MIlitary Matters: Learning from Sweden

By WILLIAM S. LIND   |   Feb. 26, 2007 at 2:08 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Sometimes, single words can say more than whole essays. The Swedish captain in the Fourth Generation War seminar I lead at for the U.S. Marine Corps at Quantico, Va. recently introduced me to such a word. It is the Swedish word for military intelligence: underrättelser. The literal translation of underrättelser is "correction from below."

What a remarkably instructive term for military intelligence! The more I have thought about it, the more "correction from below" has seemed to capture the essence of what good military intelligence requires -- and what American military intelligence too often lacks.

To understand why this is so, we must first remind ourselves of the two most important facts about military intelligence: one, it is always incomplete, and two, some of it is always wrong. It has become fashionable in Washington to regard military intelligence as "hard data." Nothing could be further from the truth. As "data," most military intelligence is as soft as the Pillsbury Doughboy.

The question facing any military is how to deal with the inevitable difference between what military intelligence thinks about the enemy and what is actually the case. Our approach, the wrong one, is to seek ever-increasing amounts of "information." That information is funneled into various intelligence "functions" and "fusion centers," almost all of them remote from the fight, where the intel weenies sit around in their purple robes embroidered with moons and stars, staring into their Palantirs. They wave their wands labeled "IPB," and presto!, out comes -- well, for the most part, garbage.

Regrettably, in this Second Generation War model, the garbage cannot be acknowledged as such. The motto is, "Garbage In, Gospel Out." So the garbage runs downhill to the battalions, companies, platoons and squads, where the difference between what intel is telling them and what they are seeing with their own eyes becomes the "user's problem." Good commanders tell their guys to go with what they see. Bad commanders base their plans on the intel and issue orders that are doomed to failure.

Higher level commanders are even more victims of the current system than are their juniors. With sufficient guts, junior leaders can ignore the intel. Unless a senior commander is the sort who recognizes that his headquarters is a Black Hole and stays away from it as much as possible, he has no alternative to the virtual reality his G-2 presents to him. He is not only flying blind, he is flying blind while thinking he sees. Out of such double-blindness many great defeats have come.

What is missing here is precisely underrättelser, correction from below. Instead of dumping the errors on the users, the whole intel system should avidly seek correction from below to minimize them. Errors cannot be eliminated, because no matter how good the intel, it will be incomplete and some will be wrong. But correction from below, from the people who are directly encountering the enemy, is the only way to reduce them. By making "correction from below" literally their name for military intelligence, the Swedes have made the intel system's most necessary characteristic definitional. Intellectually, that is a remarkable achievement.

Defining military intelligence as "correction from below" also carries the culture of a Third Generation War military over into the intelligence process. Just as another of those words that speak volumes, Auftragstaktik, builds tactics on the understanding that the levels of command nearest to the fight have the clearest tactical picture, so underrättelser builds military intelligence on the same understanding. The two work hand-in-glove: junior leaders act on the basis of what they see, not detailed orders from remote headquarters, and they simultaneously feed what they see into an intelligence process that is eager for their corrections. Neither action eliminates uncertainty in war, because nothing can, but both speed adaptation to it, which is the goal in maneuver warfare.

We could, of course, learn from the Swedes and make "correction from below" definitional to our intelligence process, just as we could learn from the Germans and adopt mission order tactics instead of issuing detailed, controlling orders. But when you are the self-proclaimed "greatest military in all of history," why should you learn from anyone else? Just as blindness leads to hubris, so hubris leads inevitably to blindness.

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(William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.)

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