Thursday, August 11, 2011

"The more things change...": Historical observations on the difficulty of SFA

I recently stumbled across a really interesting RAND report, published in the spring of 1965 by one G.C. Hickey. "The American Military Advisor and His Foreign Counterpart: The Case of Vietnam" (pdf) was based on interviews conducted by the author in the field over a ten-month period in 1964, and it distills a number of lessons about the challenges of the advise-and-assist mission that are relevant to this day. Some of these challenges are structural and circumstantial and impervious to U.S. military solutions. But some of them are not, and Hickey provides a series of recommendations -- grouped within the three major categories of advisor selection, advisor training, and administrative reform -- to improve the performance of U.S. advisors. Despite nearly a decade's worth of similar discoveries in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of these problems persist.

Here's a representative example:
Many Americans, measuring the Vietnamese by their own cultural standards, are highly critical of their value system and some of their attitudes and behavior patterns. They are apt to accuse their counterparts and other associates of being lazy, unenthusiastic, without a sense of urgency about their jobs and the pursuit of the war in general, lacking in frankness to the point of deviousness, intent on ritual but uncharitable toward their fellowmen, lax about health and hygiene, wasteful with materiel. Often, they vaguely ascribe these characteristics to what they call the inscrutable "oriental mentality"; nothing in their training seems to have prepared such critics to look on these aspects of Vietnamese behavior as appropriate and legitimate manifestations of a foreign culture and tradition.
One could rightly say that you can't train empathy and the anthropological ideal of cultural relativism, and I probably agree. But you can select for it, and one of the major flaws of systematic use of general purpose forces for security force assistance is that the opportunity doesn't exist to "select" for much of anything in the 19-year old specialists who make up the bulk of a brigade combat team.

If you can't find the time to read through the entire report, be sure to take a look at the Preface and Summary sections at the very least (pp. iii-xviii).

This brings to mind a paper I read three years ago when it was published by the Army War College: Michael Metrinko's "The American Military Advisor: Dealing With Senior Foreign Officials in the Islamic World" (pdf). (Metrinko, as an interesting if unrelated aside, was one of the embassy hostages in Iran.) This one is more focused on the relationship between senior U.S. military officers and partner nation policymakers or senior government officials, and less on tactical and operational combat advising. But this also helps to illustrate another SFA challenge that I'm constantly harping on: there is a big, big difference between teaching a host nation platoon leader how to run combat patrols and helping a foreign defense minister to set up his acquisition system.

But here's the point: we've thought about this stuff before. We've done this stuff before. So let's think about what's changed and what hasn't and then adapt to do the job right. It seems simplistic, but how can anyone fail to appreciate the similarity between the lessons of today and those of half a century ago?

10 comments:

  1. Ooh, this is good stuff. One of my long held concerns has been how to do proper COIN/SFA with a big conventional army that doesn't train organically for it. From oath of enlistment to unit ascension, not much is done to prepare the 19 year old 11B who joined to blow things up (nothing wrong with that) for COIN/SFA. COIN/SFA are additional things you learn and train up for. As in "I am an infantryman, but I have to do this COIN/SFA thing for awhile, I guess." The main identity is still 11B, and that wins at the end of the day.

    ReplyDelete
  2. the FAO program allows 1 yr or so for the participating officer to "acquaint" himself with the country, culture and people by giving him/her free reign during this period to basically backpack and tour around meeting people of various status in the country. This is the most "anthropological" program since understanding of a country means to becoming familiar with the various levels of a particular society.

    ReplyDelete
  3. (might as well get the whole book, oliver)

    "Advice for Advisors: Suggestions and Observations from Lawrence to the Present"

    From Lawrence of Arabia to Operation Desert Storm, this authoritative new anthology presents 14 insightful, first-person accounts and valuable lessons from the soldiers who have advised foreign armies in various times and places over the last 100 years. Each article presents valuable lessons, insights, and suggestions from the author’s firsthand experiences, allowing readers to make their own judgments and analysis in support of their unique requirements. The articles are presented without editing or commentary, providing unvarnished lessons fresh from the combat zones where they were learned. Military professionals and history buffs alike will find much interest in this unique official publication.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The Human Dimension of Advising:
    An Analysis of Interpersonal, Linguistic, Cultural,
    and Advisory Aspects of the Advisor Role

    Michelle Ramsden Zbylut and Kimberly A. Metcalf
    U.S. Army Research Institute

    ReplyDelete
  5. What this should tell us is that historically, culturally, institutionally, and emotionally, we are not good at this sort of thing and ought not to continually try and re-engineer entire societies in our own image, whether through the State department/World Bank/UN/IMF-ish route - or the military route.

    But that is no comfort to those ordered to do such things. Good luck.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I agree with Madhu. The lesson from Vietnam and other interventions is that no matter how hard we try or how much we theorize about it, re-engineering foreign societies doesn't work.

    ReplyDelete
  7. While we may not do very well in forcing others to change or re-engineering societies, do we do well helping others when they reach out for assistance/training/funding?

    ReplyDelete
  8. Madhu and Keith -- What this should tell us is that historically, culturally, institutionally, and emotionally, we are not good at this sort of thing and ought not to continually try and re-engineer entire societies in our own image, whether through the State department/World Bank/UN/IMF-ish route - or the military route.

    I understand what you're saying here and agree in large part, but I don't think it's all that pertinent to the advise and assist/train and equip model. The intent isn't to "re-engineer foreign societies" in our image, or at least it ought not to be. Part of doing this job well is recognizing that every security force won't look the same, and that certain adjustments will need to be made to adjust to cultural, historical, geographical, and other peculiarities.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Here's the link to a pdf of the Combat Studies Institute Occasional Paper-turned-book that Anon @ 0907 mentioned above (and which I didn't know existed until now), in case anyone's interested.

    Advice for Advisors: Suggestions and Observations from Lawrence to the Present (pdf)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Anon @0857 -- the FAO program allows 1 yr or so for the participating officer to "acquaint" himself with the country, culture and people by giving him/her free reign during this period to basically backpack and tour around meeting people of various status in the country. This is the most "anthropological" program since understanding of a country means to becoming familiar with the various levels of a particular society.

    This isn't quite right. FAOs do a year of in-country training, and sometimes it can be quite unstructured. But they're really there to do follow-on language training when it comes right down to it.

    The FAO construct isn't that useful here for several reasons. First of all, there aren't enough of them to use only FAOs as trainers and advisors. Second, FAOs aren't selected or trained for the SFA mission but rather to bring regional expertise across a range of different functions, including serving on embassy country teams and GCC/component planning staffs. And on top of that, FAOs are expected to have regional expertise (despite getting language training and living experience in only one country); that's not good enough for guys serving in the advisor role.

    ReplyDelete