More on Combat Tours

In response to my note on combat tour lengths, Kevin Drum asks on the Washington Monthly's blog whether "7-month tours consistent with the learning-curve requirements of counterinsurgency?"

This is a great question. The short answer is no, not by a long shot.

Counterinsurgency requires detailed knowledge of the human, geographic, political and social terrain, and it takes time to acquire that knowledge. I'd say it became effective around the fifth or sixth month of my tour as a police adviser in Iraq. Arguably, advisers, commanders and troops operating outside the wire should serve longer tours in order to develop and cement their relationships, and capitalize on them.

But they can't -- there's a finite limit to the amount of combat that men and women can endure. So we must balance combat effectiveness, and the needs of an all-volunteer force (and its families), against the steep learning curve of counterinsurgency, which demands longer deployments.

There are other ideas worth considering, though. For starters, the Army could emulate the Marine Corps by deploying units back to the same ground they worked before. The Marines rotate units through Iraq's Anbar province and, consequently, have a deep base of institutional knowledge about that terrain. The Army, by contrast, appears to deliberately rotate units to a different part of Iraq almost every single time. Although most personnel in a given unit rotate between deployments, those who don't will provide a core of hard-earned knowledge that will help the unit if it deploys a second time to a place it's been before.

I also think the military should look at who really needs a longer tour for counterinsurgency purposes. Staff, logistics and support personnel who never go outside the wire probably can be just as effective if they serve six-month tours -- without all the strain. By contrast, those who serve on adviser teams, provincial reconstruction teams, combat units and key command positions probably do need longer tours to build the relationships and knowledge they need to suceeed. The rub is that these latter troops have much tougher tours -- so you'd be extending the very personnel who need rest the most.

It's a real dilemma, and I'm not sure how to solve it without drastically increasing the size of the military or sharply curtailing the deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

By Phillip Carter |  April 12, 2008; 9:13 AM ET  | Category:  Iraq
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Aaarrrggghhhh. Where is the State Department!?! Where is our State Corps? Where is our State reserves?

This is nothing new, Mr. Carter, Max Boot, and about a 1,000 other people have suggested the idea of having a corp of State Dept officials (experts in government, physical infrastructure, etc) participate in nation building and COIN work.

Build a State Dept Corps or bring back the draft (or both probably). It's the only way we're going to be able to leave Iraq in some acceptable state of existence. It's the only way we're going to successfully deal with Afganistan, Darfur, and future genocide and COIN situations.

Sorry this sounds half-crazed and I know I'm over-simplifying, but it's so frustrating that the country seems to be forcing the Army and Marine Corps to do all the work and making such a small segment of our society carry all the burden. Despite the tremendous efforts of the Army and Marine Corps, the nation as a whole seems to be conducting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with one hand tied behind its back, like the two wars aren't important.

Posted by: Eliot W | April 12, 2008 10:28 AM

Congratulations on the move Phil. I just found out.

Mark of

Posted by: Mark E | April 12, 2008 2:44 PM

What we fail to remember is that we cannot win the COIN fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, only the Iraqis and Afghans can win. We can only be the external support to the sovereign governments. Those are not our fights to win and we cannot win them ourselves. The people in Iraq and Afghanistan must do that and it is up to the indigenous forces to have the long term engagement in their local communities to develop the intel networks to facilitate security operations while at the same time improving the conditions of the people and the governments ability to care for and protect the people. Those are the keys to legitimizing the government and separating the population from the insurgents and terrorists.

Posted by: Dave | April 12, 2008 6:01 PM

Off-topic, but a tip regarding civil-military issues: Read "Columbia's Invaluable Vets" at

The article is about the dynamic student-veterans community at Columbia University in NYC.

Posted by: Eric Chen | April 12, 2008 6:35 PM

Reference the "State Corps": The entire foreign service is no bigger than a single brigade combat team. State is not an expeditionary force. That brigade size force has worldwide commitments. It takes the whole of government not just DOD or DOS.

Posted by: Dave | April 12, 2008 6:50 PM


As I stated in the previous post, I think 7 month tours are very consistent with COIN with the caveat you alluded to, that the same soldiers/marines must return to the same part of Iraq that they left from.

Shorter, multiple tours in the same AO equals less of a learning curve, better established relationships with locals, more vested interest in the AO (since those leaving know they have to come back in 6-7 months), and also less time away from home at one time. SOF figured this out years ago, it is time the Big Army figured out a way to make it work.

Posted by: bg | April 12, 2008 7:57 PM

It's been 7 years since 9/11/01.

Our borders are still lawless with drug & human trafficking going on daily.

Bin Laden is still loose & reported to be re-grouping.

And none of the presidential candidates offer any credible solutions.

Democrats & Republicans are guilty of putting this nation at risk. And for what? Cheap foreign labor. Sen. John McCain's Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill was wrote by corporate lobbyist to subvert the Constitution & make legal what is now illegal. At a cost to this nations security. Crooks like these (Sen.s Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton & John McCain signed & still support this bill as well as the Z-Visa) should be ran out of town.

Instead their running for president.

So I'm asking my fellow citizens to join me in a GENERAL STRIKE this September 11th 2008 in a series of protest to bring down the two-party hypocrisy.(For more-

"Unions, corporations, & the major parties have failed to deal with pressing matters of war & peace, income inequality, & the meaning of citizenship itself, it has fallen to the American people to set things right".(Erroll Louis New York Daily News)

Solidarity in Poland removed the Communist, then the Berlin wall came down without firing a shot:

Because, corrupt governments that have no public support (Congresses approval rating between 10 to 20% depending upon the poll, the presidents around 30%) are easier to remove then we've been led to believe.

Posted by: chris rice | April 13, 2008 1:58 AM

Thanks for Dave recognizing how much smaller State is. Also worth noting is that while DOD has been receiving lavish addition appropriations, State is still languishing with a reduced operating budget. See

Posted by: Gus | April 13, 2008 3:05 AM

That's my whole point. State is too small for the challenges the US faces today. I'm not blaming State; Congress & the White House needs to shift budget priorities to boost State and develop a State Corps. Just maybe we don't need all those F-22s, or missile defense, or the latest carrier and those funds could be spend just a little more wisely. (Yeah, I know, defense contractors, lobbyists, etc stand in the way.)

The Army and Marines do a lot of things really well, but this country is also asking these two organizations to also act as the State Department, Depts of Energy, Agriculture, Interior, and the National Archives.

Posted by: Eliot W | April 13, 2008 8:41 AM

It's worth considering, too, the "combat fatigue" studies done in WW2, that indicated that a trooper was a liability in his first month or so but if he survived (and, obviously, many didn't - any prey species loses mostly the young) he improved markedly, and for a period of between the fourth month and about the (I forget the exact time span) eighth or ninth month in contact was as effective as he could be. But after that his effectiveness started to drop, first gradually, then rapidly. I recall that nobody, statistically speaking, was still standing after a full year.

Obviously the combat intensity in Iraq is much, much lower than Italy in 1944 or Northern France in 1945. But the stresses have to be there all the same: every day it's a crapshoot, the dice are rolling, and you know if you're just there long enough some day they'll come up snake eyes.

The real nutroll is that if that was an existential conflict it'd be crucial to figure out some way to work this out. But the fact that this is a sort of "pants-optional" colonial misadventure suggests that there is a whole 'nother alternative, which is let the locals do it.

Posted by: FDChief | April 13, 2008 9:02 AM

You point out a key thing that might work, redeploying to the same bit of dirt your unit was on last time.

The advantage is that you know the lay of the land on day one, and re-establishing local contacts would be much faster than trying to identify the right people in a new location, and growing trust up from the ground each time.

The locals are more likely to see you as serious if you keep coming back v facing a rotating but always changing row of strange Americans. They are more likely to take the time to build a personal trust relationship with you if they think you are going to be around, not come and gone in the proverbial twinkling of an eye.

The next question is why we can't re-define how units work. Why does the whole begade have to change at once? Where is the consistency in leading the COIN education?

Instead of pulling whole brigades out at once, how about we combine three and make it one big lump that stays put, but with 2/3 of the men rotated out home and the other 1/3 on the front line. You do this at the platoon level when you have to stand watch, why can't it work at a higher level?

Could we have staff rotate in and out on a process of continuous improvement or continuous upgrade? Where each man overlaps the other by one month on the ground and the rotation of the men is staggered so that not more than 10% of a unit leave in any one month?

Also, why fixed tour lengths? It's not like the men are on a sailing ship and all have to come back together. I agree with a minimum tour length, but if some one is working out well in that position and handling the work, give them the option of staying on or rotating out.
It would give good commanders an incentive to take care of their key staff and not abuse them, because they want them to stay on. Men, throughout history have been prepared to stay and fight, and fight and die, for commanders who take care of them, commanders that the men perceive as looking after the men.

It's a cop out to say that men fight for their buddy, or for the flag. Men like to fight for a good cause under good leadership. Leadership must explain the cause and how each man is directly helping, it must lead by example and inspire the men to be focused on finding solutions and overcomeing the resistance.

If leadership fails in that regard, then it does not matter how much they like their flag, or their buddies, for without the motivation and leadership to win a war the men just want to take their buddies back home to the town where their flag flies.

We do need to keep key people on longer, but I think it should be at their option.
People who have the option of going home after x months, but who have the option for staying on, may just do that. They may feel less pressure because they are there to do the job, rather than as an obligation. This may lead to less grumbling for those on extended stays.

If they think they are doing well and contributing in a significant way, they can stay if their commanding officer thinks so too. On the other hand the commanding officer, once the persons tour was up could elect to send them home, even if they wanted to stay, based on the evaluation that a new face may be more effective.

So how about:

1) Returning to the same bit of dirt each time until you get it right. Keeping the same unit in the same town so as to give COIN work longitudinal consistency.

2) Replacing every 12th man every month instead of the whole lot after 12 months, or whatever the magical pumpkin number is.

3) Giving individual officers the option of staying longer, if they think they are making progress, so long as they are effective, pass a screening process and their commanding officer wants them to stay on.

Posted by: JM | April 13, 2008 6:04 PM

The US military trains to win wars not to occupy nations. Training for occupations requires intensive studies of indigenous populations and local cultures. The US militart does not teach this. The CIA barely manages it in a 2 or 3 year course, let alone in 3 months of basic and advanced combat training.

The war was easily winnable. The peace was not something the USA could handle. American soldiers tend to be monolingual and monocultural. They are, agewise, past the point where they can pick it up in a short while, especially when under jeopardy. This occupation was a fool's errand ordered by an administration of fools whose military training was done in front of a TV set on saturday night or in a movie theater while trying to cop a feel off their dates.

Posted by: Kal Palnicki | April 14, 2008 8:06 AM


Your plan sounds sensible. However, you know that the Big Army is very skittish about troops developing feelings for individual commanders. It sounds too MacArthur'ish to them.

The fixed battlespace would be great too, but the Big Army, again, is skittish about people developing fixations to terrain. It destroys the current Army Paradigm that BCTs(UAs) are Interchangeable(TM).

It is funny how the Army is so skittish about feelings, yet we're trying to win a war that is all about human feelings and emotions. If the Institutional Army has its way, we'd all be robots who mindlessly follow all of the Army Policy and Regulations.

Posted by: Jimmy | April 15, 2008 1:46 PM

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