Why is the Army dumping its Operational Leadership Experiences project?

The United States Army established the Operational Leadership Experiences (OLE) project in 2005 in order to capture the hard-won insights of the folks involved in the various aspects of the Global War on Terror, primarily the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also operational experience elsewhere such as in the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and support operations. It was primarily an oral history program, but had valuable application as a repository of anecdotal experiences and insights gained (or, more crudely, lessons learned). Here is a link to describe the program and which provides access to some of the interviews.

The Combat Studies Institute (CSI) at Fort Leavenworth had charge of the program and cast a pretty wide net. One of the main means for collecting this data involved the canvassing of all incoming Command and General Staff College (CGSC) classes by the Department of Military History during the first weeks of the course. The author was among those history faculty that handed out (and then collected up) forms to all of our officer-students during the first military history class and solicit feedback. The forms were turned over to CSI. CSI would then contact the individuals based on its own internal metric and interview them about their operational experience downrange in the Global War on Terror.

In summary, OLE was a contemporary oral history project, taking advantage of recent memory (which degrades over time as to veracity) to get the experiences recalled “while still fresh.” For a period of time, maybe 2-3 years, those students interviewed could meet some CGSC requirements for strategic communication if they were interviewed. But that motivating factor ended several years ago. It was a valuable program and leveraged the experience of thousands through these transcribed interviews and, I suspect, also served a bit of a therapeutic purpose too, albeit that secondary result was probably unintended. The interviewers were primarily professional military historians, so it was no haphazard deal. It is now being cancelled, reputedly for budget reasons, but it is clear to the author that for at least the next ten years or so we will continue to get officers through CGSC with operational experiences in combat and combat support that will now not be captured and aggregated.

Several recent Army policy statements seem to contradict this action. For example, General Ray Odierno recently wrote in the Army Vision Statement published earlier this year:

Our Army also stands at an inflection point. Emerging from fourteen years of war, facing significant budgetary pressures, and confronted with an increasingly complex security environment, we must determine what kind of Army the Nation will need for the future. Our exclusive use of previous paradigms is insufficient for the task ahead…

Cancelling a program that is relatively cheap that collects the sorts of experience important for this inflection point and essentially refusing to collect the experience of 10 of the last 14 years from actual participants seems an unwise idea to this observer. Additionally, we find the initial message from the New Chief of Staff of the Army emphasizing: “Our most valued assets, indeed, the Nation’s most valued assets, are our Soldiers….” Yet at the same time, Army’s Posture Statement, nowhere mentions leveraging this kind of human capital via a program like OLE — for pennies on the billions in terms of the Army’s budget. The word leverage is found in the statement two times, but both times it refers to leveraging technology such as cyber, not the valuable experience of our “most valued assets.”

The key to battling poor decision making is to recognize that nothing is final, not even a cancelled program. The Army should withdraw its hasty decision and continue to collect the valuable, hard-earned experience of 15 years of war, even if those wars did not quite turn out the way Americans would have liked. Refusing to collect insights is as bad as ignoring them once you have them.

John T. Kuehn is the General William Stofft Professor of Military History and has served on the faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College since July 2000, retiring from the naval service in 2004. He earned a Ph.D. in History from Kansas State University in 2007. He is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008) and co-authored Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco, and A Military History of Japan (2014). He was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011 for “The U.S. Navy General Board and Naval Arms Limitation: 1922-1937.” A former naval aviator (flying in both EP-3 and ES-3 aircraft), he did numerous cruises aboard four different aircraft carriers. His most recent book, also published by Praeger, is titled Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns (2015). The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.