‘Our Strategic Compass Is Unmoored’
Notes from a general to his active-duty sons on the lessons of Afghanistan.
Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, after watching the documentary Restrepo, FP columnist David Barno, a retired lieutenant general who served in the U.S. Army for over 30 years, sent the following email to his two sons. Restrepo tells the story of a platoon of U.S. soldiers stationed at a remote outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley — the site of some of the most sustained and difficult fighting of the war. In April 2010, the United States closed the base and abandoned the valley, where 42 U.S. troops had died and hundreds more had been wounded, having determined that the mission there was not worth the resources and continued loss of life. How much the Afghanistan war is "worth" is not an abstract question for the Barnos. Dave’s sons are both Army captains who have been deployed to Afghanistan — and at least one will likely go again. When he shared this email with us, we asked if we could publish it, and he was gracious enough to agree.
…Just finished watching it. Very powerful and emotional movie. Was thinking every American should watch it, but realized I have no idea what they would take away from it.
First personal thoughts from me —
I know these men and I grew up with them; they are of my tribe: infantrymen and paratroopers. Nothing in the movie was at all foreign to me. I lived that life with over 12 years inside infantry battalions, about twice as much time as some folks of my ultimate rank. In my head, I still self-identify most with being an infantry and Ranger company commander — the 29-year old me. My later career identity is ephemeral; my nine year identity as a company grade officer and infantrymen is permanent.
Life as an infantryman in combat has changed very little over the millennia. I was particularly struck that infantry veterans of that same unit (173rd Airborne) in Vietnam would be taken aback how almost exactly combat in eastern Afghanistan in the 21st century for infantrymen looks exactly like combat in the highlands of Vietnam for infantrymen. Not much sign of any revolution in military affairs there.
Small unit leadership makes all the difference between good units and bad units, units that get nearly overrun and those that prevail. "Battle Company" had very strong leadership, and that is far more the norm across our units today than the exception…but there are exceptions. Our small unit leadership in this war I personally believe is the very best, by a big measure, of any war Americans have fought in — a strong commentary on the AVF [all-volunteer force] and its quality of growing great leaders. After ten years of war, this obvious attribute would have been unthinkable in the past – Vietnam is a particular example of an Army destroyed by the ten year war it fought. And I saw first-hand what that looked like afterwards as a new lieutenant.
Troops in rifle platoons and infantry companies forever have been given muddy, dangerous, and seemingly senseless tactical objectives — take that hill, storm that beach, attack and seize that city — that young soldiers and junior officers swallow hard and press on to execute with pure strength of will and the hazy confidence that someone, somewhere has the big picture right. It will ever be so. We owe them a lot of focus to ensure the leaders up top actually do have it right. And we devote little organizational energy to ensure that happens.
The kids in Battle Company’s 2nd platoon that stay in the Army — probably a fair number — will have far, far fewer problems ultimately adjusting to the shocks of their combat experiences than those that get out. Staying immersed in the same warrior culture and growing up into leadership roles is both cathartic and strongly supportive of such combat experiences. Jumping out into civilian life where no one has ever heard of the Korengal, much less knew anyone who fought there (maybe even anyone in uniform at all) will be deeply depressing and jarring to combat soldiers — who now have no one with whom to talk combat. We need to think hard about how we keep these folks connected to each other. Even after they leave service.
I spent some time in that part of AFG and know the area, the terrain and the population a fair bit. For all of our tactical valor, and the hedgehog nature of how our incredibly tough, brave and committed small units go about the missions we give them, once again our strategic compass is unmoored — in part, maybe largely because we rotate 2-star and 3-star HQ constantly, leaving no enduring frame of reference for what we are doing. Witness going into the Korengal. Witness coming out of the Korengal. Symptoms of a lack of operational and theater strategic continuity.
I’m glad that I finally got to watch this. I will think some more now on how to get it [in] front of broader audiences. It would work best as a film followed by a moderated discussion (maybe by mil types as a civ-mil discourse?). Maybe in a multitude of public settings it would seem to me…if folks are still interested.