Lessons Observed on Lessons Observed: IEDs, Advising, and Armor


In the late winter of 2007, while serving as a brigade planner of a unit slated for a deployment to Iraq, I received a phone call from the division headquarters. An operations staffer there told me to call my brigade’s designated representative at the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) to get lessons learned from units that had recently been to Iraq.  I did as I was instructed, reaching an amiable civil servant who was eager to help.

“We have all kinds of info. What do you need?”

“I have no idea. What do you have?”

“Everything. Where are you going?”

“We don’t know. Maybe MND-North? There’s no plan yet.”

“Oh, we have lots of stuff on MND-North. What do you need to know about it?”

“I don’t know – we’re about to link in with the division staff this week to get the intel picture. What else should we know?”

“Well, we have 4 years of data and logs on the division’s area of operations and some recent brigade AARs [after action reviews]. We could send you that.”

A little over a week later I received a package with the aforementioned information. The after action reviews were fairly generic, obviously put together by officers who had other duties to perform. The data was either too granular or too high-level to be of use. In the end we deployed to the Multi-National Division – Center on the southern edge of Baghdad and not the northern division closer to Kirkuk; these areas might as well have been in different countries. Most all of the “lessons learned” were useless in the area of operations we were eventually assigned. My experience with CALL in 2007 reinforced the Army adage that there are no lessons learned, only lessons observed.

More recent work by CALL has acknowledged the important difference between lessons observed (recognizing something that ought to be learned) and lessons learned (an observation fully analyzed and used to change military equipment, doctrine, or organization). A handbook on the Center specifies the difference between observations, insights, lessons and “lessons learned:” “Observations, insights, and lessons are not lessons learned because they have not been validated by the Army’s assigned proponents, and there is no assurance an actual change in behavior will occur.”  I cannot speak to CALL’s utility today; certainly through 2007 they were very adept at collecting observations and insights, but had some difficulty in actually changing behaviors. This isn’t to pick on CALL, though it was of little value to me in 2007 (I am hoping that they have improved in the interim). In fact, the U.S. Army wasn’t very good at lessons learned before the Center was founded in 1985.

I was reminded of the above conversation after finishing General Donn Starry’s book Armored Combat in Vietnam. Starry, later the prime author of AirLand Battle, paints In this book a unique picture of the Vietnam War by focusing on the use of armored cavalry, air cavalry, and tanks. The slim volume, published in 1980 but based on research conducted in the mid-1970s, counters the strong narrative that Vietnam was an infantry war and that Vietnamese geography precluded the effective employment of armored forces. Starry is a gripping story-teller and makes free use of engaging anecdotes. And yet, it is only in the final chapter of his observations that the recurring failure of the Army to actually learn becomes readily apparent. Starry presents six major lessons that he observed in Vietnam.  Three of these are lessons that the Army merely observed and did not learn. Two decades elapsed between Starry’s public observation of these lessons and the beginning of our more recent years. Yet the Army failed to internalize the lessons of Vietnam, and soldiers have paid the price for it on the battlefields of the last 13 years.

The first lesson I will highlight here is best summed by Starry’s succinct observation, “It is […] plain that the American advisers to the South Vietnamese Army were important but that their preparation for the tasks that confronted them was poor.”  Until the advent of the Advise-and-Assist Brigades of the late-2000s, the selection and training of military advisers was relatively unchanged since 1962. Officers and NCOs were chosen because they were available and for no other reason. The Army launched an adviser training course at Fort Bragg in 1962 that lasted 6 weeks and focused on infantry tasks, not the other combined arms tasks with which advisers would be dealing. No language or cultural training was included.

Now, as then, there were and are a number of problems with how the United States has grown, trained, and advised Iraqi and Afghan forces, but high among these has been our consistent failure to provide properly trained advisers. As an example, Owen West stated that his training to lead an adviser team in 2006 lasted only 42 days and was of poor quality – hardly the level of quality we should expect for the key element of the U.S. withdrawal plans.  It took until 2009 and the fielding of Advise-and-Assist Brigades for the Army to institutionalize advising at a minimal level, although this unit was chosen because it was available and not for its superior ability to advise indigenous forces. In short, we were just as good at advising, institutionally, in Iraq and Afghanistan as we were in Vietnam.

Starry’s second and third lessons are related. He notes that rear area (doctrinally, the area behind the forward line of troops, but in effect all the parts of South Vietnam that were at least notionally controlled by allied forces) and route security consumed considerable combat power. Armor forces became instrumental in clearing routes and escorting logistic convoys when they could have been put to better use fighting the enemy. Starry recommended supplying military police and logistics units with armored cars to assist with rear security generally and route security (clearing and escort) specifically. And yet the failure of the U.S. Army to provide armored wheeled vehicles to forces persisted into 2004 and 2005. The notice of this failure was the catalyst for Secretary Rumsfeld’s infamous quip that you go to war with the army you have.  Rumsfeld’s response is all the more distasteful knowing that the Army we had should have had armored wheeled vehicles, a lesson observed in 1980 that provided the good Secretary and his predecessors ample time to address this issue. And it was not until early 2008 that the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle (MRAP) was fully fielded – at last, a vehicle designed to protect forces against the threats they faced, even if the Marine Corps knew it was a better vehicle in 2005 and at least one officer in the Army was suggesting the use of such vehicles as early as 1996. The point is that this need was put forth publicly in 1980 and it took 28 years to fully implement the lesson.

The final lesson we will discuss, related to the second, is recognizing the threat of what Starry called “random mines,” what we would call improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in today’s parlance. Starry’s observation is worth reading at length:

Because of the nature of the war, the enemy was able to do great damage with random mines, some of which were relatively simple. […] Our failure to solve the problem of mines laid in patterns has been aggravated by our similar failure to cope with random mining tactics. We must capitalize, therefore, on the experience the U.S. Army gained in dealing with enemy random mining techniques in Vietnam. […]  And, finally, since random mining can be used against us again, we should develop equipment for swift search and elimination of such land mines. Since World War II almost nothing has been done in this field [emphasis mine].

IEDs have been around in regular practice since at least World War II (with limited use prior to that, such as in the Anglo-Irish and Boer Wars). We did nothing about them between 1945 and 1973 (including dealing with their use in the Korean War) and we did nothing about them between 1973 and late 2003 with the establishment of JIEDDO’s task force predecessor.  In nearly 60 years, including at least 10 years of exposure to these weapons, the U.S. Army established practically no ability to identify or survive IEDs outside of equipment designed for high-intensity conflict. And this was not for lack of observation of the problem, merely for lack of following up on the observations to change behavior and field the tools need to survive on the battlefield.

Starry identified issues that inhibited our strategic and tactical success in war, and that also killed and wounded our soldiers. In 1980. Between the publication of the book and our going to war in Iraq, none of the three lessons observed highlighted here were addressed, despite our ability to do so and their grave effect on the welfare of our deployed troops. This is gross negligence on the part of the officers responsible for developing and fielding the equipment and doctrine of the Army in these years. While this negligence is of historical interest and worth further study in itself, it bears lessons observed on how to address lessons observed in Iraq and Afghanistan – particularly as we pull the preponderance or remainder of our forces from Afghanistan. As Starry said of Vietnam, so must we do of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

As we look to the future it is essential not only that we know the lessons of Vietnam, but that we understand them as well. Understanding them, in their correct context, and relating that to the future will take more time and space than we have had available for this monograph. But it must be done. We can no more turn our backs on our experiences in Vietnam than we can take those experiences, relate them directly to our next battlefield, and so in the end get ready to fight better the war we have just left behind.  The wisdom to learn from experience, without merely getting better prepared to live that experience, is not easily won. But win it we must. We owe it to ourselves and our country. More however, we owe it to the brave men who went, helped us learn the lessons, and paid the price of learning. They left us a large legacy – larger perhaps than we deserve.

There has been a push in some circles, certainly not in these pages, to ignore the past 10 years of war as an anomaly not to be repeated. We had a similar reaction to the Vietnam War and yet found ourselves in similar circumstances, still learning the same lessons. It is incumbent upon the civilian and military leadership of the Department of Defense to learn from our experience this time around, understand those lessons, and use those lessons to change our behavior in the next war, not to fight the Iraq or Afghanistan war again. As we continue the debates over what our forces look like, how they are equipped, and how they are trained, it seems that we should assess the lessons we have observed from these wars and others and ensure that we set our forces up for success in the future. We greatly wasted the 20 years between Vietnam and our contemporary wars and we cannot afford to do so again. Budgets are important and money is finite, but the lives of the troops are more finite and we owe it to them to truly learn the lessons of the past.


Jason Fritz is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army