Imperial viceroys in Iraq

Strategic corporals are a fantasy, but strategic Captains are a reality, as described in “Sovereigns of All They’re Assigned, Captains Have Many Missions to Oversee“, New York Times, (21 March 2008). No matter how splendid a job our Captains do in Iraq, this is an ominous development.

During the war in Iraq, young Army and Marine captains have become American viceroys, officers with large sectors to run and near-autonomy to do it. In military parlance, they are the “ground-owners.” In practice, they are power brokers. “They give us a chunk of land and say, ‘Fix it,’ ” said Capt. Rich Thompson, 36, who controls an area east of Baghdad.

The Iraqis have learned that these captains, many still in their 20s, can call down devastating American firepower one day and approve multimillion-dollar projects the next. Some have become celebrities in their sectors, men whose names are known even to children.

Like so much in our long war, this is a tribute to the skills of our men and women in the services. On another level it is nuts.

Giving Captains such missions is irrational, reflecting desperate acts by senior officers. Most Captains have little training or experience relevant to the job of viceroy in Iraq. Whatever the short-term success, the odds of bad long-term results must be high. Equally important, the last half is another indication of the serious damage the Long War is doing to the Army and Marine Corps.

Comment by Matthew Yglesias:

One is never to speak ill of The Troops, but I don’t think you need to be a hard-bitten anti-American to have some doubts about the soundness of this kind of set-up. Suppose we replaced the mayor of your town with a twentysomething foreigner who didn’t speak English but did have a ton of firepower at his disposal and no real checks on his power. You’d probably feel that was a step in the wrong direction.

And conversely, it’s not genuinely reasonable to expect relatively junior Army officers to do this sort of job well. I find there’s often an element of fantastical thinking in counterinsurgency doctrine, where if we establish that it would be desirable for things to work in such and such a way, then it also becomes possible for them to work like that.

Note on the title “viceroy”

These officers operate as governors, another step in the America’s gradual “colonization” of Iraq. They do so informally, without appointment, approval, or policy direction from Congress. Hence the title viceroy, as appointed by the King. A Roman proconsul was an expressly political appointment given a consul after his term to rule a province.

Giving such power with so little supervision or direction results from flawed planning — after five years of war! — and the almost total abdication of Congress of its role in setting policy for our Long War. Like our massive bases, this shows that our governing elites intend to stay in Iraq.

Like Rome, our government radically increases it range of influence while operating with an apparatus designed for a small republic. As we take the fateful step of installing long-term governments in foreign lands — note the size of our “embassy” in Iraq — we guarantee that something in the structure must break. Let us hope that it is nothing that we will miss when it is gone.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).


The comments indicate that many readers are not aware that before the war the State Deparment gathered a team of relevant experts and did much of the necessary preparation: the “Future of Iraq Project.”  All of that work was deliberately trashed by DoD Secretary Rumsfeld in order to have DoD retain control.

For more on this see “Blind Into Baghdad“, James Fallows, The Atlantic (January/February 2004).  Let’s not our pride in the accomplishments of these Captains blind ourselves to the underlying truth. 

  1. There are people in America far better suited to be administrators in Iraq.
  2. That our Army and Marine officers must act in this capacity after five years of war represents incompetence in both planning and execution of the occupation.

For information on this topic

Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War

Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq

An Army near the Breaking Point — an archive of links — This includes several Army studies.

5 thoughts on “Imperial viceroys in Iraq”

  1. With the situation we’ve gotten ourselves in, I don’t see many options outside of what is happening with the captains. The organization that should be doing this sort of work (the State Department) has as you’ve noted had its role subsumed by the military (though I would point out that the military being able to do this is as much an indictment of the State Department, if not more so). And with no competent national government to look towards to make things work on the ground level, if we are going to make this work we need to build things up from the lowest level possible, which at least is what these captains are trying to do.

    Even though the Army captains are not specifically trained for this sort of work, I would also point out that they have (hopefully) been trained to think and analyze the situation they are in, and they have a fair amount of experience dealing with people issues, which is at the heart of the issues they are dealing with. While some will default back on the military training and use force excessively (with headlines most likely pointing it out), I can not think of any other group of people at this time that would stand a chance of making this work. If we are going to stay (whether this is right or not is another even bigger issue), we need to build up from the ground level.

    It is not an ideal solution. It’s not even necessarily a good solution. But if establishing a functioning government in Iraq is the goal, then this at least could be a path to that. The major issue, outside of losing the captains that are doing this to the private sector, is whether they are capable of moving from the decision-making role in their area and moving to an advisory/support role to the elected Iraqi officials.
    Fabius Maximus: I agree with you. However, the “trained to think” bit is imo grossly overstated. Where in your own life would you entrust important tasks, requiring training and experience, to someone working in a radically different field — but who has been “trained to think?” If you were a boss, would you hire someone in a senior capacity on that basis?

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  3. It’d be much better to get someone who was trained for the job, but who is trained for that sort job and is available and willing to go to Iraq? Once again it should be the State Department. Thinking about it leads me to think it is a political/bureaucratic job. Who has the skills to be a viceroy? Mayors, governors, (and their staff probably) government bureaucrats maybe, but they all have a system prebuilt to step into. So it’s a question of reconstructing the infrastructure, both physical and political. Who has that skill set, or even a part of it? We can’t even do it well at home on a national level (FEMA). The only other answer I can think of is the UN, and I can’t think of any examples of them managing a similar situation well at all.

    Trained to think is a bad way to put it. I think being able to learn and adapt quickly would be better, or possibly possessing the ability to solve complex, vaguely defined problems. Neither of these are particularly measurable, but dealing with the care and feeding of troops both at home and abroad, and accomplishing the mission probably shows some aptitude towards it. If no one has the experience, then better to have people that are good at on the job training. The simple fact that we’ve reached this particular problem shows the officers can adapt. Now it’s a matter of finding the examples that worked and passing along the lessons learned to build the training and experience.

    Another point is that these officers are being stolen by the private sector for jobs that I am guessing have little or nothing to do with infantry tactics or commanding tanks or whatever it is that they were trained for before. I don’t know what level these people are being placed in by whoever is hiring them away, but the higher you get in a company, the more you will deal with things you are not familiar with so at some point able to learn and adapt will be as important as knowledge of the job. If the officers weren’t able to adapt then this article would not have been written.

    I guess it boils down to whether or not there is a better group of people for the job. Training and experience are important, but until we build a sysadmin force like Barnett suggests, I think we’re stuck with a group of people that are thrown into a job and told to figure it out as best they can. So to answer the question, would I hire someone who was “trained to think” in a senior capacity? When there are no viable alternatives, sure. I’d also ask why there are no viable alternatives, and how to build them, but those are different questions entirely.

  4. I have made an update to this article based on the above comments. Teams combining area experts and municipal administrators could likely do a better job than Army and Marine Captains. The State Department assembled such people before the war, with extensive briefing books: the “Future of Iraq Project.” All of that preparation was deliberately trashed by DoD Secretary Rumsfeld in order to have DoD retain control. For more on this see “Blind Into Baghdad“, James Fallows, The Atlantic (January/February 2004).

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