04 October 2010

Pointing to the pink elephant in the room...and talking about it

This story of some 2ID soldiers out of Fort Lewis committing atrocities in Afghanistan has been floating in the news for a while now.  This is one of those instances where one would hope that in today's professional, all-volunteer force Army, that wretched acts such as those that are being related in this particular case would never happen.  One would hope that they couldn't happen.

There is absolutely no doubt that these acts committed by these soldiers are disgusting in nature.  Absolutely no doubt at all.  Even the most stubborn-headed, ignorant, prejudiced servicemember you can find in the military would have to concede that these men were wrong.

I have absolutely no doubt that these soldiers will be dealt with swiftly and extremely.  They must be punished if the Army as an institution is to retain credibility with the American people.  But the real question here is not whether the guys were guilty or how long they need to be put in jail for.

The question is, where does the Army go from here?  More importantly, how do we prevent this from happening?

This band of criminals committed acts that are far and away orders of magnitude worse than anything previously documented since 2001.  The uniqueness and singularity of this case speaks well for the professionalism of our soldiers.

But it happened.  And although we may never be able to fully eliminate the chances of this kind of thing happening again, we as an institution must do everything we can to mitigate those chances as much as possible.  The solution is not to be found in a popular Big Army course of action (have soldiers sit through a PowerPoint briefing on the Law of Land Warfare (LLW) or the Army core values).  Those lessons can be communicated to the soldier level by units on their own -- hell, LLW is mandatory pre-deployment training.

What we need is dialogue among leaders at every level: between two NCOs at chow, between lieutenants at the bar on the weekend, between colonels at the Officer Club, etc.  It is very easy to turn our heads away from this because it is so horrible and disgusting: no one wants to acknowledge that people who wear the same uniform would commit these acts.

But we need to talk about it.  Captains in the Career Course need to be talking about this.  Majors in ILE need to be talking about this.  Leaders need to discuss not necessarily the polar black-and-white issues of right or wrong (in this case, it's pretty black and white), but the mushy gray: how do we prevent this from happening?  How do we take the lessons from a dry, boring PowerPoint, and make them tangible and salient to our young soldiers?  How do we shape and foster a command climate that prevents this kind of shit from happening?  What are the warning signs that soldiers might be breaking (psychologically), or wandering off of azimuth?

Trying to look into what allowed this unit and its soldiers to sink to the depravity they did would take forever, but with all of the media attention recently being given to the American military's increasing isolation away from the remainder of society (SECDEF Gate's commencement speech, etc.), it is safe to say that nearly a decade of continuous combat operations is taking its toll on our military, and not just in the very obvious PTSD-at-the-individual-soldier level, but at the institutional levels.  Even if the campaigns in Iraq or Afghanistan literally ended tomorrow, the wounds in the Army's skin will take years if not decades to heal or scar over.  Leaders need to see this coming: they need to be aware it's coming, and they need to have a plan for dealing with it.

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