Lessons in adapting from the War in Iraq

17th May, 2011

I wrote this essay for the Freakonomics blog.

In the spring of 1980, President Jimmy Carter gave the go-ahead for a daring special-operations mission calledEagle Claw. Fifty-two American hostages had been trapped for months in Tehran under a newly hostile revolutionary government, and negotiations appeared to have broken down. The operation called for helicopters and refueling aircraft to fly into the Iranian desert at night, under the radar screen, rendezvous in the middle of nowhere, refuel, and hide during the daylight hours. The helicopters were then to fly into the heart of Tehran. Special forces were to kill or subdue resistance, liberate the hostages, and then – via another desert refueling rendezvous – escape to the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier off the Iranian coast. The operation suffered bad weather, bad luck – a busload of Iranian travelers blundered into the rendezvous point against all odds – and arguably bad decision-making. The mission was aborted half way through, a helicopter and a refueling aircraft crashed into each other at the rendezvous, and eight soldiers died.

The counterinsurgency specialist Andrew Exum drew my attention to the Eagle Claw failure after special forces killed Osama bin Laden: the circumstances were superficially similar but the results were very different.

“I’m thinking Tim should add our special operations forces as a case study in time for the paperback,” Exum wrote, nodding toward my book. “You cannot understand why the U.S. military was able to execute this extraordinary operation deep in the heart of Pakistan without first understanding the failures of Iran in 1980.”

And Exum is surely right. After the disaster of Eagle Claw, the U.S. established a unified command for special operations, and a specialist special-ops helicopter unit, the 160th special operations aviation regiment. The failures of the rescue mission were exhaustively studied.

But the message of Adapt isn’t really “practice makes perfect,” or even “learn from your mistakes,” at least not as a straightforward self-help cliché. It’s about building systems – whether markets, businesses, governments or armies – that solve complex problems. And it turns out that complex problem-solving usually means experimenting, quickly discovering what works and what doesn’t, and somehow letting what’s working replace what isn’t.

My military case study was the turnaround in the War in Iraq. I didn’t want to go over the post-invasion fiasco, the mysteriously elusive weapons of mass destruction, or the timing of the withdrawal: that’s for other writers and other books. But I was horribly fascinated by the initial refusal to learn from what was going on, and later at the military’s ability to learn and to adapt.

The key lesson is that this adaptation was a bottom-up phenomenon. (Perhaps it’s more accurate to call it “middle-management”: some of the key actors were colonels.)

At the time Donald Rumsfeld, then Defense Secretary, was holding press conferences and announcing that he didn’t even want to hear the word “insurgent” being used, troops on the ground were fighting a vicious three-sided insurgency. (To pick one horrifying incident amongst many, police recruits in the town of Tal Afar were murdered when somebody with explosives strapped all over their body walked into their midst. It wasn’t a suicide bomber, but a mentally disabled 13-year old girl, accompanied by a toddler whose hand she had been asked to hold as she walked towards the line of recruits.)

The soldiers on the front line had to figure out their response without calling their superiors’ attention to the fact that they were doing anything of note. Tips were circulated via email or even PowerPoint presentations, such as the wonderful “How to win the war in Al Anbar by CPT. Trav.” which used stick-figure drawings to convey vital information that the men at the top seemed to be ignoring.

All this, of course, was decision-making at far higher stakes than those we economists usually study. The creator of the “CPT. Trav.” slide deck, Captain Travis Patriquin, was killed in 2006 three weeks before Christmas, leaving behind his wife and three children. He was so respected in Al Anbar that the local sheiks turned out in force at his funeral.

So this is partly a story about how quickly good ideas spread when they have to: one British general told me, with an air of resignation, that the junior ranks quickly adapted to new challenges and new lessons because doing so saved lives, but the most senior officers tended to learn very slowly.

It is also a story about the role of technology in decision-making. The U.S. military placed increasing emphasis on the use of “effects based analysis of operations” – using massive amounts of data and computing power to allow commanders at headquarters to absorb information and react quickly, moving units around like chess pieces. Such techniques are hugely useful in some circumstances – a “shock and awe” campaign – but even then they do not always perform as advertised. We’re now discovering that in many campaigns, it is the decision maker on the ground – a captain or even a regular soldier – who has the information that counts and the ability to use it.

We’re also discovering that communications technology can be more effective at distributing information than at collating and centralizing it. This isn’t just a lesson for counterinsurgency campaigns but for businesses. The economists Julie Wulf and Raghuram Rajan have found evidence that businesses are increasingly decentralising their decision making, while Lorin Hitt and Erik Brynjolfsson showed a decade ago that information technology worked much better when combined with this kind of decentralisation.

Meeting some of the soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan was a sobering experience for me. It was fascinating to discover how the U.S. military adapts. It was awful to read and hear about some of the atrocities committed in Iraq, and wonder about how things might have gone differently. And it was hard to forget the conversations with these soldiers. Experimenting, learning, and adapting is inescapable in a complex world. But rarely has it mattered so much to find the right answers as quickly as possible.


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