Best Defense

Inside ‘Blackhearts’ (V): Trust, honesty, and communication are combat essentials

The soldiers of the Blackheart Brigade had significant accomplishments, to include inflicting great costs to al Qaeda in Iraq, and providing time and breathing space for the central government of Iraq.

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By Dan Sukman
Best Defense guest columnist

In 2014, retired Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger published his thoughts on the war in a book titled Why We Lost. The soldiers of the Blackheart Brigade had significant accomplishments, including inflicting great costs to al Qaeda in Iraq and providing time and breathing space for the central government of Iraq.

The counter to this view is that once former Army soldier Steven Green and his team raped and killed a girl, and killed her family, the battle of south Baghdad was lost. We simply cannot claim, as many in Vietnam did that the Army won every tactical victory. Just as the Army lost in My Lai, when Green and his team did what they did, we lost in Yusifiyah.

I have had eleven years to think about this deployment. For many of us it was the defining year in our military career. To this day, the challenge coin I carry in my wallet is not that of my current unit, but rather of 2nd Brigade’s 2005-2006 deployment. The events that unfolded in south Baghdad are complex. Jim Frederick’s Black Hearts told the story of a platoon, a company, and a battalion. But “Blackhearts” is the nickname of the entire Brigade. The Blackheart Brigade achieved various levels of success and failure throughout the 12 month deployment.

At a personal level, the Blackheart deployment changed me in three distinct ways.

— First, working as a staff officer on combatant command and other high-level staffs, I do my best to communicate subordinate command concerns while formulating plans and orders. These concerns are typically communicated from subordinate staffs, and can often be solved at the staff level.

— Second, the Blackheart deployment taught me that I must be honest in communicating risk, both to my own commander and to higher-level staffs. Articulating risk is a skill all in its own, and there is a balance between failing to say anything and blowing some risk out of proportion. Do either of the two too often, and concerns tend to be ignored.

— Third, the deployment taught me the value of trust. Trust between leaders is essential to success. When leaders within an organization lose trust with each other, soldiers see it at every level. I recently returned from a short deployment in Afghanistan. While there, I witnessed a division commander and his division command sergeant major (CSM) make it a point to sit together in the dining facility at least once a day. This action sent a message to the entire command that leaders were on the same page: They communicated with each other and they had mutual trust. Before I flew home, I made it a point to stop the CSM in the hall and tell him how much I appreciated what they did.

At the broader organizational or Army level, the Blackheart deployment taught me three things.

— First, as an organization, the Army should do its best to avoid “adhoc-racy.” The fewer pick-up teams we employ in combat the better.

— Second, the Army must keep the counterinsurgency doctrine alive, even during times when said doctrine is not employed. We simply cannot have tactical and operational units operating on a battlefield without a common understanding of how to attack a problem.

— Third, just as I mentioned the value of trust in personal relationships, building trust between organizations or units is necessary for winning wars.

Finally, as an Army strategist, the Blackheart deployment taught me firsthand how tactical actions can have strategic consequences.

Prior to the deployment, I had read about Abu Ghraib, but those events seemed distant, and more conceptual. The events in south Baghdad brought the reality of human fallibility to the doorstep. The military needs strategic leaders who can focus on the large geostrategic picture and translate policy into military strategy. At the same time, those leaders must ensure that the right leaders are in place at the tactical level.

Sun Tzu was right: Good strategy with bad tactics is the worst road to victory.

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army, a former military fellow at the Project for International Peace and Security (PIPS), and a member of the Military Writers Guild. Over the course of his career, Sukman served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), United States European Command, and the Army Capabilities Integration Center. He currently works for the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command in Norfolk, Virginia. His combat experience includes multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on twitter @dansukman. This article represents the author’s views, and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense. Further, this article represents the author’s views, and his alone, not those of other members of the Blackheart Brigade.

This installment concludes his series on what happened in his brigade in Iraq in 2005-06.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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