Second Prize, Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
Infantry platoon commanders will be called on to conduct a variety of tasks—security patrol, vehicle checkpoint, humanitarian assistance, contract negotiation, intelligence gathering, convoy security, communication with local leaders—all in the same 24-hour period. They must be trained beyond the skills needed in their military specialties, to ensure they think and adapt quickly.
As a second lieutenant in the operating forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom, I experienced the remarkable range of challenges a Marine Corps officer likely will face in the coming years. On one end are major combat operations that require every facet of our capabilities as an organization. On the other end are the asymmetric threats we currently face in Iraq. And woven throughout is the need to win the hearts and minds of the general populace, an everyday challenge that will test our resolve and patience.
To meet these challenges, Marine Corps officers will have to be trained, not only in a military specialty, but also in less traditional areas such as geopolitics, culture and religion, and critical thinking and problem solving. I call this new Marine a Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) officer-a well-rounded individual trained in the multiple skills it takes to lead troops in today's asymmetric environment.
New War, Old Concepts
Operations in Iraq are small-unit fights, for which our Marines are uniquely prepared. The "strategic corporal" is in effect, and former Commandant of the Marine Corps General Charles Krulak's Three-Block War has unfolded before our eyes.1 Marine officers must anticipate threats and understand not only their own military occupation specialties (MOSs) but also everyone else's. The asymmetric threat requires this. In addition, officers of every MOS can and will be called on to understand:
* The geopolitical situation of a given city or province
* How political parties or groups work and operate in-country
* Regional culture, religion, and history
* The mind-set of the man on the street
* The threat, in terms of how we treat the individual on the street and how our actions affect future operations
* How to train and interact with the local police and conduct combined operations
* Humanitarian assistance on a large and small scale
* Restraint in the face of casualties
* Changing enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures
Asymmetric warfare is dirty business. It is prudent to assume that a logistician, conducting a vehicle convoy, will need to plan for and react to an improvised explosive device or rocket-propelled grenade attack on the convoy from an organized, dispersed enemy. He will need to be able to eliminate the threat systematically, without killing or injuring innocent civilians. He will need to communicate with the local populace. He will need to call in a medevac or quick reaction force (QRF) and establish a casualty collection point and then call for a resupply of chow for an operating base in the area of operations. These types of skills receive only a cursory level of instruction at The Basic School.
An infantry platoon commander will conduct several different types of combat operations and also will be required to understand the Arab culture and the Iraqi people. It is feasible he will conduct a security patrol, vehicle checkpoint, and humanitarian assistance in a 24-hour period. he will have to negotiate contracts, establish law and order, determine an individual's guilt or innocence, and show extreme force and compassion all in the same breath. In doing so, he will have to act as a police officer and use police tactics to gather information with minimal external support. He will gather intelligence for our forces. His position of leadership will require him to communicate through an interpreter and develop leads on criminals and former regime extremists. He will have to understand vehicle mainte nance, operate sophisticated communi cation equipment, and speak to community leaders in his area of operations.
While assigned as a communications officer to 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marines, I learned firsthand what it means to be a MAGTF officer. On 11 April 2003, three days after we seized Baghdad, I was reassigned as a rifle platoon com mander. That experience required me to draw from several facets of my background and training. I quickly discovered that I would need to rely more heavily on my interpersonal skills and knowledge of the culture than on any technique or procedure. Those skills and knowledge helped me adapt to my environment, and I was able to accomplish all missions assigned.
The point is simple. Marine officers must be expert problem solvers. Once schooled in their MOSs, they must be able to understand and act in an envi ronment that will stretch their mental and physical abilities. Unfortunately, no formal school can duplicate the threats asymmetric warfare poses. The best approach in peacetime is to task officers in many different assignments that re quire ingenuity, foresight, and initiative.
The phrase "every Marine a rifleman" must become reality. Marines must be trained for a threat without boundaries. In today's and future conflicts, it might be the noninfantry Marine who in a split second must make a shoot/don't shoot decision. This makes infantry training in the support community all the more important, as it is likely that a mechanic or communicator may be engaged in a direct firefight while on a convoy or responding to an attack by the enemy, as they often are the most vulnerable targets.
Hearts and Minds
The portion of combat operations that has no training ground occurs after major combat has ceased, when success is measured in economic and political terms. We cannot win this war without winning politically, economically, and intellectually, as well as militarily. We must capture the hearts and minds of the individual Iraqis. This does not mean solely rebuilding a couple schools or handing out food and pay checks. Winning hearts and minds means building trust. Because our actions on the ground inevitably affect our goals in Iraq, MAGTF officers must understand that every interaction, every operation, will have long-term effects. Major General J. N. Mattis, Commanding General of 1st Marine Division, put it this way:
Trust is difficult to build, easy to lose in this environment. We must warn our young men that the enemy will try to manipulate us into thinking Iraqis are the enemy so we then create enemies by our response. . . . Our faith in victory and in each other, as well as use of sound tactics that sin gle out and destroy the enemy will be tested. Additionally, we will not build up this enemy or show disillusion in our progress because the enemy fights us. ... We'll take it all in stride, gain trust and intelligence from the people, and isolate/destroy the enemy.2
The average Iraqi wants what most people want—a bright future for himself and his family. Family takes precedence over most aspects of everyday life, to include business and economics. MAGTF officers need to understand this dynamic. In the Iraqi culture, trust is more important than economics.
There will be the tendency to show Iraqis our American ideals of humanity and justice, but we must be mindful not to impose too much too soon. Iraq is not the United States.
Our goal should be to put in place a government that is credible to the Iraqis. They are a proud people who must be put in charge of their future. They have suffered a terrible defeat, and their psyche, especially in the Sunni region, is damaged. National pride is hurt. "Iraq is full of angry men," Mustafa Alrawi wrote in Beirut's Daily Star. "Thousands of men, many of whom took pride in their rank and status, were left bewildered and confused."3 As victors, we must be humble and never shame or embarrass the Iraqis. Helping them secure their future is winning the peace. They must have a hand in rebuilding their country, rebuilding their national pride.
Military operations in Iraq increasingly should be combined (U.S and Iraqi). The more the Iraqis see themselves as the answer to their security problems the better security will become. The Marine Corps must revisit the combined action platoon (CAP) concept that had such success defeating the Viet Cong and suppressing their growing influence in Vietnam. This program is perfectly suited for today's MAGTF officer.
A trusted relationship must form between a community and our forces. The only way to do this is to increase interaction with the people. Operational positions must be located within villages or cities. This puts our Marines at higher risk, but it sends a message of trust and shared hardship. This relationship could even extend to combined billeting. Once the Iraqi people see our level of commitment to their safety and security, they will understand that our goal is not occupation but libera tion. Valuable intelligence collection would increase and lead to further marginalization of foreign regime extremists or terrorists trying to subvert our efforts.
The MAGTF officer's understanding of our own political landscape is essential to building another's. This does not imply that we need to become political scholars or attorneys, but that we should have a working knowledge of govern ments. In addition, knowledge of basic accounting, finance, and public works would help us understand the economic challenges posed in Iraq. The civilian support teams that handle these issues are stretched too thin to provide de tailed guidance, and it will be up to the MAGTF officer to develop a framework for future progress.
Changes in the Wind
Every U.S. casualty is a setback and brings with it mounting resentment toward the Iraqis. Every Iraqi killed or wounded creates the same feelings among the Iraqi people. We must understand and be conscious that a tipping point may be around the corner. As the Marines returning to Iraq know, this is not the same place we left. New problems could explode at any time. Initial successes will be met with stiff resistance by a desperate enemy. The MAGTF officer will in some cases have to establish or rebuild old rela tionships that have been strained. Problems will not be solved by force alone, and the ingenuity and initiative of the Marines working with the Iraqis will in many cases be the reason we succeed.
To win in Iraq we must win the small battles each day. The ties that bind one to another are common goals of freedom and stability for Iraq. We must communicate these concepts on every level and in every action. Marine offi cers and the troops they lead will be ambassadors and will speak volumes in their actions and deeds.
MAGTF officers face a daunting challenge. Our skills must be much more dynamic than that of any one MOS. They must resemble a seasoned police officer, or a modern-day Thomas Jefferson promoting the ideas of liberty. This mind-set will prepare us for the psychological war taking place. We can win every gunfight, but we must win the hearts and minds of the populace first. The Iraqis must never question our resolve, even in the face of our own casualties. The security of the region is dependent on the successful outcome of this war.
1 Strategic corporals are junior leaders whose actions and orders have, partly because of the growth of the mass media, significantly increased in their geopolitical influence. General Krulak's three -block war emphasized the complexities of the future: "When Marines deploy into urban areas today and in the future, they will need the flexibility to address a wide variety of crises. In one city block, a Marine will provide food, care, and comfort for an emaci ated child. In the next block, you will see this Ma rine with outstretched arms, separating two warring tribes. Then, in a third city block, this same Marine will engage in intense house -to -house fighting with hostile forces." LGen. Paul K. Van Riper, USMC, "A Concept for Future Military Operations on Ur banized Terrain" (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Combat Development Command, 25 july 1997), p. III-6.
2 MGen. J. N. Mattis, USMC, Commanding General, 1st Marine Division, message to commanders and senior staff noncommissioned officers, 9 19 Nov 03. Quoted in "Goodwill Is Fragile In New Iraq," by Howard LaFrancchi, The Christian Science Monitor, 5 November 2003.
3 MGen. J. N. Mattis, USMC, Commanding General, 1st Marine Division, message to commanders and senior staff noncommissioned officers, 19 Nov 03. Quoted in "Muslims and the Humiliation Factor," by Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, 11 November 2003.
First Lieutenant Tsirlis is a communications officer for 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. He has served more than 13 years in the Marine Corps/Marine Corps Reserve and recently served 7 months overseas in both Kuwait and Iraq and participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom.