#58 The Hardest Part

In his book "Americans At War", noted military historian Stephen Ambrose wrote the following when offering an historical perspective regarding the incident at My Lai during the Vietnam War:

"This is a painful task - to examine a side of war that is hard to face up to but is always there. When you put young people, eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, in a foreign country with weapons in their hands, sometimes terrible things happen that you wish had never happened. This is a reality that stretches across time and across continents. It is a universal aspect of war, from the time of the ancient Greeks up to the present. My Lai was not an exception or an aberration. Atrocity is a part of war that needs to be recognized and discussed. It is not the job of historians to condemn or judge, but to describe, try to explain, and, even more so, attempt to understand.

In the case of My Lai, the question is who was responsible? Was it one person? Was it a bad platoon leader who was inadequately trained all his life, including by the Army and by his society? Was it that he just could not handle the responsibility, and he broke? Maybe it is as simple as that. I know a lot of Vietnam War veterans who would take very extreme action if they could get Lt. Calley in their hands. They blame him for besmirching their reputation and the reputation of the United States Army and the reputation of the American armed forces in Vietnam. Then there are others who say: "No, no, you can't blame Calley. What you need to do is look at the U.S. Army as a whole, the Army as an institution, the way the Army was fighting that war, and the things Westmoreland was demanding from his platoon leaders." The problem here is that you have the whole U.S. Army going berserk. Yet others would argue: "No, no, the Army is but a reflection of society, it was American society that made this happen. The racism that permeates all levels of American society is where you look for the cause of what happened at My Lai. It is America's sense of exceptionalism, America's self-appointed task of cleansing the world, that made My Lai happen." In this view, responsibility rests with society as a whole."

At the end of another paragraph a little further along, Ambrose finishes with the following:

"In combat, Soldiers are always afraid, always enraged, and very often seeking revenge."

In another place, he stated the following:

"A feature of the contemporary experience which seems to apply to My Lai is that men seldom see their enemy. In the nineteenth century, this was not so true."

Finally, at the very end of the chapter, Ambrose sums up his feelings in this way:

"One of the things that stands out about My Lai in my mind and makes it not only possible for me to live with it but to be once again proud of the institution that I have spent most of my life studying, the United States Army, was that the Army itself investigated the incident, made the investigation public and did it's best to punish the perpetrators of this outrage. I would defy anybody to name another army in the world that would do that."

As I read those opening paragraphs, I was overcome by a sense of, "Yes! Somebody finally gets it! This is exactly how I feel!" While My Lai has been long held as the model of unethical decision making, loss of control, and the singular importance of retaining one's core value system in the midst of combat, in reality, life on the ground is never quite so cut and dry.

As I have done before, I went back and substituted "Mahmudiyah Incident" in every place where Ambrose used My Lai, and re-read the paragraph. I have heard, and had, those very same arguments and questions over the last 4 years. Somehow it seems, 40 years later, and not a single thing has changed. My Lai and the Mahmudiyah incident both raise the same questions of responsibility, accountability, the behavior of men under extreme duress, the value system of the individual, the country, and the institution.

In the book "Black Hearts" the author very clearly chose to focus his efforts on the leadership aspect when searching for an answer to why those Soldiers committed that crime. Why did they decide to leave their post and go commit such a terrible act of violence on that family? He chose to find fault with the leadership, implying that personality struggles and conflicts throughout the battalion created conditions of extreme frustration and anger among the Soldiers and battalion leadership. By portraying the battalion commander as an extremely toxic leader, we get a ready-made villain for the remainder of the story. The truth however, is very much more complicated than that. That condition alone did not create the conditions of this tragedy.

As Ambrose succinctly pointed out, "In combat, men are always afraid, always enraged and very often seeking revenge." When you couple that with his later idea that in 21st century warfare - at least in Iraq and Afghanistan - Soldiers often do not see their enemy, a whole other line of reasoning is raised. When I am surrounded by a faceless enemy who blends in completely with the local populace and it is impossible to discern who is my friend and who isn't, the level of fear and anxiety rises exponentially. To maintain a super-human level of awareness in order to foresee every potential threat is exhausting work. You cannot sustain that indefinitely. I found that for me, I had to choose between believing everyone was friendly until proven otherwise, or the opposite, believing everyone was a threat until proven friendly. Most of my platoon chose the latter as their mode of operating and surviving their environment. By personality and inclination I chose the former. I cannot reconcile being at war and believing that everyone around me is the enemy. Certainly my Soldiers might find that naive, but in reality it is no more absurd than the opposite idea that everyone is trying to kill you. In fact, most people don't really give a damn about you and just want to get on with their lives. If you can help them with that, that's great. If not, go away and don't bother me. In any case, feeling as if you are surrounded by ghosts who wish to harm you and your friends creates a fear that is very difficult to explain. Logic and emotion crash headlong into each other day after day after day until you begin to question the very structure of your beliefs and reasoning. When I was young my father sent me a copy of a document called "The Desiderata". There is a line in it which has always stuck with me. "Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness." Can fear and loneliness create the condition for horrendous crime? Maybe, but then as Ambrose pointed out with regard to Vietnam, it would imply that crime and evil acts would be the norm rather than the exception. Every person in Iraq in 2005 - 2006 had to live under the same conditions my Soldiers did. So, why weren't crimes like these being committed every day?

And then there is the institution. The Army. Can we look to the Army to find accountability and responsibility when something happens that is so squarely outside the realm of believability? Certainly, as I have said before, nothing in my previous training had ever prepared me for the conditions I found myself in. I had never taken a class where the instructor said, "This is how you repair a platoon which has suffered the catastrophic loss of a third of it's leadership in 12 days and had it's home base burn to the ground. Step one do this. Step two do that." The idea that any institution can do 'teach' a prescribed response to every situation is ludicrous. The sheer number of potential responses is astronomical. But, did the Army fail? In a way I think it did because it taught prescribed responses instead of dynamic thought. It led me, and others, to believe that there was a 'correct' answer to every problem and clearly there is not. We have recognized that now and are taking steps in out training centers and commissioning sources to create adaptive and thinking Soldiers, but it will take time to weed out those of us who grew up in the proscribed response world in order to make room for the multi-tasker who is comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.

Finally, much like Ambrose, I remain proud of the organization for it's actions when the Mahmudiyah incident came to light. Knowing it would be a black-eye on the entire organization and feed the emotional political drama over the course of the war, the Army did not waiver and went forward with the investigations and prosecutions. While incredibly difficult to live through personally, the fact is that the Army did the right thing. And while the cynics might say that it was only trying to cover it's ass, the truth is that no matter why the Army took responsibility for these events, it did, and in doing so reaffirmed that they are an institution worthy of the trust of the people. To live up to it's charter with America, the Army must always be willing to look very hard at itself when there are lessons to be learned.

I am realizing now that I will never have a complete understanding of that time. That it will be something that happened in my life that I will carry as part of the whole story of Fenlason. There are lessons to be learned from it, tragedies and ruined lives to feel badly about, and triumphs of principle and decency to be honored. Trying to balance all of those things is the hardest part.

#57 Mentorship

Two weeks ago over in the Army Knowledge On-line (AKO) blogosphere, a question was posted asking, "Where Have All the Mentors Gone?" I posted a response, as did a few others, but the post itself sat relatively idle for about a week.

Then suddenly, as a result of one of the AKO moderators moving the question to a larger forum, it blew up. Now there are 30 or more responses and the post has taken on a new life. I am glad to see that, since the ideas of leadership and mentorship are very closely related. They are not exactly the same, but share many similarities that should be examined in greater depth.

For me, the writing I do here and on AKO, and my approach to leading my small organization is probably much more mentor oriented than it is leader oriented. I see much of my role in the unit to be the passing along of my experiential knowledge to those who will lead the Army long after I choose to retire. (My Orientation). I'm not quite sure how they perceive this relationship though, because it cannot be denied that by positional authority and rank, they sort of don't have a choice as to whether or not they follow my suggestions. They might very well just see my long-winded homily's as nothing more than a boss who likes to hear himself talk. (Their Orientation). And for the sake of literary honesty, they wouldn't be the only ones. Just ask my family!

Since I was the first person to respond on the AKO site, my thoughts and ideas naturally framed some of the replies that followed. Here is what I originally posted:

"Sir -

In my opinion there are a couple of issues with the mentoring 'program' today.

First, successful mentoring happens in an environment where the mentee accepts and finds something in the mentor that they wish to emulate. It really is a bottom up process. If we try to do it from the top down, we will inevitably end up with a young NCO or officer who can't find any similarities between the mentoring they are requesting, and the mentoring they are receiving.

Second, I think that the amount of change that has taken place throughout the Army over the past 8 years has made mentoring difficult. Instead of a senior person knowing - and therefore passing along - what doctrine etc are all about, both groups are doing a significant amount of experiential learning on the fly. That makes knowledge sharing difficult because it's hard to say whether or not that knowledge has permanence, or is situationally and time dependant.

Third, we spend very little time mentoring people instead of positions. Someone who commanded a company or battalion 10 years ago is attempting to mentor someone who commands a company or battalion today. The emphasis is on the position, not the person. Interestingly, if you read most 'leadership' books by retired military however, they spend most of their time dealing with the people side of leadership. I do not mentor a Squad Leader or Platoon Leader, I actually mentor the person who fills that role. We have lost the ability to see each person as a unique individual who requires individual approaches to their leader development.

Fourth, the current generation of young leaders is significantly different from the last few due to the proliferation of technology. As the older generations are trying to catch up with the digital age, the younger generation has already passed them by. They think, act, communicate, process, and interact differently than their predecessors did. A lot of valuable information gets lost in translation.

Finally, I had a boss once who said to me, "The Army never taught me how to mentor someone." While that struck me as an absurd statement at the time, it does show that there is a generational gap between those whose Army experience has been to follow the directives of those above them and let the system tell them how to do things, and the generation of Soldiers who have come of age during a period of rapid change and advancement.

I have found that taking a very personalized approach and actively looking for the differences in interpretation has assisted me in becoming a mentor for others. By reaching out to them, hearing what they are saying, and validating their Army experience, I can then begin to discuss the human being who is trying to come of age in a rapidly changing Army. That is where mentoring can begin."

In response to that, I want to share some of the other thoughts that were posted along the way. They are important and point to some larger issues facing the organization:

Ron wrote:

"My philosophy is that partly because we are at war, partly because our military is becoming more and more "corporate" that we have become less about the traditions, customs and courtesies that make us unique as a profession. Most importantly, the changes are generational. As a Lieutenant in Germany in the mid-90's I and my fellow officers had to go to our BN CDR's house and present our personal cards, we had right-army nights, officer calls, dining in and dining out. My company commander in Bosnia took us out on the berm of the basecamp at night after patrols and smoked cigars with us and metered out his leadership philosophy. Incidentally, he was also the first - and sadly, last - to counsel me in writing on a quarterly basis for another ten years. I did not forget his efforts - which, incidentally - made me a better officer and leader."

Robert wrote:

"Concerning a commitment to mentoring. I would challenge that mentoring is occurring. It's happening every day on the streets of Baghdad and the mountains of Afghanistan. However, I think we should all carefully consider the warning that Jeff provides concerning mentoring people serving in positions and not people as professionals. Of course there is varying types of mentorship based on the need of the mentee. I assume the thread we are running is tied to job selection, promotion potential and leadership development. This should consume a majority of the mentors time...assisting mentees in enhancing self awareness and identifying where they can best contribute. I think most senior folks spend a good deal of time engaged in this on an informal level and most commonly when the mentee reaches out. I'm a believer that it works and should be fostered, not formalized, across the force."

Joyce wrote:

"I enjoyed reading all the comments and agree with the views presented. Why? Because we are probably all from the same generation - Baby boomers! The two to three generations that followed us have different values and concerns. No matter what, leadership responsibilities do include coaching and guiding the younger members of their team or unit. Why aren't leaders doing their job? (PS: I am a civilian and do not have military experience. I always thought the military leaders were the ones who set the example for us civilians.)"

Richard wrote:

"I think that all leaders are mentors whether they realize it or not, our actions or lack thereof set examples for others to follow. I believe I am mentoring my peers, superiors and subordinates every day I am very approachable and willing to assist in any way I can. I am approaching my 19th year of service, during these 19 years I have been privileged to work with/for good and bad leaders alike, their actions/words have been something I have carried along the way during my career."

Richard wrote:

"I'm wondering if perhaps part of the problem is a difference of perspective between mentor and mentee. For example, is the mentee consciously aware that he or she is being mentored? Do they have a different vision of what mentorship is? Likewise, could some mentors have a different definition of mentorship? One might consider technical development to be mentorship while another focuses on personal development."

Tamara wrote:

"First that there is no longer a clear definition of what mentorship is. The responsibilities and expectations for both mentor and mentee are fuzzy at best. As someone else said earlier, it's lost in translation between generations.

Second that the younger generation is so in tuned with email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, the list goes on...that they don't know how to interact with the real people standing right next to them. I see this with my own kids. They've got their buddy sitting right next to them and rather than just talking to one another, they're sending text messages back and forth on their cell phones. (OOO they get mad when I confiscate the cell phones for using them that way. I've stolen their "coolness factor".) I think that this is also part of the problem with our suicide rates as well. The younger leaders don't know how to properly read body language, so they can't spot issues that need to be addressed quickly."

Eric wrote:

"The first thing we all need to do is define mentorship. I think a lot of people mix mentorship with leadership."

Jessica wrote:

"Mentoring is a special bond between a mentor and their mentee. This is a unique and special relationship because in order to become a mentor, you have to be chosen. I believe a person can only realistically mentor three people at any one time – anymore than that and you detract from the value of the mentor/mentee relationship. A mentor does not have to be from your same branch or organization (it’s often helpful if they are not a part of your organization so they can give fresh insight). To be an accomplished mentor, it takes time, effort, and commitment.

If you ask many of our junior NCOs and officers, they will tell you they’ve never been mentored. It seems to be a common theme. However, when you ask for more details, you discover, they haven’t initiated a mentor/mentee relationship. It is a bottom up driven function. Again, you must be chosen."

Here then are some of my follow-up thoughts. The Mentor/Mentee relationship is first and foremost, a bottom-up process. The subordinate seeks out a senior whom they believe possesses qualities, traits and abilities that they would like to emulate. Importantly, however, it must be the senior who creates the opportunity for that to happen. I have to open - and leave open - my door for a subordinate to knock on when they are ready. My responsibility is to create the opportunity, theirs is to seize it. I would also contend that in many cases the subordinates willingness to seize that opportunity will be mostly based upon their interpretation of me as a person, not because of position. This again, seems to highlight the absolutely critical aspect of 'whole person' development. They see me as more than a position, they are seeing me a man, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a leader, a follower etc.

Second, I believe that accessability and day-to-day interaction within the organization are critical. As Richard asked in a quote above, "Is the mentee consciously aware that they are being mentored? Do they have a different vision of what mentorship is?" This is an extremely important point, because I might believe that I am mentoring all the time, and if they have no awareness of it, then it might have significantly less value than I think it does. The same is true if they have a different expectation of what mentorship looks like. Again we go back to the idea of the human factors of OODA. My Orientation, and theirs must be at least similar with regard to the developmental environment. I must be aware that I might be perceived as a mentor - and then accept responsibility for protecting the relationship, and they must also be aware that mentoring is taking place and help me create the environment that best suits their ability to receive it.

Finally, it appears that I'm not the only one recognizing that generational differences have a lot to do with successful mentoring processes. I happen to think that this particular generation is significantly different from the preceding 2, but also believe that the large gap that exists right now will slowly close until the next hugely impactful sociological or technological advancement. Historical events such as the Industrial Revolution and the movement away from agrarian society, electricity, women's suffrage, the automobile, mass media etc all create generational bubbles that impact one generation significantly. Over the next 2 or 3 however that change becomes muted as those changes move from novelty to routine. I think it will be interesting to see how leadership and mentorship are affected when all 3 generations who serve in the Army grew up in some form of the digital age. Although I will certainly be too old to be aware of it then, I have a sneaky suspicion that when they are all technologically equal, they will still be looking to be mentored by those who share a common value system. At the end of the day, it will still be our need as human beings for personal growth and affirmation that will drive the Mentor/Mentee realtionship.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.