Interview: Professor Isaiah Wilson

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Lieutenant Colonel Isaiah “Ike” Wilson, a visiting professor at SIPA on loan from West Point, has a more than academic understanding of the Iraq War, having studied it from both an historian’s and a commissioned officer’s perspective. Bwog editor Sara Vogel caught up with Wilson before class to talk about bad planning, doing better, and–of course–Fox News. Forget Baker-Hamilton–it’s all here!

What is your course here [Limited War and Low Intensity Conflict] about?

The course here is a double headed oxymoron by title, which I love, I think it’s part of what draws students to it. Really it’s a course that revisits the classic works, some of the seminal works on what we’ve come to regard as limited war, others would call it wars of national liberation, revolutionary war, insurgency, counterinsurgency, terrorism, counterterrorism, small wars.

Small wars. What exactly is a small war?

Well, we’ve spent 15 lessons in this course exploring that question. What does limited war mean? Kind of to cut to the chase, it depends on your point of view and perspective. At least as classical literature lays out, it has at least two different schools of thought. With the Western perspective, we cover it all, but we’re admittedly leaning towards the First World, advanced industrial nation state perspective, we have tended to define wars as small vs. total.

The West has, for a long number of years, been challenged with the idea of not only waging limited wars but winning them, finishing them well and legitimately. I mean, kind of case in point, Iraq, Afghanistan, the global war on terrorism. So that’s an important question to at least return to, if not begin with: is there actually such a thing as a small war, or is it just a matter of perspective?

Especially if you see it as just an aspect of the global war on terror.

Exactly, or if you take it from the perspective of the Iraqis themselves, and the members of the wider neighborhood. I’m sure that the Iraq war appears at that level of the enterprise as neither limited nor low intensity.

Is that how the US military is characterizing the war?

That’s a very interesting question, and it’s one that we’re struggling with now, the Iraq Study Group report just came out yesterday. I’ve been doing some of my own research. Another great thing about being able to teach is to play off new propositions, ideas, theories with your students, and that’s been a part of the course, rightly or wrongly. I’ve had 20 other people in the class to explore this. For me, Iraq is a very interesting case because it seems to defy our modern notion of what might constitute a small war. Iraq seems to defy all the modern categories. It’s a hybrid war, some have called it, but it’s definitely an internal war that has also been internationalized, which somewhat defies the standard principles. It’s also a war that seems by its very nature, regardless of how it started, was going to be a grand enterprise, something beyond the notion of small. Clearly, change in Iraq was dependent on some sort of change of the Hussein Baathist regime in Iraq, either complete tearing down of that regime, or a change of the nature of how that regime governed, the latter being less likely than the former.

As part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, going in, did you think that you’d be in the next phase of trying to figure out what to do next in Iraq?


I figured, back in 2002 when the idea of regime change in Iraq was going to be the top of our agenda, that what ever it was it was going to be a long enterprise that the US was going to be a part of, if not a lead in. My first experience on the ground in Iraq was working for General Shinseki’s Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group, the history writing campaign.

The history writing campaign?

Right, General Shinseki was at that time still chief of staff of the army. When the invasion of Iraq became imminent, General Shinseki put together a study group of military historians, experts in different fields in the US Army, to go in as rapidly as possible after the major combat operation began to begin chronicling the ground operation as it was occurring. Not only to get that on the books as a start point for the definitive histories, but also to gather lessons from the soldiers, from the private all the way up to the four star generals in terms of what equipment was working, what was failing to work, what doctrine was working, what doctrine was failing to work. Some things we didn’t think about that the test of combat tells us. Necessity is the mother of invention, particularly in warfare, and so to try to take advantage of that combative environment to innovate, to bring those lessons gathered back to maybe give them insight to the acquisition production cycle, to maybe make some immediate changes.

Did the government take a lot of advice from the group?

A lot of the advice and the findings have been put to bear. A lot of what we see in military reorganization and transformation. There were a couple of other groups put out there to do the same, different levels in the military structure. There were some strategic studies groups send forward to focus largely on strategic lessons gathered. Our task was really more of a tactical operational level assessment. We have seen some of those changes, with the modular force concept, how we’ve configured our war fighting organizations to be more plug-and-play, more multi-functional, not just combative functions and capabilities, but putting in civil affairs and engineers to cover the full spectrum of requirements.

Are you still involved in that?

I was pulled off that project in June of 2003. I was called up to the North to serve as chief of plans for General Petreius for the 101st Airborne division. It was a very interesting first year of the war for me because I was able to enter it as an observer, as an historian, kind of be the academic, which was unique.

When I came out of Iraq in 2004, I was still working with the division, which had its home base stateside here at Fort Campbell Kentucky. By then, we’re starting to see a slowing of some of the progress we were able to make particularly in the North in terms of the stability and reconstruction and nation-building, frankly. But then to see that start to slow, stalemate, and start to unravel, I was still sort of frustrated from some of the findings, as an historian earlier in the war, of a lack of an operational plan for the rest of the war. That frustration was compounded by the fact that for the next 11 months I was handed the problem of not having a comprehensive plan for the rest of it, and just like everyone else, having to come up with it from scratch, kind of behind the power game. And so I continued to think about, particularly as we’re reorganizing now—how the army is going to be part of a US intervention policy writ large—and now the frustration is becoming very critical to me as a planner because if we don’t figure out what we’re getting wrong, we might be redesigning into our future force some of the very flaws that contributed to us getting it not complete going into the Iraq war in the first place. If we don’t figure out these organizational flaws, these answers to the problem of why we tend to do so very well in the battles but still consistently fail in intervention after intervention, particularly the small ones, and not being able to finish and finish well. It’s plaguing us in Iraq, and if we don’t figure it out for Iraq, beyond Iraq it’s going to continue to plague us, no matter who’s in charge, we’re going to continue to suffer what I call the paradox within the American way of war and peace, this tendency to still fail to achieve a viable peace in spite an unmatchable talent and prowess in winning all of the battles and engagements.

So I came back and I started writing again as an academic, and I wrote a paper called “Thinking Beyond War: Civil and Military Operational Planning in Northern Iraq” kind of a field report if you will, and I presented it at the American Political Science Association Conference that Labor Day weekend. And long story short, December of 2004, a Washington Post article front page was written by Tom Ricks, author of Fiasco, “Army Historian Cites Lack of Plan for Iraq.” And so I was immediately thrown into the center of what was at that time building into this huge political lie. In fact, there was no plan for the rest of the war. I guess this paper I wrote has been considered the first official acknowledgment of the lack of a plan. That paper converts into a book which hopefully will hopefully be published somewhere in March/April. That’s part of multi-year project called “Think Beyond War.” All it really is is an effort to build as many civil military bridges to explore the potential causes as of the paradox itself, but more importantly to work together so that we can get beyond the paradox.

You talk about bridging the civil military divide. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the harassment of marine reservist Matt Sanchez, but do you think there’s a hostile environment at Columbia or at college campuses in general towards military personnel?

I tell you, I have not felt it personally. Part of my job is to seek out officers in the field at about the 6-8 year mark in their military career, seek out the best of them, and pluck them out of the operational army, send them to two years of fully funded grad school so they can come back to teach at West Point for two to three years, and part of that process is to build civil military relations and to educate the officer corps on being good public servants serving a democratic American Republic. So the officers I have serving here now, I’ve heard nothing in this regard. I’ve got a class of 20 graduate students who I’ve gotten no impression from. I have not personally felt that.

What would you say to members of the socialist group that made these kinds of statements?

Similar to what the Iraq Survey Group has come to terms with, four years after the fact in dealing with this military quagmire called Iraq, more than time for us to get beyond the red-blue divides, to kind of get over ourselves, stop defining ourselves against a negative perception of the other…what I’ve been trying to get out there and educate the broad public on, is the fact that if we all think about our purposing, me as a military officer, and anyone who’s going to be on the civilian side, we’re all in the same business, public service, and we’re all peacemakers, we’re just experts in particular aspects of that enterprise. And we all need to understand that we cannot achieve any of those political goals separate from one another. The dialogue is great. I have found nothing wrong with there being a heated debate over this very contentious time that we live in, that’s very healthy. Having a healthy skepticism of a standing professional military is core to who we are as an American democracy. That said, we could all stand to elevate the discussion, even that healthy argumentation, into focusing on what’s wrong with our approach to intervention policymaking. On the one hand, I’m glad to see there’s that kind of dialogue here at campuses, I count on the university system to be that type of venue for that type of unbridled debate, but we should also measure our freedom to argue with a sense of what it is to be responsible.

Matt Sanchez went on Fox News just yesterday, and it’s fair to say they weren’t exactly looking at all sides of the issue. Do you think the media is doing that as well?

Part of my project is to work with as many folks on the side of the media to work with the military to develop the proper venues, scripts and formatting for programs, to elevate the discussion and the dialogue, to get us out of the fingerpointing sensationalism. We need to turn this marketplace of ideas as far away from a roman arena, where they’re throwing fresh meat into the mix and getting all fired up over the drama of destruction, and elevate ourselves. For goodness sakes, we are the longest standing modern constitutional democratic republic on the planet. We have an obligation to set a good example. It’s on our part as a military to work with the media to Enter the debate, explain to the American public now more than ever that they really need to understand what their military’s about, how they tick, what they think. And we need to hear about what the public we serve thinks about us, break through all the stereotypes and the mythology. The media needs to be willing to get over itself, also, and to set the proper tone for a fair play, balanced dialogue. But the challenges are there for both of our professions that make it daunting sometimes to do the hard or right thing, because let’s face it: blood on the streets and vehement finger pointing attack dialogue is what seems to sell. We need to think about what kind of demand we’re putting out there.

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  1. yikes

    why don't you go ahead and fix the formatting on this post and then we'll try to read it? it's ugly right now.

  2. cool post!  

    this is a great interview, we're lucky to have a prof with such a different prespective teaching here. when does he leave? any chance we'll teach an undergrad class?

    • mlt  

      why say that? why even take the time to post this when you have no reason or basis to make that claim, other than probably being in butler and hating your life? seriously, sara posted an interesting, intelligent interview with a smart faculty member with a different perspective on the iraq war. she asked probing questions, got his opinion not just on current global events but also about campus issues, and all you can say is "bwog sucks"??? have some respect for the hard work the contributors put in, be civil when you post here, and keep your negativity to yourself. just because you're anonymous doesn't mean you can be an asshole.

    • Hey

      isn't "observer" the magazine run by none other than Matt Sanchez himself?


  3. hmm  

    didnt see this before, but it's pretty cool.

    i like these professor interviews. hopefully they stay interesting

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