#19 A Strategic Communication Follow-Up

Below is an email response that I received from a retired Sergeant Major who I met for a short while in Afghanistan. He is replying to my comments regarding "Strategic Communication" in a blog by General Campbell (See Post #11):

MSG Fenlason,
Two things a leader is supposed to do: 1. Lead Soldiers and units during battle; 2. Prepare Soldiers and units to fight the battle.
COL Mike Malone

Stability and Counter Insurgency Operations are part of our Doctrine. We don't like to participate or take the lead in these operations, favoring offensive and defensive operations instead, but it doesn't mean we don't have competent doctrine to effectively manage and accomplish Stability and Counter Insurgency Operations. I hate what occurred with your element, and especially the outcome, but I can't see blaming the highest levels of command for this breakdown.

As you read these excerpts from FM-1, Chapter 1, remember the opening to the NCO Creed: I am a noncommissioned officer, a leader of Soldiers. No one is more professional than I.

• Army professionalism is intellectual, physical, and moral in nature; it requires expert knowledge of the concepts and tools of its trade. It is intellectual because the unique body of expertise required in military operations is extensive. The conduct of war, its technology, and the execution of military strategy, operations, and tactics are complex matters, certainly as demanding as the practice of any other profession. Moreover, Army professionals must exercise their expertise against intelligent adversaries. The consequences of failure in our profession—both for the Soldier and the Nation—are more dire than those in any other.

• The need to master the intellectual, physical, and moral aspects of warfare forms the basis for our system of professional military education. Every Army leader must master all aspects of warfare, personally committing to the career-long process of learning, evaluating, and adapting to changing security environments, technologies, and military operations. Through this process, The Army professional continually develops expertise in the practice of the art and science of war.

• Leadership is vital to maintaining an agile and versatile force. Leaders inspire Soldiers to behave professionally and to accomplish missions effectively.

• Army leaders adopt and internalize Army values and develop the requisite mental, physical, and emotional attributes. They learn the interpersonal, conceptual, technical, and tactical skills required to lead soldiers and accomplish missions. Leaders motivate subordinates, conduct operations, and continually develop and improve their units, their Soldiers, and themselves. Leadership is a life-long learning process—in the classroom, in personal study, and in practice.
• Adaptive leaders must first be self-aware—then have the additional ability to recognize change in their operating environment, identify those changes, and learn how to adapt to succeed in their new environment.

• Today's environment demands more from Army leaders then ever before. The Army needs adaptive leaders—leaders that can successfully operate across the range of military operations. It needs adaptive leaders who can be home one day and, within hours, conduct military operations anywhere in the world. The Army needs adaptive leaders who can operate in all technological environments—from hand-to-hand combat to offensive information operations.

FM 3-0, the Army’s keystone doctrine for full spectrum operations, presents a stable body of operational doctrine rooted in actual military experience. It was published several months before 9/11 occurred, but we didn't focus on or teach in our institutions more than Offensive or Defensive Operations in chapters 7 and 8.

The answer to the current dilemma was always in FM 3-0, chapter 9, just as it was in FM 101-5 beforehand.

9-16. Stability operations are inherently complex and place great demands on small units. Small unit leaders are required to develop interpersonal skills such as cultural awareness, negotiating techniques, and critical language phrases while maintaining warfighting skills. They must also remain calm and exercise good judgment under considerable pressure. Soldiers and units at every level must be flexible and adaptive. Often, stability operations require leaders with the mental and physical agility to shift from noncombat to combat operations and back again.
Considerations for Stability Operations

• Understand the potential for unintended consequences of individual and small unit actions
• Display the capability to use force in a nonthreatening manner
• Act decisively to prevent escalation
• Apply force selectively and discriminately

The Soldier’s heart, the Soldier’s spirit, the Soldier’s soul, are everything. Unless the Soldier’s soul sustains him he cannot be relied on and will fail himself and his commander and his country in the end.
General George C. Marshall

What you had was a leadership breakdown. Where it occurred is open to debate. The pillars of leader development include operational assignments, institutional learning, and self development. I know ANCOC didn’t focus on these skill sets and I am convinced your previous assignments didn’t adequately prepare you or your troops for this type of combat. The same is probably true for your commander. In retrospect, you now have the insight to be a better Platoon Sergeant and would no doubt train and prepare your soldiers differently.

If I remember right, you took the helm of that platoon shortly before the deployment, so nothing may have made a difference. Still, I think you underestimated the gravity of your leadership responsibilities and are still failing to come to grips with your own shortcomings, or the shortcomings of the entire NCO development system.
Your argument is 75 years out of date:

"The commander who lacks the moral courage and the professional skill to develop and maintain a thoroughly competent corps of noncommissioned officers throughout his command thereby demonstrates his inability to assume the responsibilities of leadership in combat. Such a commander forfeits the confidence and respect of his subordinates. He destroys the morale of his organization. He will surely fail in battle. Success in combat depends upon the character and qualifications of the noncommissioned officers commanding small units. They must be outstanding leaders with a high sense of duty and a strong will. They must be resourceful and willing to assume responsibility. In order to insure that our noncommissioned officers are equal to the tasks that lie ahead of them, commanders of all echelons will give their personal attention to improving the quality and prestige of those noncommissioned officers who exercise command responsibilities." -1944 War Department Circular 70

Today, that is a leader responsibility, not a commanders.

What follows is my reply to him.

Thanks for replying to my post. It surprises me how few NCOs are paying attention to the discussions going on in higher echelons of the Army. I see that you are retired now, congratulations. I also see that you are back at Bagram, so I know that you will continue to assist leaders with the development tools they need. With regard to your specific comments regarding my post, I must admit on first reading to have become angry. However, as I read it again and again, those emotions passed and I would like to address it as best I can. Forgive me if my thoughts become somewhat disjointed.

First, there is no doubt that there were many leadership failures in 1st platoon and many people (investigators, lawyers, reporters, Senior Army Leaders etc) have all tried to place the correct accountability in the right places. All of us who were a part of that leadership team own a portion of that responsibility, not only the commissioned officer corps. As you rightfully stated though, nothing in my previous 16 years in the Army - operational, or institutional prepared me adequately for that particular set of circumstances. In fact, I and others, did the best we knew how to do under the circumstances. In the end, the were no Army "approved" solutions to those events except for people taking what they believed to be the morally correct actions when the incident came to light. Others are allowed to have their own opinions of our actions and decisions, and we have to live with their judgements. It is also pertinent to state that I took over the platoon in-country, after they had suffered 4 KIA (PL, SL, TL and Soldier), had a PSG quit, and another get fired. I was the 3rd Platoon Sergeant in a 45 day period. The day of my arrival, the American portion of their FOB burned to the ground. The murders of the Iraqi family happened on my 5th week in charge. On that day, I was short my Platoon Leader and 2 Squad Leaders due to EML. I am not making excuses here, those are statements of fact that represent the conditions at the time.

Having said that, my purpose in responding to that particular blog and bringing up the 1st platoon war crime was not to "blame" the Chain of Command, as you suggested, but to highlight the fact that there can be tactical, operational, and strategic impacts of an individual Soldier's action(s) and yet we do nothing to train the Soldier to be aware of this. In the case of first platoon, there is evidence that when my Soldiers were attacked and abducted at the AVLB in June, that that attack was in retaliation for the actions of the other Soldiers in March. Additionally, the 2BDE, 10th Mtn unit that replaced us in Sep 06 had 4 Soldiers abducted in the same general area. It was reported in the international press at the time of the attack against the Iraqi family that a local Imam stated that "It will take 10 American lives to avenge the rape and murder of that Iraqi girl." That message was reiterated when the video of the abduction of my Soldiers was released on the Internet. Today, I read an article in INFANTRY Magazine (Marcgh-June 09 issue) that outlined the efforts of C 1/187 who replaced the 2/10 unit in Yusifiyah. There, the actions of my Soldiers continued to have locally strategic effect on the decisions and actions of both AIF and US forces. So, 4 Soldiers commit a heinous crime in early 2006, the effect of which is felt in '07 by the 2/10 unit and has operational implications for the 187 unit that followed them. Being that the Sunni Triangle was also considered the southern route into Bagdad, and that the incident galvanized and solidified tribal support for AQI against US and Iraqi Army forces, it seems reasonable that there can be theater strategic consequences to local actions.

I think what bothered me the most about the blog was the post that followed mine where it was implied that Strategic Communication is the pervue of CJTF or 3 star officers. That I take offense to. As Admiral Mullen, General McChrystal and others have said, it's not what we say, it our actions that count. That is a lesson that can be taught to all Soldiers, and something recognized by the 1/187 article. The unit took special pains to remind Soldiers that even if they suffered casualties etc, that random violence or a disproportionate response was not going to lead to mission success. In fact, that is exactly the same message that General McChrystal published recently in his guidance to US forces in Afghanistan - it is our actions at the local level that will carry the day and provide the concrete proof of the loftier "Strategic Communication" of senior leaders. I found it interesting that none of the other posters picked up on that idea. Maybe because they were too interested in the theoretical implications etc. It really is a simple message. Why should it be a sort of cottage industry for senior leaders?

We live in an instant communication world. The actions of a Soldier at any point on the battlefield can have immediate world-wide impact. The actions of 1st platoon both in the March incident involving the Iraqi family and the June incident involving the Soldiers at the AVLB were reported internationally overnight, and caused responses at the very highest levels of the Army and our government. In light of that, the idea that message sculpting can only be done by very senior leaders in almost laughable. In my case it was done by Steven Dale Green, a 23 year old kid from Midland Texas.

Finally, the only part of your reply that personally bugged me was your assertion that I have not accepted personal responsibility for what happened. I will tell you that not a day has gone by in the intervening 3 years that I have not asked myself what, if anything, I could have done differently. I have paid an emotionally heavy price for my time as the Platoon Sergeant of 1st platoon, and believe that I did the best I could do, with the Soldiers I had, under the circumstances I was faced with. Others may have done things differently than I did - with potentially different results. We will never know. That is the burden of leadership and command. It is the burden that with neither pride nor regret I carry daily. You are correct when you said that that time has made me a better leader. Crucibles have a way of doing that.

I would very much like to continue this dialogue with you if you are so inclined. In the short time we shared in Bagram during RIP/TOA, I was very impressed by you, your actions and your committment to the NCO Corps. Thanks for your time. Jeff Fenlason

There is a lot of really good stuff in this exchange. Please read it and absorb what he said. All that doctrine and manual stuff is important. How you accomplish those things is critical. That is the very hard work of leadership.

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