Best Defense

Remembering war (VII): war can Be Remembered Well, Good People Make it Possible

As a rifle company commander in the 101st in 1970, I joined my unit, D/1-502, on the side of a mountain in the A Shau.

keith nightingale D 1-502 101st - 81 Moving out

Editor’s Introduction – This article is different from those that preceded it. While most articles have identified ways we fail to remember war well, a premise of the series is that remembering well is possible. Colonel (Ret.) Keith Nightingale, a legendary Army and SOF leader who did yeoman’s work rebuilding the Army after Vietnam, shares a few success stories. The aspect of his story that strikes me is that remembering well tends to occur at a very personal level — man to man. Archives, continuity books, formal studies, etc. play a minor role, if any.

— Paul Edgar  

By Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army (Ret.)
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As a rifle company commander in the 101st in 1970, I joined my unit, D/1-502, on the side of a mountain in the A Shau. D Company had nearly been wiped out the night before. I came into a too-small perimeter held by shattered, exhausted and emotionally spent men – living residue of things no one should have to endure. I was simultaneously welcome and unwanted. Of course we had to recover and become functional quickly. We had to dig deep and find whatever scraps of emotion, training, and soldiering remained in order to save those who still lived.

I remembered the ex-Wehrmacht NCO in B/2-505 who, a few years before, walked me through his platoon my first night in the field. We visited each position, checking the basics: weapons, ammo, and soldier knowledge. He offered no criticism – just quiet observations, leaving each soldier responsible to make the corrections. I now did the same throughout my company perimeter, knowing that no pep talk or exhortation would have an effect. The unit had to regain its sense of dignity, discipline, and self-worth. Slowly, I could see the unit come to life and begin to regain its composure and professional qualities. My approach worked and we made it out, thanks to a NCO who had been on the wrong side in a previous war. He may have even fought against this very same company at Bastogne.

I have been exceedingly fortunate to experience both good and bad leadership. The bad amplifies the good; if one never sees toxic leadership, it becomes very hard to develop an antidote when it strikes. Experiencing both, qualities that I value include empathy, patience, loyalty (down as well as up), and self-discipline. These things can only be learned through experience and quality mentoring. I was very fortunate to be mentored.

My first unit, 2-505 in the 82d Airborne Division, had a wealth of combat experience. From the Division CG to the platoon sergeants, most had been through World War II and Korea. The veterans included several ex-Wehrmacht NCOs who were naturalized and integrated into the unit after World War II. Each of these people made a point of teaching my peers and me how to be what we were, or rather what we would become. This was quality mentoring, though the term was not yet ubiquitous or discussed formally.

I joined when these elements still held a remnant of past conflicts. The crucibles of World War II and Korea lived through the memories of the senior NCOs and officers I joined in June of 1965. They took special pains to teach me — a 2nd lieutenant — what I needed to know as a platoon leader, of course, but also as a company, battalion, and brigade commander. In turn, I passed these things on to my officers and NCOs, expecting them to do likewise. Several of the officers rose to three and four star rank and most of the NCOs became command sergeants major. They passed the torch of learning that they had received from those who preceded them.

Leveraging the memory of war to improve performance can be done organizationally, too. A tactical organizing principle rooted in combat experience, the concept of performance oriented training, anchored 1st Ranger Battalion when I helped K.C. Leuer build that unit from scratch. Performance oriented training empowers the NCO, the bedrock of any organization, with the same power and responsibility he necessarily has in combat. The NCO must take charge of his people holistically and assume responsibility for their success – not the officer. In combat, officers tend to guide and NCOs tend to do. In 1/75, we made that a principle of daily operations and training.

A good example is how we ran the Expert Infantryman’s Badge (EIB) competition.  Historically (and even today in some units), training was centralized to the extreme for uniformity and economy of effort. One NCO was responsible for training and grading a single task out of dozens for the entire two-to-three weeks of the competition. Soldiers would rotate through various stations supervised by the NCO who happened to be in charge of each station.  That makes one NCO an expert in a single task and might even build procedural uniformity across a unit in certain respects. But when the unit reverts to its fundamental organization to train collectively or to fight, the NCOs may be poorly trained in other essential tasks. Furthermore, the team leaders and squad leaders would have been somewhat disengaged from their own soldiers for the period of the competition. Leuer’s solution was to assign training responsibility for all tasks to each squad leader, just like NCOs were responsible for training their own soldiers in Vietnam. The squad leaders rotated through training stations with their soldiers and remained their primary trainer. Platoon sergeants and first sergeants evaluated the results, as they would in combat.

Life is luck and timing. Subsequently, at a higher level, I was part of an effort to take the painful memory of failure and turn it into new institutional capabilities. I happened to be working in the bowels of the Pentagon when revolutionaries occupied the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. The Service Chiefs responsible to resolve the issue found nothing in their “options cupboard” besides nuclear weapons and surrender. So the Army was tasked with building a rescue force from scratch. I became one of 32 people charged with the project. I was the lowest ranking and thus I did all the briefings and built the daily “smart books.” Twice daily I briefed progress or lack thereof to the CJCS, the SecDef, and the Director of the NSC. At the time, the experience was the highest and lowest point of my career. At the conclusion of the briefings, they would look up and ask, “What’s the right answer?” The truth is that for many questions at that level there are no right answers, only a highly contingent best answer.

When the rescue attempt failed, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs gathered us all in a room, including CSA General Edward Meyer, and asked, “OK. Clean slate. For this emerging kind of problem, what forces and capabilities do we need?” We did some reflection and drew up a list; I became responsible for managing the funding and bureaucratic navigation of that list. Service opposition to the program was fierce, but failed. The recent, successful UBL raid reflected our ability to learn from our mistakes, individually and institutionally. Everything that went into the UBL raid — SOF capabilities now presumed, not imagined — was a result of that open-minded meeting with the Chairman in 1980. With honest introspection and teamwork, we can turn memory into subsequent performance.

So what has 70 years and a wealth of experiences taught me? The military is often an unparalleled vehicle for development — personal, organizational, and institutional. We are each a reflection of those that we encountered in the course of our lives, good and bad. I reflect back on the great and horrendous experiences of my service and see the people more than the events. It is their lessons to me and mine to them that are at the forefront of my mind and the most satisfying part of my service.

Col. (Ret.) Keith Nightingale commanded four infantry companies, three battalions, and two brigades. These units included two tours in Vietnam, the Grenada invasion, and several classified counterterrorist operations including the Iran rescue attempt. He was a founding member of the 1-75th Rangers as well as one of the original members of what is now Joint Special Operations Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. Col. (Ret.) Nightingale has written numerous articles regarding the Infantry in both Vietnam and the Desert Wars. He is a member of the Ranger Hall of Fame.   

Photo Credit: Keith Nightingale

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 Twitter: @tomricks1
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