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How the war in Iraq has shaped a new US military mind-set

The US Army is seeking to sustain the adaptability and creativity officers gained in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By Correspondent / August 3, 2009

Adaptable: Lt. Col. Matthew Anderson says the US Army has been gaining valuable experience in waging a successful counterinsurgency.

Tom A. Peter


Baquba, Iraq

If anything is certain for Lt. Col. Matthew Anderson and the nearly 500 men under his command, it's that they can expect to spend the least amount of their time doing their designated job as artillerymen.

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Over the course of the unit's 10 months in Iraq, they've cleared houses rigged with explosives, helped refugees return home, and worked to restore Diyala Province's irrigation system. In the process, they've shifted from a cold-war mind-set of following rigid doctrine to a new approach that requires flexibility and creativity.

When Anderson tasked Capt. Todd Tatum to lead his company in clearing enemy weapons caches in the palm groves outside Naquib, a town in Diyala, the company commander responded with an unexpected request: set fire to the palm groves.

"I was like, 'What?!'" recalls Anderson, who comes off as the friendly guy next door rather than a hardened battle commander.

With the thick undergrowth, the mission would be dangerous. Tatum explained that he could get the landowner's permission and burn away the underbrush without damaging the trees. After some discussion Anderson agreed and managed to get approval from his commanders, who initially shared his first response. The mission became hugely successful and was a critical step that enabled many displaced people to return to Naquib.

Military to cultivate creativity

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military has looked to both veteran officers – such as Anderson, who came of age during the cold war – and young lieutenants and captains to adapt and implement new strategies on the fly. As American involvement in Iraq winds down, the military is looking to ingrain those skills in future leaders across its ranks – many of whom earned their chops here.

"We've developed a generation that has ... gained invaluable experience fighting a counterinsurgency, so 10 years from now, if that's where we're at, these young men and women that have served here will be able to go back [to] that experience," says Anderson. "They'll create that culture of out-of-the-box thinking, which is what's needed to be successful rather than the old cookie-cutter solutions."

But ironically, trying to develop a curriculum that teaches the kind of creativity required in a counterinsurgency only succeeds in creating a new doctrine just as rigid as those from the cold war, says James Carafano, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel and former West Point professor.