During the war in Iraq, young Army and Marine captains have become American viceroys, officers with large sectors to run and near-autonomy to do it. In military parlance, they are the “ground-owners.” In practice, they are power brokers.
“They give us a chunk of land and say, ‘Fix it,’ ” said Capt. Rich Thompson, 36, who controls an area east of Baghdad.
The Iraqis have learned that these captains, many still in their 20s, can call down devastating American firepower one day and approve multimillion-dollar projects the next. Some have become celebrities in their sectors, men whose names are known even to children.
One is never to speak ill of The Troops, but I don’t think you need to be a hard-bitten anti-American to have some doubts about the soundness of this kind of set-up. Suppose we replaced the mayor of your town with a twentysomething foreigner who didn’t speak English but did have a ton of firepower at his disposal and no real checks on his power. You’d probably feel that was a step in the wrong direction. And conversely, it’s not genuinely reasonable to expect relatively junior Army officers to do this sort of job well. I find there’s often an element of fantastical thinking in counterinsurgency doctrine, where if we establish that it would be desirable for things to work in such and such a way, then it also becomes possible for them to work like that.
But it’s not an army of mutant superheros we’ve got, it’s an army of soldiers. How’s it supposed to suddenly be filled with people well-suited to the task of governing foreign towns? The British had a whole separate civilian agency set up to train and recruit their colonial administrators and make sure they had the right skills. If we’re going to want to run foreign countries effectively, we’re going to need to do something similar. An alternative, and superior, option would be to back away from running foreign countries.