Army Transformed By Iraq War

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The war in Iraq has entered a new phase, as U.S. forces move toward an advisory role. Among the legacies of the conflict is the effect it had on the U.S. military and the Army in particular. The years-long fight in Iraq strained the Army almost to the breaking point. The Army has also been forced to reinvent itself and is now fighting a brand of warfare — counterinsurgency — that it had been reluctant to embrace.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This week brought a change of mission for the U.S. military in Iraq, but that's not the only thing that's changing. After nearly seven and a half years of war, the U.S. Army has transformed how it fights, how it trains, and how it educates its leaders - even the equipment it uses.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reports on how the Iraq War shaped America's largest military service.

TOM BOWMAN: General Ray Odierno, a bald, hulking man, trained at West Point to fight the Soviets. Then in the spring of 2003, he swept into Iraq with his troops and tanks. After Iraq's regular army crumbled, a new enemy resorted to hit-and-run tactics. But Odierno didn't see it as an insurgency.

General RAY ODIERNO (Commander, Multi-National Forces, Iraq): This is not guerrilla warfare. It is not close to guerrilla warfare because it's not coordinated, it's not organized, and it's not led.

BOWMAN: But it was a guerrilla war. It caught the Army flatfooted. Odierno was later faulted by the Army for using heavy-handed tactics, like arresting thousands of young Iraqi men - tactics that made the insurgency worse.

Lieutenant Colonel JOHN NAGL (Ret., United States Army): This was a man who did not have a great appreciation for counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare.

BOWMAN: John Nagl served in Iraq as an Army officer, and is now a defense analyst.

Lt. Col. NAGL: General Odierno has shown that people can learn, that he has learned. He has led our Army in learning how to conduct this kind of war. And the lessons he's learned, I think, are of great relevance to the whole nation, going forward.

BOWMAN: Just this week, General Odierno stepped down as commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq. In many ways, he personified the Army: big and lumbering. But Iraq taught Odierno and the Army that fighting an insurgency means protecting civilians, not breaking down their doors; training local forces, not doing the job for them. Troops, not tanks.

Mr. ANDREW KREPINEVICH (Author, "The Army in Vietnam"): I think Iraq has changed the Army in just about every way possible.

BOWMAN: Andrew Krepinevich wrote "The Army in Vietnam," about how the Army failed to understand the insurgency there. He thinks the jury's still out on Iraq.

Mr. KREPINEVICH: Looking back on it, it took us far too long to adapt the Army to fight that kind of war successfully. If we win, it will be by the skin of our teeth. And if we lose, we'll rue the fact that we really weren't prepared.

BOWMAN: So now, the Army is still learning the lessons of Iraq. At West Point, cadets are studying languages like Arabic and Pashto. At Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Army majors study the history and cultures of the places they may find themselves fighting.

Brigadier General Sean MacFarland is in charge of education at Leavenworth. He says the days are gone when an instructor would just lecture from an Army manual. Now officers break into groups and work on scenarios straight from the battlefield, like how to negotiate with tribal leaders.

Brigadier General SEAN MacFARLAND (United States Army): They can get results in almost real time, of the decisions that they're making.

BOWMAN: So because of Iraq, the Army is changing the way it fights. It's also fielding new weapons and equipment on the battlefield. John Nagl, the former Army officer, says insurgents forced this change. They resorted to crude roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices. Those bombs caused up to 70 percent of U.S. casualties in Iraq.

Lt. Col. NAGL: Improvised explosive devices are going to be a part of every future battle we fight, and we've got to be ready for them.

BOWMAN: To get ready, the Army has spent billions of dollars on electronic jamming devices that can stop bombs from detonating; on massive armored vehicles that protect soldiers from the blast.

Some argue the change has gone too far, that the Army is focusing too much on fighting guerrillas. They complain that the soldiers have lost their edge in classic combat: artillery and tank warfare.

The Army's top officer, General George Casey, told NPR last year that his soldiers must also be ready for a large-scale war.

General GEORGE CASEY (United States Army): Now, the guidance that I gave the Army last summer was: focus on major conventional training so that you rekindle some of the skills that you've lost.

BOWMAN: The Army also lost talent. Multiple combat tours led to an exodus of captains and sergeants. Again, Andrew Krepenevich:

Mr. KREPINEVICH: And a lot of them say: Look, I've done my patriotic duty. I've sacrificed for the country, my family has sacrificed, and I just can't see myself doing this anymore.

General PETER CHIARELLI (United States Army): We've asked the same base of people to go back time and time again, and that has put stress on the force. There's no doubt about it.

BOWMAN: That's General Peter Chiarelli, the Army's number two officer.

Gen. CHIARELLI: We have a large population - and a growing population, quite frankly - that have suffered the hidden wounds of this war.

BOWMAN: Thousands suffer from post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury. The Army is also seeing an alarming increase in suicides. Getting troops time off from combat will help. The goal? Two years at home for every year in a combat zone.

Chiarelli says the Army hopes to reach that goal of two years at home by the end of 2011, around the time when all American troops are supposed to be out of Iraq.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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