Features | Security | Central Asia

The Strategic Corporal’s Evil Twin

The killing of 16 civilians in Afghanistan this week was a tragedy. But pulling U.S. troops back from the local populace would be a mistake.

James R. Holmes

In the late 1990s, following U.S. interventions in trouble spots from Mogadishu to Kosovo, U.S. Marine Commandant Charles C. Krulak published a minor classic of military theory. Titled “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War,” his commentary observed that very junior military leaders can make very consequential decisions – tactical decisions that reverberate up to the strategic or even the political level. This week’s slaying of 16 noncombatants in Kandahar, allegedly by a U.S. Army noncommissioned officer (NCO), confirms Gen. Krulak’s insight in a macabre and dispiriting way. Children were among the victims, prompting calls for accelerating the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan. The strategic corporal can advance a campaign’s goals through his deeds, or thwart those goals through his misdeeds.

Why the focus on noncommissioned officers? Complex operations – undertakings that demand the experience and mature judgment of seasoned officers – perversely tend to push authority down onto lower leadership echelons. The reason is simple. Battling enemy armies usually involves large-unit operations overseen by commissioned officers or senior NCOs. Much like cops walking the beat in tough neighborhoods, by contrast, forces that intervene in strife-wracked countries can’t remain concentrated in big units. They must spread out to place adequate numbers of boots on each square mile of ground. There are too few senior officers to go around. As large units disperse into smaller ones, authority devolves on small-unit commanders.

Which amplifies the stresses on them. This is doubly true, writes Krulak, when the “unique challenges of military operations other than war” combine with the “disparate challenges of mid-intensity conflict.” Troops dispatched to urban areas to restore order amid strife and disorder might find themselves waging high-intensity combat in one city block, interposing themselves between combatants as peacekeepers in the next block, and rendering humanitarian aid in the next (hence the three-block metaphor). Bafflingly complex enterprises demand a variety of skills, some outside the standard military repertoire. Their hallmark is unpredictability. Passions – the fury that pervades conflicts pitting neighbor against neighbor – only compound the strain on ground-force leaders. Krulak’s points of departure were then-recent contingencies like Bosnia and Somalia. He pronounced the Battle of Mogadishu (1993), memorably retold in Black Hawk Down, an archetype of three-block war.

The shooter in Kandahar was Krulak’s worst nightmare. The commandant observed that the outcome of complex operations “may hinge on decisions made by small unit leaders, and by actions taken at the lowest level…Success or failure will rest, increasingly, with the rifleman and with his ability to make the right decision at the right time at the point of contact.” Faced with “a bewildering array of challenges and threats,” junior personnel must “confidently make well-reasoned and independent decisions under extreme stress.”

When we discuss civil-military relations in seminars at the U.S. Naval War College, as we did this past week at the start of the spring term, we explore the tension between elected officials’ oversight of military operations and commanders’ independence to do their jobs without undue interference. Micromanagement results from overly intrusive political supervision, politically inapt operations from granting the military too much latitude. A perennial question is when officers should push back against directives from their civilian masters. But look at things from policymakers’ standpoint. To what degree should they interfere in events on the ground? Well, it depends. If indeed the effects of a tactical action radiate up from tactics to operations to strategy or politics, policymakers may see the need to assert themselves, reaching into affairs normally reserved to officers’ discretion. Routine acts can have direct political import – warranting direct political supervision. Knowing when to intervene and when to keep their hands off is a matter of prudence for civilian officials.

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This debate has a long pedigree. Theorist Carl von Clausewitz insists that policy must not be a “tyrant,” and urges top leaders to leave mundane tactical or administrative matters such as “the posting of guards” to the military. Fettering military autonomy is asking for trouble. But he never met the Kandahar shooter – the strategic corporal’s malign doppelgänger. Clausewitz admits, moreover, that certain actions have “direct political repercussions.” He thus hints that this special class of military endeavors falls under the rightful purview of statesmen. Similarly, Krulak posits that the frontline serviceman may be “the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy and will potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well.” The strategic corporal wields influence far out of proportion to his humble rank.

Which leaves the Obama administration in an unenviable position, striving to preserve combat effectiveness and efficiency while mollifying critics foreign and domestic. As they cope with this week’s events, military and civilian officials must fight the reflex to abridge the strategic corporal’s freedom. To be sure, recombining small units into large ones would restore oversight over small-unit leaders. But it would isolate U.S. forces from the populace, to the detriment of security. It would surrender the initiative to Taliban insurgents, much as secluding beat cops in police stations would let gangbangers prowl city streets.

From the standpoint of military effectiveness, the U.S. armed services thrive on the dynamism that comes from affording junior personnel the liberty to innovate. The welders, machinists, shipfitters, and gunners I oversaw on sea duty were like the fictional secret agent MacGyver. Turn them loose, and they could repair most anything with a paperclip and a piece of chewing gum. They were far from atypical. Tight central control works against that sort of ingenuity.

Let’s not vitiate U.S. strategy or stifle the entrepreneurial spirit – even in a praiseworthy cause like mending America’s good name.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.