#77 A Matter of Interpretation

"That night no Allied commander seriously feared a major German attack. Yet in Bastogne, Belgium, about twenty miles west of Chervaux, Middleton, whose VIII Corps comprised the bulk of the Ghost Front, was uneasy. A woman had been sent up that morning from the 28th Division. She told of seeing, just the night before, a mass of German troops behind the Seigfried Line east of Clervaux. And their tanks were twice as large as anything the Americans had. Middleton realized that if an attack did fall, his four divisions, two green, two exhausted - would be hard put to defend themselves. So he sent the woman on up the chain of command to his chief, Lieutenent General Courtney Hodges, the commander of the First Army.

But at the famous Belgian resort of Spa, Hodges was too occupied with the slow progress of his own attack toward the Roer Dams to be concerned. It was true that the week before, his intelligence officer, Colonel, 'Monk' Dickson, had surprised everyone by predicting there would soon be an all-out German offensive and the past few days had made a pest of himself by announcing that the attack might possible come where no one expected it - where it had come in 1870, 1914, and 1940 - in the Ardennes. Then at a briefing just the night before, Dickson's hunch had become a conviction as he pounded a map board and said with certainty, "It's the Ardennes!" Hodges' staff had advised the general not to take Dickson too seriously: Monk was a notorious pessimist; also he was overworked, and three days in Paris would perk him up a bit.

The 12th Army Group, which gave orders to Hodges, had also been displeased with Dickson's prediction. Lieutenant General Omar Bradley's intelligence officer announced in rebuttal: "It is now certain that attrition is steadily sapping the strength of German forces on the Western Front. Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) quickly joined Dickson's critics, Eisenhower's G2 issuing a report that the Germans were all but finished.

Even the British ridiculed fear of any enemy attack. That very afternoon Montgomery had stated flatly that Germans "cannot stage major offensive operations." In fact, things were so dull he asked Eisenhower if there was any objection to his going off to England next week. Reassured by this chorus of confidence from above, Hodges had kept busy with his own offensive. He went to sleep around midnight bothered only by a head cold."

"Battle : The Story of the Bulge", by John Toland (Chap 1 pages 10-11)

What followed is the 'Battle of the Bulge'. A desperate fight against a confluence of overwhelming force and horrible conditions that made the outcome questionable from the very outset. If not for the incredible tenacity of the Soldiers, some divine providence with the weather, and the sheer determination of the Allied command, the result of the 'Bulge' may have been one that ended in infamy instead of one that history has recalled so heroically.

If you serve, or have ever served, in the 101st Airborne Division, a central portion of the heraldry of that storied Division rests with the results of the understandings, interpretations, and decisions outlined above. The Division's headquarters building is named after Brigadier General Anthony MacAuliffe who, surrounded and outnumbered by the German army at Bastogne, famously replied "Nuts!" when offered the opportunity to surrender his forces to the Germans.

As I read those pages this week, I began to wonder what would have happened if someone had listened to the woman who spoke of masses of huge tanks, or if the various commands had paid heed to the over-tired Colonel Dickson? Could the battle that ensued have been avoided? Would the Allies have massed forces earlier and taken the fight to the Germans before coming so perilously close to defeat? Would all those people we lionize today still be considered heroes if the Germans had been successful? Why doesn't anyone know the name of 'Monk' Dickson? Shouldn't some credit be given to the man who got it right to begin with? And what of those who got it wrong and failed to pay attention to the pieces of information that were available, but that they didn't put together correctly or pay enough attention to? Do they shoulder any responsibility for the Soldiers who died because of the decisions they made?

I have been thinking about this in light of the COP Keating and COP Wanat reports that I wrote about in post # 70, "Hondo's Parting Gift". Beyond scale and scope, these two battles, the 'Bulge' and Wanat, have a lot in common. Undermanned and under resourced units. Thin units trying to cover vast amounts of territory. Commands whose priorities lie elsewhere. Staffs who have different interpretations of the situation. Desperate fights that ultimately require huge amounts of resources to repel the enemy. Heroism at the local level where men fought to hold their ground against overwhelming odds. And death. A lot of death and a lot of people injured. And yet the passage of time has changed our understandings to such a degree that the 'Bulge' is considered an iconic battle which demonstrates the best qualities of the American Soldier, and Wanat required 3 reports to put to rest the issue of culpability.

I wonder if the Internet and mass communication and the litigious mindset that is so prevalent today had existed in 1944 would we still see the 'Battle of the Bulge' the way we currently do? Would it still be considered an historic battle? Would the legends like Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Hodges still be seen the same way? If a parent of a dead Soldier in Bastogne had the power to press his case to the U.S. Senate, what would the outcome be? What if MacAuliffe had been over-run by the Germans and instead of his Soldiers simply becoming German prisoners they had been killed by the thousands? Would our headquarters building still bear his name?

These are important questions because they have immense impacts on how we lead and the consequences of the decisions we make. According to Toland, almost every senior leader in Europe got it wrong. The facts existed to indicate that the Germans were planning some form of large scale attack, but no one listened. No one listened to Col Dickson and to those far below him in the chain of command. Middleton was worried, but decided not to act independently on his concerns. Hodges ignored it because his own plan was faltering. Bradley's staff flatly rebuts Dickson's ideas. Montgomery wants to go on leave. Lives will be lost because of these choices. But because the outcome was ultimately successful, these errors in judgement go unnoticed. Had the outcome resulted in a major German victory, I wonder how we would view them then.

Leaders use their best judgments to make decisions. The higher up the chain of command you are, the more you must rely on the judgment of others to help inform your own. As each of these subordinates provides you facts, there must also be a recognition that they are being presented and informed through the prism of the person presenting them. They are being filtered by that person's knowledge, experience and judgement. And all that filtering can have a pronounced impact on your understanding of the 'ground truth'. This is something we need to pay attention to as we develop leaders at all levels. Not that every single Soldier's understanding of the situation is correct, or even valid, but that we, as leaders, must develop an awareness of the 'filtering' that is occurring as information is being presented to us. Someone is telling us something, but they really don't have a large enough context. Someone else is telling us something to enhance their personal standing in the organization. Someone else is telling us only what they think we want to hear. And someone else is saying something that no one else is even considering. All these views will be supported by facts. But only the leader must take all of them and form their own interpretation and make a decision.

What's critical is that the leader have access to all the disparate voices. They cannot be insulated from the ones that others find distasteful. They cannot be removed because of inarticulateness or coarseness. They cannot be ignored due to lack of stature. We must find ways to ensure that the 'ground truth' of the person pulling guard in a remote location in Afghanistan has the same access to the decision-maker as the staff officer that builds the briefing.

This access to various points of view is often termed transparency, or communication flattening. It makes all facts equal at first because it removes the idea that the hierarchy imposes a value on the information. All the facts from the Soldier on the ground go in one pile. The facts from the company or battalion staff go in another. The facts from the brigade go in another. The facts from the 'lone voice' go in yet another. To start, they are all of equal value. Only then can the leader have the greatest access to the various points of view that exist with his/her organization.

What does it take to remove the 'filtering' system? First, it takes leaders who are viscerally aware that the filters exist in the first place. Only with this awareness can structures be put in place that account for it. Second, it requires humility. The leader must be humble enough to understand that even their interpretation of the facts could be incorrect. Third, it requires a voice of dissent. There must be a mechanism for those in the minority opinion to be heard. Finally, and most importantly, it requires leaders whose single most prized quality for leadership is their judgment. Nothing else they may do, battles they may win, or accolades they may have earned, can outweigh the faith and trust the organization places in their judgment. Every leader development system the Army has should be focused at that singular purpose, increasing and developing the judgment of the leader. And in order to development judgment, we must start with development and understanding of the character of the individual. We must force them back into themselves to study what forms, and informs, their decision-making process. By doing that we can take a brand new Sergeant or Lieutenant, make them aware of their filters, then make them understand that the decisions they make are based in part upon information that is also being filtered. Lives depend on this awareness.

The 'Battle of the Bulge' begins with a series of major misjudgments. It is only through the incredible character of thousands of Soldiers that the battle turned out the way it did. I only hope the 'Battle of Wanat' is remembered the same way.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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