Bagram, Generals, Cadets, and Leadership…

It’s weird how two and a half years after graduation I still can’t escape from West Point.  The past couple days, I had the interestingly unique opportunity to travel to Bagram Airfield and participate in a video teleconference with a bunch of Firsties as a part of some type of seminar they were conducting for their final military leader development class.  While I appreciate any opportunity these days to get the hell out of Sharana (more to follow on that in a few days), the experience left me with decidedly mixed feelings over that institution, the army, and what exactly the hell it is we are doing both over here and as we prepare ourselves for the fights ahead…

As far as Bagram is concerned, I’d have to say it pretty much exemplifies just about everything I hate about this war.  The entire base has the feel of a small city, a post more fitting of somewhere in Germany than the middle of the hottest combat zone the Army is now engaged in.  It has all the amenities one would expect from a large base including a rather expansive exchange and market area where you can buy anything from the odd local souvenir, all the tobacco products you can chew, dip, or smoke, just about every random comfort item from American fatty cakes to Pizza Hut and Green Beans coffee, or even your next engagement ring or car from one of the many local vendors willing to cut a decent deal from soldiers with too much money in their pockets and not enough to spend it on.  Of course, Bagram is a salute zone so you really can’t make it more than about 50 feet down the main street during the day without lifting your hand at least half a dozen times to salute packs of field grade officers or get saluted by a bunch of privates and NCOs wandering around with not a whole lot to do.  Then of course there are the civilian contractors, reporters (how many of them actually leave Bagram or Kabul?), and random local and third country nationals doing various types of “work” and enjoying being on the payroll of world’s biggest war economy.  While it was a nice break from the random FOBs I’ve been living on for the past couple months (actually having working cell phone service was certainly a plus) I’d have to say that while the place was halfway nice to visit, I’d really hate to actually live there.

Of course, the purpose of the trip was not a sight-seeing tour of the largest American base in Central Asia and I eventually got around to sitting down with Major General Allyn, the Regional Command-East Commander, and the four other junior officers selected to attend the leader development teleconference with the cadets.  As far as generals are concerned, I’d have to say Allyn was pretty typical of my previous experience.  He is well articulated and a strong, seemingly intelligent speaker, a truly dedicated leader of soldiers who has spent his entire adult life developing his skills, and possesses the innate ability to break the most complex problems down into a few short phrases and concepts which tend to be repeated over and over again so that by the time you are done with the conversation you have almost no choice but to completely believe in them and feel some type of sense of renewed personal motivation and dedication to the cause…of course, later on you recover and struggle to actually figure out what that cause is you are so inspired by but if you just continue to repeat the concept of “all-in leadership” or “mission, men, me” you will eventually be satisfied enough to continue your day…regardless though, I can’t say I didn’t like the guy…

After a short dinner and introduction one of the general’s aides took us on a brief tour of the headquarters.  While I won’t go into too much detail about it, anybody who has seen any type of war movie can probably picture it well enough.  The aid explained that all of the staff officers and intelligence collectors in the building had the common task of building situational awareness for the general and bringing the “power of the United States of America” to wherever it was needed.  Of course, this fits well with the actual purpose of higher commands, allocating resources where they are needed so I was pleased to see that the system was working quite effectively at least in this area…however, I could not help still being a bit concerned by the fact that with all the reliance on “situational awareness” there didn’t seem to be too much work on actually developing and operationalizing a strategic vision.  MG Allyn took a sharp change in course from his predecessor who saw the decisive operation in this violent region of Afghanistan as securing the border areas and made the focus of his command the concept of partnership with the Afghan Army and security forces.  While I have seen this trickle down to my level with the renewed push to incorporate them on more and more of our missions, I still don’t really understand what the concept of “partnership” actually means and it seems like each and every subordinate unit has their own operationalization of that guidance.  Are we supposed to lead the Afghans into combat, go out and find the enemy and engage him?  Are we supposed to coax and coach them to try and do it alone?  Should we tolerate worthless leaders or try to get rid of them as soon as possible?  And ultimately, what is the end state besides the concept of allowing them to stand and fight on their own since they will have to do that in a few years regardless of what we do here?

As for the actual teleconference, it was pretty much what I expected.  We all sat around and talked about things like leadership and how cadets have to prepare RIGHT NOW for the challenges of leading a platoon in combat or they will almost certainly fail.  We all danced the party line and explained how difficult our leadership challenges have been so far and talked about some of the things we wish we had known before and how we wished we had taken advantage of more opportunities and been more dedicated to our profession (it’s really hard to give any type of dissenting opinion in front of a general).  And ultimately we might have affected maybe a handful of cadets for a couple of hours before their next class, practice, exam, paper, or pitcher of beer got the better of their attention.  Just like every briefing I remember at West Point, nothing new was really said, few novel ideas were brought up, and ultimately it probably faded into the blur of another fast-paced year where everybody keeps telling you how to lead soldiers but in the end you are just going to have to figure it out for yourself, jump into the deep end, and see if you’ve figure out swim in the past four years of madness and bad decisions.  You can talk to army leaders all day until you are completely burnt out from the whole army gig but in the end, if you’ve just gotta master yourself and go from there…

Maybe I’m just a bit cynical and burnt out (but probably not) from shoveling most of the Army’s shit through the majority of my short career thus far, but I just have a serious problem with all the talk about leadership and dedication to soldiers that goes on at West Point and is reiterated by just about every senior field or general grade commander I have ever been in contact with.  It’s like leadership is such a rare virtue that people feel that if only you can find and develop it you can solve all of the Army’s problems right there on the spot.  While admittedly I have encountered more than a few poor leaders in my experience, I’d have to say that as a whole, quality leadership really is found in abundance in our military.  While there are a few total shitbags, most of the leaders I know are truly dedicated to their profession and their soldiers and would give just about anything to accomplish their mission and take care of their men…and more than a few have given everything.

Everybody in this profession knows what they are getting into from the start.  We work long hours when we are home.  Our breaks are few and far between.  Most of our friends and family on the outside don’t really understand us or why we chose this path.  We disappear from the world for months at a time to conduct field training or deploy to combat zones where we can be shot or blown up at just about any moment.  And even in our darkest days we have to pick ourselves up, look our soldiers in the eye, and get ready to move out again…if you aren’t already a dedicated leader there is just no need to even apply for this gig.  Family and social life are much better when you don’t have to leave every odd year or so, relationships tend to go easier when you actually have time to spend together, and beer tastes better when you can drink it on a regular basis.  If you need general officers to teach you how to be a functional human being in this profession, you should probably find some other type job.

While the army and West Point focus so much on “leader development” they tend to ignore the real problems and challenges the organization is facing now and is likely to face in the coming years.  Nobody ever talks about how strained and tired the organization has become after ten years of conflict.  We don’t mention our rise in social problems, divorce rates, PTSD, alcoholism, and chronic injuries from the years of beating we place on our bodies.  We don’t think ahead and look at how the army is likely to change immeasurably in the coming years amid a new cycle of budget cuts, changes in personnel management, and a new and still unarticulated strategic vision following the Afghan conflict.  We never talk to our junior leaders about how they are likely to bear the brunt of these changes and challenges, how their actions and their input will shape the military they begin their careers with, and how in the future simple dedication to a cause and whatever words spew out of the mouth of a senior leader might just not be good enough to get the job done.  While we are good at dedicating our lives to something greater than ourselves, we need to take a more active role on deciding what exactly that something actually is.  We need to question our leadership, our peers, and ourselves and not be afraid to seek out answers no matter how difficult the truth may actually be.  We need to build leaders who are not just dedicated to the cause (because that is just a baseline for survival in this job) but who are open-minded and well-rounded enough to actually define and question what it is and take proper action accordingly.  We need to be renaissance men, understanding not just military tactics and doctrine, but politics, philosophy, economics, science, a bit of medicine, foreign cultures, and languages.  We need to have just as avid and appetite for reading as we do for protein shakes and cross-fit.  We have to build our bodies, but also our minds and we need to have the balls to speak out our ideas even if they might not be very popular and we might not really be right all the time…

War was never as complex as it is today and it isn’t showing signs of getting any simpler.  As we build the army of the future I just challenge my peers to go beyond the party line, think to the future and the army we will build for our children, and while our time wearing this uniform may be short, let’s make the best of what we’ve got while we are here.  Rather than building the leaders the army wants, it’s time we build ourselves into the leaders the army actually needs…

Here’s to the future…it’s gonna be a wild ride, but we’ll figure something out eventually…

Cheers,

Brian

13 OCT 2011, 1835 AST, Sharana, Paktika, Afghanistan

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About briangdonnelly

I'm pretty much a random traveler and free thinker. Right now I live and work with the Army in North Carolina. I grew up in Missouri but am from the northeast US and have traveled a lot with the Army and life in general so I can't say I really have a "home" except where I chose to catch a few hours or rack each day. Overall, life is pretty awesome and I'm looking forward to changing the world. Hit me up if you care... Peace, Brian
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