The Army is big on delivering measurable results. No personal performance review, no unit training activity, no combat exercise or operation can go without some sort of documentable evaluation of what we did, what we meant to do, and how we can do it better next time.
In a "traditional" war--not exactly the right word, but I'll try to define my terms for purposes of this conversation--the metrics of success are pretty straight-forward. You can measure how many bad guys you capture or kill, for example, and how many beans, bullets, and bandages you have left. In a counterinsurgency (the Army abbreviates this "COIN," and pronounces it "coy-en.") or low-intensity conflict (LIC) scenario, the metrics are harder to come by.
Our objectives might be to help establish a stable civil governance capable of delivering people's basic needs such as food and water and security, as well as infrastructural improvements such as roads and electrical power. How do we get there? How do we make sure that we're on the right path? In other words, how do we quantifiably measure progress toward making life "normal" for people?
These are key questions, not only for our political leaders and military commanders, but also for our taxpayers and our foot soldiers. If we can point to concrete ways our presence is (or is not) making a difference, we will not be as prone to emotional ploys for this or that strategery. "Fighting for freedom," however commendable an ideal, is not a quantifiable objective, just as "hope is not a course of action." At the end of my deployment, I'll want to be able to say that I made a difference, even if that difference was small in scale--down to a couple of names and neighborhoods in a country I may never see again.
I want to be able to tell my wife and kids exactly why I left them for a year.
I wasn't able to deliver that after my first deployment. I went to the sandbox--a different sandbox than most of my buddies, but the sandbox--and waited there, in the desert. There was no threat of direct fire, at least at the time that I was there, and only a vague sense of an IED threat. We were more danger to ourselves. We had some laughs. Saw some things. Even did some stupidly risky things, and lived to tell about it.
I want to learn my lesson by keeping my eyes open for the next lesson.
Foreign Policy blogger and Washington Post defense correspondent Tom Ricks recently posted a series briefly describing some metrics proposed by Australian COIN guru David Kilcullen, himself the author most recently of "The Accidental Guerilla." In the series--Ricks tongue-in-cheekily calls it "Kilcullenpalooza"--Kilcullen mentions bullet-point-by-bullet-point those factors by which commanders and soldiers (and We the People) can begin to measure operational successes: