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Is the Army innovative?

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Allauddin Khan/AP/File

(Read caption) The head of the US Central Command Gen. David Petraeus talks during a press conference in Kandahar city April 30. He is credited with transforming Army doctrine by adopting counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. But many innovators have left the Army or been pushed out.

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David Brooks thinks so

Five years ago, the United States Army was one sort of organization, with a certain mentality. Today, it is a different organization, with a different mentality. It has been transformed in the virtual flash of an eye, and the story of that transformation is fascinating for anybody interested in the flow of ideas.

Brooks is writing about the emergence of counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, godfathered by General David Petraeus. I agree this is an important development, even that it should be celebrated, but I have some questions.

First, was it innovative or a rediscovery? Counterinsurgency, in fact, according to the experts who advocated for it within the U.S. military, is not new. So the bigger question is why did the Army resist adopting COIN tactics that it had learned back in Vietnam?

Second, does the military culture really reward entrepreneurial leaders? Ross Perot graduated from the Naval Academy, but didn't make a career of the Navy. Fred Smith, founder of Fedex, served two tours in Vietnam, but left the Army for a business career. Bill Coleman, founder of BEA systems, graduated from the Air Force Academy and left the ranks. John Nagl, who co-authored the COIN field manual with Genral Petraeus, is now a civilian president of a think tank, and more influential than he could have been if he'd stayed in uniform. Why is that?

One answer might be revealed in Mark Moyar's A Question of Command. Moyar suggests the key to victory in warfare is great leaders, no the strategies they adopt. Leader-centric warfare. So does the Army have innovative leaders?

I believe they do, but there is a love-hate relationship between the military and its entrepreneurs. The godfather of the Air Force, Billy Mitchell, had his career terminated for being overly zealous in championing air power, even though he was right and they were wrong.

We should all worry about a hollowing out of entrepreneurial talent now. A survey in Moyar's books asks soldiers in the Marines and Army if their "Service encourages risk-taking by company and battalion commanders." Forty-one percent say "discourages" and thirty-one percent were neutral.

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