Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Marines Weigh in on the Discussion of Junior Officer-initiated Combat Innovations

Several weeks ago (January 13) in this space, I shared an article that ran in the New Yorker that described the phenomenon of junior officers serving as the catalysts for battlefield innovations in solving communications and logistics problems in Iraq. The next day, Bill Batten offered his thought-provoking reactions to the piece.

Today, I am pleased to share with you a continuation of this dialogue by sharing the thoughts of USMC Capt. Christopher “Buster” O’Brien. Buster is a 1999 graduate of the Naval Academy (he is President of his USNA class), and is a decorated combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Buster hails from the Boston area, and is a lifelong Red Sox fan (I presume that means he has collected a lot of hazardous duty pay over the years and the Red Sox Nation equivalent of the Purple Heart!)

It was very interesting to read the New Yorker article regarding the Army's development in the lessons learned arena since operations began in Iraq almost two years ago. I currently work in almost the exact same capacity for the Marine Corps as many of those mentioned in the article. In fact, after returning from Iraq a year and a half ago I have worked closely with groups such as CALL and the Joint IED Task Force to ensure that we are sharing as many lessons as possible. Though I read operations and intelligence reports daily, I also spend time on CompanyCommand.Com to ensure that I have a feel not just for the tactics being learned but how they are being learned and why. To me, that is more crucial and helps me more in my own development as a leader - in combat and otherwise.

Rommel once said that the "American fighting man is the worst-trained but learns and adapts faster than any fighting man in the world." Current military operations are proving the latter at least. I wish every American could see how amazing and resourceful our young servicemen are and continue to be overseas. It is literally an awesome experience, and the resulting pride is overwhelming. And one truly horrible reality is that a war is very healthy for our military. Now, any man who works to understand war knows that peace is an immeasurably better option, and many I know personally are paying a far higher price for this war than I or most have or will. But, in a macro sense, combat operations force us to "innovate and think" in a way no training environment can ever replicate. Competence and creativity at the leadership and troop levels are immediately of supreme importance, as it should always be. I can honestly say that the Marine Corps today is literally light years ahead of the one I joined just six years ago in terms of living our ethos, truly focusing on empowering our junior warriors, and being able to execute combat operations no matter what adversity lay ahead. Don't we expect those traits and abilities of military anyway?

Towards the end of the article there is a quote regarding the very hierarchical and doctrinal Army and its ability to change with its combat-proven and perhaps more-than-confident junior officers. "But can the Army as an institution be nimble enough to leverage them?," Leonard Wong asks. "Do we now sit these Captains down and treat them as we used to?" To me, even the tone of these questions is wrong. The Army should not be fearful or worried about how to accommodate these leaders but how to push them to be even better, to develop all those lessons learned into a refined set of warfighting skills that can be adapted to fight any of a number of the enemies in the present and future. No matter how experienced, those "combat badge" Captains (and yes, I am one as well) still need the same thing they always did: competent, open-mined senior fighter-leaders to help develop them to their full potential. Isn't that why we pay senior officers more anyway? To find a way to do just that? One thing I do know: to not do so would have a direct and negative affect on our military perhaps evident only the next time our country calls on it - and history has shown that our beloved eighteen and nineteen year-olds are the ones that will pay the price.

Two quick final thoughts: first, the current project we are working on is based on the premise that our young Marines are the best in the world, so what would happen if truly we educated, trained and equipped them as such? Should be quite interesting as it draws heavily on the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan...and second, it is amazing how many of the issues in the New Yorker article, and this blog in general, are rooted somehow in creative, competent, and trusted leadership. There is just no substitute.

* * * * *

As always, your thoughts and reactions are welcome. I'll be happy to pass on to Buster any comments you may wish to post. Let me add my personal thanks to Buster - not only for sharing his thoughts - but for giving some of the best years of his life in service to our nation.

Al Chase

No comments: