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Football, Offensive Linemen and...Counter-insurgency?

The Army loves football. Two sides face off, taking ground and battling to a violent finish, what's not to like?

I also love football. And today I want to connect it to counter-insurgency.

Most people watch football by "following the ball," meaning they focus on the player holding the football. They ignore, for the most part, the other players on the field. The quarterback takes the ball from the center, then throws it to a receiver down field, and the viewer watches those players the whole time. The camera follows the ball; so does the average viewer.

Why is this? Because the action is the exciting part of the play; its the sexy part. I mean, the player with the ball is the only one who can score. He's also the one who is going to get hit.

But it isn’t the whole story.

Regular viewers hardly ever watch the offensive linemen during a play. Even hardcore fans would struggle to name an offensive linemen. No one chooses linemen for their fantasy leagues. They're the unsung heroes of the gridiron, primarily because fans are too busy watching the ball. Every great run, and every great pass, has an offensive linemen creating the play. Watching the ball means you are missing the offensive lineman, the defense and the creation of the play.

Ok Michael, how does this relate to counter-insurgency?

The Army only watches the ball during counter-insurgencies. The ball in this case is the death of American Soldiers. The event that leads to that death, for example an IED, is only the end result of a long process. An IED ambush requires reconnaissance, logistics, intelligence, bomb-making, local support, information operations and finally, direct action. But both maneuver commanders and intelligence specialists primarily care about the final explosion, not the whole process. The IED explosion is like the touchdown, everything before that is the action away from the ball.

We spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, on countering IEDs at the point of impact. We notice explosions. We care about the so-called “kinetic” events. But those are like following the ball, not following the creation of the play.

Strategically, as a nation, we follow the ball--meaning the death of American Soldiers. That is really the only metric that the American public cares about. It is like tracking touchdowns, but no other statistic on the battlefield.

As a military, we get distracted by the sexy part of the insurgency--the IEDs--and we ignore the complex part of the insurgency--everything else. We have improved (read the Flynn report and the Petraeus counter-insurgency manual) but we have a long way to go.

six comments

I’m awaiting comment by people claiming they watch the line, but you don’t.


I mainly agree with you. I believe that GEN Petreaus effectively made the lessening overall violance the issue during the surge in Iraq. In the absence of tangible or effective measures of progress, all that the US public has to cling on to is our own casualties. The focus on freindly casualties won’t go away, but it needs to be balanced by a sense of the mission.

While we can play analogies all day, I think that US casualties are not “the ball” as getting the ball across the goal line represtns victory in football. As you describe, friendly casualties are not that victory in COIN. For a good perspective on this subject, I’d recommend reading “Strategic Assessment in War” by Scott Gartner (Yale U. Press, 1997). It provides case studies on how leaders usually pick one key indicator/metric and make their assessment of the situation and their decisions based on that metric. I also agree with you on the IED focus. IEDs are terrible weapons and require application of both material and TTPs to mitigate. However, from my perspective, the IED issue has morphed from providing tactical support to troops in contact to more comprehensive “solutions” such as defeating the IED network. My problem is that I don’t see a huge difference between the “IED network” and the “insurgent network.” For my own analogy, it seems like saying the way to defeat the German artillery threat in WWII is to defeat the German Army. Its true, but implies that the IED fight is almost being carried out in parallel, rather than inclusive of the COIN campaign. (I’m a former offensive/defensive lineman—I’d say the reason you can’t follow them is that unless you focus on 1-2 players, you have to use slow motion replays to really follow whats actually occurring—there’s another analogy somewhere in that).

I don’t have much to say other than that, Eric, as a former center, I pay attention to the offensive line, but not on every snap. Ha! Phil is right though, its hard to focus on the unit as a whole and I usually just watched the center about 1-2 plays per series.

As far as the analogy. Not a bad one, I think offensive linemen are the squad leader and below in the counter-insurgency. The American people focus on the ball, the generals, congress and strategy but its all about the small unit leader and the men themselves practicing counter-insurgency themselves. On that note, our offensive line is like a high school o-line. Lots of potential, size and intelligence but not really getting the job done too well. We need to become the Broncos o-line of the late 90s or the Nebraska o-line of the early. They were quick, easily adaptable, highly intelligent and just plain dominant.

The problem, as we’ve talked about a few times, is getting the Squad Leaders and below to buy in to counter-insurgency and not “shoot everything that moves because they look different than me and I’m mad that I’m here”

That, I think, is the single biggest issue the Army faces in winning or at least salvaging the war in Afghanistan.

Strategy is great, but until everyone actually realizes and believes that its a good thing to get rid of BK, to live like the Afghani’s and to not wildly shoot everything, we will have a hard time over there.


@Phil- First, you are right that you can only really focus on one or two linemen at a time, but you probably agree that they are much more important than the press they get. (My dad was a high school football coach.)

As to taking down IED networks vs insurgent networks, I totally agree. Frankly, I don’t see the difference, and by having organizations focused on defeating IEDs, even though they stress attacking networks, they really only produce technology changes.

@Rob- Thank you for continuing the analogy, I love it. I love the idea of pushing the center of gravity lower and lower, and squad leaders are a part of that.


@Michael- Of course, that center of gravity goes lower and lower. Squad Leaders/Section Leaders are reaching a point of maturity where they should understand COIN. PLs most assuredly should, they’re paid to be the smart guys. But its those young hooah’s that make America so great at kicking any conventional army’s rear end(we are really f-ing good at that, and will always be IMO) that are the key. 8-15 young soldiers can affect a COIN environment just as much or more than the PL by good ‘ol fashioned interpersonal communication.

IED networks vs. insurgent networks: A network of A-holes is a network of A-holes no matter what they direct action cells are doing. And most of the time they’re C+C and recon Cells are one in the same. The same principles apply but the TTPs are vastly different in the mountains of Afghanistan vice the city streets of Iraq(where we seem to have been quite successful).

This brings us all back to the Pakistani safe haven thing…ughh…a never ending cycle of Islamic fundamentalist chaos!


Fighting theIED insurgents is like trying to grab a handful of a bucket water. What is the desired outcome? To end the killings due to IED.To cultivate a network of native informants.Can the war be actually won? Will trick plays work?Thething is to knock the heart out of the insurgents wear their spirits down. They fight for a cause..we fight because.The motivations are quite different.We need the populace to join with us or winning the war will prove mission impossible.OBAMA is the man for the times but the answer lies somwhere in his brain trust.