Amid all the media frenzy surrounding the replacement of General McChrystal this week, another story quietly made a small blip on the radar screen that will potentially have a far greater impact on the war, and leadership, than the change of commanders at the very top.
On July 13th, 2008, a small group of US Soldiers and their Afghan National Army partners were attacked at a place called Combat Outpost (COP) Wanat. During the fighting which lasted over 13 hours, approximately 200 insurgent fighters attacked and were ultimately repulsed by a small US force of approximately 30 men. During the fighting, 8 American Soldiers lost their lives.
As usual after a major battle such as Wanat, there was an investigation completed looking into the actions of everyone in the chain of command to figure out how such a large number of anti-Afghan Forces had been able to carry out such a complex attack. There have now been 3, and with this final report, 4 reviews of the event over the past 2 years. Principally, this has happened because the father of one of the dead Soldiers is a former Army officer who knew exactly what questions to ask and how to push the Army to provide the most accurate report possible. In this endeavor, he enlisted the office of Senator Jim Webb from Virginia to add weight to his claims.
Earlier reports found fault and culpability with the the leadership of the embattled American unit from company through the battalion, brigade and ultimately Combined Joint Task Force 101 chain of command. These results lead to reprimands and other actions that have career implications. In one case, a senior officer resigned his commission and retired due to the injustices he felt were done to some of his subordinate commanders.
Finally, this past January, Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, asked General Charles C. "Hondo" Campbell to review all of the former reports and decide whether or not members of the chain of command had been derelict in their duties, or made such egregious errors in judgment and leadership that would render them responsible for the deaths of their Soldiers. General Campbell has recently retired after 40 years of service, his final position being FORSCOM Commander. However, prior to his retirement, he completed the task he had been assigned by Secretary McHugh. The redacted version of his findings, published the same day the the President relieved General McChrystal of command, can be found here:
Gen. Campbell's report found no criminal, or negligent leadership failures for members of the chain of command from the lowest to the highest levels. It does however raise and highlight some very important ideas and address the implications of trying to lead Soldiers in a complex environment if a leader is constantly worried that someone will hold them criminally liable for their judgments. In section 7 A of the report he states the following:
"During my review of all the materials available to me, I kept several broad principles in mind. First, if a commander makes a decision after reasoned consideration of the facts and circumstances, the existence of alternatives does not make the decision erroneous. Stated otherwise, a commander has broad discretion, and absent an egregious disregard of significant facts, his reasonably considered decision should be presumed to be valid. Second, in evaluating any decision, it is critical to focus on the facts and circumstances as they were known at the time of the decision. With hindsight, with knowledge of later events, it is always possible to arrive at a different decision. If, however, the commander prudently acted on the basis of what he knew and what he reasonably should have known, subsequent events or information, that is developed or interpreted differently at a later time, does not make the original decision unsound or incorrect. Third, if there is evidence of a decision or action that is later considered less than optimal (or even poor), one must ask whether it contributed in some meaningful way to a negative outcome. Fourth, and finally, one must understand that there is no such thing as a perfect decision in war, where complexity, friction, uncertainty, the interlocking effects of the actions of independent individuals, and the enemy all effect the outcome of events."
In his conclusion, Gen Campbell stated the following:
"That U.S casualties occurred at Wanat is true. However, they did not occur as a result of deficient decisions, planning and actions of the chain of command running from "Redacted Name" to MG Schloesser. The U.S casualties occurred because the enemy decided to attack the COP at Wanat and battle resulted. It is critical that we not mechanically equate U.S. casualties with professional error or misconduct. (emphasis added by me) In war, battle is the mechanism by which we defeat the enemy. In battle, casualties are inevitable. Regrettably, they are often the price of victory. When U.S, casualties occur, as at Wanat, we must examine the facts and circumstances to determine whether our Officers, NCO's and Soldiers have performed properly. When, as at Wanat. they have done so, we should learn any lessons the battle teaches and move forward. This reasoned, judicious review process without anger or partiality is the true meaning of accountability."
This report, hopefully the last concerning this particular battle, is critically important as to whether or not leaders have the latitude and ability to prosecute a fight without always having to be fearful that a dead Soldier will automatically invalidate their decision making process. Gen Campbell's final gift to the Army may have been the return of reason to the conduct of war.
There are some very important lessons that we can take from Gen Campbell's report that bear mentioning here. First, in war casualties are inevitable. The fact that we have prosecuted 2 wars over a 10 year span and only lost 4,000 Service members is, in fact, pretty incredible. The American public has been led to believe that with the advent of technology we can fight the 'perfect' war where we take no casualties, no innocent civilians or property are ever damaged, and the only suffering is done by the enemy. This is absolutely untrue. Wars - at their most basic level - are won and lost by men and women trying to kill each other. The relatively small number of deaths (.26 percent using 4000 deaths in a 1.5 million man force) has further enhanced the notion that we can win and not have anyone die. This fallacy needs to be replaced by the reality that if the war is worth fighting, then there will inevitably be a loss of life. While this painful truth is next to impossible to bare for the families and loved ones of those we have lost, it does not make the basic assumption unsound. In my opinion, we have also become so afraid of having Soldier get killed, that the protective measures we take on their behalf may also actually contribute to prolonging the overall conflict. If our leaders are always afraid to have someone die, then every decision they make is inherently defensive in nature. They will or won't take an offensive, they will or won't drive down certain roads, they will or won't hamper their Soldiers ability to kill the enemy solely based upon a fear of taking too high a number of casualties and having another incident like COP Wanat.
Second, the report rightfully claims that just because someone does die, that the decisions that led to that death are not automatically due to some failure on the part of the leadership. The enemy does get a vote. They intend to inflict casualties upon us in order to break our political, military and human will in order to get us to cease fighting. We are doing the same to them. Commanders must be allowed to make those decisions that they have been trained to make, and not constantly have to worry that if their decision has a bad outcome, that they will automatically be found criminally liable or otherwise responsible for the deaths that occur. If we inculcate our leaders with a fear of career ending prosecutions every time a Soldier gets killed, that fear will have a paralyzing effect on the decisions they make and ultimately will likely lead to more deaths and injuries. As I have said before, if General Eisenhower had had to command in the present age, it is not likely that the D Day invasion would ever have occurred. He would never have gotten past the planning stages as soon as he briefed the casualty estimates.
Third, and maybe most importantly, Gen Campbell's report claims that if, and when, investigations into incidents like this are warranted, it is critically important to understand the perspective and orientation of the commander at the time, not with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. In effect, one has to freeze the battlefield at a particular point in time and then try to see the events through the eyes of those who were in charge right there. You cannot go back later and judge men for things they could not have known at that particular point. You cannot say, "Well, why didn't you know that the enemy was going to plan and execute a large scale, multi-pronged attack on your lightly defended outpost?", if in fact, there was no evidence presented by the enemy to inform your thought process or if that knowledge is only one of a thousand pieces of often conflicting information you must decide upon each day.
Obviously this final notion is the one that effects me the most personally with regard to the events of my platoon. I have always claimed that given what I knew, my understanding of the platoon, the environment and the mission, that my decisions and actions were correct. I would also say that had someone else taken a different approach than I chose to, that that approach may have been equally correct. The important part is that you must look at the decisions based upon my interpretation and understanding when judging whether or not my actions were reasonable or sound. While the book and the court proceedings and all of that have tried relentlessly to rewrite the facts using knowledge that was not present at the time of the event, I have maintained that my perspective and that of others in the chain of command must be understood as it was then, not as it might be after the numerous investigations and prosecutions. This also highlights the idea that we need to develop leaders with a much wider and more in-depth perspective. In essence, if we are going to judge them later based upon their knowledge, experience and perspective, we had better spend a lot more time developing these abilities before we send them into command positions.
General Campbell's report to Secretary McHugh is a very important first step toward creating command climates based upon the mission, the circumstance, commander's intent and the expected outcome. To operate in an incredibly decentralized environment such as Afghanistan requires leaders at all levels who are empowered to make the best decisions they know how, given the information and analytical abilities they posses and the removal of fear from prosecution for casualties that are an inevitable outcome of the dirty business at the sharp end of the stick.
As always, your thoughts and comment are welcome. Feedback only serves to enhance the dialogue and we all learn from the experience of others. I look forward to hearing from you.