On Friday evening I sat for a 5 hour video interview regarding my time as a platoon sergeant in Iraq from February to December 2006. The Center for the Army Professional Ethic is putting together a series of videos in order to look at the "Black Hearts" incident from multiple viewpoints to see what lessons there are for leaders at all levels throughout the Army. This is something I have been pushing for for years, and am glad it is finally coming to fruition. There are many lessons to be learned from that time and I am more than happy to try to help in any way I can. I do not believe that events like this can simply be washed away or written off as anomalies. The extremes of any situation demand as much, or more, consideration as any other point on the spectrum. The extremes create the middle. Any norm must have a left and right limit. While those limits are not often reached, when they are, we are provided an opportunity to look at them and consider whether or not our concept of where the 'middle' is remains true.
As we concluded the interview session, and I was getting ready to leave, the interviewer and I were standing around talking and he asked me if there was anything about that time that I would have done differently. I have been asked that question many times before and it is one that I've considered at least once a day for the last 4, almost 5, years. My answer has always been no, I would make the same decisions now that I made then given the same set of circumstances. You cannot go back after the fact, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, and craft a new response that includes information or knowledge that was not present at the time. You have to make the best choice you can, with what you have available. That's what leaders do. They make, as the TRADOC pamphlet points out, "A series of discretionary judgments." They take the facts and circumstances that are known to them, filter them through Orientation and judgment, arrive at a conclusion, and make a determination. One can never have perfect knowledge, and circumstances are continually changing, so the key becomes to do the best you can, with what you have and then remain aware enough to recognize when the unfolding circumstances require an adjustment.
However, in the past when asked that question, "What would you do differently?", I have always framed it very closely tied to the events surrounding March 12 and the attack on the al-Janabi family. The tactical choices I made when the platoon was assigned the mission to guard the traffic control points during that period. What squad went were, the mission that we were going to accomplish etc. As I have often stated, those choices were mine, they were sound, and if presented with the same set of people and circumstances again, I would choose the same course of action as I did back then. During the course of the interview though, the questions and answers and thoughts and recollections had focused much earlier in my tenure than I had really considered before. So much energy has been focused around the rape/murders etc that it some ways it begins to lose it's context. It becomes a moment in time from which there is no going backwards and everything forward becomes uncharted territory. But now I began to think about the manner and method I chose when taking over the platoon back in early February.
I arrived to 1st platoon of February 5th, 2006. That day is permanently seared in the mind of any member of that company because it is also the day that the living quarters for the American contingent on the Forward Operating Base (FOB) burned completely down in a manner of minutes. Faulty wiring and an overloaded circuit caused the entire U.S. portion of the FOB to go up in flames. In the rush to get all the people out of the building, there was no time to remove equipment, mementos etc. Soldiers lost everything they owned or had been issued. We flew people out that day in Flip-Flops, their PT shorts, and fleece jackets which equaled the sum total of their worldly possessions at that moment.
A few days later was the first time that I could gather the platoon in one place and formally introduce myself to them. And I remember almost word for word what I told them. [It is important to remember that at this point, they had already suffered 4 KIA, had been facing some very intense pressure from their higher headquarters, were on their 3rd platoon sergeant in 45 days and had just had their 'home' burned to the ground.]
I told them that, "There are no more victims in this platoon".
I told them that "We would drive on and complete our missions in honor of those who had perished."
I told them that, "If given a mission to accomplish and someone got killed and after review it was found that the mission was valid, that given the order to do the same mission again, we would."
For the first time last Friday evening, those words came slamming home. And I wondered out loud to the interviewer if I lost that platoon at the very moment that I thought I was gaining them.
From my perspective, by saying, "That there were no more victims in this platoon" meant that we would continue to serve proudly in spite of our losses. In fact, we would use the memories and respect for those who had already perished to provide the motivation and dedication needed to carry on. From their perspective, that statement likely has multiple flaws. First, simply by using the pronoun 'we' I was including myself in something that they felt belonged to them. Their pain, their losses, their hardships. There was no 'we'. There was them and there was me. And who was I to make a claim to their pain and pretend that I understood? Second, they were the ones who (in their minds) were victims. Victims of unfair judgment from higher headquarters, victims of abandonment when they tried to make sense of why they were being singled out. I was not a victim because I hadn't been there long enough. In fact, from their perspective, I was probably part of the problem because I had been sent there from their higher headquarters and sure as hell wasn't the answer. Finally, I spoke in absolutes. This is how it will be. This is how it won't be. There was no gray. And by this time they had already figured out that in reality, everything was gray. The 'black and white' that they had deployed with 4 months earlier simply didn't exist. Now there was nothing but shades of gray. And I was just another part of that equation. While I meant what I said to provide a set of bookends or something they could anchor to, that was not what they heard at all.
The second quote about missions probably damned me in their eyes even more than the first. They had lost 4 people to this point, and both sets of losses had been particularly gruesome and not in the expected context of a firefight or direct combat. Additionally, the road that had caused them casualties had now been closed and deemed of no tactical value. Then why had they gone there and why had their platoon mates been killed there? Tough questions that don't have any good answers if you have had to search for remains after a catastrophic explosion. And to claim that we would do it again if required simply meant that I didn't get it either. While I meant to put things back in operational terms that would focus them on the missions ahead, what they heard was another stupid leader who would consign them to die without thinking through what that meant.
There is an old Army axiom that when taking over an onganization, a leader should sit back for awhile and observe how the group works first before making substantive changes. Sure. In a perfect world with plenty of time, that makes sense. When a unit will go outside the wire and patrol again tomorrow, sometimes there just isn't time. Given the fire and trying to refit everyone and continue to operate, time was a luxury I just didn't feel I had. Things had to be done right now, and those things had to stick. One chance to get the message across and that message had to have staying power. The platoon had had too much change and variation lately, there had to be as much consistency as possible. Structure would help. But structure takes time and time was not available.
We often speak of Task, Purpose and Intent. And we spend a lot of time on the Task and the Purpose. The Intent often ends up being nothing more than an almost step-by-step offering of how the Purpose will be achieved. It ends up being the order in a paragraph form instead of the normal order form. But maybe we need to concentrate our efforts a lot more on Intent and spend a little less time on the Purpose. After all, if you give me a mission, 9 times out of 10, I can already tell you what the Purpose is. What might not be so clear is the Intent. How you perceive success and how I perceive success. How you see the mission being accomplished and how I do. How you understand the environment and how I do. Maybe we need to spend more time developing that understanding of mutual Intent. It might just be the answer.
As I have pondered Friday night's conversation a little piece of my journey became a bit more clear. My platoon and I had a very different understanding of Intent. And that misunderstanding between us caused a lot of friction for the remainder of our tour. And I own a piece of that friction because, most certainly, I created it. What I could not see then was that although my words were very carefully chosen, and were designed to achieve a particular Intent as seen through my eyes, all they really did was further separate me from the men who's trust and loyalty I needed to gain. Even today, it's not what I said that distanced them so, it was the manner in which I said it.
At one point Friday night, the interviewer said that when he first heard of me and then started to read my work on the blog, it seemed as if I had come to enough understanding of that time and place to bring me a sense of closure. After talking with me on the phone and then again the other night he said that what he saw now was that this still lives right underneath the surface for me. That my journey is not complete. He saw how real it still remains. He is right. That time and that place and those circumstances must never move too far from my consciousness. They must never get put on the shelf to gather dust. There are still too many lessons for me to learn.
Thanks, Jamey, for increasing and helping to clarify my understanding of myself. It can only serve to make me a better leader somewhere down the road. I'm grateful for you helping to point that out. Another small piece of the leadership puzzle falls in place.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.