Ethical Power: Creating a More Capable Force through People

A Response to the Personal Theories of Power

Over the past thirteen years of combat, the Unites States military has suffered a series of tactical defeats in both Iraq and Afghanistan. These defeats were the result of a force that was unprepared for the situations the men and women were inserted into. Each defeat was not a result of poor tactics, but rather of the services not adequately preparing people for the war they found themselves in. If the U.S. military wants to avoid defeats on the battlefields of the future, it should invest in its people. Building resilience within the ranks to ensure soldiers can handle the stresses of combat deployment has the potential to reduce the likelihood and frequency of war crimes and lesser undesired behaviors committed by Americans in combat zones.

Retired Army General Daniel Bolger has a new book coming out shortly titled “Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.” My hopes are that as he describes our defeat over the past 13 years of conflict, his discussion will not be limited to policy failures or the inability to form a strategy to match policy, but will also include the tactical losses the U.S. military suffered. The majority of the tactical losses were not force-on-force engagements with one Army overrunning another; but were the result of unethical behavior and poor decisions made by people wearing a uniform unprepared to operate in a COIN fight.

The role of the services is to man, equip, and train our forces; and over the past thirteen years, the services contributed to major tactical losses by failing in their mission. A common mantra heard today is, “No more Task Force Smiths.” This has become a rallying cry when lobbying for capabilities and forces. This expression in the coming decades can also now be replaced with, “No more Abu Ghraibs.” Although the former is represented by one Army overrunning another in major combat operations, and the later was a series of abuses and criminal acts committed by U.S. forces upon detainees, what they share in common is that both were enabled by sending in a force that was totally unprepared for the mission at hand.

In addition to Abu Ghraib, other defeats included the 507th Transportation Company outside Nasariyah; the rape and murder committed outside of Muhamidiya, South Baghdad; contractors in Nasoor Square, Baghdad; Maywand District Afghanistan, and PanjwayiKandahar. Each war crime committed by American soldiers and even American contractors at a minimum was a tactical loss, and at times an operational to strategic level defeat. Either way, the unit in contact lost a degree of influence, power, and leverage with the people they were in contact with.

Retaining overmatch in lethality, protection, intelligence, and maneuver may offer an edge in a large scale conflict between Armies but offers little if our men and women in uniform fail to live up to the expected standards of the American populace.

To the credit of the services, they did learn from these losses. Following the debacle of the 507th Transportation Company, the Army instituted warrior tasks, mandatory pre-deployment training that included convoy live fires, and weapons training for soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen in all units and jobs…not just historically combat-focused troops. Pre-deployment training expanded to include the proper treatment of detainees following Abu Ghraib. These changes were not limited to training at home station, but included drastic changes to the Combat Training Centers to include NTC and JRTC.

Retaining overmatch in lethality, protection, intelligence, and maneuver may offer an edge in a large scale conflict between Armies but offers little if our men and women in uniform fail to live up to the expected standards of the American populace. This aspect of conflict becomes even more germane with advancements in social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube). U.S. forces will increasingly operate in a persistent information environment where every action has the potential to be seen around the world in the matter of moments. It may be the effects of a shooting massacre adjacent to a FOB, or a servicemember urinating on a dead body. Either way, the outcome is a tactical loss with the potential for strategic level effects.

The services have a requirement for men and women who perform ethically in combat. This requirement is not limited to the junior enlisted soldiers, but goes all the way up to top-level commanders. Between the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the start of the next major conflict, whenever and wherever that may be, the joint force should invest in programs and examine its recruitment, assessment, and retention policies to ensure the ranks are filled with personnel who will perform ethically in peace and war.

A soldier surveys the area from an observation point during decisive action training at the National Training Center on Fort Irwin, Calif., Jan. 26, 2014 (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Paul Sale)

A large myth surrounding the decisive results of Desert Storm was that victory came about in large part due to the performance of the “Big 5,” systems such as the Abrams Tank, Blackhawk Helicopter, and Patriot Missile Defense System. Although these systems gave the U.S. a decisive technological edge, it was the training and education of the troops who operated those systems. Unit rotations at the national training center (NTC) and officer education at the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) were equally, if not more, responsible for victory in 1991 than the Big 5. The best tank on the battlefield is the one that is employed by the best commander, and manned by the best crew. The M60 tank used by the Marine Corps in 1991 in fact had the same kill ratio as the Army M1 Abrams.

There is an old parable told in military circles that a retired U.S. general told a retired Vietnamese general that throughout the entire war in Vietnam, the United States never suffered one tactical defeat on the field of battle. In a terse response the Vietnamese General states that while it was true, it was irrelevant to the outcome of the war. The story is told to emphasize the need to get strategy right and it does indeed get the point across. What the story fails to emphasize is the tactical defeat the U.S. Army suffered as a result of the Mai Lai massacre. In current and future conflicts, tactical success can enable strategic victory. The services can assist in this role by ensuring recruits are prepared for the complexities associated with operations among indigenous people, whose trust and empathy are critical. Simply put, the services must man, train, and equip the right soldier/airman/Marine/sailor for the joint force to then employ in the right place at the right time.

The United States has maintained its overmatch by putting the best people in harm’s way. When people are put in the wrong combat situation, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, we risk losing that overmatch. Our military is the most educated and fit force in the world. If there is a strategic pause coming between the end of combat in Afghanistan and the start of the next conflict, the services must use that time not only to purchase new equipment, but to develop the best people in uniform. An educated force that can outthink its enemy, a fit and resilient force that can outperform and outlast our adversary, and an ethical force that can maintain support of people not only in our own nation, but citizens of other nations.

Daniel Sukman is a U.S. Army strategist. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Lt. William Calley, right, with attorney Richard Kay, was the only man convicted of wrongdoing at My Lai, 1970 (AP)