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Preparing for a Transition Team Assignment in Iraq

At Fort Lee, Virginia, the new Ordnance captains assignments officer stood in front of my classmates and me. She was responsible for determining where each of us would be assigned after finishing the Combined Logistics Captains Career Course. Her news was not well received. After a week of waiting for our assignments, many of us were not surprised when we were told where we were needed: on transition teams in Iraq. As part of the transition teams, we would be serving as logistics advisors to the Iraqi Army. Many were angry about a second or third deployment; some were unaffected. I had many questions, as did my classmates, so I set out to learn more about my new assignment as a logistics advisor to Iraqi soldiers.

The term “advisor” immediately conjured up the image of retired general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell standing in front of his hooch in Vietnam circa 1963. Then Captain Powell, newly arrived in Vietnam, sat in a room with other officers and listened to a major general say that their assignment as advisors was essential to stopping the spread of communism and helping the South Vietnamese save their country. After this speech, Powell was fired up to get to the field and train the South Vietnamese soldiers. He served his tour of duty and returned disappointed. Powell left Vietnam frustrated over the Army’s attitude of “if it ain’t working, pretend it is, and maybe it will fix itself,” and his own attitude that “the ends were justified, even if the means were flawed.” Powell’s dissatisfaction with his experience as an advisor was due in part to flawed notions of what was expected and what could be accomplished by training an indigenous force.

I asked myself: How could I avoid returning with the same frustrations? How could I best prepare myself for an assignment that, although done in the past across many countries, was not a specialty or career path in the Army inventory? I had not been specifically educated to train foreign soldiers. I knew I needed to prepare myself before my 3-month advisor training at Fort Riley, Kansas.

My first task was to get my hands on as many sources of information as I could. I obtained Combat Studies Institute Occasional Papers 18 and 19, which contain numerous articles by authors ranging from T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia) to officers just returning from serving as advisors in Iraq and Afghanistan. For me, the information merged into three broad focus areas: societal awareness, including language, history, customs, work ethic, and thought processes; basic soldier skills, including weapons training, convoy procedures, medical knowledge and skills, and doctrine; and psychological awareness, including mental toughness, spiritual fitness, physical fitness, and focus.

Societal Awareness

Societal awareness encompasses more than just knowing the language; it is the ability to behave in any situation without being offensive to those you are trying to train. Societal awareness is also familiarity with a society’s nuances, which, if I could imitate them, would allow me to gain the trust and confidence of the individuals I would be training.

Language. A working knowledge of the local language is the most important aspect of societal awareness. I took 3 years of German in high school and lived in Germany for 3 years; however, in college, I froze when the time came to take a German oral exam. I was embarrassed because I knew that, to a native speaker, I would sound like a 6-year-old. Speaking a foreign language is a phobia that many people have and one that needs to disappear. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Milburn and Major Mark Lombard, who served as advisors to the Iraqi Army, state that “the usefulness of language skills is obvious. The intent should not be to bring the advisor up to the standards of a foreign area advisor.” So why bother learning the language at all? Learning the native language elevates the advisor’s status and credibility. Although I would learn some Arabic at Fort Riley, I could begin before I left for the training. The Army has the Rosetta Stone foreign language software available through Army Knowledge Online, and the Georgetown University Press website also offers resources to learn Arabic and even the Iraqi dialect.

History. Historical knowledge of my future counterparts’ culture and nation could help me understand why they do the things they do. Knowledge of a nation’s history provides an understanding of customs, prejudices, and local work ethic. This
understanding could help me deal with and motivate my counterparts.

Customs. Learning the customs of another country is often difficult for Americans. The fact that Iraq has three different cultures—Shia Muslim, Sunni Muslim, and Kurd—makes this task proportionately difficult. Major Mike Sullivan, who, with his team, built and trained the 6th Iraqi Infantry Battalion, brings this point home by stating that the “Iraqi army is set up to mimic the societal breakdown of ethnic backgrounds,” meaning that the Iraqi Army contains the same ethnic groups, and the cultures and biases that come with them, as the Iraqi society. I needed to have knowledge of general Middle Eastern customs and also the customs of the three cultures within the country. Ignorance of this could destroy my working relationship with my counterparts. By understanding the differences, I would also understand why my counterparts feel one way or another about their fellow countrymen.

Work ethic. The American approach to a problem is often head-on and direct. When training a task, U.S. advisors have a tendency to take over and do the task for a person who is having difficulty. This is wrong. T.E. Lawrence said, “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.” I should not expect the same kind of results from the ranks of the Iraqi Army that I expect from my Soldiers.

Thought processes. The thought processes I would encounter while working with Iraqi soldiers would be different than anything I encountered previously in my career. I had to understand that Iraqis do not view timelines and tactical continuing actions with the same degree of urgency that the U.S. Army does. T.E. Lawrence observed that Arab “minds work just as ours do, but on different premises. There is nothing unreasonable, incomprehensible, or inscrutable in the Arab . . . Allusion is more effective than logical expression: they dislike concise expression.”

T.E. Lawrence weaves the final unifying thread of how language, customs, history, work ethic, and thought process come together under the umbrella of societal awareness by saying, “Experience of [Arabs] and knowledge of their prejudices will enable you to foresee their attitude and possible course of action in nearly every case.”

Basic Soldier Skills

To ensure that I would be able to train my counterparts, I needed to focus on my basic soldier skills.

Weapons training. Weapons training is more than going to the range with an assigned weapon, zeroing, qualifying, and cleaning up when through. Lieutenant Colonel Milburn and Major Lombard remind Army advisors that all advisors of a team will regularly have to man a mounted crew-served weapon, so advisors should receive refresher training on the M2 .50-caliber machinegun, the M249G squad automatic weapon, and the MK19 40-millimeter machinegun. Reading the field manuals (FMs) for these weapons and becoming familiar with the systems before leaving for Fort Riley would help me make the most of my training and would better prepare me for the transition team.

Convoy procedures. Convoy training is not only doing convoy live-fire exercises in Kansas, or in Kuwait, or both. It is also about training for convoy operations from start to finish. Convoy operations include the whole process, from the first warning order that the convoy commander receives to the final closeout when the mission is complete. So, I needed to be familiar with the unit movement operations covered in FM 4–01.011, Unit Movement Operations; troop leading procedures in FM 7–8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad; and the military decisionmaking process in FM 5–0, Army Planning and Orders Production. Understanding that the convoy process is more than just driving is key, but driving skills are also important. More often than not, advisors in Iraq will find themselves maneuvering vehicles at speeds of 50 to 60 miles per hour in heavy traffic while watching for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left by the enemy.

Medical knowledge and skills. Lieutenant Colonel Milburn and Major Lombard stated that the “absence of indigenous medical personnel means that the advisor is almost invariably the first responder in the event of casualties.” Advisors should not wait until the first casualties arrive at triage to remember the ABCs of first aid. Numerous websites, such as www.WebMD.com, can provide the basics of emergency first aid. In addition to the combat lifesaver training that I would receive before deployment, I needed to review medical FMs like FM 4–25.11, First Aid, or FM 8–10–9, Combat Health Logistics in a Theater of Operations Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures.

Doctrine. Deviations from doctrine have been a common feature of operations in Iraq since the start of the war. We Americans have the ability to think outside of the box. However, one must understand the doctrine that is inside the box before jumping out of it. Dr. Peter Kindsvatter, the Ordnance Corps Historian, interviewed three Ordnance captains who were assigned to three different special police transition teams in Iraq. Since they were the only Ordnance officers on their teams, the captains handled many ammunition and maintenance issues for their teams and their Iraqi counterparts. However, a majority of their time was spent performing duties not normally associated with Ordnance or even logistics in general. These other duties involved infantry tasks and training the Iraqis in the infantry skill set. To prepare for training and employing infantry tasks, I needed to review FM 7–8. Previous advisors assigned to transition teams found it important for advisors to review military operations in an urban environment, cordon and search operations, patrolling, raids, detainee techniques, and checkpoint operations.

To avoid misunderstanding, I am not saying that an advisor will or should always perform these operations personally—the Iraqis should fight their own battles. However, I needed to be able to teach these tasks. Book knowledge, when combined with the training and experience garnered at Fort Riley, would pay dividends.

Psychological Awareness

Psychological awareness is the ability to sustain oneself in the contemporary operating environment by maturing one’s spiritual, physical, and mental fitness. Societal awareness would help me behave appropriately in Iraqi culture. Basic soldier skills would help me train my Iraqi counterparts. Psychological awareness would be required for both.

Mental toughness. Picture yourself on an advisory team. You are training your Iraqi company on maintenance procedures. The company is 40 percent Shiite, 40 percent Sunni, and 20 percent Kurdish. The Kurdish soldiers do not read, write, or speak Arabic, so how do you teach them maintenance? Enter mental toughness. As Lawrence said, the advisor cannot do everything for the counterpart; your patience will be taxed to no limit. One way to train for mental toughness is to study the lessons learned by other advisors. Examining how others have dealt with issues helps build “muscle memory” in the brain. For example, the 1st Marine Division trained Iraqis in a special commando school, and those few trainees later formed the cadre of a commando school that trained other Iraqis. The Iraqis being trained by the first group of commando school graduates were angry and jealous toward their trainers, who wore berets and carried 9-millimeter pistols. “Precedence is a serious matter among the Arabs,” T.E. Lawrence said. The pistols and berets were status symbols, and status is paramount in Middle Eastern culture. Learning from experiences like the 1st Marine Division’s and being prepared for similar cultural issues would help me build mental toughness.

Spiritual fitness. On the television show “M*A*S*H,” the general yelled to Father Mulcahy, “There are no atheists in foxholes!” With the possibility of an IED harming or killing Soldiers everyday, I would have to prepare spiritually before leaving for my mission. Not everyone in the Army has the same religious beliefs, and the same is true of our Iraqi counterparts, but the Army’s Chaplain Corps is a great asset. Those unarmed professionals’ sole mission is taking care of Soldiers’ spiritual fitness.

Physical fitness. Getting up for a run at 0600 is hard enough for some. Going for a run at 0600 when the temperature is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit is even more challenging, so I would have to prepare physically before arriving in country. The Iraqis would follow my lead if they saw me running, eating healthfully, and taking care of myself. The Marine advisors offer a quick leadership lesson: “An effective advisor is not . . . merely a giver of advice; he is a leader.” Just as leaders in the U.S. Army set standards by their own behavior, I would be an example for my Iraqi counterparts. Staying physically fit also contributes to mental fitness. As the old adage says, “If you look good, you feel good!”

Focus. Focus comes from mental toughness and spiritual fitness and is aided by physical fitness. Keeping focused at all times is difficult during a normal duty day in the United States, and it is even harder when dealing with a culture that does not share the Western social norm of getting down to business right away. Regular azimuth checks are necessary to maintain focus. You cannot stay focused if you are not being objective or if you are taking yourself too seriously. Lawrence said to “cling tight to your sense of humor. You will need it every day.” As my battalion commander daily reminded my fellow commanders and me in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, “This is a marathon, not a sprint!”

Information on advising indigenous forces is abundantly available online. Although I researched and prepared myself for the Middle Eastern culture, plenty of lessons can be learned from advisory tours in Korea, Vietnam, and El Salvador. The better prepared an advisor is before his 3 months at Fort Riley, the more he will absorb during training, and the better he will perform as an advisor.

Captain Joshua B. Jordan is currently serving as a military transition team advisor in Iraq. He enlisted in the Army in 1993 as a combat support specialist and was reclassified as an automated logistics specialist. Captain Jordan was commissioned as an Ordnance officer in 2002. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Purdue University and is a graduate of the Ordnance Officer Basic Course and the Combined Logistics Captains Career Course.