Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Managing War

Matt at Blackfive wrote that he was reading One Bullet Away by Lt Nathaniel Fick, who led the battalion immortalized in Generation Kill by Evan Wright. As a heads up, Blackfive loved the book. I think, as a companion piece to Wright's book, to get a two dimensional view of the war, it would be an interesting read. What would be even better, to round it out, would be to get a book by a commanding officer, possibly a general or other officer who was responsible for higher decision making or even the strategy which called for an eastern feint towards Baghdad after Turkey denied the US use of its territory to strike from the north in the preferred pincer movement.

Right now I'm reading Tommy Frank's, American Soldier, because I wanted to get a better view "from above". I think it's very easy to buy into the illusion created by a grunt or platoon leader close to the ground that everything was "screwed up" including leadership. Interestingly, it's not really that much different from what happens in the civilian world of "management" and "employee" (accept for the part where people die in war and there is much less tolerance for failure; but, I'll explain where I'm going). Mainly, the "employee" or "grunt" doesn't have all the numbers, all the data, the birds eye view, doesn't know all the strategic points, what's going on with other employees or departments. They are stuck in their part of the world and management is in theirs. Somewhere in between is the "middle manager" who has to interpret between these two entities while accomplishing their own specific goals.

Basically, when you are an employee doing a specific daily job, you have no idea about the "big picture". You have no idea if the company is pushing you to get cash because they are looking at a short fall, want to make an acquisition, are being fined by some entity or needs to make a big pay off on some debt they are carrying in order to meet a banking or federal standard. You really don't know, all you know is that the manager has come and asked you to do what seems like the impossible: collect $10 million in one month or boost sales by 20%. You might even go beyond calling it "impossible" and thinking its crazy. If you're an employee and you've taken that thought process, the odds are you aren't accomplishing your goal.

In the military, that's really not acceptable, although, I point out in my comments about the book, at least twice (if not more) the unit Wright was with made some decisions that could have turned out very bad had they not reached down, grabbed their guts (tame euphamism) and actually did it. Of course, if you take yourself back out of that book for a minute and look at the big picture (ie, Turkey turns down IV ID; First Marine Recon is a decoy feint towards Baghdad; Movement is extremely fast; supplies are extremely short; etc) you realize that some of the observations of the grunts and even Lt. Fick (in Generation Kill) are observations of people who have no idea what the over all strategy is or why. Some might see that as a command failure, but, looking at the over all strategy, not telling everybody the details of the strategy was important for operational security. I mean, besides the possibility of POWs being interrogated (I mean, our men being captured and interrogated), there were embedded reporters which presented their own challenge to opsec.

Honestly, from the reviews (most of which were "gushing") and the excerpts, it seems to me if you read Wright's Generation Kill and noted the post script about then Captain Fick, you'd get the gist of Fick's, One Bullet Away. To the point, at the end of Generation Kill, Wright notes that Fick left the Marines because he "loved his men too much" and he felt that this got in the way of his effective leadership. An honest assessment. Even Blackfive notes his favorite phrase in Fick's book is:

...when the stark realization hits Lieutenant Fick that, to be a great Officer, you must be able to order the death of everything that you love.

As I said, I read the reviews and not this particular book, but I felt the reviews also told an important story. There were, as I noted, the gushing reviews, largely from civilians. There was a comment by "Rudy Reyes" also making appearance in Generation Kill and One Bullet Away who says that Fick "told it like it was". Another marine indicates the boot camp scenes do the same. But, of equal interest to me were the two reviews by OIF II soldiers who liked the book, but didn't completely relate to Fick's experiences and one from a "commander" of his battalion who most likely made an appearance in both Fick's and Wright's books as one of those officers they thought did not perform or let the men down in some way. If you get past some of the other things the commander writes, I thought these sections most telling about the differences of opinion between Commanders, platoon leaders and grunts:

...and the thing is there really isn't much here compared to OIF II. Every careful crafted sentence is meant to check a box. But i didn't get an inside look at a platoon whose bad side was exposed so well/badly by Rolling Stone.

As I noted, in Wright's book, the platoon changes/does not follow the exact orders given all the time. They still seek to do their mission, but they often appear to be second guessing the commander. Some of these decisions turn out to be very good and some of them turn out to be bad. I think my point here is that, depending on your position on the ladder of command and the amount of information you know, your opinion of a situation or person can be drastically different.

The commander then makes an observation that two other men from OIF II reviewing the book make:

...the author should have gone back as an XO in OIF II and he never would have written some things he did. And the perspective about combat would have been totally different. If he wrote at all.

I think this sums up the idea that your perspective of an issue or effort greatly depends on where you stand in relation to it. At a battalion command level and above, it is best to remember that the commander has more to worry about than just taking an objective and number of casualties he may take doing so. He has to worry about the entire list of strategic objectives, how many men he has, provisions, other battle field initiatives, whether he makes his set objectives and what happens if he doesn't.

For instance, much is made of the "three day pause" in offensive from Wright and many analysts during the war (I remember because I watched it live on TV, flipping between the three major cable networks to get the multiple views; also, Matthew McAllester in "Blinded By the Sunlight" talks about the Iraqi perception of this stall mainly "maybe Iraqi TV is right and they are losing). There was a lot going on above outrunning supplies. The 4 ID was not coming, so strategy had to change. They had also, for all intents and purposes, outrun a lot of their intelligence. I recall that there were questions about the positions of certain Republican Guard units that would have been engaged by 4 ID. Were units still near Tikrit and Mosul or were they coming down towards Baghdad? If we hesitated too long and allowed these units to get into place before we got to Baghdad, what sort of problem would that be for the strategy as well as casualties, which had been minimal to that point?

Later, when the "thunder run" took place, it largely took place because a commander decided to go against convention and ordered his tanks through the city. Recall at this time, while defenders had been relatively scarce up to that point, there was much debate about what sort of resistance they might meet in Baghdad, fighting street to street. Conventional wisdom was stuck on Hue City, Stalingrad and Berlin scenarios.

So, with all due respect to Fick, his commrades and Wright, I caution any readers against taking their view as the definitive description of any commander or strategy and suggest that they should always be sure to step back from such personal accounts and review the over all effort to make better informed judgements on an operation.

Fick left Iraq shortly after April 9, 2003 when Saddam's regime collapsed. I would guess, based on the reviews and Blackfive's comments, that this book would be better read as a personal odyssey of a soldier learning to be an officer and its affect on him personally than a make or break overview of the invasion or post invasion efforts.

On the other hand, the commander he made the comments would have been better served if he kept his comments to that point of view. Taking it personally as he did probably caused many to dismiss him all together and miss the two salient points of his commentary.

Last, I'd like to take a few minutes to discuss this again:

...when the stark realization hits Lieutenant Fick that, to be a great Officer, you must be able to order the death of everything that you love.

We have a tendency to look at everything through our own experiences. I imagine that a lot of people who were simply looking for a story about our current conflict took this as the definitive view of our modern military. This is what they teach you. As a matter of fact, several reviewers who also noted this comment, basically made that observation. In reality, this is the concept that permeates military history. All successful and "brilliant" commanders must be willing to lose men, to "order them to their deaths". If they didn't, the course of history would have been changed forever.

Take, for instance, the 300 Spartans that hold the gap at Thermopylae. They all die. But, in the end, they allow the Greek army to get away, regroup and defeat the Persians. Imagine had they not done so, the entire history of the west would be much different.

One thousand years later, the story of Roland suggests that it is Roland's pride that keeps him from blowing his horn and bringing the king to his aid. His entire company is massacred. In reality, had the king been called to the site of the ambush, his army probably would have been crushed by the Saracens and western history, once again, would have been very different.

A thousand years again and we are at Gettysburg. Chamberlain is charged with holding Little Roundtop. He is assaulted again and again. He manouvers his men to defeat a flanking movement. He runs out of ammunition or is down to the dregs. His men are hot, tired, thirsty and beginning to wonder if they can hold. He knows that the Confederates want that position so they can over see the battle field, take out Union Artillery, implace their own and turn the tide of battle. After a rousing speech to rally the men, Chamberlain tells his men to fix bayonets and they charge down the hill into what is likely a superior force. Chamberlain was certainly a man who loved his men. They were more than just soldiers he served with, they were his brothers, cousins and neighbors.

Conversely, Pickett, who must also love his men for the same reasons, orders them to charge and has his command wiped out. Finally, Lee is retreating and Meade, overly cautious, allows him to get away. Who knows how many lives might have been saved or how early the war ended had Meade been ready to or able to persue, capture or kill Lee's army?

Eighty years later, Eisenhower plans the invasion of Normandy. In his estimations, he is very blunt and expects that up to 70% of the men will be killed or wounded. Besides planning and leading the invasion, one of the images I recall is Eisenhower, on the eve of invasion, walking among the men, asking them where they were from, their names, etc. I imagine that the men on the beach that day were cursing him, the German's and alternately praying to and cursing God. I believe that it was love for his men that made Eisenhower later war against the "industrial/military complex". While the left likes to use this as a drum beat against militarization, it always sounded to me that Eisenhower was reminding people how industrialization had led to the ability to kill so many men at once and reflected what was his own role and horror of Normandy in an industrialized war. Yet, we know that, without it, western history would be much different.

I could list out an almost unending list of Commanders and relavent events. My point is simply, again, that Fick is not alone nor is this some new phenomenom in modern warfare or a new psyche bending training technique of the modern military. It is only that, in a world where a book can be written and distributed within months of a war or battle; where journalists file stories from the front line detailin their own minute view within hours of a battle and where ideologies either glorify or seek to strip it away from war and warriors, that we get such an up close view and such views can be myopic at best and dangerous at worse, obstructing the view unless we are capable of distancing ourselves from overwrought emotions over every single action.

Last, sometimes strategies and tactics aren't about the men you may lose today, but the men you may lose tomorrow.

“Day by day, fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it.” - Thucydides, The Funeral Speech for Pericles

Blatantly copied from Blackfive

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1 comment:

riceburner147 said...

Chamberlain is my all time Military hero, even if He did become a politician later in life :)