#71 Answering a Question

In response to last weeks post, I received an email from JD who posed an interesting and thought-provoking question. I emailed him back and asked if he would mind my posting it as a blog itself. He had no issues with that, so here is his response to Post #70, "Hondo's Parting Gift", and my thoughts on the questions he raises:

"I like your perspective and it comes with tons of credibility.....I have followed this incident closely, like yours and others, which leads me to this question... Do you know of ANY battles (not FOB/garrison incidences) in the last 9 years where YOU would have "accused" a company, battalion, or brigade commander of dereliction of duty, incompetence, fault, or culpability?"

Simply put, my answer to JD's question is no. I do not personally know of any battles where I would have accused my leadership (either officer and non-commissioned officer) of dereliction of duty, incompetence or culpability. The reasons for that answer, however, are much more complicated - and sort of bring a lot of my other thoughts into play.

Dereliction of duty, and incompetence are both very subjective labels. I'm sure that none of the people involved in the COP Wanat battle or my incident think that they were negligent in carrying out their duties - as they understood them, and with the facts they had available to them at the time when they made critical decisions. They believed the decisions they made were correct and in-keeping with their understanding of their mission. The accusation of negligence only shows up when an other-than-expected result occurs because of those decisions. And especially if that result ends up with U.S. casualties. Company, battalion, brigade and division level commanders, and their non-commissioned officer counterparts, are generally not dim-witted people. For the most part, they are pretty smart, posses a keen sense of their responsibilities, and care very deeply about those in their charge. While there will always be those leaders who simply use their subordinates for their own self-promotion, they are a very minor exception, and not the overwhelming rule.

The charge of incompetence also leads to another issue. If someone is trained to do a job under a particular understanding and set of circumstances, and then those understandings and circumstances dramatically change, can you then accuse that person on being incompetent? You are fundamentally asking them to do something that they have not been trained, and therefore, may not know how to do. This war has too many examples of this to even recount, but in a generic sense, consider this example. Tthe set of understandings and assumptions that the military planners used to predict what would happen in post-invasion Iraq were woefully incorrect. Those decisions and assumptions had a marked impact on the rise of the insurgency from 2003 - 2006. Does that mean that these planners were incompetent? No. What it means is that the data that they were using to form their understandings and assumptions was flawed. But they could not have known that at the time they built the plan. Basic to the invasion of Iraq was the question of what would happen after Saddam Hussein was deposed from power? The American planners assumptions were that Iraqi's would greet the U.S. as liberators and that democracy would surely follow. That the guy on the street would automatically choose peace over violence. That everyone would remain calm and understand that to rebuild would take time and patience. That a desire for Iraqi national unity would trump tribal and religious differences. Obviously, that did not happen and the void that was created by the deposition of Hussein and the de-bathification decision of the Coalition Provisional Authority led directly to the failure of basic services and the upsetting of the 'normal' order that created the anger, frustration and confusion that gave rise to the insurgency. Is Paul Bremer then incompetent? No. His assumptions were incorrect and the decisions made based upon those assumptions had some truly terrifying consequences, but he was certainly not incompetent. His orientation was wrong. If there was any failure, it was a failure to OODA. His inability to orient himself correctly to the real issues and not to impose his own - and America's - filters in the decision-making process may be at fault, but it does not lend itself to the realm of incompetence. It lends itself more accurately to not being prepared for a type of rebuilding effort that the original planners hadn't anticipated and planned for. The game changed, but only a tiny sliver of people were able to see it. Democracy, education, the rule of law and women's rights do not feed a hungry family, or provide clean water and sanitary living conditions. A working government can do those things whether it is tyrannical or democratic. This is where 'what to think' and 'how to think' collide. As a democracy and a free people, Americans do not like tyranny and despotic rule. That is what we are taught to think. It's the American way. However, there are times when something other than the American way may be the best solution to the problem. Remember, at the end of World War II, with the entire European continent needing to be rebuilt, a lot of Nazi's were 'repatriated' to provide the essential services that would aid in the rebuilding effort. In his rise to power, Benito Mussolini promised to make the trains run on time....and he did.

In the case of 1st platoon, there have been accusations of incompetence and dereliction almost since Day 1. "Black Hearts" provides almost 400 pages worth. While I do not think that every person in my Chain of Command correctly understood the environment and working conditions, I also do not think that most of us were incompetent. Obviously as some of the responses to previous postings have pointed out, others do not agree. Which again points out that heroism and success share equal footing with dereliction and incompetence. It's all a matter of your perspective. My opinion is that some people involved started to 'believe their own bullshit' a little too much, and had little understanding of how to 'see' their operating conditions correctly. To be fair, that assertion has been laid at my feet more than once. It's a matter of priorities, orientations (both personal and external) and the picture of the intended outcome.

Fault is a whole different issue. I can most definitely find fault in my situation, but it is not a criminal or culpable fault for the reasons cited above. It is exactly the same type of fault that gave rise to the insurgency in the first place. It is a fault of perception, understanding, and priorities. It is a failure to orient correctly and then having the ability to impress that orientation on decision makers. Whenever someone asks the question, "Should he/she have known that X or Y could have happened?", it is almost certain that X or Y has happened, and the signs were missed. Well the truth is that to have perfect situational awareness and to be able to sift through the thousands of pieces of information, both large and trivial, and then align each them in perfect order is almost impossible. No one can do that right every time. That's why we call them mistakes. The signs were there, but they got lost in the various understandings of their importance depending on the perspective and agenda of who's paying attention. Most errors are errors of judgement. In retrospect, Steven Green's stated desire to kill Iraqi's because they had killed his friends was more than an emotional young man venting the day after one of his leaders had died in his arms. But, at the time, it was judged by others as a normal emotive response to a very traumatic incident. To be honest, I don't know too many Soldiers today who at one point or another came to hate Iraqis. Amidst all the anger and rage that many people were experiencing during that time, what was any different about Steven Green? Nothing except that 4 months later he would slaughter 4 people in cold blood.

Fault can be laid at all of our feet for having differing sets of priorities. The battalion commander's priorities were not in line with the company commander's priorities. They did not have a common understanding to work from. My priorities and the priorities of many of my Soldiers were different as well, and I had difficulty explaining those priorities to them in a manner that they could understand. In both cases, you can align the facts and bits of information and reach different conclusions. The weight that I give to something and the weight that one of my Soldiers gives it may be two entirely different things. For example, the battalion Sergeant Major judged entire platoons by their appearance and how they wore their uniforms. If they were shaven, had fresh haircuts, and their uniforms were worn correctly, they were good in his eyes. That was his orientation. My guys had absolutely no use for him and did not think highly of him at all. They thought he only focused on trivial and inconsequential things. I needed to use him to buy time and space to try to change the perception of the platoon at battalion level and take the heat off the platoon. I told the Soldiers to start shaving and getting haircuts and keeping their boots bloused etc. They thought I was as fucked up as he was. They thought my priorities were wrong. From my perspective, I knew that if he saw us cleaned-up and dressed correctly, he would consider it progress (whether it really was or not) and progress would shift his attention away from us and onto something else thereby removing a lot of the stress from the platoon. It worked too. In the middle of May (almost exactly at the mid-point of the cover-up of the March rape/murder) the battalion Sergeant Major said that 1st platoon had become one of the top 5 platoons in the battalion. He was wrong. His perspective and focus was wrong. In fact, they were still the same morally bankrupt platoon they had been since before I took over (which I told him on numerous occasions), but they damn sure looked pretty. And pretty made him back off for awhile which removed some of the pressure from them and helped gain the trust and confidence of the company and battalion, which led to us getting to participate in missions like Rushdi Mullah which made the Soldiers feel like they were real members of the battalion again instead of the red-headed step children as they had been labeled. So whose priorities and orientations were right? The Soldiers were being treated poorly by battalion and came to hate much of the chain of command. The battalion thought the Soldiers were undisciplined and complainers. To the Soldiers, I was just an extension of battalion. To battalion I was there to help restore discipline to the Soldiers. To me, I was there to do everything I could to give that platoon back it's confidence and mission focus at the same time recognizing the losses they had taken and the emotional problems that many of them faced. We all made decisions based upon differing perceptions and orientations. But, while you can find fault with the decisions, they were not derelict or incompetent, and if they were faulty, it was not a fault of willful commission. It was the inability to properly orient in more than one manner simultaneously under combat conditions, on a 3 dimensional human chess board and align the scraps of random information perfectly to achieve the desired outcome.

Consider General Campbell's report from last week again. His was a 'final' review of 3 previous reports, and his came to a much different conclusion than the one previous to it. Does that mean report number 2 was wrong? Are those Generals who rendered it derelict because his report refutes theirs? Are they incompetent? Is their thinking faulty? Or, is it simply a matter or having the same facts available, but emphasising different parts of them and arriving at a different conclusion because of a different orientation?

As always, your thoughts and comments are more than welcome. It is the dialogue that keeps this moving forward, and I appreciate your support and consideration.

#70 Hondo's Parting Gift

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.