Leadership: Iraqi Sergeants and the Fate of the Nation

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September 27, 2005: One of the major problems in the Iraqi army, and most Arab armies, is the low status of NCOs. In the West, sergeants were originally, literally, "non-commissioned" officers. That is, they had leadership and management responsibilities, but were not of the same status as the aristocratic officers. Commissioned officers were, back in the day, from a higher social class (often the nobility), literate, and used to giving orders. Those nations with a more educated population, were able to build a more effective NCO corps. But in areas with low literacy rates, and much class consciousness, the sergeants were not given much responsibility, or authority.

As a result of this, the American and Iraqi armies are opposites in the way they treat, and use, their NCOs. All American sergeants are well educated. Many of them have college degrees. In the Iraqi army, centuries of low literacy rates has led to sergeants who are given little respect, or authority. Officers typically supervise the most mundane tasks the troops perform. Despite relatively high literacy (over 70 percent for males) in Iraq, being an NCO is not seen as a very respectable job. Long years of training by Russian instructors did not improve the situation, because the Russians also had a bad attitude towards NCOs.

However, now the Iraqis have seen, up close, how effective well trained and respected sergeants can be. So American efforts to convince Iraqi officers and troops to adopt the Western type of NCO is showing results. But it's slow going. For generations, Iraqis have gotten by with sergeants who got no respect, or authority. And not much additional pay, either. As with the officers, the young troops are more willing, and able, to accept these new ideas than the older NCOs who served in Saddam's army. Another advantage the Iraqis have is the willingness of Jordan to help train NCOs. Jordan, which enthusiastically adopted the British model of what an NCO should be, have the best NCO corps in the Middle East. So the senior Jordanian NCOs can talk directly to their Iraqi counterparts, and convince them that they can make the change (from officer's lackey to the guy-in-charge.)

But building an effective NCO corps will take at least a decade. The young sergeants, especially the ones getting combat experience, are proving their worth right now. But it will take years for them to acquire the experience and wisdom to become platoon and company sergeants. The platoon sergeants will be particularly valuable, because a major weakness in the Iraqi army was having young lieutenants in charge of platoons, without the assistance of an older and more experienced platoon sergeant.

The Iraqis need a strong NCO corps, because the Iraqi armed forces have long been the most ineffective in the Arab world. That's saying something, because Arab armies in general have been pretty bad for a long time. Well trained officers and NCOs will make a big difference in the combat capabilities of the Iraqi forces. Unfortunately, that won't solve the problem of the military taking over the government. Saddam ruled as the result of a military takeover in the 1960s, and put down dozens of subsequent attempts by the military to overthrow him. Throughout the Arab world, power is maintained by dictators of kings who know how to keep the troops loyal, or too afraid to attempt a coup. This approach makes combat effectiveness less important than loyalty, and is part of the reason for the dismal battlefield record of Arab troops.

 


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