Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Leadership Failures Revealed in Serial, Season 2

I've just finished season two of Serial and have a few thoughts about some of the leadership issues discussed in the podcast.  I think they were thorough and wide-ranging in examining the issue of leadership.  However, I believe that they do not appreciate the full significance of the leadership failures and the magnitude of the impact such failures have on morale, cohesion, and performance.  Indeed, I argue here that much of the leadership described in the podcast constitute violations of the sacred duty of military leadership as defined in my previous posting here.  In my view, Bergdahl's diagnosis of the leadership problems was correct, but his prognosis was exaggerated, and his choice of treatment, while dramatic, made him, rather than the leadership failures, the center of attention.  Given the significant problems of leadership revealed in the podcast, this is unfortunate.

The incident salvaging the damaged MRAP provides the first example of poor leadership.  When the Battalion CO says "What?  You couldn't shave?" we all get the insensitivity of the comment. The podcast does a good job of demonstrating how the CO showed concern for appearances and disregarded the welfare of his men.  He apparently lacked concern for their wellbeing and was indifferent to their suffering.  When told of the men displaying disposable razors on their uniforms, Sarah gets that this is a "Fuck you" to the CO.  But she may not appreciate its full significance.

In the military there are regulations and traditions that severely limit what juniors can say to seniors.  So much of what the men in the platoon were feeling and thinking could not have been said to the CO.  In response to these strictures there is also a long military tradition of passive-aggressive behavioral communication of that which can't be said.  This "Fuck you" is an obvious example.  It was, in fact, an act of insubordination.  Had anyone said it out loud, they would have been so charged.  But even beyond that, such a passive-aggressive though unmistakable message to a CO after their first combat engagement on a deployment is a powerful statement of the men’s profound withdrawal of trust in leadership.  It is a clear and unequivocal statement that they do not believe that the CO will execute his duty to spend their lives as dearly as possibly.  They believe that he can't be counted on to make his decisions based only on military necessity and not put their lives at risk for any other reason, such as, for example, protecting his career.  Bergdahl saw and articulates this concern, though imperfectly and inaccurately, by imagining that the CO might send them on a suicide mission.  Berdahl seemed to have seen where the CO was coming from, but due to his (Bergdahl’s) paranoia, he likely exaggerated the CO’s likely course of action.  In my experience, leadership like this frequently leads to a sense of betrayal on the part of subordinates that can have significant negative consequences.

Similar issues are revealed in the incident where members of the platoon were digging a barricade while out of uniform.  Again, the focus on appearances was noted.  However the harm of this focus was understated.  The question of appearance standards in combat is a deep and ancient struggle as old as formal militaries and there are vital arguments for and against holding to standards.  But in this case, I believe the evidence in the podcast supports the belief that what motivated this CO was not concern for discipline but something else. 

Soldiers can't know the true intentions or the character of more remote leaders like the Battalion CO.  They don't have direct, everyday contact with him as they do with platoon or company level officers.  But because the Battalion CO holds their lives in his hands, they are obviously deeply concerned with who he is, what he's about.  They are left, then, to read signs, seeking insight from orders and actions relayed down the chain of command.  As a result of this discrepancy between great import and low information, even apparently insignificant actions can take on highly symbolic importance as indicators of who a leader is, what's important to him, and whether or not he is "taking care of his men."  I believe the data in this podcast shows the CO's concern was not as he stated.

First, consider that the six-man unit digging in on the hill is described as having called higher command for permission to relax standards and that was granted.  Given that, if any disciplinary action was warranted, it should have been directed at whoever gave the men permission, not the entire platoon.  Further, that should have been done in private, following the injunction "Praise in public, correct in private."  If permission had been granted, why then was the entire platoon was chewed out?

Second, the "discipline" the platoon received was ludicrous, obviously hysterical, as some men appeared to notice, calling it "too much".  But again, more here is revealed than meets the eye.  The notion that relaxing uniform standards in extreme conditions will lead to mass murder is ridiculous.  I'm not denying the "for want of a nail the war was lost" theory of combat contingency but the  exaggerated, prolonged, highly emotional, shaming, and diminishing tirade by the CO was not good discipline.  It was not coming from a rational concern for his men's welfare.  It was not a rationally considered argument.  It was not an attempt to demonstrate the importance of seemingly insignificant actions in combat.  It was not the conveyance of vital information the men needed to understand and correct an error.  It was, instead, the rant, in my opinion, of a fragile, petty tyrant revealed as imperfect to his superiors.  It was motivated by a "cover your ass" mentality, a result of his fearfulness of a reprimand from his superiors in response to the published pictures.

Finally, though I don't know if the CO knew this, his rant effectively obscured a more significant failure of tactical leadership about which I will say more later.

On a larger scale, the description of the search for Bergdahl revealed similar leadership failures.  When Sargent Major Wolfe says, so powerfully, that the continued search was "Fucking bullshit" he is expressing essentially the same criticism as Bergdahl.  As he implies, by that point everyone knew Bergdahl was almost certainly in Pakistan (including the highest levels of command.)  So what's the BS?  To state it explicitly, at that point the search is being continued not for the stated reason but in support of another agenda.  The continued search is not really in the interest of doing everything possible to find Bergdahl, but, instead, in the interest of being seen as "doing everything possible."  The search is continued in the interest of public relations, of showing determination, in preventing possible criticism of insufficient effort should Bergdahl show up dead.  In other words, again, as in the previous examples - for appearances.  This is, indeed, serious bullshit.  And, here again, this focus on appearances both undermines confidence in leadership and cohesion. At the same time, it causes and obscures tactical failures of leadership that nearly had catastrophic consequences.

In addition, in each of these three incidents, there were demonstrably incompetent acts of omission by leaders that easily could have had disastrous consequences for soldiers.  I'll describe these from least to most significant.

Whatever the merits of the CO's complaint about taking off the uniforms while digging a barricade, the failure to notice one obvious solution concerns me. If this action was so imminently dangerous, why then were there only the six men on the hill?  If six were necessary to dig the foxhole, why not six to dig, and six more to provide cover?  Even if the men had maintained full battle rattle, they cannot both dig and be effective lookouts.  If the situation was really so dangerous, adequate force to do the job should have been provided.  I believe the men knew this - though possibly not consciously – and that knowledge contributed to their seeing the CO's rant as ridiculous and dangerous. 

There were also tactical errors in the incident retrieving the damaged MRAPs.  Leaving aside other questions about how that operation was conducted, one question begs an answer:  Why was there no pre-arranged cover for the extraction?  The platoon and the vehicles were in an exposed location for several days.  There were, apparently, only two routes off the hill they were on.  Every Taliban for miles around no doubt knew they were there. The platoon must have known there was a possibility of an ambush when they left.  But there seems to have been no recognition of this possibility on the part of Bergdahl's command.  Certainly none was evident in the description of what happened at the ambush.  And although things turned out well, it so easily could have gone otherwise.  Imagine if platoon leader Billings had been killed, or worse, wounded, in his attempts to put a cable on the disabled MRAP.  Others would have inevitably attempted a rescue, exposing them to enemy fire without cover, possibly leading to a string of fatalities.  Such a situation could have easily spiraled out of control with a complete slaughter of the unit possible.

This appears to be a substantial failure of planning in the entire mission:  a failure to imagine and anticipate enemy actions.  It gave the impression of senior command sitting around the base, out of touch with realities on the ground.  I may be accused of Monday morning quarterbacking, but this was described as an experience battalion with previous deployments.  I'll ask others with more recent combat experience to weigh in on whether my analysis is out of line.  Yet, that there was no mention of the possibility of an ambush by any party in the podcast leaves me concerned.

Finally, the most significant, and potentially dangerous, failure of leadership was revealed during the search for Bergdahl.  An incident was described where, acting on intel, a team went to a site where they incredibly fortuitously discovered a booby trapped ambush.  I find no fault with anyone's failure to anticipate this.  However, to continue the massive search thereafter, rather than standing down all efforts except by small, elite units acting on something resembling valid intelligence was, in my opinion, criminal negligence.  I cannot fathom continuing the scattershot melee of troops speeding from place to place kicking in doors, given this clear warning that the US forces were being played. This is especially true given that this appeared to have occurred at or near the time when Bergdahl was widely believed already to be in Pakistan.  This failure to change course continued to expose large number of troops to real danger in the absence of actual necessity.  This is the very definition of a failure of the sacred duty of military leadership.

I realize that I am far removed from these events and may lack vital information.  I hope, however, that I have raised issues worthy of consideration.