#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.

#47 A Tough Week

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.