Several of my friends have told me that if I want to begin to understand the role of Special Forces and Special Operations, I must read “Not A Good Day To Die.” I finished reading this book several weeks ago, and am able now to take the time to share with readers of The White Rhino Report some of my thoughts. The subtitle of this book is “The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda.” Sean Naylor, winner of the prestigious Edgar A. Poe Award, does a masterful job of bringing the reader into the chaos that enveloped the soldiers fighting in
The primary take-way for me, as I reflected on what happened during Operation Anaconda in 2002, was that the pattern seemed all too familiar – a pattern of systemic miscommunication and flawed decisions made far from the battle field. Many of these decisions and orders placed in grave jeopardy the lives of those fighting on the ground and in the air. Throughout my reading of Naylor’s descriptions and analysis, I was reminded of the landmark study by my friend, Dr. Scott Snook of the Harvard business School faculty. Dr. Snook, a decorated combat veteran and expert in organizational behavior, wrote the book, Friendly Fire: The Accidental Shootdown of U.S. Black Hawks over Northern Iraq, an analysis of an incident that occurred at the end of the first Gulf War. Dr. Snook not only highlights the systemic failures that led to the needless shootdown of two Black Hawks, but points out that similar dysfunction can be identified in any organization.
Naylor summarizes concisely the chaos that developed in the
“The small, enclosed battlefield meant the calls for fire often outnumbered the number of airplanes that could safely be flying bombing runs over the valley simultaneously; the icy relationship between Mikolashek and Mosley, who should have been working hand in glove, trickled down to their staffs; the Mountain staff’s failure to anticipate the likelihood of ferocious resistance on the enemy’s part meant they had given only cursory attention to close air support issues; and the Combined Air Operations Center staff had grown used to controlling air strikes from their base in Saudi Arabia, rather than yielding authority to the ground commander, as called for in joint doctrine. As ever in combat, it was left to captains and sergeants to bear the consequences of mistakes made by generals.” (Page 272)
The author continues his observations and conclusions with these thoughts:
“But the lack of clear guidance about who was in charge of the recce missions being launched from Gardez now began to reap disastrous results . . . This critical moment in Operation Anaconda was to be no exception. Just 1,000 meters away at the safe hose, helping to coordinate the preparations for Operation Payback (not scheduled to launch until ), was Peter Blaber, a man whose entire career had prepared him to make the kind of decision Hyder now faced, a decision upon which would hang the fates not just of Hyder’s men, but of others as well. Blaber had spent weeks immersing himself in the tactical situations that confronted recce teams in the Shahikot. He was also still – officially - the officer commanding the reconnaissance effort in the valley. But Hyder chose to ignore him and instead seek guidance from the Blue TOC, which was almost 100 miles away and staffed with Navy personnel who had never been anywhere near the Shahikot." (Pages 308-9)
I closed the book after reading the last pages and found myself balancing competing emotions. On the one hand, I was proud of the men who had fought bravely in carrying out their assignments as part of the complex Operation anaconda. On the other hand, I was angry at the seemingly chronic failure of senior leadership to exercise proper command and control. Perhaps this kind of confusion, chaos and mismanagement is an unavoidable consequence of the “fog of war,” but it seems that our men and women who put their lives on the line deserve better support.
The book is a tribute to our fighting forces, as well as a cautionary tale. I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the complexities of fighting battles under extreme duress and in the most inhospitable of landscapes – both topographical and bureaucratic!