In a post that was never published, I wrote the following paragraphs when Steven Green was sentenced to 5 life terms in Federal prison:
"In an earlier post, I made mention that my experience in Iraq from Sep 05 - Sep 06 began the personal transformation that has resulted in a lot of the thoughts about leadership, mentorship and the importance of training people over tasks that I have been posting since starting this blog.
On Sept 4th, 2009 Steven Dale Green was sentenced to 5 consecutive life terms in prison for killing an Iraqi family and raping a 14 year old Iraqi girl in March of 2006. He was the final person in that horrific event to be brought to justice, but the episode is much more complex than just him. Green will die in jail. He will never be a free man again. Maybe that equals enlightened justice, and maybe not. I'm not sure. Although I am not an advocate of the death penalty in general, once you are faced with a situation like this, it can change how you view the application of justice. If the jury in the Green trial had given him the death penalty for his crimes, I really don't think it would have bothered me, and I think that I would have said a silent prayer of thanks. I struggle to come to peace with the idea that the Iraqi family's lives were taken in a horribly violent and obscene and undeserved manner, yet he will live (albeit in prison) until he dies of natural causes. In fact, tax payer dollars will ensure he is provided proper medical care when required to make sure he is healthy enough to die in prison. 3 other members of the platoon are serving long prison sentences at Ft. Leavenworth, KS by virtue of plea deals they cut with the government, or by virtue of the jury's decision at court martial.
I was the platoon sergeant of that platoon. I am not saddened by that statement, nor am I proud of it. It is a simple statement of fact. There are many many details that surround that statement, and I have been investigated, poked, prodded, questioned, challenged etc more than I would wish on anyone. However, the fact that this crime happened on my watch cannot be wished away. It was the card I was dealt. I am still emotionally working my way through it today, almost 3 years later.
When I took over the platoon, I was told that they needed 'discipline'. Do the basics. Nothing fancy etc. etc. Question: How do you instill discipline in a group of men who, up to this point - we would go on to lose 3 more at a later time, have had 2 of their members blown to pieces by an IED, and another 2 assassinated, and then had there 'home' destroyed by fire? How exactly do you instill discipline when they are on their 3rd platoon sergeant in 45 days? How do you do that when they stop caring about the very fabric that binds them together? When they cease to be a values-based organization and become basic animals working in a predatory manner?
The Army prides itself on Soldier discipline. Everyone dressing sharply, marching in step, following commands, accomplishing the mission. And we do all those things. We get fresh haircuts, polish our boots (well, we used to), press a uniform, render proper courtesies etc. We do that well and people say how 'disciplined' we are. All Servicemembers do these things - each in their own service-related manner. The same way that every business has it's own expected norms of dress and behavior. The problem happens when you realize that all of these things are only surface deep. That while spit-shined boots and creased uniforms and clean haircuts are important, they are not critical. When you run into a platoon like mine where those standards and traditions don't hold up really well to the harsh light of reality in a combat zone. When everyone starts to question the validity or necessity of the small standards when viewed against their personal observation of their surroundings, loss of friends and the destruction of their living quarters. The question then becomes, what is critical? What do we need to instill in Soldiers so that events like mine never happen again? And, as a second line of thought, how do you lead them?
Some folks are likely to reply that my situation is an extreme anomaly and that it is exactly those basics requirements like uniform standards and saluting that make up the root of Soldier discipline. Forcing Soldiers to adhere to small standards when life is easy will make them more receptive to adhering to larger demands when the time comes. And there is merit to that. It is true that instilling discipline in small ways, over time, can create a person who willingly binds themselves to the larger behavior systems of the organization. But that willingness cannot and must not become blind faith. Any faith in the organization and it's values system, must generate from individual acceptance of the norms of accepted behavior. The important 'glue' of the organization has to be felt at the moral core of each member. That is the only way that people can withstand the losses that my Soldiers did and still act in a manner consistent with the organization. When my Soldiers lost that they became nothing more than a gang. Just the same as any street gang except that they wore the 'colors' of the United States Army."
This has been a very tough week. As mentioned in post #45, "Black Hearts" was published last Tuesday, and I immediately bought a copy of it. I spent the next five and a half hours reading it straight through. As the book progressed, I could feel the tension level in my body rising. When I was finished, I was exhausted. Reading it brought back a lot of memories and laid bare people's various thoughts on the entire situation and the people involved.
On the whole, the book is very accurate and pretty fair. As I indicated earlier I think that for every point in the narrative where someone gets vilified for a decision or action, there is another place in the book where they get vindicated for some other decision or action. Overall, I think it is a fair treatment of the unit, the people, and the time minus the absolute annihilation of the battalion commander. I do think it wants the reader to feel a little too badly for all of B Co for the tough conditions we were in, and it doesn't ever render any other judgement besides 'poor leadership' at every level. In fact, I think it's greatest failing is that it doesn't recognize that in war, as in any other endeavor, you lead those you have, with what you have available to you, under the circumstances in front of you. People can wish and hope and pray for a perfect world, but that is not always available. You do the best you can with what you have. Iraq in 2005 wasn't a fair fight, and no matter how much people complain about it now, it wasn't going to get better until the 'Surge'. The author doesn't ever render an opinion of what he thinks could have or should have been done with 1st platoon. Just getting more bodies or more stuff - while it might have helped - would not have solved the 'moral bankruptcy' that existed in the unit at the time. The most personally saddening part for me was to read how little some folks - and mostly people I didn't know that well prior to this time - felt about me. As I have said before, they are entitled to their opinion of me, but it is still difficult to see it in print.
On Thursday, I had lunch with BS and his wife. They were in town for an event on post and it was great to get a chance to see them again. He has been a friend and mentor to me for almost 6 years now and I thank them for taking the time to visit with me. When others abandoned us, he never did. I will be forever grateful.
Yesterday morning I received an email from out of the blue from a family member of one of the perpetrators who is now in prison. This person had found the blog by accident and wanted me to know that they did not think that I should blame myself in any way for what happened, and that no amount of great or poor leadership would have stopped their relative from committing this crime. That if it hadn't been the Iraqi family someday it would have been someone else. Receiving this shocked me. I truly didn't know this person until yesterday. I must have read it 5 or 6 times. I wrote back yesterday afternoon thanking the individual for taking the time to reach out to me and to recognize the enormity of the pressures that they must have had to face over the years. I also asked if I could use portions of the email in the blog if I could find a way to protect their identity. Yesterday evening the person replied that I could use the email exchange, but that they would like to preview it before I post it. I will do that in the weeks ahead.
So, what did I learn from this? What leader lessons are there to pass along? Without nitpicking each and every part of the book, here are some general statements that I took away. First, this story underscores the absolute imperative that we must remain a values-based organization. On page 297, there is the following passage:
"...Norton had never been more relieved in his life. Walter lobbed about four or five shells on and around the spot. Lauzier wanted to follow and make sure the insurgents were dead, but he didn't have any more working weapons. He told his men to break contact, and they headed back to the house. It is something he regretted years later, that he was not able to personally finish the insurgents off."
SSG Lauzier and his Soldiers had been engaged in a firefight. They were pinned down and requested mortar fire. The mortar fire was effective. The enemy was reduced. There was no longer an immediate threat.Does this imply that SSG Lauzier, according to the book, regrets to this day that he wasn't able to go kill people who were no longer an immediate threat to him or his men? And now you know why everything we do has to start with the value system we espouse.
I also think it is important that leaders establish trust with their subordinates, and that that trust must come from the bottom up. The Soldiers trusted their original platoon sergeant, Phil Miller, even when it became evident that he was no longer effectively able to provide them the purpose, direction, and steps necessary to accomplish their mission. Soldiers did not trust Rob Gallagher or me. They did not believe that I knew what I was doing and that my reasons for doing it were sound. Second, trust must be demonstrated downward as well, but leaders should be aware that it can be abused.
If you put this into a larger perspective, I think the most critical point of these events is that Soldiers must have a clear purpose for what they are being required to do and that every level of leadership must continually ensure that every other level shares that common understanding. If there is one clear lesson that stands out to me from this, it is that every leader in the battalion believed they were doing the right thing. They believed that the decisions they were making and the actions they were taking were in the best interest of those below them. If there is one common motif throughout the story, it is that those below never believed that to be true.
On a personal level, I think this story also brings home two other interconnected ideas: There is what you think people think of you and what they actually think of you, and there is what you think you are doing, and how those decisions can be interpreted by others. These are important considerations because they are what leads to the misunderstanding of purpose outlined above. I have continually driven home the point of critical self analysis throughout this blog. I do that because leaders must be absolutely sure of who they are and what they stand for before they can make decisions.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.