Losing Small Wars: Why U.S. Military Culture Leads to Defeat

“Sir – it’s the TEA”   

The Target Engagement Authority was a US one star who sat in the joint operations center in Erbil, with the task of approving and controlling all Coalition fires in Northern Iraq.  I took the headset, preparing myself for the argument that I knew was coming.

“Andy, are you firing mortars”,

“Yes sir”,

 “What the hell is going on?”

 “Sir, the Pesh are getting mortared in the breach.  I’ve got an OP less than 500 meters away.”

“Are US personnel taking fire?”

“Not yet, sir”

“Then you’re not authorized to make that decision” 

“Sir – it’s a matter of one correction before our guys get hit too -- I’m not going to wait for that to happen”, 

“That’s not up to you Colonel, that’s my decision -- cease fire now!” 

The incident caused me to fume, ponder, and ultimately to write this article.  I argue here that the General’s reaction was no anomaly, but rather a symptom of a culture within the US military at conflict with our professed doctrine of mission command; and that unless determined effort is made to change that culture, mission command will never be anything more than an aspirational concept -- officially embraced but shunned in practice.  The ramifications go beyond leadership and doctrine to the very ability of the Joint Force to defeat adversaries – both conventional and irregular -- in a multi-domain environment.

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