raise issues, then drop them. If they are too hard-charging in their role, says Fontenot, "a Red Team can also make it impossible for a decision to be made--the question is how do you accomplish the mission without bringing the organization to a halt." Their role raises a key question, says Fontenot: How can the program's graduates be team players but still maintain their objectivity? In essence, adds Baumann, "can you effectively Red Team for a long period of time in a given organization?"
The other big question is whether personnel will be available to keep staffing Red Teams when troops are at a premium. The goal, says Topping, is to get 400 soldiers a year coming through the program--then deployed to various brigades. As of mid-May, the program has had 144 graduates, with the Texas National Guard filling the bulk of the Red Team positions. This fact has generated some friction, too, says Topping. "One of the elephants in the room that we might not talk about much is the bias some people have against the Guard."
Ragland is a Texas national guardsman himself who used to own a computer consulting company in Houston. "If I were not in the Guard, I really think this might be a career-ending job," he says, adding, "I'm not sure the organization is fully ready yet to take on board everything we can provide."
The measure of Red Teamers' success, most estimate, is a decade ahead of them. "The outcome they're supposed to produce is a better decision, and that's an undetectable outcome," says Fontenot. Red Teamers know they are on the right track, he adds, "when they hear their own words parroted back to them as a reason why a plan's going to be changed."
Ragland agrees. "Maybe one day, someone will eventually say, 'Yeah, those knuckleheads did mention something about that.' " Fontenot, for his part, gives the program "a better than fifty-fifty chance" of survival. "I think it's got legs, but putting aside officers to do it" is tricky. And so, too, are the cultural obstacles. As Ragland says, alluding to the unconventional approach, "We're the guys playing Frisbee through the middle of the formation."
Yet given the magnitude of the task they set out to accomplish, Ragland and Baumann left Iraq feeling relatively optimistic, they say. "The idea didn't die with our team--I'm serious, that's been our biggest stride," says Ragland. "We challenged enough things that I think we proved our worth to headquarters. And we survived."

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