Brigadier General Daniel P. Bolger is the face of American generalship in the 21st century.
He’s not the gritty, profane-mouthed George S. Patton-type, nor is he one of the rear-area “perfumed princes” the late Col. David H. Hackworth so-often railed against.
Bolger is a gentleman to be sure – polished and articulate – but like a Patton, he is always leading from the front. He regularly goes out on combat operations with his men, and like the fictional General Maximus in the movie “Gladiator,” the real-life fighting General Bolger inspires his subordinates with the salutation, “Strength and Honor!”
Some might consider Bolger the last of the romantic battle-captains. In reality, he’s a model of the new breed of general-officer in the global war on terror. He’s an author and former West Point professor, holding a Masters degree in Russian history and a PhD in International Military History. And he is currently commanding the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team – Iraq (CMATT).
As CMATT commander, Bolger is directly responsible for advising and assisting in the training and development of the new Iraqi armed forces (to include the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines). He often leads the various ground combat elements in action. And he oversees the training, development, and support of coalition combat advisors embedded at all levels.
In an exclusive two-part interview for Townhall.com, Bolger discusses the training and standing-up of the new Iraqi army and what motivates the Iraqis to fight. He also explains why Iraq is not devolving into “civil war,” and how we are systematically quashing the insurgency in that country.
WTSjr: General, I understand you actually go out and conduct combat operations with the troops
BOLGER:Yes I do, about three to four days–and–nights a week.
WTSjr: So, do American generals sometimes find themselves actually physically fighting in the current war on terror?
BOLGER: They do. Personal example is the strongest form of leadership. The Iraqi generals also get out and get the job done.
WTSjr: Why do the Iraqis fight? What are their motivations? Is it money? Pride? What?
BOLGER: They fight for each other, much like all good [American] soldiers and Marines. That may make them officially ‘apolitical,’ but in reality, when you say we fight for each other, it means we see our country and our family in the faces of the guys on either side of us. We fight for each other and by doing so we fight for our country. I say ‘we’ because the Iraqis and Americans here are brothers, united in a common cause, and a good one.
Patriotism brings Iraqi troops to the recruiting station. Often, I ask them: ‘Why did you join?’ The most common answer I get is, ‘It’s my duty.’ Many have lost family members to terrorists. The Iraqi rifleman makes about $300 equivalent a month, but a terrorist can make that in a night planting one roadside bomb. The guys who fight for money work for the other side. We have the patriots, and that’s why we have the popular support.
WTSjr: How well do the Iraqis fight?
BOLGER: They are good under fire, and by that I mean they act. They make things happen. They do not just sit there or bug out. They have learned how to shoot. They are not yet up to the standards of U.S., British, or Australian soldiers, but they are heads and shoulders above their terrorist enemies. To their credit, Iraqis move to the sound of the guns. They seek close combat, and when they make contact, they hang on and duke it out. They recover their wounded and their dead.
WTSjr: What would you say is unique about the new Iraqi army?
BOLGER: The big difference between this army and Saddam’s forces is in leadership. Saddam had one focus: himself and his will, a basic totalitarian cult of personality, like Stalin, Hitler, or Mao. Subordinate leaders conformed to that. Initiative was quashed.
Today, we have officers and NCOs [non-commissioned officers] taking charge, leading by example. They look after their men and lead from the front. We have lost some good ones, but for the right reason—they were out front, leading the way. The motto of the U.S. Army Infantry School is ‘Follow Me!’ It’s the only way to do it right.
WTSjr: Is this the strength of the new Iraqi army?
BOLGER: Yes, The strengths include leadership, also soldier–willingness to endure hardship, and obedience. I have watched Iraqis keep going in heat, cold, rain, sandstorms, under fire, and when wounded—they have a lot of pride in being soldiers.
The Iraqis are also great at human intelligence, and not just because they live here. Survival skills under Saddam made folks very good at sorting truth from lies, and knowing whom you can trust. Iraqi raids show an uncanny ability to find the enemy. Like the proverbial Canadian Mounties, the Iraqis ‘always get their man.’ And better, given that this is a war for popular support, they don’t grab all the other ‘usual suspects’ just because they are military–age males hanging around the scene of a firefight. The Iraqi ability to sort out detainees rapidly on the objective is truly amazing.
WTSjr: What are the weaknesses in the Iraqi army, and will our army be able to sort out those weaknesses?
BOLGER: Weaknesses include combined–arms capabilities, like integration of fire support, signal, and engineers. They are especially struggling with combat logistics, and we are helping them to build that as fast as we can.
We consciously put out battalions of riflemen quickly last year to get Iraqis into the fight. That succeeded, and resulted in three successful elections and restoration of security to much of the country. This year is all about building the forces – engineers, signal, medical, supply, transportation, and maintenance – necessary to sustain the fight.
WTSjr: What are some of the obstacles U.S. and coalition forces are facing in regards to training the Iraqis? And in that, what are the training problems as perceived by the Iraqis?
BOLGER: Our major problem involves the lack of an effective Iraqi NCO Corps. The former British mandate and relationship – 1918 until after World War II – gave Iraq some sound military traditions, but years of advisory efforts from the Soviet Union definitely damaged a once–decent NCO Corps. This deficiency is significant.
Now, we have taken advantage of the Iraqi Army’s combat experience to identify promising young sergeants as drill instructors, but it takes years to create good sergeants and decades to produce sergeants major. So this will take a continued long–term effort.
The Iraqi leaders would also agree that building the NCO Corps is a challenge. They would add literacy – Saddam savaged a promising education system left from the period of British influence – as certain segments of the population have less than 40 percent adult literacy. Modern warfare requires that you be able to read and write, especially in trying to sort out the complexities of fighting terrorists in urban settings.
WTSjr: What are the problems you are seeing regarding Iraqi leadership in their operational planning and then the conduct of the actual operations?
BOLGER: Many of the Iraqi commanders and staffs plan well. Both their British and Soviet former advisors – as well as our current ones – emphasize planning, rehearsal, and preparation. They really do a good job integrating human intelligence, and they can definitely keep secrets better than most of us. Iraqi units often gain surprise in their operations, and that is a huge advantage against terrorist targets.
Iraqi units, like all of us, have more challenges when confronted with the unexpected. We rely on our great Army and Marine NCOs to sort out an unforeseen ambush or counterattack, while our senior guys plot rapid responses. For the Iraqis, lacking a seasoned NCO Corps, they have to decide and fight through with what they have—not many of the senior leaders have the opportunity to step back and sort out a more measured combined–arms effort to change the situation. Accordingly, Iraqi leader casualties tend to be higher than ours, and Iraqi casualties in general run ahead of ours for similar scale engagements. That is not unusual for a new military force. The good news is that they hang in there and fight it out.
WTSjr: So, is it fair to say that Iraqi military leadership differs quite a bit from our own?
BOLGER: The Iraqis tend to centralize things a lot more, clearly a holdover from Saddam and also the Soviet influence. Units lack budget authority for minor purchases, and promotion authorities for NCOs have only recently been pushed to division level and below.
That said, the Iraqis see from us, the Danes, the British, the Australians, and other coalition elements that there are advantages to giving a team a mission and then assessing results rather than trying to do it all under the direction of one overworked leader.
The nature of our war here is decentralizing the Iraqi leadership because in the end, you can’t micromanage a messy, nonlinear, urban conflict against a ruthless enemy dressed like civilians. The young sergeants and lieutenants have to take charge, and the senior guys have to back them up. It is a difficult learning process for all of us, because senior guys very much want to ‘do something.’ Sometimes the best thing to do is just be there to share the danger and let the younger folks work it out and learn. War is a hard teacher but an effective one.
WTSjr: Is the war in Iraq devolving into “civil war” as some now suggest?
BOLGER: If we define a ‘civil war’ as Iraqis killing Iraqis, then we have that. We have had that here since before Saddam.
Saddam took killing his fellow Iraqis to a horrific level, which is a big reason why our operations in 2003 were so important to the Iraqi people. During his tyrannical rule, Saddam gassed and slaughtered Kurds, killed many Shiite Arabs, and executed plenty of Sunni Arabs as well. Naturally, many of these groups resisted. So there is a strong, living tradition of fighting the central government here. That was true under the Ottomans and under the British mandate, too.
But if we use a more conventional understanding of the term, ‘civil war,’ of a break-away or rebellious part of the country fighting the rest for political control or independence, that gives much more dignity to our enemies than they give to themselves. The vast majority of Iraqis, including the majority of Sunni Arabs, are not fighting the elected Iraqi government. Those who are fighting us call themselves ‘the resistance’ and though they claim to be against the Americans and other coalition forces: mostly they kill innocent Iraqi civilians. That's nihilistic terrorism, and not civil war.
WTSjr: Is it not good news for us that the domestic insurgents are now, in many instances, actually turning their weapons on the foreign fighters in Iraq?
BOLGER: This kind of split indicates the likely way to a settlement. Iraqis may not agree – most don’t – with the Iraqi gunmen who go after Americans and our allies. But they understand the nationalism that may spur such actions. At some level, you can talk to these guys as fellow Iraqis. You might be able to bring them into the fold.
And for those who say it cannot be done, look at Moqtada al Sadr’s followers. In the summer of 2004, we were fighting them in a major way. Now they have participated in all three elections and have staked out a claim in the political discourse here. Nothing is guaranteed with Sadr or his adherents, but it is an example that ‘resistance’ fighters can choose to advance their views by a political path rather than more roadside bombings.
Very few Iraqis, only the most die-hard extremist types, can sign up for killing innocent Iraqi civilians, women and children, to further some bizarre march to an Al Qaeda ‘caliphate.’ Not surprisingly, the foreign fighters are having trouble with the Iraqi insurgents, many of whom draw the line at killing their countrymen, especially women and children. This is a real split, and I think the new Iraqi government has an opportunity here to weaken our enemies.