Military Intelligence | The Army is Stuck on Stupid

February 24, 2016  
Categories: Op-Eds

Today we’re posting our first guest article from Nick Perna…and God help us, he’s a former Army officer outta the Eighty-Deuce, and not just an officer — a southpaw! We’ve all heard the “military intelligence” jokes, and many of us have seen the effects of an entrenched, hidebound military bureaucracy, and institutional inertia. Today Nick shares some of his opinions on the matter.  Mad Duo

Military Intelligence—Slow to Adapt

The military isn’t known for embracing change. This is especially true when transitioning from peacetime to war. This has happened many times in America’s history. A classic example of this is the near-defeat of the American army in Korea at the beginning of the Korean War. A military that is used to occupation duty was caught flat-footed during the North Korean invasion. It took months before the US Army was able to shake off the cobwebs and get back into the fight.

The current conflict has been going on for over 14 years, the longest in our history. To put it in perspective, any soldier younger than 31 years of age has been in a “Wartime only” army his entire career. This is a major shift from the pre-GWOT generation. Other than short-duration conflicts like Grenada, Panama and Desert Storm, the pre-GWOT group hadn’t seen long-term conflict since Vietnam. This roughly equates to almost 30 years of peaceful existence, one of the longest periods of non-war in modern American history.

I started my service in the early 90s, post Desert Storm. I spent most of my time in a peacetime army. Like all armies we prepared for war but, at the end of the day, we practiced life in a non-war environment. The longer an army doesn’t go to battle, the more it becomes accustomed to peace. And, conversely, when a war begins, the army has a hard time adapting to it.

Military Intelligence - Green Army Men - Nick Perna for Breach Bang Clear.

Like all armies we prepared for war but, at the end of the day, we practiced life in a non-war environment.

A Few Lack-Luster Examples of “Military Intelligence”

I first saw war toward the end of my career. I was in Kuwait and later Iraq during the build-up to the invasion, the invasion itself and the period shortly thereafter. This period was “Big Army’s” reintroduction to combat. I bore witness to multiple occasions where the army struggled with its new mission, falling back on bad habits developed during calmer times. Here are but a few examples of this kind of clumsy military intelligence:

Safety First!

Shortly after my unit arrived in Baghdad I went on a mission from our FOB to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). The MSR we traveled was considered relatively secure but wasn’t “inside the wire”, so was still a threat area. Whenever we traveled it we were locked and loaded in full battle rattle.

An ADA unit was tasked with security in BIAP. Like most of Iraq, the area near the airport was littered with garbage. Some well-intentioned Sergeant Major had his troops conduct a police call (I don’t know for sure it was a Sergeant Major but I know they hate dirty A.O.s so I think it’s a pretty safe assumption). The MSR was a dangerous place due to heavy military vehicle traffic that kicked up the talcum powder-like dust that permeated the country, creating a natural smoke screen that drivers couldn’t see through. To make the soldiers were more visible they wore, you guessed it, road guard vests and reflective PT belts! Safety first! The risk was compounded by the fact that there were literally tons of UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) all around the airport at that time. One wonders, if an insurgent had seen this would he even realize he was looking at American troops in a combat zone?

Military intelligence - Reflective Belts from Task and Purpose - Nick Perna for Breach Bang Clear.

To make the soldiers were more visible they wore, you guessed it, road guard vests and reflective PT belts! Safety first!

Lone Soldier in Baghdad

About a week later I was in a two-vehicle convoy heading back to our FOB. Near that same MSR, we observed a lone soldier walking down a side route, also in an unsecured area. He was an odd sight…He was wearing woodland pattern BDUs. The army ran out of DCUs early on in Iraq to issue so some troops had to wear the good old battle dress. He had a weapon but there was no magazine in it. We pulled up next to him and asked him what he was doing. He told me his unit was having a “Safety Rodeo” that day and he had been told to walk to another unit’s location to attend a safety briefing on generator operations. We offered to give him a ride to his next location. I would have felt bad leaving him there, especially if he ended up on an Al Qaeda beheading video (apparently not a concern to his unit).


When prepping to convoy into Iraq we were issued a basic combat load of 270 rounds, or seven magazines, per soldier. Realistically, this would not have been sufficient for a protracted firefight. We were attached to another unit for the drive north. In the convoy the unit had a supply truck loaded to the rafters with ammo, grenades, demo and so on. We tried to get permission to carry some of the ammo and frags in our vehicles during the trip to Baghdad, just in case we ran into trouble. We even agreed to sign for it with plans to return it when we arrived at the FOB. Fearing a loss of equipment accountability the unit refused to do so. Fortunately, the convoy was pretty uneventful. I’m surprised we didn’t have to turn in our “dunnage” at the end of the deployment.

Old habits die hard. The juggernaut that is the US Army doesn’t turn on a dime. It is a large organization that is slow to change, even during war. The atrophy that peacetime brings about is hard to shake.

The question is — and this isn’t a rhetorical one — how do we fix this kind of illogical “military intelligence?” Can it be fixed? Weigh in below in the comments, please.

Like what Nick has to say? You can read his other articles here.


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Nick Perna

Nick Perna

About the Author

Nicholas Perna is a former Army officer from the 82nd Airborne turned Army Reservist and police officer who has (among other awards) been decorated for valor in the line of duty and a recipient of the Officer of the Year Award in his department. An EMT and current street crimes supervisor, Perna has worked detectives, patrol, street crime suppression, counter-gang, counter-narcotics, SWAT and in numerous other billets. As a police officer he's worked collateral assignments as a SWAT Team Leader, Firearms Instructor and Terrorism Liaison Officer; while active duty he served as an airborne medical platoon leader, company commander, battalion intelligence officer and battalion OPSO. A combat veteran, while serving in Iraq in '03 he led a team of SOF soldiers conducting psychological operations as part of Joint Special Operations Task Force Arabian Peninsula. Perna has previously been published in SWAT Magazine, Soldier of Fortune, Havok Journal, Police One, Guns & Weapons for Law Enforcement, Counter Terrorist Magazine, the NTOA's Tactical Edge, the CATO Quarterly journal, the Homeland Security First Responder Network and other places. We don't know him well enough to make fun of him yet, but it certainly seems like he's a candidate for grumpy old man jokes like Hernandez and Reeder, and you can rest assured we're trying to get picture of him as a boot 2nd Lieutenant.


  1. Kirk

    “We were also told prior to boarding the C5 for the flight home that we couldn’t have a pocketknife on the flight. Nevermind the fact that I’m carrying an M16/203 on the flight home.”

    Like you, I thought this was the stupidest thing ever. Still do. But, you can’t blame that idiocy on either the Army or the Air Force. The reason for this policy has little to do with the military–It is strictly an FAA “thing”, along with the various international air service agreements we’ve signed on to. The idea is that if we don’t inspect and restrict the troops from carrying those objects, we won’t be able to land at and utilize civilian aviation facilities like the ones at Shannon. So, if your aircraft were to be forced to make a maintenance or refueling stop somewhere in the world, you’d never be able to get off the damn thing at a civilian terminal. Which would thus, and unfortunately, require either a separate facility for you to debark into, like some filthy hanger, while they refuel and/or maintain your aircraft. Which, frankly, probably ain’t happening at some informal stop you have to make due to aircraft issues.

    The real problem here? Nobody ever explains this shit clearly to the troops, and the resentment just festers. The civilian authorities have made enough of a allowance to enable the carriage of individual weapons that are separated from ammo, and that’s about as far as it’s going to get–And, yes, it makes no damn sense whatsoever that a bayonet is A-OK with the civilians, and your Swiss Army knife isn’t, but there it is. Civil aviation authorities are to blame, and the Air Force is the one who will be having to explain how it was that their contracted passengers were carrying “illegal arms” in the form of personally-owned knives and so forth on the aircraft that set down and use civilian terminal facilities like at Shannon.

    Doesn’t make a lot of sense, in the larger sense of things, but that is why they do it. Not Army, not Air Force, but civil aviation authorities.

  2. STS

    It’s good to see ongoing concerns over our true readiness, yet again (and again…and again). Hopefully, some group of courageous general or senior politicians pulling the strings will read the article and finally do something about it. I always get a kick out of reading how many rounds are “issued” for convoy and other duty nowadays. Serving as an enlisted man with the 6th Bn., 29th Artillery, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam (1967-’68), we individually decided how much 5.56mm to carry (yep, we were Artillery but always carried our M-16s since most of our fire bases were very small). Our convoy tactics were practically nonexistent (decide what to do when it happens) but we had great gun ship air cover (Hueys in those days). Our drivers and their “shotgun” riders had balls of steel sitting behind the windshield of those deuce and-a-halfs with nothing more than a flack vest, regular windshield, and truck door for protection. Different war, different time. To all those who served, “Welcome Home!”

  3. Wilson

    Large organizations, especially bureaucratic ones never function well. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about GE or the Army.

    If you want large organizations to work well you have to let people at ground level, whatever level that might be given the situation, make decisions that make sense based on what they’re seeing in front of them.

    Obviously those people need to be accountable for what they do, but if they can provide a good explanation for why they acted the way they did then even if it doesn’t work as well as we might hope for that needs to be an acceptable explanation.

    In a combat environment there is never going to be a perfect decision, only the best one that person could have made given their abilities and what they knew at the time. This needs to be recognized and accepted.

  4. JHN

    I was in Baghdad from 03-04 and at the end of our deployment my unit loaded up in 5 tons to be taken to Ballad to fly home. So what is the last thing that we do prior to leaving FOB Falcon for our ride to Ballad? Turn in all of our ammo, except for one thirty round magazine. So here we go for a 1 1/2 hour convoy with only 1 magazine of ammo. Why we couldn’t turn our ammo in at Ballad made absolutely no sense to me.

    We were also told prior to boarding the C5 for the flight home that we couldn’t have a pocketknife on the flight. Nevermind the fact that I’m carrying an M16/203 on the flight home.

  5. SlussBus

    Precisely why I chose to stay up at Morales Frazier when we sent 2 and 3 vehicle convoys down to BAF on supply/mail runs. I still remember, naive 20 year old that I was, walking down the ramp ready to fight and being greeted by PT belts and saluting and days of briefings and female airmen sunbathing on bunkers. One of the most stark “WTF?” Moments of my life.

    • Mad Duo Chris

      When were you at Murf? I was there in 09.

  6. MIO

    Welcome to the real Army actually all branches. There is no fix.

  7. 11A

    This article brings back memories. I also started my Army career in the early 90’s and after 9/11 I went to OCS and earned my commission into the officer ranks. I deployed overseas as a platoon leader of an infantry company and I will always remember my 1SG on that deployment. He was a great garrison 1SG, but probably the worst to have in a combat zone. One day as my platoon was leaving the wire to go on patrol I saw one of my privates carrying a large rock in his hand. When I inquired about why was he carrying a rock in his hand he informed me that the 1SG caught him with his hand in his pocket earlier in the day and this was his “punishment”; he was to carry the rock in his hand for the rest of the day. I took the rock from my private and gave it to our 1SG who told me that he expected the private to carry the rock with him on patrol! In his mind he was instilling discipline in the young man. This is what he learned in PLDC,BNOC, ANOC etc. and this what what he felt would make him a better soldier. As a former NCO I understood what he was trying to do, but this guy was clueless on how to act in a combat environment. A perfect example of “growing up” in a peacetime army and not knowing how to adapt to wartime.

    The Army is a large and slow moving beast that is resistant to change. I wish there was an easy answer on how we become more adaptable and flexible to an ever-changing environment.

  8. Echo

    The thing is, those I’ll experienced young recruits who have held on are now becoming E7 and on up. We have a generation of soldiers who have known nothing but war and by the end of it we became pretty damn good at it. While we will never be rid of the stupidity which the flagpole presents, we have soldiers who know the difference between garrison and war. Those soldiers will hopefully realize the stupid jackassery which went on and elect not to pass that STD on. The future of our nation will rely on their experience.

  9. Rick

    Even at the end of OEF I remember after a 27 hour mission set we came off of from clearing a route on foot and by truck our 1sg shows up in his Tata thinking he was bringing us hot chow fuck no he came there to tell us he wanted us to pull the weeds out and paint one of the fences orange so it could look pretty cause we are on “Post”

  10. Attackguy64

    You don’t have any of those 45 round magazines anymore, do ya? My guys could sure use them!

  11. Kitaf


    The irony of the above suggestion, while I agree wholeheartedly from my severely limited experience, is that the only people who could commission a paradigm-changing study from RAND are the same people who are most often identified as the problem.

    It is, however, reassuring that veterans are getting involved in the political process. There are already more than a handful of members of Congress who are veterans of the Global War on Terror (25 I believe). Here’s to hoping they put their experience and expertise to good use in enacting meaningful reform.

  12. MK262 MOD1

    For me, this piece fans the embers of fires not long subsided. The profession of arms is by its very nature a dangerous one. Any REASONABLE action to mitigate that danger is both prudent (conservation of assets) and morally imperative (the preservation of life, limb, etc). Joe is prone to doing some really stupid shit so there is a very legitimate requirement to provide oversight and countermeasures to the dumb-assery that inevitably is dreamt up in the fog of youth and inexperience. It’s bad enough to lose people in the face of the enemy but it’s tragic to lose people in garrison / peace time to stupidity. That being said, the job involves doing dangerous things with some really dangerous equipment. To achieve and maintain the level of skill and professionalism mandatory on today’s battlefield requires training that is realistic, dynamic, and intense. There is absolutely no way to accommodate that need in a benign environment. There will always be real risk. And real people will get hurt. The true measure of skill is to drive the number of bad outcomes to the minimum possible and still conduct relevant, meaningful training.

    The true failure at the doctrinal level in the Army (IMHO) is an all-to-often complete lack of contextual thinking. It is a cancer at the SGM level and infects all levels of the command structure. The inability of “leaders” to differentiate between combat and garrison in terms of appropriate behaviors was my greatest source of near aneurysms. While it’s a tragedy to lose someone in garrison, it’s a PROFOUND tragedy to lose someone because his management failed to think within the context of the combat environment. The ass-hat that makes a Joe wear a reflective belt outside the wire in indian territory should have to personally deliver the notification to the kid’s family when he gets smoked. That “leader” should have to look into the faces of the people whose lives just he changed forever and take in the true impact of his stupidity.

    I’m sure there’s panel or committee at Rand or some other high level think tank that could devise a strategy to create the paradigm shift that would be required to alter the status quo. But that change has to start at the highest levels and it has to be incorporated into the DNA of the organization. It would have to be at the root doctrinal level and be incorporated into every facet of training. Every soldier, private and up, would have be to trained to process their decisions through a filter driven by the context of the moment. Example: Soldier is engaged in a firefight in a semi urban area and while transitioning between positions of cover fires his weapon till empty. He then has to decide based on the proximity of the threats whether to drop the empty magazine immediately or to reload under cover and retain the magazine. He should be retaining the magazine because he might need it again soon. NOT because he’s worried about getting bitched out by his boss for losing property. He will only gain that ability though training that provides legitimate stress inoculation and leadership that forces him to think in a dynamic fashion.

    Long rant I know. But this one just pisses me off and I wish there was a way to really make it change. The single greatest weapon our Army can field is the soldier that can operate on commander’s intent and think on the fly.

  13. Patrulje68

    In 05 @ Victory the 18th ABC HHC would only issue 60 rds of 5.56 or 45 rds of 9mm to anyone inside the wire; that included to those in guard towers. My team took several trips to the green zone and else where each week, but would have to turn back in excess every time. I started going to BIAP and standing at the door to the freedom bird with an “amnesty box”. We turned over 6000 rds of 5.56 and 2000 rds of 9mm over to our replacements.

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