If an insurgent fires on you and flees through a crowded marketplace, don't shoot, soldiers and Marines are told. By returning fire, you might hit a civilian, and even if you do get the shooter, you show everyone watching that you are dangerous and indiscriminate.
Using less force is effective in winning the population and discouraging the insurgency only if the local Iraqis can see you using less of it. A commander who prefers to manage from a forward operating base and doesn't engage with the leaders of each village keeps his troops (and himself) safe but doesn't forge local connections with villages. This leaves an opportunity for insurgents to do so and emboldens the enemy, because they think their adversaries are afraid to take them on.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, walks the streets without body armor. He explained why in his report to President Obama last August: "When ISAF [Internation Security Assistance Forces] travel through even the most secure areas of Afghanistan firmly ensconced in armored vehicles with body armor and turrets manned, they convey a sense of high risk and fear to the population. ISAF cannot expect unarmed Afghans to feel secure before heavily armed ISAF forces do. ISAF cannot succeed if it is unwilling to share risk, at least equally, with the people. In fact, once the risk is shared, effective force protection will come from the people, and the overall risk can actually be reduced by operating differently. The more coalition forces are seen and known by the local population, the more their threat will be reduced."
This is why Mattis used to yell at his drivers to slow down when he traveled through Afghanistan. "I want to drive through here in a manner that gets me invited back," he explains. Driving slowly is riskier, but it also sends two messages: The Americans are not afraid, and they are respectful.
Downgrading the use of force and accepting more risk is a departure from the military approach—ascribed to everyone from Carl von Clauswitz to Colin Powell—that victory can only come from total and overwhelming force. As Sarah Sewall, the author of the foreword to the public version of the COIN [Counterinsurgency Field] Manual writes in Military Review: "American culture and U.S. military doctrine prefer a technological solution and the overwhelmingly decisive blow."
Asking troops to practice this kind of restraint and accept greater risk by reducing force is also at odds with human nature. Keeping your head engaged with a whole new set of calculations about cultural sensitivity is distracting when you're trying to keep from getting killed. It's also a challenge for brain chemistry, requiring your prefrontal cortex to control the adrenaline and fear reflexes blasting out of the primitive centers of the brain.
"For an 18-year-old it is an unnatural act in a firefight when someone is shooting at you to react calmly in the face of ultimate risk to their life," says a lieutenant colonel who led a battalion for two tours in Afghanistan. When he took over the battalion the top noncommissioned officer told him he was lucky because in every squad there were men so battle hardened they'd "been black on ammo in a firefight." (Green on ammo means you're full, red means you're dwindling and black means you're empty.) They'd been empty and yet they'd prevailed. That was certainly an asset, but it was also a complication. "As far as counterinsurgency is concerned," he says, "the toughest thing is that we've got guys in the squad who think going black on ammo is the solution."
Addressing this challenge, argues Mattis, requires two fundamentals. The first is a tested and engaged set of officers. To teach troops how to take the risk of restraint first requires winning their loyalty and admiration, he argues. Only then can the "trust and connection" happen that allows the message to get through.
Mattis had standing with his troops because he led from the front, which means he took his own "jump platoon" into convoys where it was regularly attacked and hit by improvised explosive devices. According to one account, when the Iraqi-led Fallujah Brigade was created, Mattis decided it needed a test run to see if the native force could actually keep order in the city after weeks of fighting. He sent a Marine convoy through town to see if it would be shot at. He was in the convoy. (It got through without incident.)
In another instance, on his way back to headquarters he came upon a company that had just been ambushed. He sent the wounded on and turned his platoon into the fight. He was preaching restraint, but when the time came for fighting, he was willing to take the same combat risks he was asking his men to take. "That story was repeated in the chow line before he even came back," says Maj. Andrew Petrucci, who served two tours under Mattis.