Winning the Nationbuilding War
While I was in Samac, Bosnia, an Assistant
Secretary of Defense visited my unit- A Troop, 1st Squadron, 104th
Cavalry, Pennsylvania Army National Guard. One of the things he
said was, "We have gotten pretty good at killing
people." In retrospect, this was an understatement. As Saddam
Hussein found out, the United States can reach almost any corner
of the world with real power. Unfortunately, it does not seem to
be quite as efficient at nationbuilding.
Construction is more difficult than destruction,
and nationbuilding operations can be long, complex, and expensive.
America's mission in Bosnia has lasted several years, and no U.S.
official has yet mentioned terminating operations. U.S. forces also
are still in Afghanistan, and U.S. forces in Iraq have suffered
more casualties since the end of major military operations than
during initial operations.
As a Vietnam-era veteran, I doubt the United
States has the financial capability or the political will to occupy
large segments of the world semipermanently. Yet, the potential
costs of not engaging in nationbuilding might be horrific. How can
we shorten the commitment and reduce the cost of nationbuilding?
How can the U.S. military be as efficient at nationbuilding as it
is at killing people? The answer is to have the right tools, the
right people, and the right processes for the job at hand.
The Right Process
Before World War II, the Germans reorganized
their army in a new way and, in doing so, changed the nature of
war. The blitzkrieg was highly efficient and effective. Today, little
doubt exists that the U.S. Army has the structure and processes
in place for victory in any conventional conflict, but when the
contest has less to do with destructive power than with winning
hearts and minds, is the Army organized and manned in the most efficient,
effective manner to win? The assessment made by many of those critical
of the numerous peacekeeping operations throughout the globe is
that it is not.
The military's role in peacekeeping is to maintain
a safe, secure environment. Little else is asked. Nationbuilding
is seen as a separate, distinct diplomatic enterprise. Given the
current structure and manning of the military force, this seems
like a rational division of responsibility.
Unfortunately, as former U.S. Congressman Thomas
P. (Tip) O'Neill once said, "All politics is local!" Most
human interactions during nationbuilding occur between members of
the Armed Forces and the local community. Few Iraqis have encountered
Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremmer, but
many have had interactions with U.S. soldiers. The millions of interactions
Iraqis have with the Armed Forces create lasting impressions about
Americans, and the impressions either support or diminish U.S. efforts.
The ultimate goal of nationbuilding is to establish
a self-sustaining country friendly to the United States. To do so,
the U.S. military must use all its assets effectively. The United
States should structure, man, and employ forces to ensure the peace
and optimize nationbuilding through quality interactions with civilian
populations. Soldiers must go beyond being peacekeepers and become
Up, Not Down
Ford's assembly line and the Army's rigid
top-down command structure are good examples of the top-down approach
to management that dominated the latter half of the 19th century
and all of the 20th century. All organizational actions, down to
the most elemental movements of the workforce, were controlled from
the top. In combat operations, this type of management philosophy
has proven highly effective.
Unfortunately, the top-down system has been
less successful in nationbuilding. Top-down management encourages
exaggerating good news and minimizing bad news. Run that tendency
through several layers of command and the chance is slim of higher
headquarters understanding what is important in any exchange between
a nationbuilder and a civilian.
A Vietnam war story provides one example of
failure of the top-down command structure. The command decided that
building local schools would be a good hearts and minds thing to
do. Military forces went into local villages and built schools.
Ceremonies were conducted to celebrate the wonderful advance the
new schools represented. Pictures were taken. Speeches were made.
Officers congratulated each other. And, shortly thereafter, the
Vietnamese burned the schools down.
The decision to construct schools was a top-down
decision. No one asked the villagers what they thought about it.
The villagers were not involved in the decision or the construction.
As a result, they saw the school not as a benefit, but as a tool
During my tour of duty in Bosnia, my unit met
an older gentleman who asked us for help. We went to his home where
he pointed out a man-size pit in his back yard, which he believed
was an unmarked grave. He asked for help to investigate the situation
and hopefully bring closure to some family's grief.
I promised to see if I could get some help,
and I reported the situation up my chain of command. I reported
it four times, but I never found out any information for the villager.
My superiors took no action or allowed me to do so; it was not a
command priority. We did nothing other than embarrass ourselves.
Did the villager blame me personally? No, but
he concluded that Americans had little interest in his concerns.
The United States missed a chance to make a friend and an opportunity
to shorten our stay in Bosnia.
The weapons harvest is a semiannual event
in Bosnia in which the Stabilization Force (SFOR) attempts to remove
militarygrade weapons from the civilian population. Different units
take different approaches. My unit took a positive, supporting approach.
The local authorities were in charge. We would help. They set the
dates and locations for action and coordinated the effort. We did
not threaten or intimidate the civilian populace, and by taking
this approach, we secured several antitank weapons; hundreds of
automatic weapons, grenades, and rocket-propelled grenades; and
hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Other SFOR contingents took a top-down approach.
With minimal coordination with local authorities, SFOR soldiers
searched local homes with or without owners' consent. One unit that
had taken this intrusive approach confiscated only an old pistol
and one hand grenade after several weeks of work. The skills required
to conduct a successful military operation are not the skills required
The Small Hammer
When my unit arrived in Bosnia, we spent 2
weeks with the unit we were replacing to learn the mission. My predecessor
told me he would introduce me to the mayor of the local village
in our area of responsibility. He explained that the mayor was a
difficult man who dodged meetings, did not like Americans, and only
tolerated our presence. When we arrived at the townhall, a secretary
informed us the mayor was in a meeting and would be unable to see
us. My predecessor announced, "I am SFOR! The mayor will see
me now!" We then stomped up the stairs and barged into the
mayor's meeting. I do not speak Serbo- Croatian, but I could read
the mayor's body language: he was quite unhappy with the intrusion.
My predecessor's problem was less the mayor's dislike for Americans
than his dislike for a particular American. However, my predecessor
executed the mission the way he had been instructed. His only requirement
was to maintain a safe, secure environment. Unfortunately, he acted
more like a conqueror than a nationbuilder.
A few weeks later, I went back to the townhall
and asked for an appointment to see the mayor at his convenience.
Then I made sure I was there when he was willing to see me. I did
so because it was good manners and because my unit would be both
safer and more effective with the mayor as an ally, not an adversary.
Eventually, the mayor and I were able to work well together. He
was not anti-American. He simply wanted to be treated with the respect
he deserved as the town's mayor. Good manners go a long way in any
The skills nationbuilders need to be effective,
which are not now in common task training manuals, fall into two
categories: interpersonal communication skills and areaspecific
knowledge. The ability to speak the local language is critical to
the ability to communicate. The use of interpreters is a poor substitute
for communicating directly. Speaking the language immediately confers
a status far beyond simple communication and is the first big step
toward trust. Communication skills can be learned. The sales industry
has developed countless communication models that can be adapted
easily to communication in nationbuilding. After all, the United
States is attempting to "sell" some of its basic beliefs.
The Reserve Component contains a reservoir
of uncataloged civilian skills. Making a living as an architect
has little application in combat operations, but the same ability
could have great application in nationbuilding. The Army should
catalog and certify such reservist civilian skills and use them
The great Broadway show The Music Man opens
with the musical number "You Gotta Know the Territory!"
Knowing the territory is vital and entails more than understanding
geography; it entails appreciating how the locals think of themselves
as a group.
Not many people wake up in the morning and
say, My culture and I are worthless and insignificant. People need
to respect themselves, especially in uncertain times. Every group
has some accomplishment it can point to with pride. The way to create
support for nationbuilding is to respect, appreciate, and acknowledge
the local people's historic contributions. Area-specific knowledge
should include understanding local customs; cultural and political
history; and the current political situation.
Understanding the current situation entails
understanding people. Who are the significant players in the area
who shape opinion-the employers, the clergy, the head of the local
education system? Who is in charge of utilities, police, and insurance?
Who controls the media? Where do they live? What are they trying
to achieve professionally and personally? All politics is local.
The discovery and effective handoff of such information is vital
My predecessor in Bosnia did as he had been
taught. The transition briefing book he provided contained pictures
of significant locations, the townhall, the police station, and
local churches and mosques. Unfortunately, it contained not one
word on the townspeople. In less than a week, I knew where every
building was. Six months later, I was still learning about the people.
One man had just lost his wife of 30 years. Another wrote poetry.
One individual liked chocolate. Another was threatening his neighbors.
An effective nationbuilder must understand people and relate to
them, not buildings. The briefing book we gave our successors was
20 percent locations and 80 percent personalities. The book gave
our successors a real resource on which to build in dealing with
people. Unfortunately, I believe we were the exception rather than
The Army should develop current civil affairs
units into highly effective, efficient nationbuilding units by building
on their existing base of expertise and training them for region-specific
nationbuilding missions, including training in the language, customs,
culture, history, and significant individuals in their areas. These
units would differ from today's civil affairs units in several ways.
They would not be nationbuilders; they would be new units with a
unique designation and unique uniforms, demonstrating to the world
that the United States has moved from fighting to nationbuilding.
Unlike current civil affairs units that provide
technical expertise, future nationbuilders would assist and provide
governance. Soldiers need to know how to destroy targets. Nationbuilders
need to know how to create good impressions and build formidable
relationships. They are one part diplomat and one part soldier.
We want first-line nationbuilders to be smart, educated, and capable
of assessing situations and taking independent actions within the
general guidelines set forth by the higher command. We want our
nationbuilders to be open, approachable, and easy to communicate
with. We want nationbuilders who understand and care about the locals.
We want nationbuilders to dialogue first and rely on force only
as a last resort.
We want our soldiers to have none of these
qualities. The U.S. soldier should be the wrath of God, able to
bring death and destruction anywhere at any time. Let the nationbuilder
be the good guy and the soldier the bad guy. Attempting to have
the same people in the same uniforms perform both roles confuses
those around us as well as ourselves.
We must invest more instruction in cultural
studies and communications techniques. We must recruit the type
of individuals we want and retain them. At the end of combat operations,
nationbuilder units would deploy to the country to take over first-line
responsibility. Combat units would be kept in reserve for a period
of time in case of emergency.
As nationbuilding progressed, the nature and
size of reserve combat forces could be altered without any noticeable
change to the level of engagement. Finally, as efforts matured,
the nationbuilders would phase themselves out and local authorities
would assume control.
A bottom-up command structure with properly
trained, proactive nationbuilders would-
• Improve U.S. standing in-country.
• Increase the effectiveness of diplomatic efforts and the
safety of the troops.
• Decrease the costs of operations and unit formation.
• Reduce engagement time.
• Improve the readiness of conventional forces.
History is full of examples of countries that
have won the conventional war, but lost the nationbuilding war.
In Vietnam, we learned that you do not win a person's heart and
mind by kicking him in the butt. Unfortunately, we have yet to learn
the most efficient way to win hearts and minds.
Nationbuilding's effect on a client state can
be profound and more enduring than that achieved solely through
diplomatic efforts. A properly trained nationbuilding force cannot
supplant traditional diplomatic efforts, but it can greatly enhance
Also available online at: