Best Defense

What now? How the military taught me to survive having an uncertain leader

Will Trump be a pragmatic leader, or someone who lurches from one hasty, uninformed decision made solely on gut instinct to another?



By Aaron Barruga
Best Defense guest columnist

Everybody in the military knows that sometimes you will get a commander who is incompetent or even dangerous. I’ve been there, and maybe you have too.

What the military taught me about questionable leaders is the importance of action through unification. If a commander ignores the welfare of his men, it is up to the men to support each other. This means putting aside differences in order to accomplish the mission. Although the camaraderie of soldiers at war is often romanticized, getting along with a teammate isn’t always easy. However, looking beyond petty disagreements ensures that you will have a hand that reaches out to pick you up when you’re knocked off your feet.

I started writing this piece before the election. If Hillary Clinton won, we would be looking at a commander-in-chief who had displayed blatant disregard of our nation’s most classified information, and worse, an individual that abandoned U.S. servicemen and statesmen when they were most in need at Benghazi in 2012.

With a Donald Trump victory, we have an incoming POTUS who possesses zero foreign policy experience. Sure, he has given his nice promises about hunting terrorists and his willingness to challenge the broken practices of Washington. But will he be a pragmatic leader, or someone who lurches from one hasty, uninformed decision made solely on gut instinct to another? Strategic decisions to commit America’s sons and daughters to die in combat should not be made irrationally.

During the closing months of the Vietnam War, enlisted men muttered the phrase “no one wants to be the last man to die for a lost cause.” The confusion of the strategies in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars resurrected that same phrase. In public, soldiers proclaim their support of the mission. Naive and young recruits even fantasize the glory of combat and eagerly await their baptism by fire. Behind closed doors and among peers, experienced soldiers profess their skepticism of a mission that seems unwinnable, and try to make sense of lost teammates and confusing sacrifices.

When I deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, my team was conducting a counterinsurgency mission that was unwinnable. The unwillingness of Washington to commit to staying in Afghanistan often gets blamed for the failure of the war. However, political consolidation is an inherently complex issue, especially among a local populace that is impeded by multiple barriers — linguistic, cultural, and even cognitive.

Even so, my team deployed because good soldiers follow orders. For 11 months we fought two enemies. The first was the local populace that was trying to kill us through their support of the Taliban. The second was the questionable decisions made by individuals in our higher headquarters.

However, this is not characteristic of just my experience in Afghanistan and is representative of all on-the-ground units and higher level commanders throughout history. A legionnaire in a phalanx assault may have questioned the reasoning behind dying far from home on the spearpoint of a Gallic insurgent, but recognized the importance of shielding the men to his left and right.

Although it is easy to complain and point fingers, it ultimately results in wasted energy. No amount of protest would have kept Marines from dying on the sands of Iwo Jima, or Rangers in the streets of Ramadi. When uncertain leaders make decisions that appear lacking in strategic foresight, it is up to the men and women on the ground to look out for each other. This applies to soldiers that assault physical hills, and citizens that attack symbolic ones. Unification requires a willingness to extend a hand to others — no matter how foreign their ideals.

Whether you are approaching the Trump presidency with open arms, caution, or disbelief, we must continue to look to our left and right for support. Although we may disagree with our fellow countrymen, we must attempt to understand them, and extend them our shield when they are knocked off their feet, because we most certainly will appreciate the same when we find ourselves looking up for help.

Aaron Barruga joined the military because of 9/11 and served as a Green Beret in Special Forces. He has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pacific theater, where he trained foreign commandos, police officers, and militia fighters. He is the founder at Guerrilla Approach LLC where he consults law enforcement on the development of active shooter training programs and vehicle tactics.

Photo credit: Aaron Barruga

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

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