Unlearned Lessons

I participated in a seminar led by guy who had been on a CORDS team in Vietnam. CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) were supposed to do some of the development and coordination activities done by PRTs.  I was aware of CORDS but through talking to some older guys who knew about them. You cannot find much about them otherwise. It is the forgotten war and maybe the forgotten victory.

The professor pointed out that the insurgency in South Vietnam was decisively defeated after the TET offensive and CORDS cemented the victory.   After that, it became a problem of invasion from North Vietnam.  The popularly held idea that a bunch of insurgents, living with the people in the countryside, overthrew the South Vietnamese regime is just wrong.  We all remember the fall of Saigon, but we often forget that it was conquered by the armies of the North; big armies complete with armor and air support.  It wasn’t little guys in black pajamas.     

The successful counterinsurgency, including CORDS operation, was linked with the disastrous fall of Saigon and because we got the history wrong, usually w/o even thinking much about it, we were unable or unwilling to learn the lessons.  

The strategy associated with the surge worked in Iraq. We went from near defeat in late 2006 to a clear success (call it victory) a year later. I personally saw the change and felt its effects.  It was literally a matter of people dying or not. You can do all the academic analysis you want and round the words until they fit into square holes, but I am morally convinced that thousands of people are alive today because of what we did. PRTs were part of the surge and people like me contributed to the victory in Iraq. 

Our work at the PRTs may be following CORDS down the memory hole. It just doesn’t have many powerful champions and there are detractors. Some people are almost embarrassed that the surge worked, since they had so vociferously predicted its failure. Others have convinced themselves that success would have happened anyway.  Still others deny that we were successful at all since the situation is not a perfect as they could imagine. And then there are those who imply that victory or defeat in Iraq were/are just irrelevant.    

Some of the participants in the seminar asked me how State Department had taken advantage of the unique experience I had gained in Western Anbar. How had we absorbed that knowledge as a learning organization.  This is what they wanted to know.  I thought about it. I thought about it again.   The Marines invited me to Quantico to discuss my experience, several times, I told them. An independent scholar contacted me.  He had read my blog and wanted to see if I could tell him anything else.  At State Department … well, FSI asked me to present to classes of PRT folks going to Iraq.  I was on a panel with four other people and collectively we talked for about an hour.  That was good.  I sponsored my own brown bag lunch to discuss Iraq.   Five people came, all of them my friends just trying to be nice. I wrote a few entries on our State Department wiki, Diplopedia.  I don’t know if anybody read any of them, but information gets stale anyway unless it is converted to knowledge.

The follow up question was something like, “then how do you all learn?”  I mumbled about “reading in” to the cable and reports.

It is hard to be a learning organization because it is hard to turn experience into information and even harder to turn information into useful knowledge. We too often content ourselves with information on paper, or these days on computers.  We can gather all the numbers, metrics, whatever you want to call it, but it has to be converted to useful knowledge and categorized by human intelligence.  Creating useful knowledge usually means putting it into understandable context.  It usually also requires that the person digesting the information is also someone who can make decisions.  You cannot outsource your brains.

As a PRT leader, I had first-hand, primary knowledge. I sometimes didn’t know the significance of my information or how it fit into a bigger picture. It was helpful when someone had the secondary knowledge to evaluate and figure out what my information was part of. That is why a learning organization is stronger and smarter than the individuals in it.  If the information contained in individual minds remains un-harvested, the organization doesn’t learn.  It can be full of smart people who are adept at learning and improvising solutions, but it will lack the synergy of a learning organization. This is our problem.

I have been observing organizations for a long time.  You have to look at the organization as a whole with its own behaviors, not only at the separate individuals because groups are more than a the sum of individuals.  They develop a culture. We all know that individuals can learn, but so can organizations under the right conditions.

I see that many can be episodically learning organizations.  Much depends on characteristics of individuals in charge and the culture they engender. People have to talk and exchange information informally and non-judgmentally. The learning episode stops if anybody gets in trouble for being wrong, stepping out of line or presenting information that contradicts a agreed upon course of action.  But it is clearly a lot harder than just letting people talk and engage.  There has to be a way to evaluate information. Someone might be 100% honest and open, but still lack the perspective to create accurate or useful knowledge.  On the other hand, the old saying applies that even a broken clock is right twice a day, so you have to listen to everybody. 

The Marines in Iraq had become a learning organization.  I wrote about it at this link. Parts of State Department have been learning organizations during some periods.  I have been involved in some. It was exciting but those flashes of lights tend to flicker out when personnel or priorities shift. 

Maybe both personnel and priorities have shifted concerning PRTs in Iraq.  Maybe its just me.  Maybe the State Department has moved along.  Maybe the old Arab proverb applies, “The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on. I don’t suppose my banana index translates very well anyway. It even stopped working in Iraq before I left