There are broader issues in the background story of the Battle of Ganjgal where SGT Dakota Meyer earned his Medal of Honor. What went on in the TOC, CPT Swenson and more. The details of that will come out over time, but there are a larger things at play here worth considering.
Mistakes will always take place in war even when you have the right people with the right orders conducting the right mission, and we always have to be careful to not do two things; don't twist the 3,000-mile screwdriver (if you have one), or in hindsight pick every action apart as if you would have unquestionably done something different if you were there.
Well, you weren't. You may have, you may have not. What can seem wrong in hindsight can, at the moment, seem very right. That is a simple fact.
Things bad will happen in war, bad mistakes of commission or omission will take place, but there are things you can do to mitigate it. That is what I find interesting, trying to identify those eternal things in the background, store them away, and hope that you might prosper from that knowlege in the future if you find yourself in a similar situation.
First - let's set the stage. The Battle of Ganjgal too place on 08 SEP 09. General Stan McChrystal just took over command of ISAF/US Forces Afghanistan earlier that summer and had released his report just a few weeks prior. Two weeks before that - he released his Direction & Guidance for Counterinsurgency to the forces in the field.
From the UNCLAS version of his D&G, here are some excerpts just so you know what was floating around in the ether.
Protecting the people is the mission. ... We will not win simply by killing insurgents. … we must change the way that we think, act, and operate … how we interact with people, how we drive or fly, how we patrol, how we use force … Security will not come from overwhelming firepower…A military force, culturally programmed to respond conventionally (and predictably) to insurgent attacks is akin to the bull that continually charges that matador's cape … an insurgency cannot be defeated by attrition; … The intricate familial, clan, and tribal connections of Afghan society turns "attrition math" on its head. From a conventional standpoint, the killing of two insurgents in a group of ten leaves eight remaining: 10-2=8. From the insurgent standpoint, those two killed were likely related to many others who will want vengeance. If civilian casualties occurred, that number will be much higher. Therefore, the death of two creates more willing recruits: 10 minus 2 equals 20 (or more) rather than 8. This is part of the reason why eight years of individually successful kinetic actions have resulted in more violence. The math works against an attrition mind-set. This is not to say that we should avoid a fight, but to win we need to do much more than simply kill or capture militants.... and so it goes for seven pages. Official investigations point in other directions than the above or the JUL09 Tactical Directive, but having been there eight months earlier under the previous tactical directive - at least my experience is that it is sewn in to everything you do - especially from the Staff level. I do not discount its impact at all.
Second, conventional culinary action against insurgents consumes considerable resources with little real return and is likely to alienate the people we are trying to secure. Large scale operations to kill or capture militants carry a significant risk of causing civilian casualties and collateral damage. If civilians die in a firefight, it does not matter who shot them - we still failed to protect them from harm. Destroying a home or property jeopardizes the livelihood of an entire family - and creates more insurgents. We sow the seeds of our own demise.
New Commander. New focus. The new Commander put out his guidance - a slight modification of General McKiernan's "Shape Clear Hold Build" - and the forces in the field were in the process of digesting them. Read the D&G in full as linked to above, then read the various reports of the Battle of Ganjgal - and the disconnect is clear on what the theory was - and what the reality of the facts on the ground were.
The coalition forces were taking increasing fire and could observe women and children shuttling fresh ammunition to Taliban fighting positions.When broad theories meet narrow facts - that is where cracks develop and gaps are created where lives fall in to.
The path from think-tank to General's Desk to Staff back to General's Desk to the field is one well worn. When it results in D&G/ROE you can rough out a general matrix to tell you what is going to happen at the element and unit level.
Many problems can be minimized in the profession of arms by following the basics of Vince Lombardi Leadership 101 - keep it simple, keep it short. If your D&G sounds like the executive summary to a PhD dissertation, you're doing it wrong. If you are writing for the parlors of Georgetown and the salons of Europe but are delivering to the Strategic Corporal, you're doing it wrong.
Solid D&G : Right Tactical Leadership:
--- Unit Level Leaders have room to make decisions based on their judgement and the facts at hand. Short OODA loop as the unanticipated happens (as it always does).
--- Judgement is well demonstrated and reflected in execution.
--- Few questions coming up from down the chain, lots of information coming up from down the chain.
--- Core Principals reinforce decisions. Things happen as reasonably expected.
Solid D&G : Wrong Tactical Leadership:
--- Orders seem to need constant repeating. OODA Loop is just an Oooooooo.
--- Unit Level Leaders seem to want to be told what to do or ask questions that are easily answered with a quick reading of the D&G.
--- More questions coming up from down the chain, less information coming up from down the chain. Initiative discouraged; approval seeking encouraged.
--- Core Principals seem to be missing. Things happen that make so sense related to the orders given.
Difficult D&G : Right Tactical Leadership:
--- Potential problems at the unit level are identified and planned responses are prepared to mitigate impact. OODA Loop extended, but functioning.
--- Unit Level Leaders understand the "white space" gaps and are confident of their support by Tactical Leadership if in extremis.
--- Challenges made and requests for modifications/clarifications come up from down the chain; Tactical Leadership responds based on Core Principals. Communication between levels short, decisive.
--- Conflicting requirements are resolved quickly based on Core Principals, judgement, and character of leadership. Deviations are reported as needed after decisions are made.
Difficult D&G : Wrong Tactical Leadership:
--- Orders are seen from a bureaucratic vice military point of view. OODA loop is too long or non-existent. Making no decision is seen as decision making. "Observe" is replaced by "Comply."
--- Unit Level Leaders do not understand the "white space" gaps as they do not know they exist as Tactical Leadership has never thought out or wargamed the implications of higher D&G.
--- Tactical Leadership is self-focused, judgement is supplanted by reverence to specific words in D&G. A palatable sense of detachment, distance, leavened with complacency felt between different levels of leadership.
--- Core Principals are undefined. Judgement is out-sourced. Trust between Unit and Tactical Leadership is missing.
What are the "Core Principals?" Well, that is the question - isn't it? It can depend on the person and their position - but it really shouldn't. Another way to look at Core Principals is to look at what the default Decision Point should be? When all else is confusing - is there one question you keep in your back pocket for guidance that provides a "yes or no" answer that can guide you out of the fog? There should be. One would hope that in every leader's default Decision Point question there is one one shared by all:
That is not an easy question - but it is one that has to be founded in a mindset and a level of trust between leaders - with both commissioned and non-commissioned officers. Knowledge that we trust their judgement based on the fact we know they understand our mission, our commander's D&G, and the specific needs for those under their charge. They have the training and facilities to make the right call. That is the mindset - the result of selecting, training, promoting, and developing leaders that have earned the trust that enables a mindset build on that trust - it is self-reinforcing.
When that doesn't exist, you develop a bureaucratic, dare I say Soviet, mindset. You have no trust in others - only the orders you have from higher. You don't believe in judgement, only the judgement of those who wrote your orders. If there is "white space" then that needs to be filled from - you guessed it - from higher up the chain. You don't lead - you manage the orders given to you by others. You don't look for gaps, you ignore them. It is a mindset of fear.
Do we want officers or automatons? Our nation's history is full of officers who found themselves in situations where they could not "just follow orders" and had to use their training, education, and judgement ... and if that failed ... then their commanders would rely on their subordinates' .... character.
A commander who has trust and confidence in his leadership and subordinates' leadership intentionally writes D&G that has "white space" to give his leaders in the field running room. He knows that he has officers who, on balance, have the judgement, character, and understanding of the profession of arms to carry out what needs to be done for the mission at hand. Likewise, you must have officers on the receiving end that meet that expectation.
Even in the best of circumstances, that doesn't work out sometimes. When things do not work out the way they should in that chain of events from the Operational Level through the Tactical down to the Unit - you need to ask broader questions once you get past the, "He asked for X and they did not give it to him because of Y, and as a result Z happened." You have to ask if we have a system that promotes and encourages the right officers with the right mindset. A military gets the officers it recruits, trains, and promotes.
What are our criteria? What are our priorities? What do we reward? What do we punish? Remember, it is almost never the superficial characteristics of the individuals in the ranks, but the quality of their leadership that makes the difference.
Along those lines, let's pivot slightly to Tom Rick's post over at FP. In it he brings back someone we haven't visited with since 2007, Col. Paul Yingling, USA. You need to read it all - but here is the parts that are germane to our discussion.
Scipio's centurions didn't have 3.5 years of brigade staff time to learn their trade before fighting Hannibal. Sherman's cavalry troops were not made audacious by rigorous PME. Guderian's race to the English Channel was not preceded by a year of stability in ARFORGEN. Patton's tank companies were not the product of enlightened personnel policies. These officers succeed because they had the intelligence to see the battlefield clearly, and the courage to act on their convictions...Sorry Tom and Paul for taking such a long pull-quote - but that is so full of win, I can't help myself.
Claims that today's wars are somehow more complex than previous conflicts will draw belly laughs from historians. Is sectarian conflict in Iraq somehow more politically complex than Rome's civil wars? Does the rate of technological change in the last ten years in Afghanistan exceed that of the last two years of World War I? Even if we accept the dubious proposition that today's wars are unparalleled in complexity, successful brigade commanders have demonstrated that mission command works. Colonel Sean McFarland helped turn the tide in Anbar Province thanks in large part to the autonomy he granted to Captain Travis Patriquin. Colonel H.R. McMaster's success in Tall Afar was attributable to a command climate in which thinking was required and PowerPoint was not. Have new and unparalleled complexities transformed warfare since 2006?
... Thick orders and elaborate SOPs haven't eliminated costly, stupid mistakes. Consider two of the most heavily regulated activities on the modern battlefield -- air strikes and detainee operations. Air strikes have killed civilians and ground troops have abused detainees, even when the SOPs regulating these activities ran to several hundred pages. ... Leaders prone to crimes and blunders are not dissuaded by elaborate checklists or sternly worded prose.
Yet the production of highly prescriptive orders and SOPs, what Germans call Befehlstaktik, continues unabated; why? The primary purpose of detailed orders is not battlefield success, but rather the protection of field-grade and flag officer careers. In ten years of war, no Army general has relieved a fellow flag officer for battlefield failure. Why so many failures and so little accountability? When a small unit gets in trouble, senior commanders find cover in SOPs thick enough to stop an OER bullet. (I told the troops not to beat detainees; it's right here on page 11.) Rather than preventing battlefield failure, detailed planning often enables it. Senior officers can survive almost any debacle so long as there's a FRAGO and a captain between them and the problem.
Detailed planning can be useful in understanding problems, anticipating opportunities and risks and synchronizing activities. Prescriptive orders and SOPs have their place in performing routine mechanical tasks. However, these techniques are often counterproductive in the fog and friction of combat. Modern combat requires junior leaders capable of exercising judgment and initiative, and senior officers capable of fostering these qualities. It requires junior leaders capable of acting on commander's intent, and senior officers capable of clearly expressing their intent. It requires junior leaders capable of taking prudent risks, and senior officers willing to underwrite and reward risk-taking.
After a decade of war - the Army still has a lot of work to do in order to refine its culture. That should give Navy a pause - we have not had anything close to the trial by fire experienced by the Marines and Army. We are thick with toxic cultural problems, unpurged by the unfudgeable truth of combat. I don't think we need to go through the list again. We haven't even started to clean house - and I would offer with the latest promotions at the highest levels, we aren't going to begin soon.
No institution, much less a military one, is perfect. With continual critical review though, it can get better - evolve - adapt. When critical review is squashed, diminished, mau-mau'd or aggressively punished, then over time a military will degrade, become ineffective, and then put the nation it serves at Strategic Risk.
The Army in the last decade has brought out some great critical thinkers; Nagl, McMaster, Yingling and others; some on active duty, some retired, some have just gone home. Through their efforts, the Army has improved - all that from an institution still seen by many as hide-bound.
Where is our Navy's Nagl, McMaster, Yingling and others? I can think of a few - some we hear from more than others - some we have featured here and on Midrats. Some of the best I know who are still on active duty only communicate via email or FB where they once had a much higher profile. Why? Simple - our Command Climate is worse than the Army's when it comes to dissent. We have had our exceptions when it comes to leaders willing to listen to criticism - Admirals Stavridis and Harvey come to mind .... but where are those coming behind them? Out front? No. Toiling away behind the scenes? Yes.
Why behind the scenes? Simple as described to me by them; fear. Well founded fear; but fear. Every time they stick their head out, they get professionally mau-mau'd to the point they pull their head back inside their shell. After all, they do have a family to feed and hope for future positions of influence; and honestly that is OK. I haven't been the greatest example of intellectual courage either - for the same reason.
While Nagl pulled a Salamander and punched out near the first exit - McMaster and Yingling are still on active duty. McMaster received much deserved top-cover to make BG and it is nice to see Yingling in a great O6 job in Garmisch-Paremkirchen.
They are still out front - giving as well as they can to make the service they love better - and by doing so - providing great service to their nation. Creative friction - the heat and sparks of future victory. BZ to them.
What does all this have to do with Ganjgal? Everything. It has to do with how we select, train, and reward leaders - and how those leaders then carry out their responsibilities. It is a larger story than Ganjgal and needs to be reviewed by leaders in all services, because we can all learn from it.