Best Defense

Inside ‘Blackhearts’ (II): Our lousy command relations frayed badly in Iraq

As discussed my the previous post, relationships — be they inside of a marriage or between military units — are built upon trust.



By Dan Sukman
Best Defense guest columnist

As discussed my the previous post, relationships — be they inside of a marriage or between military units — are built upon trust. When trust leaves the relationship, chaos ensues. As the relationships between senior leaders in the battalions, brigade, and division went sour, an “us against them” mentality developed at the various echelons.

From the brigade staff officer perspective, 1st Battalion created a culture of superiority. The same perception developed with the brigade MiTT team, which was headquartered in Mahmudiyah alongside 1st Battalion. From the brigade perspective, these units were cocky, with a holier-than-thou complex. From their perspective, brigade, and to an extent division headquarters, just did not understand how tough they had it.

This same corrosive dynamic would play out between our brigade and the division. Jim Frederick alludes to this dynamic in the bookBlack Hearts — mistrust of headquarters leads to soldiers believing their commanders simply don’t care and cannot be trusted. When soldiers lose confidence in their leadership, they tend to quit. (Black Hearts comes to this conclusion, as does the book When Soldiers Quit: Studies in Military Disintegration.)

This conflict with headquarters is common within the military. However, leaders at all levels should recognize the risks inherent when this dynamic goes too far. The more latitude a higher headquarters allows a subordinate element to conduct tactical operations based on its intimate knowledge of the area of operations, the higher the risk that these actions will not fit into the broader campaign. This is why a unit’s understanding of the higher headquarters strategy and intent is critical. Likewise, a subordinate headquarters refusing assistance from a higher headquarters out of an arrogant sense of loyalty to the brigade, battalion, company, or platoon tribe, creates risk in executing missions with inadequate capabilities. Furthermore, this loss of trust can lead to the subordinate units conducting operations completely unrelated to the higher commander’s intent. Once the trust begins to erode, things only get worse.

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army, a former military fellow at the Project for International Peace and Security, and a member of the Military Writers Guild. Over the course of his career, Sukman served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), U.S. 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. Furthermore, this article represents the author’s views, and his alone, not those of other members of the Black Heart Brigade.

Photo credit: U.S. Military 

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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