Toxic, Poisonous and Stupid: Iraq War Decision-Making Ten Years On

March 19, 2003

‘It’s going to be tonight, isn’t it?’

I remember it clearly. Stood in a Cardiff pub after work, engaging in grim talk with colleagues about the onset of this war. Building irreversibly for months the Iraq invasion was finally here. The ultimatum to Saddam was to expire at midnight. Airstrikes would surely begin in a matter of hours.

Sure enough the TV news was into full-on ‘war mode’ by morning. My partner and I sat watching BBC News’ coverage of last night’s green-screen night-vision airstrikes and Pentagon press conferences. We watched, oddly compelled and disturbed, as ‘rolling news’ TV presenters stood beside chain link fences as B-52s heaved themselves into the Gloucestershire skies. A discourse was up and running of ‘You may disagree with the reasons for going to war, but now that it’s finally happening, you have to ‘get behind’ the brave servicemen and women fighting this war.’ (One or two had advanced a similar line of argument in the pub).

I remember being surprised by the speed at which this discourse had taken over, at least in the immediate term. The war was happening like it or not, and Britain was to play a significant role. This time the long-range bombers taking off from British soil weren’t being sent to saturate the Mekong Delta. They were on ‘precision’ strike missions, to hit ‘high value targets’ with cruise missiles. This wasn’t ‘another Vietnam.’ Oh, no. Nothing like that.

But soon coalition forces were again trying to ‘win hearts and minds’, once again learning how to fight a counterinsurgency. Citizens around the world were again protesting against the war in huge numbers. Wikileaks became The Pentagon Papers for a digital age. The parallels with Vietnam became ever clearer as the war turned from an quick invasion to a drawn-out occupation. Once more into the quagmire.

For some years I have researched and taught the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts in terms of the decision-making processes of senior figures involved. Theoretically at least, business school teaching and research should help ‘leaders’ to make better decisions than they might otherwise have made. The onus is to explore decisions – good and bad – with a view to understanding what might have occupied the minds of those making them at the time. I have come to regard Iraq war decision-making as a very instructive example of desperate failings in leadership behaviour and dysfunction. Such failings are common across all kinds of organizations and are – despite the lessons of history – perhaps more common now than ever.

The fateful decisions taken on Vietnam in the 1960s have massive historical resonance but relate mostly to the decisions about whether or not to commit US troops at all. What struck me most about Iraq, however, was not just the decision to go to war. That was controversial enough on its own and had clearly been taken well before 2003. As the war dragged on I become increasingly interested in the chaotic, perverse and shambolic prosecution of the war itself. Even within its own narrow terms the war was appallingly costly. A bad decision to invade was compounded by shambolic and ineffective leadership of the warfighting itself.

Why? The answer seems to lie in the ways in which contemporary large organizations behave, and their complex and disturbing forms of metamorphosis and self-deception. Organizations have been told to radically restructure themselves in ‘lean’, ‘flexible’ and ‘adaptable’ directions – to re-imagine themselves according to corporate blueprints. Today’s environment requires speed and decisiveness. Decisions have to be taken quickly. It’s happening, whether you like it or not. You may disagree, but time to ‘get behind’ us.

Indeed ‘with us or against us’ discourse is getting less necessary; any noises of complaint or concern about the strategy have no traction with leadership. Think what you like, we’ll ignore you. Decision makers look for ‘facts’ and ‘intelligence’ that backs up their already-existing prejudices. After radical restructuring top ‘leaders’ become detached from the more mundane, everyday workings of the organizations they are supposed to ‘lead’, and they lose their willingness and ability to listen for any signs of contrary evidence. Concerns about current and looming problems are read by those above as dissent, defeatism, or ‘fear of change’.

Military correspondents Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor in Cobra II, a definitive narrative of Iraq decision-making (2007), paint a vivid picture of the hubris and arrogance of Donald Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense after its corporate-style ‘restructuring’ into a ‘leaner’, more focused organization. Like a parody of corporate ‘best practice’ Rumsfeld’s Pentagon was all about speed to market, agility, innovation and decisiveness. This war is happening. We’re going in come hell or high water. We’ll get the sign-off we need it. Hell, we’ll go without it. And we’ll keep the costs down by going with a small, agile, non-bureaucratic, operation. 100,000 troops is all we’ll need. Ignore the 450,000 asked for by uniformed dinosaurs working to outmoded rules of thumb. It’s different this time.

Gordon and Trainor expose a horrible contradiction at the heart of this rushed, corporate-style approach to warmaking. Officially the mission was to disarm Iraq and depose Saddam because of his supposed ‘weapons of mass destruction’. But if this really was the mission 100,000 troops would never have been enough to secure the WMD sites (2007: 94-5). A lucky escape, perhaps, that none were to be found?

Rumsfeld ignores military professionals, promotes like-minded cliques, ostracises experienced staff. Like other leaders overseeing failure they exhibit a funny mixture of megalomania and indifference. A member of the US Army’s 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment put it brilliantly – so under-resourced and ill-prepared were his commanders that they were ‘looking for 100 percent success with a 50 percent plan’ (Gordon and Trainor 2007: 319).

Sadly I’ve seen ‘100 with 50’ in all kinds of large companies where I’ve interviewed managers and front-line staff; auto manufacturers, hospitals, banks, and universities. The mantra of ‘doing more with less’ is pervasive and usually damaging. Most organizations have very tough goals to meet, but fail to provide their middle management and front line operatives with the resources, support and manpower they need.

As the Iraq war morphed into a drawn-out counterinsurgency, the dire predictions of the sceptics came true. In the months before March 2003 a comparatively feeble State Department kept raising the issue of ‘post-Saddam stabilization’, but after complaints and warnings repeatedly fell on deaf ears at the Pentagon, State gave up warning, almost willing the Department of Defense to go storming in to predicted disaster. This is also common in management failures. While understandable, walking away saying ‘don’t involve us’ isn’t usually an effective form of advice or resistance. If anything it emboldens the headstrong leadership clique which believes its position is right all along.

In an article in Military Review (July/August 2004) Colonel George E. Reed of the US Army argued that ‘toxic leadership’ is a ‘poison’ that ‘often stupifies’ those under command.

Poisonous and stupid are apt words to describe this kind of detached and reckless leadership behaviour, which remains all too common in large organizations. A logical step forward is for organizational members to confront toxic leaders where possible, to build consensus from within and without, to encourage other sceptics to come forward when the strategy and attitude of top leadership is so clearly troublesome. If other groups in the organization disagree, they have to try harder to get their opinions heard and acted upon. If leadership teams face no effective forms of dissuasion, the madness of trying to squeeze ‘100 from 50’ will be the ruining of any number of organizations.

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