Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Preparing Future Leaders for Combat: Sharing Experience in the Classroom

The Roman god Janus had two faces, one focusing on the past, and one looking to the future. With our involvement in the war in Iraq over, and our involvement with the war in Afghanistan winding down we need to look to the future to prepare for the future of war. But we also need to understand the unchanging nature of war by constantly looking to both our recent historical experiences and lessons from older and ancient military history. 

10 years ago, on April 9th 2004 I led my scout platoon in an attack to seize a bridge over the Tigris River in the city of Al Kut, Iraq. In the ensuing fight 9 of my Troopers plus myself (total of 10) were wounded (Read about the "Alive Day WOD here). In order to prepare these future leaders for war we must emphasize the study of warfare and connect them to the most recent historical combat experiences in our past by sharing our individual experiences. 

Today, on the anniversary of that fight I decided to share the experience in class with my cadets who are future leaders in the Army. 

I focused on the unchanging nature of war in a tactical context. From my experience in combat, war is uncertain, complex, dynamic, and dangerous and I am sure it will remain so in the future. Clausewitz writes about this in the first chapter of "On War" stating  
"From the very start there is an interplay of possibilities, probabilities, good luck and bad that weaves its way throughout the length and breadth of the tapestry. In the whole range of human activities, war most closely resembles a game of cards."

To make the point about uncertainty in war, I shared the story of the opening moments in the fight for the bridge. Our intelligence had indicated there would be no enemy on the western or eastern side of the bridge. The plan for the attack was to have our sister platoon lead the way and clear the western side and intersection, and then my platoon would move through and attack across to the eastern side and seize the far intersection. 

We quickly determined the intelligence was wrong after the lead platoon made contact with Mahdi Militia forces. After a fairly long fight they secured the western side. As we prepared to attack across we pushed an Apache gunship across to conduct a reconnaissance of the eastern side. He came back with a "negative enemy contact". My commander gave us the order to move and we attacked under the cover of darkness, blacked out with our night vision devices on.

As my lead section approached the far side they were met with a blinding light. The Mahdi Militia forces waiting for us on the eastern side had turned the floodlights from the Iraqi Police station and oriented them on the bridge, which temporarily blinded us, "whiting out" our night vision devices. The enemy used that to their advantage and engaged us with machine gun and RPG fire. During those first few minutes there was a lot of uncertainty as we reacted to contact and started engaging enemy positions. Once we shot out the floodlights we were able to identify the enemy positions and destroy them. The ensuing fight lasted over 3 1/2 hours, but in the end we seized the eastern side with a little help from our Air Force brothers and sisters in an AC-130 Spectre Gunship.

From this story my students took away that intelligence is not always correct, that the enemy is smart, and while he might not be able to match our technology, he will find ways to counter it. They realized that the enemy will always have a vote and look for opportunities to create uncertainty.

Killer Troop Leads the Way! Toujours Pret!!!

Jonathan Silk is a Major in the U.S. Army. He has served as a Cavalry Scout platoon leader , and has commanded both a Tank Company and an Infantry Company. He is currently an Academic Instructor and serving as the Operations Officer for the Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning (CALDOL) at the United States Army Military Academy, West Point, NY. He was a recipient of the calendar year 2009 General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award.

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