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J’accuse: the US Army’s Development Delusions


A wise economist that I met recently tipped me off that I would find the latest Army field manual interesting reading. He was more than right about that. The 2009 US ARMY STABILITY OPERATIONS FIELD MANUAL (available in a University of Michigan paperback as well as an earlier version online ) is remarkably full of utopian dreams of transforming other societies into oases of prosperity, peace, and democracy through the coordinated use of military force, foreign aid, and expert knowledge.

My usual MO is to ridicule such documents. But my wells of satire are starting to run dry after years of deployment against utopians like Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier. More in sorrow than in anger, I see the utopian social engineering craze might affect actions of people with guns. I am sad for Iraqis and Afghans that the U.S. Army is operating in their countries guided by such misguided ideas.

To document a little of what seems utopian, the foreword by Lieutentant General William B. Caldwell IV, Commander, US Army Combined Arms Center, says:

we will …defeat insurgency, assist fragile states, and provide vital humanitarian aid to the suffering. …. to promote participation in government, spur economic development, and address the root causes of conflict among the disenfranchised populations of the world….{with} a comprehensive approach to stability operations that integrates the tools of statecraft with our military forces, international partners, humanitarian organizations, and the private sector.

The Manual, with a foreword by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, says the US Army will be

leveraging the coercive…force to establish a safe and secure environment; …establish political, legal, social, and ….economic institutions; and help transition responsibility to a legitimate civil authority {my emphasis} operating under the rule of law…. toward long-term developmental activities where military forces support broader efforts in pursuit of national and international objectives.

The definition of a legitmate civil authority is then given:

Respects freedom of religion, conscience, speech, assembly, association, and press. Submits to the will of the people, especially when people vote to change their government. Maintains order within its own borders, protects independent and impartial systems of justice, punishes crime, embraces the rule of law, and resists corruption. Protects the institutions of civil society, including the family, religious communities, voluntary associations, private property, independent businesses, and a market economy.

Even in the most dysfunctional societies (“fragile states”):

national strategy aims to—Promote freedom, justice, and human dignity while working to end tyranny, to promote effective democracies, and to extend prosperity through free trade and wise development policies.

Who is going to do all this? The US Army is going to be assisted by other US government agencies, intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, international and region organizations and the private sector, i.e people who have different approaches, different objectives, different incentives, and answer to different bosses, with no credible mechanism for coordination (the Manual suggests a “Civil-Military Operations Center”)

The danger is that, if put into practice, such delusions create excessive ambition, which creates excessive use of military force, which kills real human beings, Afghans and Iraqis.

US Army and Defense Department thinkers – please go back to the drawing board. Think about American values that guide us at home. These values don’t include utopian social engineering, and certainly not by outside armies.

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  1. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    I think what we are seeing here is a long term effect of the failure of the American school system to teach the Greek tragedies. A little more time with Sophocles would help do away with such colossal hubris. If the history of development efforts should teach us anything it should be modesty about how much outsiders can achieve. Outsiders with guns are even less likely to achieve development.

    (By the way, Bill, I’m glad you are trying a different MO than ridicule. Outrage might be appropriate here.)

    Posted June 18, 2009 at 3:04 pm | Permalink
  2. save_the_rustbelt wrote:

    The U.S. Army only goes where it is sent, and does what it is sent to do – by civilian leaders.

    Posted June 18, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  3. Bill Easterly wrote:

    Dear save_the_rustbelt,

    you are correct and I am certainly not blaming the soldiers. However, I don’t think there is any civilian command that obliges the Army to do nonsensical analysis on what it can do or what others can do.

    Posted June 18, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  4. TBWCW wrote:

    I’m missing the utopian ideals and hubris. What little I read seems to clearly acknowledge that this is what they’re trying to do, not what they expect they will be able to accomplish. Do you think it would be better if they were to hope to accomplish less? What approach would you take in writing such a document? Do you think it ultimately would be more useful to military personnel as they pursued their assigned mission?

    Posted June 18, 2009 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  5. Army Officer wrote:

    Actual Army Officer Just Back From Iraqi Here:

    We – the Army – are already doing nation building on a vast scale. So long as our boss tells us to attempt to fix the places we attack/invade/assist, its good for us to have doctrine on how to go about accomplishing that commonly assigned mission.

    This is not new. Germany, Japan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, South Korea, Greece, The Philippines are some of the places we’ve already done various forms of nation building.

    Finally, the quote LTG Caldwell is almost verbatim what the counter-insurgency strategy has been in Iraq for the past two plus years. And it has worked so well Iraq isn’t in the news anymore.

    Posted June 18, 2009 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  6. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    Dear Army Officer-

    Time will tell whether the counter insurgency strategy has worked to build a nation. Buying off leaders for some short term reduction in attacks doesn’t qualify as nation building.

    Your list of places where the army has built nations is rather interesting. It seems to me you are taking credit for Japan and Germany rebuilding themselves while they were occupied by the US Army which kept the peace. Peace keeping certainly contributes to nation building, but it is not the same thing. If you don’t have a functional society that has institutions that the people believe in, you wont have nation building. I would cite Haiti as a place where it hasn’t happened yet. And of course there are other places where peace keeping hasn’t lead to nation building–Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, etc.

    Posted June 19, 2009 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  7. Yi wrote:

    Excellent post! After reading the material–Collier’s book about the bottom billion–distributed by the instructor in a class called Economic Development in U of Minn., we students were almost all shocked by Collier’s idea of how to rightly use force as a tool to assist those countries trapped. If I remember correctly, however, the peace-guard force from UN or wherever is recommended by Collier to be used more on countries trapped in civil wars in which the people would be innocently killed, instead of, or less, being a means coordinated with other means, like foreign aid, to pull the countries out of poverty or to send them on the trend of self-sufficient development.

    Collier is usually reckoned to be a middle-ground economist sandwiched between Easterly and Sachs, for the major reason –as I understand–that he brings up, by employing massive data analysis over many less-developed countries, practical methods to “save” the bottom countries that have almost been cornered by our globalization. His framework is more “complex” than Sachs’ single foreign aid, more “practical” than that of Easterly who tries to tear down the whole building of development yet fails to point out a new road; he dose not entirely discard the idea of foreign aid, nor does he completely accept it but rather conceive it as an insufficient tool that should be used in time, depending on the actual situation, or assisted by other tools.

    The paragraph above is what I learned from the class and some views flooding online, what is your opinion, Prof. Easterly? Before you give me an answer (hope you will), in my mind the primary conflict between you and either Sachs or Collier lies in the will of aiding; they believe help with benign wills can work on wherever help is received, whereas you don’t think so. Hope you could write more of your opinion about Collier’s work, which is relatively less appeared in comparison to your criticism over Sachs. Many thanks in advance.


    Posted June 19, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  8. Lil wrote:

    I think FM 3.07 is an important doctrinal document–it’s not perfect, certainly, and ideally the military wouldn’t be in a position to do the kinds of things it’s doing now, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. I do think though that it’s important for US forces to have a doctrinal basis for their actions and some guidance to help in areas they are not accustomed to operating in.

    Unfortunately, because of historic imbalance in budgeting between DOD and State, and an ensuing lack in civilian capacity, the military has been tasked with missions that should have been completed by competent civilians. FM 3.07 (and FM 3.07.1 on Security Force Assistance, which is really an expanded version of the security sector reform chapter in FM 3.07), along with FM 3.24 (on counter-insurgency), along with the interagency guides on both security sector reform and COIN are the basic doctrinal and policy documents for ongoing efforts in this area. Again, they’re not great but until we figure out a way to deploy teams of civilian advisers to countries we want to help build ministries, oversight bodies, police forces, border forces etc, the military is what we have to work with and if doctrine helps, then that’s better. If you’re interested in that, go check out the work State’s Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization is doing to develop standing and reserve civilian capacity.

    To answer a different question, these efforts are mandated by DOD Directive 3000.05 (signed by the SecDef) and the last QDR which mandates that stability operations are on par with combat operations and that doctrine, training, and capacity need to be developed accordingly. That said, go look through Secretary Gates’ statements on this topic and you’ll find he (along with the Joint Chiefs, General Petraus and the other combatant commanders) are some of the biggest advocates for increasing capacity at State and USAID.

    Finally, let’s get some facts straight (and I’m going to simplify things a bit). The UN certainly did not attempt state building in Somalia. War resumed and international forces pulled out. The current AU mission there is only a weak attempt to bring some security to the capital. There is a functioning state in Sudan so the UN doesn’t need to build one there (we may not like the state there but you can’t deny it’s entirely functional). In Rwanda, the UN stood by as genocide occurred but nothing close to a peacekeeping mission was deployed and development assistance did play a part in building the new government’s capacity. In DR Congo, elections were held in late 2006, and efforts to build the state are faltering but when has a state ever been built in less than three years (I’m not saying it will, just saying give it some time)? In Liberia and Sierra Leone, there’s no denying that some pretty successful state building has occurred–it needs to be consolidated…

    Posted June 20, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  9. JK wrote:

    Dear Prof. Easterly,

    Thanks for the interesting blog and excellent post.

    I am from Uzbekistan. I don’t know if this makes any difference for readers and who have commented. We, namely my government, ‘like’ uniforms as much military people would like in the world. I genuinely believe that fulfillment of orders – whatever the price that is what they are good at. As mentioned by the ‘save_the_rustbelt’ below soldiers will do whatever they are sent for. I am not very good at history but I have never heard of a US, or any other, soldier who has been able to spur development of democracy, good will, harmony, participation in countries where they are with their GUNs in their HANDs, I don’t think so.

    You might think whatever you like of military invasion and evaluate the success of wars and battles – ruined homes, displaced families, killed children, with any indicator you wish to set but Soldier must do what he is good at maintaining security and safety of people. I think these tasks, including some others i don’t list here, themselves alone, if they are accomplished successfully, a lot. Because, are not security and safety pillars of freedom and democracy?

    Let everyone do whatever they are good/better at. And I shall do my part and study.

    Prof. Easterly would you mind if I ask you to be my mentor? I realise that we, Uzbekistanies or Central Asians in general, might need different approach for development strategy – no some kind of consensuses or few points fit all. Are we really so different?

    Posted June 21, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  10. Burton McFarland wrote:

    Professor Easterly,

    I’m only half way through White Man’s Burden, but I am truly

    impressed with what I’ve read so far and can’t wait to finish. I want to play

    devils advocate on the above post for a minute. In order to accomplish this I

    need you to entertain the idea that a foreign military presence can have a

    positive impact, if done correctly. That it may provide not only a direct

    security service for the poor, but also may enhance the ability for other AID

    programs to operate and be effective, essentially acting as an AID multiplier.

    I don’t believe labeling our military services as “Planners”

    is an accurate categorization. They certainly are organized as top-down

    hierarchal organizations, but in fact execute based on agility, feedback and

    course correcting, much like “Searchers”

    Listed below are some excerpts from the Marine Corps’

    Concepts for Unified Action Through Civil-Military

    Integration. It describes how the Marine Corps needs to approach working

    with NGOs and other Civil organizations to achieve success

    in “Stability Operations” “Counter Insurgency”, and generally Nation Building.

    Understanding Problems

    Without some savvy appreciation

    for the problem, planners tend to deal with symptoms rather than core causes or

    “drivers” of conflict. Time must be invested in the beginning; working to

    understand the problem and the purpose of the campaign. Admittedly this

    understanding is aspiriational. Campaign

    planners will never have complete understanding however their level of

    understanding improves with time and exposure to the environment.

    Evaluating Progress

    Perhaps in an ideal world,

    understanding would be complete at the outset of a campaign. The reality is

    that understanding evolves over time. The situation and environment change in

    relationship to, or as a result of, both action and inaction by the parties

    involved. A campaign becomes a journey of experimentation and discovery.

    The hypothesis is constantly

    assessed and this assessment takes the form of learning…Operational learning

    is an acknowledgement that a campaign’s design, architecture

    and emphases will evolve over time-even adapt outright.

    Host Nation Sensitivity

    In view of the principle of

    sovereignty, we should ensure all activities are focused on providing support

    to the Host Nation Government(HNG) are funneled through it as much as

    practicable…[this will] promote the HNG’s legitimacy

    by which it is seen as a government that can provide essential services,

    sufficient resources and security to it’s people

    A quick list of mistakes made by campaign planners in the


    • Failing

      to revisit the planning assumptions and subjecting them to scrutiny

    • Attempting

      to predict or forecast events too far into the future

    • Attempting

      to create a complex plan when a simple one will do

    Does this really sound like the words of a bureaucratic

    planner? This is the ethos of an organization that has learned the value of

    institutional learning, pragmatic assessment and creating realistic goals. In

    short this is the language of “Searcher”.


    Does this document, much like the above mentioned field

    manual, contain some lofty, ambiguous, “utopian” language? YES. However, I

    think it’s only fair to distinguish between strategic goals, and tactical plans

    and missions. In fact, the quotes stated in the above posting are pulled from

    the “Foreword” and “Section 1” which is titled “Strategic Context”. This is

    exactly where I would expect to see this kind of broad, “Utopian” language.

    Moreover, Big Harry Audacious Goals, are not a bad thing for organizations, here are a

    few “Utopian” style goals from a few organizations that have figured out how to

    execute correctly.

    Disney:    “To be the best company in the world for all

    fields of family entertainment.”

    Amazon:  “Earth’s most customer centric company.”

    Google:    “Organize

    the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

    At the “tip of the spear” Utopian language becomes

    executable strategy. “Winning Hearts and Minds” will eventually translate into

    building schools, roads, and providing health care.

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  11. Mark Davis wrote:

    “At the “tip of the spear” Utopian language becomes executable strategy. “Winning Hearts and Minds” will eventually translate into building schools, roads, and providing health care.”

    Sounds a lot like “Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.”

    State building with state schools, state roads and state health care curses a society with state control and central planning, for its own good, of course. The purpose of a state, eh “legitimate authority”, is to provide a means of elite control over the people within geographic territories. So that they may be integrated into international systems controlled by the usual suspects. States are archaic political organizations that choke individual liberty, not foster it. The tools of soft tyranny being presented as effective policy should be worrisome to freedom lovers.

    Liberty building would be a better goal and you don’t use a gun for that.

    Posted June 25, 2009 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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