Have We Learned What We Should’ve?

Where Were You?

I have fond memories of my high school history classes. I was excited to enroll in an American history course as junior and long-time Revolutionary War “junkie.” Taught by a former attorney, the class normally ran like a college seminar, focused on individual stories and the nuance behind places and dates. We’d be sitting in those standard desk-chair combos, barely awake in the first period, and Mr. Dowell would roll in, and sit on the first free desk he found. He’d manage our conversation from there, rarely using slides or visual aids, because (I think) he valued most our ability to synthesize what we read and thought about the topics. We were in just that type of discussion just before 8am when we heard the classroom door open and saw vice principal Dr. Israel step into the room. And forever change my relationship with history.

“We just heard on the news, a small airplane’s crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.” We looked around at each other.

“What kind of plane?” someone asked.

“Don’t know. Looks like a small plane. Like a Cessna, one of those you use for flying lessons.” She seemed sure. That was reassuring.

This explanation made sense to us. It was a beautiful day to fly. Clear, sunny, temperatures in the 50s and 60s. I grew up in North Alabama and, to this day, remember how bright and pleasantly cool it was that morning. We’d also all heard stories of flying students and their instructors stretching themselves too far and getting into accidents for lack of experience or situational awareness. So when Dr. Israel turned and walked out, we were ready to get back to the discussion. We made it ten minutes. The classroom door opened again.

The moment we knew it wasn’t an accident.

Dr. Israel told us what thousands had watched live. That a commercial airliner–not a single-engine trainer–flew directly into the other tower. At 8:03am CT, both World Trade Center towers had suffered fatal impacts from two wide-body aircraft filled with jet fuel. Hundreds of people were trapped above the impact areas, including those in the North Tower whose escape stairwells had all been “severed” by the first crash.

After an abrupt end to Mr. Dowell’s class, I’m in Mr. Kirchner’s physics lab on the first floor. Someone rolled a TV into the room and placed it at the front while tuning it to network news. Students are there from all four grades, huddled together. A few are in tears, other barely hiding the shock in their eyes as we watch thick smoke rise and overtake the skies above Manhattan. The horrifying images of both towers burning before their collapse is one of the most iconic from that day. And is an image seared into my memory. That Ground Zero smoldered and smoked for so long after the collapse is a testament to how large that complex was. Of course the World Trade Center symbolized much of what the United States stood for, construction of the impossible. I think this is one of the reasons 9/11 is often compared to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, for the military complex on Oahu–today known as Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam–also represents the capacity of Americans to build unbeatable teams and indelible structures.

We’ve just marked the 20th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s surprise attack on the United States. Of course “surprise” is itself still debated, given declassified memoranda documenting a warning about Osama bin Laden’s intentions placed in President Bush’s Presidential Daily Brief one month before the attacks. Nevertheless, this country suffered remarkable tragedy that day. And every day, in particular on this anniversary, so many families mourn the loss of their loved ones to the attack, injuries caused by it and subsequent rescue efforts, and the two-decade combat action we undertook in Central Asia. And to top it, we led into this year’s memorials with an unequivocally turbulent military and diplomatic withdrawal from that same theater. Military historians will study the “Global War on Terror” for a long time to come but in the meantime, it behooves us to ask ourselves what we’ve learned. If we’re unwilling to ask and answer difficult questions about this experience, we’re admitting defeat in the face of our complex, looming future.

Only Good Questions Yield Useful Answers

Today’s better than yesterday only when we ask the right questions.

1. So what is a “good” question?

Good questions make you think differently about the problem at-hand. We’re too often looking for solutions, assuming we understand the problem to begin with. ‘What do we do?’ or ‘How do we do it?’ are common examples of how we approach problem-solving. We diagnose situations based on our conditioning, making assumptions that may or not be faulty, then launch into solution mode. I’m as guilty as anyone. Our species’ survival depended on this reflex for thousands of years, even if today it gets us into hot water with the very tribe we’re protecting.

According to NowThis Media, cable news channels welcomed a large cohort of retired and former public officials 61 times to share discontent with, and prescriptions for, President Biden’s redeployment from Afghanistan. Multiple retired senior officers argued that we’d regret the withdrawal and find ourselves right back where we were with a permanent footprint in-country. Old generals and former Cabinet officials had plenty to say and so did thousands more who used their own platforms to advise the Commander-in-Chief. I engaged as well, publishing this article on September 6th, calling out military leadership for its abandonment of the C-17 aircrew apparently forced to taxi and takeoff despite dozens of civilians clinging to the airplane. Were any of our critiques useful?

What would be? What could we ask that might get us closer to something actionable? An idea or decision or action we could take that might set us on a better course for the future?

2. Let’s start with this: What has changed about our society’s capacity to tolerate failure at a national level?

What we’ve been asking ourselves all this time only gets us back to the same place. What more can we do in Afghanistan? What does ‘winning’ look like? Valid inquiries maybe. But only after we’ve address the thousand-pound elephant hiding in every room in America. When did we stop caring about how bad we are at finishing what we’ve started?

We haven’t “won” a war since 1945. Korea and Vietnam ended in stalemate, if not outright defeat. Our special operations activities in the 80s ended with mixed results. The Gulf War mission against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq expelled an invading army from a country smaller than New Jersey. We entered East Africa and the Balkans without clear success parameters and left with only a few villains’ names for safekeeping. Six months into the millennium, the Navy learned first-hand what the next “war” would feel like. Only three years later, a Secretary of Defense with White House chops from the Ford Administration led by reminding us to “do more with less.” Such was the mantra when I arrived at a nuclear combat unit that couldn’t even get mission-essential hydraulics replaced with a decade. To liberate Kuwait with a coalition in 1991, we deployed more than 500,000 troops. To invade a mountainous, landlocked sovereign nation in Central Asia and depose its governing system, we committed 1,300 troops by November 2001. The history books call Afghanistan the “Graveyard of Empires” yet we thought a few hundred special operations forces and the Northern Alliance could get it done?

Journalist and author Thomas Ricks asks this question in his 2012 book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. Chronicling the development of Army general officers since the fight for Europe in World War II, he notes how high–but forgiving–George Marshall’s standard was. Senior field grade officers (i.e. lieutenant colonels and colonels) and generals were relieved even on the battlefield when they failed to perform. If their units fell short of an objective, slowed down when ordered to advance, or lost confidence in the commander, Marshall and his field army commanders did not hesitate to remove and replace an officer. Unlike in today’s military, such a move also was not an automatic ‘death sentence’ to the person’s career. It was a mere warning. You’ve failed today and are not qualified to lead. Be ready for a second chance. And those second chances came. Some rose to the occasion, others didn’t. The latter found themselves relieve again and on the fast track out of uniform.

General of the Army George C. Marshall. Served as Army Chief of Staff during WWII then as Secretary of State and architect of Europe’s post-war reconstruction.
Photo source unknown.

Since the days of Marshall’s army, however, the military as a whole has evolved into a lumbering corporation. Despite orders for large-scale demobilization, the military never truly demobilized after Congress terminated the war. Motivated by a new perceived enemy in the Soviet Union, the partitioning of Germany and subsequent blockade of Berlin in 1948 encouraged us to build a presence in Europe that required a larger, professionalized force. A larger organization required retention of more people. Such pressure results in a loosening of performance standards to fill the ranks. As political leadership committed the country to proxy conflicts around the world in the hope of bankrupting the worldwide communist movement, we sent boots to live abroad. The cycle incentivized us to further lower the bar and cultivate a system heavy on bureaucracy and light on true leadership at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.

3. Have we really been “at war” since 2001?

No.

Plain and simple. I believe the answer is NO.

On 9/11, we were shocked. And scared. Many of us stood ready to back President Bush and seek out terrorist strongholds wherever they hid. But I remember even then, as a young adult and college student, resisting anyone who categorized the activity as a war. We never declared war on anyone. Let that sink in. If you understand that our country possesses a legal document prescribing who declares war and what happens after that, it should make you question the past 20 years. We never declared war on Afghanistan. Nor the Taliban. Nor al-Qaeda and its affiliates. True, the president named the effort the Global “War” on Terror. But as in every conflict since Korea in 1950, we tossed aside the very framework created to ensure not only consistency but victory in wartime.

The common response to my argument is that Congress, in fact, did exercise its “war-making” powers by passing an authorization to use military force on September 18th. The act provided President Bush the latitude to:

…use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

PUBLIC LAW 107–40—SEPT. 18, 2001

Then we know what happened. The United States launched Operation ENDURING FREEDOM in October, followed by IRAQI FREEDOM 18 months later, based on a second “Authorization for the Use of Military Force.” While both acts passed pursuant to the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and constituted Congress’ approval for the President deployment of forces, neither affected the level of mobilization or conducive legal processes triggered automatically by a declaration of war. For those who’ve argued that the country was never committed to the War on Terror in the way it was during the last world war, I can only say of course we weren’t committed. Because we haven’t been in a “state of war” since the last world war. A Congressional declaration of war would have accomplished several things that we’ve yet to realize in the twenty years since 9/11:

  • Demonstrated Congress’ commitment to U.S. military action against Afghanistan and to its own legal responsibility for declaring an end to hostilities. Inherent in the legislature’s war-making authority is its equivalent power to restrict further use of military action once a conflict is over.
  • Activated a variety of statutory authorities, exceptions, and exclusions designed to support the executive branch’s application of maximum effort toward the war’s rapid termination.
  • Demonstrated to senior military officers and political appointees, including many who cut their teeth in Vietnam, that this effort would not resemble the “war” of their youth but of their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers.
  • Demonstrated to the American public the criticality of the effort at-hand. Since 59 years had passed since Congress’ previous declarations of war, many Americans would have lived in wartime for the first time. Congress’ declaration would have been a clear signal of unity from elected leaders and a call to contribute to the effort mentally and emotionally, if not physically, to realize its quickest conclusion.
  • Demonstrated to the NATO alliance how seriously the country took the attacks and the resolve with which we would pursue enemy combatants. Though NATO invoked Article 5 responsibilities for “collective defense” of member nations, not declaring war roped our allies into an unending escapade in pacification, occupation, and nation-building, activities for which the alliance wasn’t designed and that took vital resources away from member nations who still needed to provide for the alliance’s–and their own–defense.
  • Demonstrated (perhaps most importantly) to the Taliban, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, and the people of Afghanistan just how far we were willing to go to account for the surprise attack on American soil. As an added benefit, that same resolve would have been apparent to any other aspiring terrorist organization looking to capitalize on al-Qaeda’s temporary victory.

We never declared war after 9/11. We have not declared war since 1942. And we haven’t won a war since 1945.

War is Not About Desire

One of our many military families.
Photo courtesy of WeAreTheMighty.com.

No military member that I’ve ever met or known of, whether active or retired for decades, ever wanted war. Least of all those who lived through combat. Herein lies a dichotomy that I believe Americans struggle to understand. The men and women who fought and watched their brothers and sisters die on the battlefield want nothing to do with war. I spent more than a decade preparing for a type of warfare I prayed would never come. Yet I was relentless in preparing crewmembers to be at their most lethal if and when called to end a war with nuclear weapons. Because that’s what the military does. They fight and risk their lives to prevent our families from doing the same. I trained daily as a missile operator to prevent my family from being caught in the extreme violence of war or the subjugation of an invading dictator.

At the tactical level, company grade and noncommissioned officers lead small teams literally at the “tip of the spear.” Preparing for, and conducting, the fight is their bread-and-butter. It is usually when those same officers rise to “field grade” rank and beyond that they lose sight of what it takes to engage in combat, survive it, and win the day. There are always exceptions. I can only say that in my experience, field grade officers by and large cannot lead effectively when they can no longer understand the risks their own subordinates must take in order to accomplish the mission our government assigned them. And make no mistake– to “lead effectively” as a military officer is to, at its heart, lead a military unit to victory on the battlefield–no matter where or when that battlefield exists. Americans should expect no less of its military and the politically-appointed civilians charged with leading them.

Departing Kabul: Are We “Leaders” Supporting Our Most Important Teammates?

I’ve come close to publishing this article several times in the last couple weeks, each time halted by the fear that I haven’t yet absorbed everything I could. That I hadn’t learned as much as I could yet. That there were still new details hidden in the shadows we all must learn before synthesizing the story into a useful lesson. I’m at the point now where I don’t think we’ll do much with what we have. I’m not sure we’ll do anything at all. Because we’ve fallen into the same ol’ traps we always do after an international crisis. We argue with each other about surface-level issues and leave behind perhaps the most consequential of problems for ‘someone else’ in a future generation to fix.

On August 16, Americans (and many more around the world) began seeing images of a C-17 Globemaster III, an Air Force cargo plane, taxiing while surrounded by a throng of unarmed, unprotected civilians. To make matters worse, subsequent images and video emerged that week showing bodies falling from the aircraft on takeoff and, most horrifyingly perhaps, in-flight video of a body still partially caught inside the main landing gear compartment. At first, looking closely at the first video, I was convinced it had to be fabricated. Why? Because I couldn’t imagine at C-17 pilot and crew making the choice to ‘throttle up’ and move the airplane while surrounded by people hanging on for dear life. Surely the Air Force’s flight safety rules would prevent such an action and require reinforcements to clear the way before the aircraft would receive clearance. After watching the landing gear video, my horror grew beyond what I could keep locked away to myself–I reached out with questions. Contacting an old commander of mine, I asked whether these images could be true. He quickly confirmed that they were, and even that the Air Force ground crew receiving that infamous C-17 had found bodily remains inside that landing gear compartment. To say I was ‘shocked’ would be an understatement.

U.S. Air Force C-17 taxiing at Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 16. (Twitter/@Mukhtarwafayee)

So why bring this up now? It’s been three weeks, and there are bigger questions at-hand than this aircrew’s actions. That may be true, but we ignore the lessons of this incident to our own peril. Yes, the rapid fall of Afghanistan may be attributed to failures of strategic leadership. Yes, it will be critical for Congress to assume its responsibilities pursuant to Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution and direct the executive branch on how and where it shall employ follow-on forces. And yes, there is already a call for many senior military officers to resign over the apparent lack of intelligent planning that led to the still-raging humanitarian crisis. But those are all questions that will be answered in the coming months and years. Where I think we must focus now, as individual leaders and citizens, is on the tactical failures that contributed to the crisis. Make no mistake, those on the front line hope their senior leaders back them up when making life-or-death decisions. Yet time has suggested the opposite to be true at times, as may have been the case for our C-17’s crew.

Even after confirming the images’ authenticity, I still couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe we’d knowingly incur such high risk for civilian casualties. I couldn’t believe the crew had not secured additional security or logistical support to depart Kabul safely. And I couldn’t believe no general or admiral responsible, perhaps the commander of Central Command’s Air Force component or the Tanker-Airlift Control Center (TACC), spoke to forces in-place and the broader public about what they should have done and will do differently in the future to prevent an aircrew from facing such a gut-wrenching decision. I don’t fault the crew, despite the rules or protocols they may have violated. The Law of Armed Conflict empowers military elements to defend themselves when under attack or threat of an attack. It’s not difficult to argue, even with just the videos available to the public, that the aircrew faced an uncertain threat on the ground. The longer the aircraft remained at Kabul’s airport, the worse the resistance they could’ve faced on departure. Is any commander, any military member audacious enough to brand themselves leader, able to explain how the aircrew could have been left so alone and without aid given how difficult it was to secure the airfield? Beyond that, how could the aircrew’s trust in their leadership and supporting forces have deteriorated to such a point that they had no choice but to push an 85-ton (when empty) mass of metal and jet fuel through hundreds of fleeing human beings. I realize none of the commanders in question may answer, though I think the question is just as relevant for YOU and ME: What have WE done to ensure our teammates, no matter how high or low in the hierarchy, are empowered to lead and problem-solve? What have we done to ensure they’re never asked to violate all they’ve been taught and hold dear just to accomplish our “mission?”

If you’ll permit me, I have answered this question for myself before. I have been in situations where my teammates had to make critical decisions (not life-or-death, to be clear) and be responsible for the consequences. I knew in that environment, as I worked to train those men and women, that I was responsible to them–to ensure they had the support necessary to decide and act freely. To do so, I did (and continue to do) the following:

  1. Set Expectations From Day One. I don’t have all the answers; I’m not supposed to. Every team member must know they own the “mission” as much as the commander or team leader does. Team members who own the mission care for it as their own, which means they’re willing to interrogate its faults relentlessly until every problem that can be solved is solved. Teams of owners build better plans and, when execution invariably forces adaptation, exercise magical levels of creativity and resolve to get the job done. Because mission accomplishment is an accomplishment of something they believe in.
  2. Focus on Values, Skills, and Trust. We start with core values, those principles we hold most dear. I make sure every member has the requisite skills and equipment to do the job. “Equipment” may mean supplies, or additional team members with additional skills that will help you complete your task. Then once the team is trained and assembled, you get the hell out of the way and let them get after it. Leaders are in the fight right alongside their team members, but the sooner we steer clear, the sooner we’ll see them shine. BUT, you will never, ever, EVER leave them out to dry …
  3. When It Comes to Answering for Failure. This may be the most important point, and one where I’ve seen the most leaders fail to hold up their end of the bargain. In any corporate hierarchy–military, civil service, or private sector–aspiring leaders tend to fall prey to institutional pressures. As you promote and enjoy the spoils of increased rank and influence, those pressures mount and create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your early potential may have set you on the path of ‘success,’ but your continued success locks you into a manner of behavior. You must throw your team members under the proverbial bus when they mess up, lest you sacrifice your own rising star for the good of others. But true leaders NEVER think twice about sacrificing themselves for their team’s well-being. True leaders take the pot shots from senior leaders on behalf of their teammates and their mistakes. Providing top cover is the most critical element to maintaining trust and demonstrating to the team how much freedom they have to try new things, to innovate, to solve the worst problems they can find.

I wasn’t in Kabul on August 16. I’ll never know the whole story behind that aircraft’s departure, with a reported 600+ souls aboard. I can never be sure there’s not more to the aircrew’s side of the story, or the Air Force’s, or Central Command’s. But I do know how important consistent leadership is the outcome of any effort. I genuinely believe the scenes of a C-17 taking off through a sea of bodies represents one of the Air Force’s grossest failures of leadership throughout the operations in Afghanistan. We’ve lost thousands of service members and perhaps no one else thinks so much of this ‘minor’ incident. For me, there’s nothing minor about it. There’s nothing minor about a military that pushes its people to roll over noncombatants because there’s no other choice.