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Things that Partners Need to Know about Working with Americans
Military partnerships in an alliance or coalition are the norm today. The nature of current international threats, coupled with global fiscal and political problems, makes it unlikely Americans will deploy unilaterally to address the security challenges of the 21st century. On the other hand, it is unlikely that multinational military deployments will occur without US participation, if not in a leading role, then often in the form of a unique niche or support capability that our partners lack, such as our intelligence support, targeting, communications, aerial refueling and strategic lift - the Libya and Mali interventions are but two examples. The ability of Americans and our partners to coordinate and cooperate within alliances and coalitions will greatly influence how successful we are at addressing the international security threats of the 21st Century. We can all learn to be better partners.
On June 25th of last year Small Wars Journal published an article I wrote entitled “Things Americans Need to Know: How to be Better Partners” outlining ten points Americans need to keep in mind to work better with our partners in alliances and coalitions. The article generated a great deal of positive and informative discussion and feedback both from partners and Americans. Many who responded noted that “it works both ways” and suggested an article that examines the reciprocal side of the issue; in other words … what do Americans want partners to know about working with us? Based on the feedback and discussion from hundreds of individuals, I offer the following ten thoughts to help partners working alongside Americans understand us better in our future missions.
1. We plan for our people to be replaceable.
The US military is a large force with multiple global commitments in support of our allies and alliances around the world. We train a Captain to serve in Korea and then be deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq and be able to contribute immediately. Our tours of duty are rarely more than 2-3 years, and we usually change jobs within this 2 or 3 year period. Career service members who stay in are used to being deployed, have varied backgrounds and worldwide experience. Our model is “arrive, make friends, work, transfer….. repeat”. Checklists, common formats and SOPs are designed to facilitate this interoperability. Checklists help tired people to do the right thing in stressful situations; they are not intended to keep them from getting the mission done or to impede flexible thinking. In poorly trained units it does. Units that strictly follow checklists and let regulations “keep them” from doing their job are our less successful units. Our focus on short tours, being replaceable and globally deployable makes it harder for us to develop your level of in-depth knowledge about a region or problem set and discourages us from investing the time we should in developing personal relationships with our partners.
2. We believe there is a solution to every problem.
Americans believe in their ability to influence the environment around them. We find it almost impossible to consider that there are things that lie beyond our ability to achieve. If something cannot be done, we don’t think it is fate or God’s will, but because we didn’t plan hard enough or insufficient effort or resources were applied. These notions are reinforced to us from our first day in the military. We are taught that “failure is not an option” and “admitting failure is impossible”. Closely tied to this notion is our belief that change is good, linked to progress, improvement or growth; while the more traditional societies in which we may work often consider change disruptive and destabilizing. Americans will struggle with implementing or watching others implement an imperfect, status quo program.
3. We love technology…almost to a fault.
Historically, Americans have been successful in war because of firepower and our ability to apply overwhelming resources. We see technology as the crucial force multiplier to replace firepower, an advantage to be exploited, that will allow us to dominate and win on the battlefield with minimal casualties. Americans value newness and innovation; a newer system is by definition better than an older one. We implement new systems, regardless of the pain and turmoil involved in implementation, if there is even a promise of an improved outcome. Since 2001, we have invested heavily in technology, which has driven competing versions of systems of technology with seductive promises of easing decision-making, information dominance and bloodless victory to mitigate fears of casualties on the evening news. Inevitably, technology will be imperfect in its performance and unable to meet our inflated expectations. Harsh environments and limited infrastructure can cause technology to fail. Because of our over-reliance on technology we may often forget how to operate without it. For example, few soldiers who entered service in the past decade have ever used paper maps. Use this as an opportunity to teach us your methods for operating. Often, these methods may work better than our own and you will build tremendous credibility with us.
4. From our perspective… you don’t share well either.
Communication is a two way street. We want partners to candidly share the positives and negatives of their efforts and what their plans are. Often partners can be hesitant to share where they have made mistakes and what they did to alleviate problems. This is certainly understandable, but it isn’t helpful either. When we arrive and begin our cooperation with you we will ask questions and probably inquire ‘have you tried a, b, or c?’ Don’t be insulted because we ask. We are not asking because we think you are not capable of doing the job. Americans believe it is a virtue to be direct and straight forward when asking questions. (Although admittedly, we don’t enjoy being on the receiving end either!) If you are not willing to inform us as to what is going on, what you have done, what hasn’t worked and how you intend to proceed, then do not become indignant when we ask you numerous direct questions.
5. We put great faith in the capabilities of our enlisted force.
We are quite proud of our enlisted force and actively strive to give them increasing levels of responsibility and authority throughout their career. This is important for reasons of recruitment and retention and it also allows us to exploit the skills of an educated, tech savvy population. The frequent moves by officers and commanders previously mentioned means senior enlisted are often the continuity and group memory so essential to a good unit. When a Colonel defers to his “duty expert” it is usually an enlisted man or woman he turns to. Admittedly, some services and some units do a better job than others of nurturing this valuable human resource. You can use this as a measure to assess the quality and capabilities of the American unit you are working with. Sometimes we don’t realize that how you relate to enlisted ranks in your military is different than how we do it. Sending an enlisted man or woman to support you or deal with your request is not intended as a sign of disrespect… it is our norm. When we send someone to do a job, we look at skill set, not rank, age, gender or ethnicity.
6. Don’t be surprised that domestic issues drive what we do.
US forces deploy overseas at the request of a partner nation or to carry out a mandate directed by a multinational body, usually NATO and/or the UN Security Council. We prefer to work with the widest number of partners to share the burden and gain legitimacy, but yes, sometimes we do things based on our narrow national interests. Every nation does this. You do too…. when you can. Because of our size we get more publicity and scrutiny when we do it. We have public open debates widely covered by a robust and skeptical media in our democracy. We are a diverse nation of 330 million people with many competing and contradictory ethnic, political, economic and religious motivations that influence our decision-making about why, when and how to get involved in a particular international crisis. There is no clever American master plan that rationally calculates the pros and cons of competing courses of action, but rather a messy give and take of contradictory domestic interests that change over time. However, once a decision comes out of this messy domestic debate, the military will execute it loyally, without questioning the more narrow political agenda. Moreover, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are just that – not politicians. Whether or not we should be / should have been in Iraq / Afghanistan / Bosnia et al is not our decision. When our Commander in Chief says go - we go. Everyone has an opinion about America’s reach and our role in the world – whether it smacks of imperialism or prudence, but aggressively lecturing us about where we have/have not been, done/have not done is not particularly helpful in building a cooperative work environment.
7. Don’t assume there is a single, well-coordinated “American” position or approach.
Despite our rhetoric and wishful thinking, we still have serious problems with designing, resourcing and implementing an effective interagency or “whole of government” national level approach to problems. We have a big government with dozens of agencies and departments, with competing budgets and incompatible communications systems and institutional cultures. For every American decision, position or perspective there are half-dozen others battling in the wings questioning the chosen decision. We are horrible about working together. Don’t assume that an American you are working with represents anything more than the interests of the particular ministry or agency he is a member of. American military units usually understand, coordinate and communicate better with foreign militaries than with American civilian representatives. A decade of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has made us the best we have ever been in this regard. Unfortunately, it will proabably go back to mutual distrust and miscommunication as we deploy less in coming years. Most of the painful lessons we have learned will be forgotten.
8. It is tough to maintain long-term public support for overseas operations.
For a number of reasons; to include our isolated geographic position, friendly neighbors and the size of our domestic economy, events overseas are rarely important to the average American voter. Domestic issues drive elections for political office in America. It is extremely hard for senior decision makers and politicians to justify to the average American why the USA should be spending billions of US taxpayer dollars or risking their children’s lives far from home. This is especially difficult if it is perceived that the partner nation is corrupt or unwilling to commit their own children or money to the fight. It takes a catastrophic event (like 9/11) to get us committed. Once committed, we will try to get the job done as quickly as possible to go home.
9. Our system makes it tough to formally show hospitality.
We really are open, informal and hospitable people, but our over-zealous regulations tie our hands in this regard. Legalistic, over-interpretation of (no doubt) well - meaning regulations limit what we can spend or receive as gifts or do formally as hosts. Twenty five dollars is our limit on gifts. We are not allowed to give alcohol as a gift. That’s why you see invitations to bizarre things like “no-host” receptions or ice breakers. You will get unit coins as gifts, not cool knives or bottles of Kentucky bourbon. A handful of well publicized episodes of drunken bad behavior over the years have led to misplaced, intense paranoia about alcohol. This has led to our outright ban on alcohol when deployed, even though we know it isn’t realistic or enforceable. We aren’t allowed or comfortable drinking in public or during the duty day and you will rarely see alcohol at events we host. Sorry.
10. Our focus is on today and tomorrow not yesterday.
As noted previously in last year’s article, “Americans think it all started when you showed up”. We Americans have the shortest collective memories in the world. This can certainly be detrimental, but it can be a positive thing too - if you choose to use it in this light. Our short memory helps us and hurts us. It helps because it allows us to be allies with the UK (who we fought two wars against) as well as Germany and Japan. It hurts us when we witness an aggressor nation invading sovereign states under the pretext of protecting ethnic kin and wonder if we should get involved, or wait until the costs are significantly higher. But, our focus on today also means we don’t have several centuries of colonial bias to justify or work through. Quite frankly, if your system worked, I wouldn’t have been deployed and be standing in a tent with you in a failed or failing state. Similarly, our short term focus is on security and stability today and the immediate future, rather than on debating which ethnic group “rightfully” has ownership of land that has changed hands dozens of time over the last five hundred years. Yes, the background history and culture are important, please help us to understand it; just don’t be surprised if our focus and energy is on the future not backwards in time. Not having a long history or collective memory prevents us from being trapped by it.