The Field Manual

15. The Field Manual

Back at Fort Leavenworth, David Petraeus was running into obstacles while pushing his COIN manual through the Army bureaucracy.

The document had sparked dozens of comments and criticisms from the standard set of reviewers in the Army’s myriad agencies, institutes, and commands. Most were routine, dealing with matters of style and definitions of terms. Looking over the few substantive objections, Petraeus accommodated some, changing or deleting a sentence or two, and rebutted or simply ignored the others, as he was entitled to do; routine comments were not binding.

But the officers at the Army Intelligence Center, in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, filed a more ominous protest. “After a thorough review of the draft,” the center’s deputy commandant wrote in a memo on June 14, “we must nonconcur due to the number of critical and major issues.”

Petraeus couldn’t finesse this one. For a branch of the Army to “nonconcur” with the draft of a field manual was tantamount to a veto: its publication would be canceled; its acceptance in the annals of official doctrine would be denied. Petraeus’s whole project, the fruition of his decades-long dream, would be derailed.

The Intelligence Center’s problem with the manual—with the whole concept of counterinsurgency—boiled down to turf. Intelligence lay at the heart of a COIN campaign: the troops live among the people, keep them secure, and build their trust—as a result of which the people supply the troops with intelligence, which is then exploited to kill or capture insurgents, which makes the people still more secure, and so the cycle continues. The manual’s chapter on “Intelligence in Counterinsurgency,” the longest of its eight chapters, stated: “All Soldiers and Marines are intelligence collectors . . . Operations will be conducted for the purpose of gathering intelligence . . . Soldiers and Marines must coordinate intelligence collection and analysis with foreign militaries, foreign intelligence services, and many different US intelligence organizations.”

This was what drove the officers at the Army Intelligence Center around the bend. In their eyes, and according to their own doctrine, regular soldiers had no business collecting intelligence, especially “human intelligence,” or HUMINT, intelligence gathered from direct contact with ordinary people on foreign soil. “Due to legal considerations,” the center’s memo insisted, “only counterintelligence personnel operate a HUMINT network and develop HUMINT sources.” And the notion that soldiers and marines should “coordinate intelligence collection and analysis,” or had the talent or training to do so, struck them as plainly outrageous.

The manual’s chapter also stressed the need for troops to understand the cultural roots of an insurgency, such as tribes, clans, or ethnic groups. The section on cultural awareness had been written by Montgomery “Mitzy” McFate, an anthropologist who’d become fascinated with military issues during her college years at Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley, partly, she would say, as a “way of rebelling against my hippie parents” (she was raised in California, in the late sixties and early seventies, on a converted barge with no plumbing) and partly as an intellectual realization—sparked by a course she took on the language of terrorist groups—that a society’s style of warfare revealed at least as much about its culture as did, say, its sexual practices or table manners. McFate had written one of the first articles for the revivified Military Review, outlining how to find the makers of Iraqi roadside bombs by analyzing their social networks. As a result of that article, she was hired by the Army to help create “human terrain teams,” which would track down Iraqi insurgents more broadly through these same methods.

In its memo objecting to the COIN field manual, the Army Intelligence Center stated that “doctrinally there is no such thing” as cultural or social network analysis.

For the next several weeks, memos flew back and forth between the analysts at Leavenworth and Huachuca. Petraeus and his team offered compromises in the language. For instance, the line “All Soldiers and Marines are intelligence collectors” was changed to describe them as “potential intelligence collectors.” The sentence that envisioned regular troops coordinating intelligence was changed to stress that “commanders and staffs” would do the coordinating.

Still, the Intelligence Center’s commanders were not appeased.

They had another problem besides turf: they didn’t like Petraeus. Specifically, they didn’t like the way he’d put together this field manual, how he’d staffed the project with his own people, circumventing normal procedures. The initial four-page memo from Fort Huachuca jabbed at the point in its final paragraph. “Our comments do not reflect on the first-rate job that CADD routinely does,” it stated, referring to the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate, the division at Fort Leavenworth that usually, and very quietly, wrote field manuals. “We realize [this] manual was drafted outside CADD’s direct control. Because of this, USAIC [United States Army Intelligence Center] recommends the COIN FM be staffed again so the combined arms doctrine is captured correctly.”

Fortunately for Petraeus, General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, was in his corner for this fight. Schoomaker was in a hurry to get this manual out there; starting all over was, to say the least, not an option. In mid-August, Schoomaker was out at Leavenworth on one of his periodic trips. Conrad Crane happened to be there, tweaking the revisions. Schoomaker told him and Petraeus that he wanted all disputes settled as soon as possible; dealing with these objections had pushed back the schedule too far already. There was an insurgency war going on; it would be nice for the Army to have an official book on how to fight it.

At the same time, Schoomaker didn’t want to step into the fray directly. He made it clear that Petraeus would have to resolve the conflict. Petraeus didn’t want to antagonize the commanders at Huachuca any more than necessary; he still needed their concurrence for the manual to go forward. Still, he did have a mandate from the chief.

So while Crane sat in his office, Petraeus phoned Major General Barbara Fast, the commandant at Huachuca, and did what three-star generals sometimes do to two-star generals after exhausting all other options: he pulled rank. In a calmly chilling tone, Petraeus told Fast to get on board. This manual had to come out right away; the chapter on intelligence was key; the principles in that chapter were central to the whole concept of counterinsurgency; he was willing to set up a meeting to resolve the remaining differences, but they were going to be decided in his favor, one way or the other, that’s just the way it was, and she needed to come to grips with this fact now.

After the call, Petraeus told Crane to arrange a meeting. It took place on Tuesday, September 13, in an office at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a largely Pentagon-funded think tank in Alexandria, Virginia, where Montgomery McFate was working at the time. Attending were Crane, McFate, two officials from the Army Intelligence Center, a colonel from the Joint Staff’s intelligence branch, and the chapter’s principal author, Kyle Teamey, John Nagl’s former intel officer in Iraq who’d been recruited to help him write the outline of a COIN field manual at the Front Page restaurant in Dupont Circle ten months earlier.

By the end of the day, the dispute was settled. The Intelligence Center dropped its protest. Crane and Teamey made a few minor tweaks to the manual’s text. But their main points remained intact.

•  •  •

One month later, Petraeus ran into another obstacle: Ralph Peters. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, Peters was the author of several potboiler novels, most of them about a tenacious Army officer who saves the day through acts of bravery that those around him are too corrupt or craven to muster. He was also an on-air commentator for Fox News and a columnist for the New York Post. In June an interim draft of the COIN field manual had been leaked to the press and was subsequently reprinted in its entirety on several websites. Petraeus was a bit annoyed—he hadn’t yet given the document his final edit—but he had circulated the draft for review to every Army command (it was this draft that upset the Army Intelligence Center), so he shouldn’t have been surprised that one of its hundreds (or, who knows, maybe thousands) of recipients passed it on to a reporter.

The draft sparked dozens of articles, editorials, columns, and blogs, some favorable, some not. But none was more vicious than Peters’s column in the October 18 edition of the New York Post, titled “Politically Correct War.”

Peters lambasted the field manual’s authors as “dishonest and cowardly” officers of an overly academic bent who “seek to evade war’s brute reality” and who “believe that being nice is more important than victory.” He particularly took after the section on COIN’s “paradoxes” (“Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction,” “The best weapons do not shoot,” “The more force used, the less effective it is,” and so forth), calling them “just nutty” and “a mush of pop-zen mantras,” adding, “Unfortunately, our enemies won’t sign up for a replay of the Summer of Love in San Francisco.” Nor, he wrote, can we afford to “treat hardcore terrorists like Halloween pranksters on midterm break from prep school.”

In a less seething tone, he complained that the manual “ignores religious belief as a motivation” for insurgents. In this sense, he argued, the communists in Malaya, whom the manual cited as a pertinent historical model, were very different from the jihadists in Iraq. “It would be a terrific manual,” he wrote, “if we returned to Vietnam circa 1963, but its recommendations are profoundly misguided when it comes to fighting terrorists intoxicated with religious visions and the smell of blood.”

The column set off alarm bells all over the COIN community. Peters wasn’t a typical right-wing columnist. He had friends and connections high up in the military. His last assignment in the Army, just eight years earlier, had been as an aide to the deputy chief of staff for intelligence in the Pentagon. He still did consulting work for the Army and the Marines. It could reasonably be inferred that his column reflected the views of some of those contacts, senior officers who could disrupt the process of turning the field manual’s doctrine into actual policy.

Short of that, the column might arouse opposition on Capitol Hill, where Peters had several fans among the hawks on the armed services committees. Not that they had the power to tamper with doctrine, but they could stir discord, which might crack the veneer of consensus that Petraeus had worked so hard to lay and polish.

Petraeus’s initial response to Peters’s column was bewilderment. When an old friend emailed to ask what he thought of it, Petraeus called it “a bit inexplicable.” After all, he went on, “the word ‘kill’ is mentioned an average of once per page,” and “there is a description up front of the religious extremists.” Most of the manual’s authors weren’t merely PhDs; they’d also “served one or more years in Iraq or Afghanistan—where they did plenty of killing/capturing, in addition to trying to win the occasional heart and mind.” What was Peters proposing that they do to counter the insurgents? Did he “think we can kill ’em all”? Petraeus knew that wasn’t possible.

Still, Petraeus also knew that Peters was touching on a legitimate point, which the manual, in its current form, didn’t address. Bing West had made the same point at the COIN conference at Leavenworth back in February. West, too, was flamboyant in his tone—less so than Peters, but enough to let many of the participants wave him off. Even then, Petraeus had conceded that the COIN paradoxes probably overstated matters. Now, the more he read through them, the more he thought they certainly did. Sometimes the best weapons did shoot, even in a COIN war, and the manual needed to say so more clearly.

Conrad Crane, who had written the paradoxes, was incensed by Peters’s column and sent Petraeus an email urging him “to avoid overreacting to his diatribe,” adding, “We must stick to our guns (or other weapons of COIN).”

Petraeus tried to tamper Crane’s war fever, replying, “If you can get past the cheap shots/rhetoric, there is some merit to Ralph’s critique.”

Over the next week, Petraeus rewrote chapter 1, which contained most of the excesses that bothered Peters. “Not making drastic changes, rest assured,” Petraeus wrote to Crane on November 3, “but am adding a bit of nuance here and there and also explicit recognition that, yes, it is necessary to kill bad guys! And that, yes, some hearts/minds can’t be won.”

Crane conceded the need for the revisions, allowing that the first chapter “is the only one some people will read . . . We talk plenty about targeting and killing later in the manual, but most people won’t read that far back.”

Petraeus replied, “You are exactly right about Chapter 1, Con, and that is, in truth, the issue with most folks. You’re dead-on that many will not read beyond it. And Ralph is in that category, by his own admission . . . Anyway, thanks for not nuk’ing me for fooling with your baby! Hope to make it even prettier!”

In his rewrite, Petraeus added qualifiers to almost all the paradoxes. “The more force used, the less effective it is” became “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.” “The best weapons for COIN do not shoot” became “Some of the best weapons for counterinsurgents do not shoot.” “Most of the important decisions are not made by generals” became “Many important decisions are not made by generals.” (Even in the original draft, Crane was prudent enough to note that only “sometimes” is “doing nothing” the “best reaction.”)

There was one more issue that Peters had raised, and Petraeus saw it as still more disturbing: whether or not insurgents fueled by religious extremism were fundamentally different from those whose motives were economic or ideological—that is, whether the lessons from past COIN campaigns, such as in Malaya or the Philippines, were relevant to the war in Iraq. Whatever the answer, the manual had to confront the question.

Petraeus had one of his aides pose the question to Montgomery McFate. She responded by writing six new paragraphs analyzing religious extremism as another form of ideology that motivated insurgents and lured a community to their cause—the difference being that these particular “true believers” embraced a “culture of martyrdom” and were willing “to use whatever means necessary to achieve their unlimited goals.” As a result, “friendly actions intended to create good will among the populace are unlikely to affect religious extremists.” In these circumstances, she wrote, it would take a far more focused effort to separate mere zealots from terrorists -reconcilable Muslims from irreconcilable jihadists—and, in the end, there might be more of the latter to kill.

Petraeus edited McFate’s remarks and inserted them into key spots in chapter 1. He also wrote some new sentences of his own to amplify the point. In one of the manual’s first paragraphs, which dealt with the need “to eliminate as many causes of the insurgency as feasible,” Petraeus added, “This can include eliminating those extremists whose beliefs prevent them from ever reconciling with the government.”

A few pages later, in a paragraph citing the different types of insurgents and how to co-opt them, he inserted, “True extremists are unlikely to be reconciled to any other outcome than the one they seek; therefore, they must be killed or captured.”

Caveats of this sort had appeared in the leaked draft of the manual, but most of them were buried in later chapters. Petraeus saw that they needed to be placed up front, to make sure that officers—many of whom, as he said to Crane, “will not read beyond” the first chapter—didn’t get the wrong idea about this kind of war. It was very different from traditional war. It demanded a new way of thinking. It required learning about subjects that had little or nothing to do with traditional warfare. It was about protecting the local people, undermining the insurgency’s appeal, and forcing or persuading as many insurgents as possible to reconcile with the government. But some of these insurgents—maybe a lot of them—were irreconcilable; sometimes you still had to kill bad guys.

•  •  •

There was one more bit of business before Petraeus could turn the page on the Peters kerfuffle: a face-to-face meeting with Peters himself.

Not long after the Post column appeared, Petraeus had an assistant invite Peters to Leavenworth to discuss over lunch the issues he’d raised. This was one of Petraeus’s specialties, bringing critics and foes into the tent, swaying them over to his side; this was another piece of information operations, a basic tool in counterinsurgencies—and insurgencies. The meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, November 21.

As it happened, Petraeus was called away that day. To take his place, he called John Nagl, who was now commanding a battalion at Fort Riley, Kansas, a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. Colonel Peter Mansoor, a former brigade commander in Iraq who’d been hired by Petraeus a few months earlier to run Leavenworth’s new COIN Center, also attended as a sort of moderator. Brigadier General Mark O’Neill, the deputy commandant of the Command and General Staff College, formally hosted the affair but said little.

By this time, Petraeus had all but finished editing the field manual. Had he been at the lunch, he might have shown Peters his revisions, and Peters might have been mollified. But Nagl, who had little free time in his current job, didn’t know much about these revisions. Mansoor was familiar with them—he’d been actively involved in the scrubbings—but, as the text wasn’t final, he was reluctant to bring them up.

And so the lunch did not go well.

The atmosphere was icy from the start, and mutually so. Nagl viewed Peters as a bloodthirsty yahoo; Peters viewed Nagl as an overeducated priss. Peters recited his main points: that the purpose of a military is to kill the nation’s enemies; that history shows this is particularly so when dealing with an insurgency fueled by religious extremism; and that the field manual’s failure to mention religion as the driving force of Iraq’s insurgency can be the result only of political correctness.

Nagl argued back on every charge, his main point being that in a war of insurgency, the hard thing isn’t killing enemies, it’s finding them, and for that you need to win over the people, not just shoot everybody in sight.

Starting to answer one of Peters’s points, Nagl said, “Speaking as a social scientist—”

Peters interrupted: “You’re not a social scientist. You’re a soldier.”

Nagl, a bit puzzled, replied, “Well, I’m a social scientist and a soldier.” “No!” Peters thundered. “You can’t be both. Which is it?”

As the discussion dragged on, Nagl’s aggravation deepened. Peters had never fought in battle; he’d spent most of his Army career as an intelligence analyst—which was fine—but Nagl had fought, day after day for a year in Iraq, and had killed a fair number of insurgents. Yet Peters kept lecturing him on the need to kill the enemy.

Finally, as if to prove his street cred, Nagl told him about one extremely tense day in Anbar Province, when he and his men killed a particularly nasty insurgent, tied the corpse to the front of a tank, drove it around town for everyone to see, then phoned the dead man’s mother to come pick up the body.

Peters asked, “Why isn’t that in the field manual?”

Nagl sighed. Peters flared.

The meal ended as coldly as it had started. Neither party had expected to be convinced by the other. In that sense, no one was disappointed.

The rest of that week, Petraeus made only a few additional changes to the manual. The biggest one involved resolving a dispute over how to describe the proper level of force to be used in a COIN campaign. Should the adjective be “measured,” “minimal,” “precise,” or “discriminate”? Petraeus chose a different phrase altogether, headlining the section “Use the Appropriate Level of Force.” His solution finessed the issue, but the alternative suggestions lacked clear meaning, and, besides, the manual’s purpose was to lay out guiding principles; a major point in the book was that the commanders on the ground, down to lieutenants and in some cases corporals, had to use their judgment and take some initiative.

•  •  •

The field manual—formally titled FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency—was published on December 15, 2006, to much acclaim, some controversy, and a surprising level of curiosity. One-and-a-half-million people downloaded the online edition in its first month up on Fort Leavenworth’s website.

Even Ralph Peters, who noticed Petraeus’s changes, wrote a New York Post column on December 20, titled “Getting Counterinsurgency Right,” hailing the manual as “the most-improved government publication of the decade” and “a genuinely useful tool” for American officers in Iraq. But six months later, he would change his mind again and revert to his original criticisms, even writing an article in the American Interest that slammed all officers with doctorate degrees as “theory-poisoned and indecisive” Hamlets who have learned only how to lose. (In the same issue, Petraeus—following the traditions set by the founder of West Point’s Sosh department, Colonel Lincoln, and by his own mentor, General Galvin—wrote a rebuttal, extolling graduate school as a vital adjunct to a modern officer’s education.)

But in his uncharacteristically positive Post column, Peters raised one serious question about insurgencies, a question that the manual had failed to ask, much less answer. It was, in effect, the same question that was haunting Pete Chiarelli and Celeste Ward, concerning not just Iraq’s insurgents but also its leaders: “What if they just don’t want what we want?”

Four changes would have to take place before the COIN field manual could have much effect on the war or on the American military broadly: a new commander in Iraq, a new secretary of defense, a decision by the president to send in more troops, and one clear instance where the manual’s principles spawned great success on the battlefield.

In the month that the manual was published, the groundwork was laid for all four.