The Pentagon recently invited a group of 43 civilians, including Michael Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, to witness the management and leadership of its Central Command, which is responsible for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Useem and other members of the group — which included executives, private equity investors, media commentators and academics — traveled to the Middle East to observe troops and operations in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Arabian Sea. In this report written literally from the frontlines, Useem takes “a look at the execution of American military policy — not the policy itself — a subject of continuing and increasingly intense national debate … . From even this brief foray into their world, it is evident that the U.S. armed services have built what many private companies strive for: a culture of readiness and commitment, cross-service and cross-national integration, and pragmatic flexibility.”

Imagine you have been asked to transport more than 198,000 men and women in uniform and another 29,500 civilians to a new location some 7,500 miles from home. They will need shelters, meals, and materiel to get their jobs done. You will have to prepare and motivate them to meet the competitive challenge of their lives — one that could cost them their lives. They will have to square off against al-Qaeda cells, Taliban remnants and Iraqi terrorists.

It is not your position to make the policy, but it is your war to win. You are the officer in charge, the divisional president. The CEO — President George W. Bush — had ordered the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a broader war against terrorism, and your predecessor — General Tommy Franks — had mounted both. Your assignment is to finish the task, and it will require a deft combination of organizational management, personal leadership, and judicious decisions. Backing you up, in the words of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Allison Barber, is “America’s oldest, largest, busiest, and most successful company” — the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Pentagon recently invited a group of 43 civilians, including myself, to witness the management and leadership of its Central Command — CENTCOM — the Tampa, Fla.-headquartered operation responsible for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and security across a wide swath of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The Department of Defense flew the group for a front-line look at its troops and operations in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Arabian Sea. En route the flight passed over Iraq itself, though at 35,000 ft., Baghdad and the Tigris were far — and safely — below.

We came from all walks of life. Our group included executives from 3M, Mary Kay Cosmetics, and J.P. Morgan Chase; private equity partners, media commentators, and film makers; the president of the University of Alabama and the dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; the Delaware homeland security chief and the president of the Sierra Club.

Why We Went

The participants were drawn to the program for many reasons. Some of us brought a working familiarity with the armed services, and some had traveled in the region. Views on the overall wisdom of the war in Iraq varied widely, but everyone wanted to learn more about how the U.S. military operated in the region.

Some saw it as a way of better appreciating what they were already assisting. Consider Robert Stine, chief executive of Tejon Ranch Company, a publicly-traded real-estate and agri-business company based in southern California. In the wake of the Afghanistan war, a friend had asked him to become part of “Cooks from the Valley” (after California’s San Joaquin Valley) whose first mission was to buy and fly more than 5,000 fresh steaks to Hawaii. At Pearl Harbor, they loaded the steaks onto the U.S. aircraft carrier John C. Stennis on its return in May 2002 from wartime duty in the Arabian Sea. The cooks then barbecued their steaks on the flight deck for the entire carrier crew, their personal way of thanking and honoring those who served in uniform.

Similarly, John Fox, vice president of government and community relations for Royal Caribbean Cruises, arranged for one of the company’s ships to be used to raise college funds for the children of soldiers killed in action in the Middle East. With Royal Caribbean International contributing food, beverages, and entertainment, Voyager of the Seas, one of the largest cruise vessels in the world, hosted more than 800 people and raised more than $120,000 in scholarships.

What follows is what I learned from a week’s contact with the service personnel who constitute the “tip of the spear” in America’s war against terrorism. It is a look at the execution of American military policy — not the policy itself — a subject of continuing and increasingly intense national debate. Several impressions emerged from our numerous discussions with those on the front line and from witnessing many of them at work. From even this brief foray into their world, it is evident that the U.S. armed services have built what many private companies strive for: 1) a culture of readiness and commitment; 2) cross-service and cross-national integration; and 3) pragmatic flexibility.

A Culture of Readiness and Commitment

Few of the many front-line troops with whom we spoke expressed concern about their personal preparation for the jobs they performed, which ranged from serving meals and armoring Humvees to patrolling neighborhoods and piloting aircraft. They affirmed readiness for what lay ahead and commitment to their particular mission, whether it involved staffing a base or commanding a ship. When asked about the broader purpose of their collective presence in the Middle East, some front-line soldiers demurred, saying it was above their pay grade to worry about it. When asked about their own purpose, however, none demurred.

Colonel Gary S. Supnick, Chief of Staff for the U.S. Marine Forces with Central Command, noted that his Marines “go into harm’s way and protect each other.” And harm’s way was never far from the minds of most. “This is a fight against an adversary that inspires fear,” observed Vice Admiral Patrick M. Walsh, commander of CENTCOM’s Naval Forces and the U.S. Fifth Fleet. “If you are fearful or tepid, this is not the place for you.”

For many, a culture of readiness and commitment came against a backdrop of personal sacrifice. One of the Air Force pilots on the C-17 flying us to the Middle East, for instance, reported that he had been away from his family for more than 200 of the previous 365 days. An airman reported that her parents had quit their jobs to help take care of her 10-year-old son whom she had left behind in the U.S. A reservist in Kuwait had been called back into service from the senior ranks of Kodak. A National Guard crew flying a Blackhawk helicopter in Kuwait had until recently been leading private lives on Cape Cod. Now they are shuttling combat troops — and us to meet them.

Closer home, Master Sergeant Anthony Moreland was working for the highway department of the City of Philadelphia and enjoying life with his two young sons before being called up for service. Now he serves as flight engineer for one of the Air Force’s primary transports, the C-130.

The home front never seemed far from home. Several reservists reported that their employers supplement their temporary military paychecks with enough to make them financially whole. Most soldiers said that they were only an email click away from family, and one group of 40 even pooled their funds to buy a satellite dish to create their own high-speed internet link. Some shopped online as if they had never left home. A soldier in Kuwait had been buying film DVDs galore through Amazon, the packages arriving within days of what would have been expected in the U.S. Though military hardware was standard issue, reminders from home intruded: The call sign for our Blackhawk crew from Cape Cod, not far from Boston, was “Bosox” (for the Boston Red Sox).

The culture of readiness and commitment that we saw in the Middle East is crucial for success not just in war but also in business. Among the factors that have driven the success of companies ranging from Southwest Airlines and Nordstrom to Johnson & Johnson and SAS (the software maker) is an abiding commitment of their employees to the mission of the enterprise.

Cross-national and Cross-service Integration

Virtually every base, airfield, and ship that we visited contained personnel from various nations. A briefing at CENTCOM headquarters included officers from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, New Zealand, and Yemen. A briefing by the top brass at the Combined Air Operations Center, mission control for the region’s air missions, included a British officer. So, too, did a similar briefing at the Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain, the nerve center for sea operations.

Cross-functional integration, the Holy Grail for many corporations, was well displayed in the locations we visited. The uniformed officers who accompanied us came with Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard insignia. The particular mix of these four branches and the Marine Corps varied from setting to setting, with Army and Marines dominating in Kuwait, Navy and Coast Guard in Bahrain, and Air Force in another location. But nowhere was the mix exclusive, and it included many reservists and members of the National Guard.

Consider the huge airbase that runs the “air war” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among the units stationed there is the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing whose mission includes the refueling of airborne aircraft in what some have called a “tankers’ war” because of the extensive use of aerial refueling to keep combat and surveillance aircraft flying. On a typical day, Air Force tankers delivered some 750,000 pounds of fuel to aircraft across the region whose gauges were pointing toward empty. Of the men and women who work for the 379th, one twelfth are drawn from the National Guard and nearly one tenth from the Reserves. Also alongside the airmen are Army, Navy, and Marine personnel constituting another seventh of the total.  

Lieutenant General Gary L. North, Commander of the U.S. Central Command Air Forces, described the air operations over which he presides. If ground forces anywhere in Iraq or Afghanistan require assistance, he said, his aircraft can be on the scene within 10 minutes of the request. “You call, we come.” He too had integrated a host of non-U.S. nationals into the operation. “We’re an international corporation,” he said. Waging the air war is itself a cross-functional operation: Before a prospective target is bombed, it must be approved by 12 separate parties representing various functions, including a lawyer to guard against violation of international law.

Indicative of the cross-national operations, the Pakistan Navy assumed direct command of a maritime security force just as we arrived in the region. Its “Coalition Task Force 150,” taken over from Dutch command on April 24, is responsible for security operations in the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean. The Pakistan Navy now presides over a fleet of ships, including 12 of its own, provided by Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain, and New Zealand.

Officers at several locations told us that the cross-national and cross-service integration was a product of necessity. Since it was “one fight,” said Capitan Terry Kraft, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, it required “one team.” And as the briefing book of Central Command put it, “It takes a network to defeat a network.”

Here, too, business examples of the same management principles abound. General Electric has long stressed the importance of each division meeting its target — but also all divisions in achieving a common purpose. And when it comes to cross-national integration, many large multi-nationals ranging from Coca Cola to Royal Dutch Petroleum have sought to populate their ranks with managers of many nationalities. It takes a diverse team to succeed in a diverse market.

Pragmatic Flexibility

We heard repeatedly that the armed services are training front-line soldiers to think for themselves. Conditions are too varied and fast-changing for generic instructions to work. A one-star general, for instance, explained that the insurgents’ improvised explosive devices — the infamous IEDs — had become the leading cause of battlefield casualties in Iraq. IEDs are elusive and deadly, and every front-line soldier is trained to identify and respond to the subtle signs of a hidden IED — a stray wire, an unusual pile of trash, freshly-turned dirt along the roadside. Doing so requires that soldiers learn to exercise field judgment and make their own spot decisions. The nature of the ground war has, of necessity, made it a thinking soldier’s war. As Army Brigadier General Nolen V. Bivens said, “The enemy is constantly changing, and so are we.”  

The commander of the Third Army, Lieutenant General R. Steven Whitcomb, summed up the new approach to military discipline: “We are teaching our soldiers how to think rather than what to think.” By way of illustration, he noted, his commissioned officers must memorize fewer operating procedures now than in past decades, giving them far greater leeway to improvise and innovate as field conditions evolve and dictate. Lieutenant Colonel Christopher L. Ballard is chief of training at the Udairi base in northern Kuwait that is responsible for preparing those entering Iraq. He said, “We stress decision making by every soldier.”

A mindset of pragmatic flexibility extends up the hierarchy as well. Consider the Humvee, the vehicle of choice for moving troops in the field. It has become a favorite IED target, and coalition forces in the region have created their own counter-measures. Field commanders have installed armor on more than 90% of the Humvees, including 43,000 vehicles during the past year. The results look impregnable. Heavy doors now enclose hundreds of pounds of armor and the windows are inches thick. Since remote IEDs are set off by everything from cell phones and pagers to blackberries and car-key clickers, the field staff has also developed an array of jamming devices for foot patrols and overhead aircraft to block the detonating mechanisms.

“We are in a new kind of war,” said Vice Admiral David C. Nichols, Deputy Commander for Central Command. The label of choice is “fourth-generation warfare,” defined by loose-knit cells of self-generating action groups operating with little or no state sanction. Ideologically driven and angered by U.S. support for Israel, the underground groups ferret out Western vulnerabilities and then melt away as soon as they have struck. As a result, Nichols said, the U.S. of necessity was moving toward “lighter, leaner, and more lethal” methods of response.

Many companies have moved in the same direction, seeking to become more nimble in their fast-changing and uncertain markets. Sony, for instance, reduced its governing board from 35 directors to nine to facilitate quicker decisions in response to rapidly evolving technologies. Microsoft and eBay have sought to build cultures of change given their need for fast response to the ever emerging challenges of new competitors.

The Commander’s View

Our group spent the final day in the region at an airbase, and shortly before boarding a C-17 for the long flight back across Iraq and then Europe on the return to the U.S., we met with General John Abizaid, the Arabic-speaking commander of the Central Command. It is he is who has primary responsibility for deploying the men and women in the region and prosecuting the war and protecting security. He is accountable for the culture of commitment and readiness, the cross-service and cross-national integration, and the pragmatic flexibility. “Our job,” he said, “is to give our troops the resources they need.”

“The enemy knows it cannot defeat us head on,” Abizaid added, “so it uses other measures,” including an on-going effort to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. came into the war with a “short-term theory,” he said, but he has learned that it actually has a “long-term problem.” And that problem is above all located in one country. “The single most important thing to be done in the region is to stabilize Iraq.”

Despite the enormous obstacles cited by many critics of the war, Abizaid himself projects optimism about accomplishing his mission. The “troops are confident and convinced that they can work their way through the problems,” he said.

The Mission

The U.S. armed forces seem well prepared to execute whatever mission they are consigned. And yet, the selection of that mission remains of critical importance. They will execute what they are assigned, and that assignment, of course, comes from the nation’s civilian leadership. America’s leaders have dispatched its armed forces into harm’s way, and it appears from our brief look that they are well led to carry out the designated mission. What is unclear to growing portions of the American public is whether the mission in Iraq during the past three years has been the right one. The public remains relatively unequivocal in supporting the war in Afghanistan, yet far less so in backing the action in Iraq.

The country’s leaders have at their disposal a well-managed institution, giving them enormous power far beyond the nation’s borders. Although the public has become deeply divided in supporting how that power is being exercised by its leaders, it remains undivided in supporting those in uniform who are asked to exercise it.