#48 Thanks and Thoughts

Since I last posted, I have received 3 separate emails from people regarding the blog posts having to do with the publication of "Black Hearts". All of them were totally unexpected and were a complete surprise to me. One, as mentioned in the last post, came from a family member of one of the perpetrators. The second came from a friend of mine who was in Iraq during my time as the platoon sergeant. The final one came yesterday from a Facebook friend who I knew as a child who follows the blog.

I want to thank each of them for taking the time to write. They all expressed their wishes that I can come to some sort of resolution about this matter and in essence, 'put it behind me'. I am truly grateful for their concern and their willingness to provide me the comfort of their words.

Throughout these posts it is true that I have regularly brought up the events of that period. However, in light of these generous gifts that people have given me this weekend, I want to clarify the reasoning behind my writing. I am not writing to elicit any sympathy from any reader anywhere. No one should feel sorry for me, nor should they feel sorry for those Soldiers, our platoon or the company. We were handed a set of circumstances and we did the best we could to see our way through the situations we faced. They were hard times, yes, but war by definition is hard. We enlist to serve our nation when it needs us, not when it is convenient or easy for us to do so.

I do not, nor have I ever, felt personally responsible for the actions those 5 people took on March 12, 2006. There is nothing that anyone can present anywhere under any circumstances that justifies or even partially mitigates their behavior. Hundreds of thousands of servicemembers have rotated through Iraq over the years - many serving in dangerous areas such as we were, and suffering the loss of friends and comrades to the viciousness of war as we did - without resorting to raping and murdering non-combatant civilians.

I write this blog to express my thoughts and opinions on the current state of Army leadership. Not the people who hold the positions, but the structure, doctrine and instruction we provide current and future generations. I want my readers to think hard about what it means to be a leader and what the implications are for accepting leadership positions. While my situation may be a once-in-a-lifetime and extreme occurrence of what can happen, it is an instructive episode in values, OODA, responsibility, vision and leadership. I am only trying to share my lessons learned with others.

Two examples: First, there is a lot of talk going around the Army right now about decentralization - what it means, what it entails, what levels certain things can be delegated to. The nature of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies requires this kind of approach. We need to be able to break down into the smallest units possible and provide those leaders the ability to make decisions (some of which will undoubtedly have strategic impacts) and the freedom to make them. That was precisely the situation my platoon and our unit was in in 2006. What then are some of the things that will be required prerequisites of following this path? First, a common value system that each person understands and has internalized. A baseline understanding of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. That is why I started the Values series of the blog. An understanding and appreciation of just how critically important the Army and National values are to decentralized military operations cannot be understated. Second, the development of judgment skills. The ability to look at a situation from multiple viewpoints and see the 2nd and 3rd order effects of each. Even more critical is the acceptance that there can be more than one way to look at an issue or problem. OODA is a method of doing this, and is outlined in Army manuals. The problem is that those manuals rarely make it down to the junior leader level. From my point of view, if we are going to pursue decentralization, then we must make values and OODA the bookends of the education platform for all junior leaders. Third, trust. Without trust nothing else is remotely possible. If senior leaders do not trust the values and judgements of junior leaders, then we will fail. A lack of trust in junior leader skills and abilities will lead to more investigations and recriminations. Like it or not, we are in a fight which demands thinking, adaptive junior leaders. Therefore, we must provide them the tools we can and then trust them to follow through. Conversely, senior leaders have a right to trust that junior leaders have internalized the values of the Army and understand the complexities of insurgent warfare. The end effect of pursuing this would inevitably be a 'flattening' of the organization. Someday, somewhere, a young leader is going to get on radio and make a call to a senior leader and recommend a particular course of action. Whether that action is successful or not, the senior leader is going to have to trust that the junior has an appreciation and understanding of his/her situation that demands whatever resource he/she is asking for. Second guessing and armchair quarterbacking will not engender this trust. I spoke about this a few weeks back when discussing the incident at COP Wanat in Afghanistan.

A second example can be found in the word 'accountability'. The author of "Black Hearts" has an article on the Time magazine website right now entitled, "The Threat From Within - Stopping Soldiers from becoming Murderers":


pushing the idea of greater 'accountability' by senior leaders. Sounds good. Let's make someone accountable for everything. He states in the article that there is a military maxim that says that "A leader is responsible for everything their unit does or fails to do." There has to be someone to account for the outcome. Good or bad. The downside of accountability is blame. What he is asking for is someone higher up the chain of command who can be blamed when something goes wrong. When I asked in an earlier post whether or not I am responsible for the death of that family because I sent those Soldiers to that particular place, I was not looking for absolution. I was asking, where does accountability end? Working backwards from the crime, I would be accountable for sending them there. The squad leaders who volunteered their names to me would be accountable for volunteering their names. The company commander would be accountable for picking my platoon for that mission at that time. The battalion commander would be accountable for sending out that company to that particular region. The brigade commander would be accountable for sending one battalion over another. And on and on. And it can be done the other way as well. Should we hold accountable the recruiter who enlisted Steven Green? How about the teachers, family, and friends who thought the Army might do him some good? How about his poor raising? The Army has been a great place for many other troubled youths, why not him? We don't spend a lot of time looking at this in our junior officer and enlisted classrooms. Maybe we should.

I am all for accountability for my actions and decisions. Both as they effect me personally and my platoon. I have been since the day I took over. What I want future generations to recognize are the limits of accountability. I am accountable for the decisions I made. While you may agree or disagree with them, that is a matter of opinion. I made them. Just as others above and below me made them. They may have had horrible unintended consequences, but nobody could have known that at the time they were made. Decisions are only validated or invalidated by their outcomes and results. This is why we need to develop junior leaders capable of seeing the same issue from multiple viewpoints. There could be successful outcomes from bad decisions just as easily as there can be bad outcomes from solid decisions. At least we need to recognize this and make our junior leaders recognize it too.

The notion of accountability brings with it the idea that people can see into the future and know the outcome of events before they transpire. Since they cannot, the idea that a leader is responsible for everything their subordinates do or fail to do is critically flawed because it removes the requirement of individual responsibility. By continually teaching each new generation of leaders this flawed idea, what we are really doing is creating an blame/escape-from-blame mechanism for Soldier actions. My situation demonstrates this perfectly. "Black Hearts" states on page xviii of the forward:

"March 12, 2006 was one such disaster. Nothing can absolve James Barker, Paul Cortez, Steven Green, and Jesse Spielman from the personal responsibility that is theirs, and theirs alone, for the rape of Abeer Qassim Hamzah Rashid al-Janabi, her vicious murder, and the wanton destruction of her family. It is one of the most nefarious war crimes known to be perpetrated by US Soldiers in any era-singularly heinous not just for it's savagery but also because it was so calculated, premeditated, and methodical. But leading up to that day, a litany of miscommunications, organizational snafus, lapses in leadership, and ignored warning signs up and down the chain of command all contributed to the creation of an environment where it was possible for such a crime to take place."

Blame...Espcape from blame. The author should have stopped at personal responsibility. For no amount of miscommunication or organizational failures or leadership lapses or ignored warning signs or poor raising or troubled youth mitigates, explains or minimizes the rape and murder of a 14 year old girl, her 6 year old sister and their parents. Not now. Not then. Not ever. And to even consider for a second that something could, presupposes the ability to look into an individuals heart and soul. No leader has that ability. Working in a decentralized manner, I trusted that those Soldiers had an internalization of a common value system. Sadly, they did not.

I write because it forces me to think. It forces me to test ideas. Hopefully, it does the same for others. I believe that what happened to 1st platoon is a critically instructive event. It could be used to demonstrate the incredible complexities of leading human beings during war. I have said in the past that that is exactly what the Army should be doing. While the events of that time have some unique characteristics, the truth is that they are a microcosmic demonstration of the connection between values, behaviors, trust, decentralization and mission requirements.

Finally, for those who will continue to believe that I am only trying to mitigate some personal responsibility, I offer the following thought. In this day an age, if I wanted to make this become yesterday's news, it would be too simple. 3 and 1/2 years have passed. This book will have a lifespan and then end up in your local bookstore alongside all the others. Very few people outside of those intimately involved even remember the incident. I talk about this because leading human beings is hard work. To not look at it squarely is a greater injustice to future leaders.

Once again, I want to sincerely thank those who have reached out to me. Your caring and kindness are appreciated. As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. I have read much on this incident over the years and to now have found your blog and read it...my heart goes out to you....I study and teach leadership (retired military) and interviewed one of the members of your chain of command about the incident for around 4 hours...one quick question which I probably missed somewhere....pretty simple....in hindsight what would you have done differently?

  2. Anonymous - First, thank you for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it. For any blog like this to work, it requires feedback. Because of the particular nature of these thoughts (military leadership) it has a somewhat limited audience. So, you're interest is appreciated.

    Your 'simple' question really isn't all that simple. Although I have thought about it often, there really isn't anything that I would have done differently. I don't mean that arrogantly, it's just that as I have thought about what happened, and the steps I took, the decisions I made still make sense. For example, the most damaging 'charge' against me in "Black Hearts" is that I never went to TCP 2 to see those Soldiers. The truth is that I didn't have to go to them, because they were coming to me. Each day we were rotating 9 Soldiers back to the FOB as outlined in the book. Soldiers from 2 would come to TCP 1 (where I was) to pick up the Soldiers there and link up with the Soldiers from TCP 5. Therefore, I saw the them and they saw me. If information needed to be passed between us it could. Another charge is that I didn't tell them how long the platoon was staying out at the TCP's. Also true. How could I? There was an brigade-wide operation going on that was open-ended. Our stay at the TCP's was going to be determined by the length of that operation and the return of the platoon dedicated to that operation back to 'normal' operations. All I did differently (and successfully) was change the focus of our being there from IED hunting to 'good will' building. That is something that I didn't explain well enough to the Soldiers.

    What I do wish was different is that my understanding of Army leadership was more complete. By that I mean, I was not aware of the limitations of 'leadership' as it had been taught to me before and it's ugly consequences. Hence, the blog.

    We raise leaders in the Army (at least during my formative years) without real regard for the consequences of war. We don't talk about abhorrent behavior, or the effects of human loss. We have learned now that we should.

    My purpose now is to do everything I can to make future generations aware of a method of thinking - not what to think, but how. This incident can and most definately should be used to that end. Otherwise, people 7 people died (Babineau, Menchaca, and Tucker plus 4 more from 2nd Bde 10th Mtn who followed us for no reason.

    I would be happy to discuss this with you at length if you would like. I can be reached at jfen0812@msn.com. Since you posted anonymously this time, please reference "Black Hearts" or leadership blog in the subject line.

    Thanks again for your empathy and thoughts. I really do appreciate them.