- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I just read the New Yorker‘s profile of Col. Michael Steele and the abuses committed by his unit of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq in 2006. I found the article well done and clear in laying out the facts but far too sympathetic. For example, the author, Raffi Khatchadourian, dwells on how difficult it was to understand the rules of engagement. I actually never found soldiers saying the rules were hard to fathom, just that they didn’t like them when they became restrictive, as the U.S. military approach shifted from killing the enemy to protecting the population. Col. Steele wasn’t into that shift. And thereby hangs this tale.
By coincidence, I’ve also been reading the memoirs of one of our best World War II generals, Lightning Joe Collins. Col. Steele wouldn’t have lasted a week in command under Collins, who relieved officers quickly for a variety of reasons, such as for being old or paunchy, but especially for insubordination. And that is what Michael Steele committed in Iraq. He was told to fight one way and fought another. He was given a lot of chances. Too many, in fact — I think his unit would have been more successful if he had been relieved the first time he made it clear that he didn’t buy into the kind of approach his leaders were telling him to take. It is clear now that it wasn’t a favor to anyone to leave him in place.
Collins encountered insubordinate officers several times during World War II. He had no second thoughts about what to do: Make it clear that in his outfit, there was only one person in charge. He had a lot of trouble with artillery commanders who didn’t like his insistence that their fires be observed from the front, where the infantry was. And not long before D-Day, he fired his G-3 (operations chief) over a doctrinal issue. Col. Peter Bullard, he wrote, “could not bring himself to accept my decision as to how intended to fight the VII Corps” — that is, along the high ground and ridgelines, not through the valleys.
One of Steele’s defenses is that the unit was trained to fight one way back at its home base and then another way when it arrived in Iraq. For what it’s worth, this is no defense at all. Imagine what would happen to a colonel who told his division commander, “Sir, I know that’s what you all think about how to fight here in the jungles of Guadalcanal, but back in the States, we learned a different way…”
Also by the way, I’m also struck at how well-rounded an education Collins gave himself. At West Point he was bored with all the science courses and “spent many hours in the library reading Swinburne, Masefield, Lafcadio Hearn, Ibsen, and many other poets and playwrights.” Later, as a young officer posted to New York City during World War I, he reveled in the city’s arts, subscribing to both the Symphony and the Philharmonic, and also regularly attending the opera, where he saw Caruso in Aida.