In October 2012, Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer spoke at the Pritzker Military Library about the fight at Ganjigal, Afghanistan. His talk provides unfiltered first person testimony about our troops’ experiences in Afghanistan.
Having listened to a number of talks at the Pritzker from Medal of Honor recipients, I found that there are some disturbed trends that we will need to face as the Congress gets ready to cut military spending without a needed cutback in our commitments overseas.
One issue particular to Meyer’s account is that he was disobeying orders; his actions against orders were what merited the distinction he received. Why is such bravery and the orders given inconsistent? Further, his initiative demonstrated independence of thought applied to getting the job done, which is consistent with American military personnel through history. Yet, I remain disturbed about this gap between the direction from superiors and military necessity in a fight.
One point that Meyer made clearly was that we are NOT at war with Muslims as we are working with Muslim allies. I relate this to the more general problem of a civil war within Islam where some Muslims are our allies, out of their own self-interest, against Muslims who seek a tyrannical domination of our Muslim allies.
During the battle at Ganjigal, Meyer observed that the villagers started to fight beside the Taliban when it seemed that the Taliban would win the fight. These villagers who turned against the Americans were the ones being “protected” by depriving our Marines of the fire support that they required. In addition, to our allies and enemies, there is a group of opportunistic fence sitters who will be happy to join whatever side appears to be winning, and just as quickly switch sides in the next fight if the advantage shifts.
I observe about this particular fight that the Americans were quickly outnumbered, and dependent upon superior firepower and lots of ammo. I have heard similar stories from Iraq about our thinly dispersed troops being confronted with a suddenly massing enemy of superior numbers. This was true in Vietnam and Korea as well. We are putting a few guys into a situation where they risk running out of ammo because there are so many opponents to kill. In such a situation, withholding additional resources, or failing to plan for their rapid availability, will get Americans killed.
The most controversial point from Meyer’s talk related to the rules of engagement in Afghanistan. He did NOT blame them for the dangers faced by our troops in the field; instead he blamed incompetent military leaders who fail to use the discretion that they are granted within those rules of engagement. While I am not yet prepared to let the rules of engagement off the hook, I think that this charge should be seriously examined; are our officers failing to make the aggressive and necessary decisions within their discretion?
In a recent Harvard Business Review podcast, Tom Ricks charges that, when compared to WWII, our current generals are not being held accountable. While I am disinclined to agree with Ricks, the report from Meyer about the failures by officers in the field does entail this issue of accountability. Given history, if there is a problem of accountability in our military, it is likely because individuals are being held accountable for the wrong things.
Unfortunately, I do not think that current civilian leadership will engage this issue, which will leave it to the military to address in an environment of diminished resources, and expanding demands from policy makers.
Extra Point: President George W. Bush appointed Don Rumsfeld Secretary of Defense to transition the military to be better organized to fight the type of battles policy makers would actually direct within limited resources for military spending. The “loyal” opposition for political advantage (see 2006 and 2008 elections) and ossified elements within the Pentagon sacked that presidential initiative. Similar to politically still born efforts by the Bush Administration to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac before the financial crisis, are we approaching a situation where Bush’s derailed military transformation will expose America to a crisis?