Monday, March 21, 2005

What I learned from life in a combat zone

There was some discussion in my unit at drill this weekend about pulling together the "lessons learned" from our recent deployment. The idea is that we'd make a list of things we wished we had known before we went to help out the next time we or somebody else gets deployed.

Its a good idea, and there are some things I would have done differently if I knew then what I know now (driving around in a HMMWV? - always have a 15mm wrench with you!), but I have to admit that I really didn't learn all that much that I didn't know before. I did figure out that some things that I'd been taught in the military before I went really are important (and some other things, of course, aren't.) Most of what I "learned" from my time in Afghanistan is that there's some good advice already out there that's worth taking.

In one way and another, I mostly learned that my Scoutmaster was right - Be Prepared:

"Take care of your equipment and your equipment will take care of you." The best maintenance is preventive maintenance. Consistently cleaning equipment, doing checks and services on equipment, repairing equipment before it fails, makes all the difference in combat readiness. It's not sexy like bouncing compounds or patrolling, but it's just as important to mission success. Spend some time every day cleaning weapons, servicing vehicles, blowing the sand and dust out of radios, whatever. Have a schedule for maintenance (kind of like changing your oil every 3000 miles), and stick to it. Spend some time before the deployment and make sure you have the tools and equipment (e.g, headspace and timing gauges, ohmeters, wrenches) to do your maintenance before you go -if the army gives you the equipment, it should give you the tools to work on it, but that's not always the case.

With that said, equipment always fails, and it never fails at a convenient time. Always have a plan for how to get along without any piece of equipment, and always have a plan to deal with it when it fails (for instance, always, always have a tow strap, jumper cables, and the like with you when driving around in GMVs and such.) Know and rehearse how you're going to maintain security when something breaks and you have to repair or recover it out in the open. There are no time-outs in war, and more than once, I've seen security go to hell when a few guys were under a HMMWV trying to replace a half-shaft.

"Two is one and one is none." If you really can't figure out what you would do without something (like a gun), you'd better have two of them. True story - we had some Polaris ATVs that we used to scout out in front of the main convoy. The riders would bungee their rifles down to the handlebars. One day, one of the scouts flipped the ATV - he wasn't hurt, but his rifle barrel was bent. Not something you want to be without in Indian country. (My advice was that he turn the rifle upside down and flip the ATV over again to straighten the barrel - he didn't try it.)

"Take care of your soldiers and they'll take care of you." Kind of the same deal as equipment. Don't neglect PT just because you're in a war zone - sooner or later, you'll need all the strength and/or flexibility and/or aerobic capacity you can muster. Have a rest plan. Guys can't operate at a fever pitch for months on a time - factor some downtime into the optempo.

"Have a plan. Have another plan for when the first plan doesn't work." (Also stated as "Hope is not a method.") Maintenance is half of implementing the Boy Scout motto in combat. Planning is the other half. It's not enough to have a plan - have alternate plans in case something goes wrong with the first one. Plan for contingencies. You should always be asking the what-if questions, and should have planned and rehearsed, or at least briefed, how to deal with them. Know MDMP (the military decision making process - a process for mission planning) and know what steps you have to hit, and which ones you can skip.

"Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse." A truism of war is that an OK plan well executed will trump the perfect plan that gets screwed up. Once you have the perfect plan, make sure everyone can make it work. Spend more time practicing than planning, and make sure everyone involved knows the plan, knows the objectives, and can execute if he has to. Always do pre-combat inspections - anyone can forget anything, so it never hurts to have a second pair of eyes checking something off.

"Be polite, be professional, but always have a plan to kill everyone you meet." Always good advice, but particularly true in an insurgency. You don't want to alienate the populace, but you don't ever want to forget that the populace includes people who will give their own life to see you dead. Don't let that happen - don't mistake politeness for weakness. Explain why you have to do something (search a car, or handcuff a prisoner, or whatever), be apologetic, but firm - don't ever fail to follow a security measure because you're concerned about making one of the locals angry - and that includes opening fire on a sedan because it doesn't freaking stop when it's supposed to.

"Semper Gumby" Always flexible - it should be the army motto. The flip side of planning is that plans never survive first contact with anything - the enemy, the terrain, the weather, or (especially) higher headquarters. Get used to being flexible, and changing things as you go. Don't get trapped by a planning tempo that lets the bad guys get away because you can't react to changes quickly enough. Know your capabilities, the capabilities of the people around you, the capabilities of the equipment you have, and be able to formulate a new plan out of them on the fly. What really matters is the commander's intent - get used to making that happen,even if everything else changes. If all that fails, and things go wrong, remember:

"Bad news doesn't get better with age." If there's a problem, or something didn't happen that should have happened, or something went terribly awry - go ahead and pass it up the chain of command. The sooner you can get somebody else to share ownership of your problem, the better off you are. And last, but most important:

"Be aggressive." Finally, when all else fails, charge. Violence of action will cover for a multitude of tactical and practical sins.

And, of course, I also learned that some things that matter a lot to a peacetime army don't matter a damn when the shooting starts. I also learned that there are good Sergeants Major out there and not so good Sergeants Major out there, and that the not-so-good ones had trouble making that adjustment. Another true story: The army has found this thing called a Hesco barrier - it's basically a big collapsible wire cube with fabric sides. You set the cube up and fill it with dirt, and it creates a barrier big enough to stop small arms, RPGs, car bombs and the like. All of the camps out in the countryside had been screaming for them, along with Afghani police stations and government offices, and they were in critically short supply. So one day towards the end of our rotation I'd gone back to Bagram, and I find an engineer unit tearing out the Hesco wall between Camp Vance (the CJSOTF compound) and Disney Drive (the main road through the airfield.) Now, understand, this wall wasn't between the compound and the outside village - it was between the compound and the rest of the US Army. So, I thought maybe they were getting rid of the wall and were going to replace it with a fence or something. I asked the engineer running the detail what would happen to the Hescos - maybe we could re-use them. His judgment was that the Hescos, which were nearly two years old, couldn't be disassembled, transported and reassembled with any degree of success. We got to talking, though, and I asked him why they were tearing them out and what they were going to replace them with. It seemed to me to be a pretty low priority job, and we sure could have used the dozer and front-end loader out where we were for a few days. It turned out that the engineer shared my opinion of the importance of the work he was doing. He told me that they weren't putting up a different kind of fence - they were replacing the Hescos. "They're doing what?", "Replacing the Hescos", "Why are they replacing the Hescos?" He explained that the Sergeant Major thought that the current Hescos looked sloppy and weathered, and it didn't project the proper military appearance. So, he took Hescos that could have been sent to the various firebases, camps, and Afghan government installations that were under constant rocket and mortar attack, and instead used them for a beautification project on Bagram, the safest place in Afghanistan.


Blogger Major Mike said...

Dead on. Every 2/Lt needs to copy that, laminate it and put it in his cargo pocket. It is often the most straight-up advice that sinks in the fastest. Take a good leader and give him your list, he'll make it through with no additional training. A poor leader might as well eat it for the nutritional value. It would be a great idea for squad leaders to keep it with them as well. Nicely done.

1:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, if you substitute the " taking care of your soldiers" for "taking care of your chemicals", and "killing everyone you meet" for "punching everyone you meet", this is a pretty good survival guide for a neuroscience PhD student :)

5:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"that includes opening fire on a sedan because it doesn't freaking stop when it's supposed to"

Were there soldiers that didn't open fire at check points and then got blown up?

10:17 AM  
Blogger Special Forces Alpha Geek said...

Soldiers have been blown up at checkpoints by suicide bombers - I haven't seen the AARs (after action reviews), so I don't know for sure whether they had an indication that they "should have" shot earlier and didn't in any specific case. Those kinds of discussions wouldn't get disseminated in any public forum anyway, since the rules of engagement are classified to prevent the bad guys from trying to game them.

I do know that the pressures of making the right decision in a situation like that are bad enough without guidance that's fuzzy - and there's nothing more fuzzy than having rules that allow you to fire under certain circumstances, and seeing your comrades take heat for following the rules because the outcome isn't what someone wanted (e.g., the Italian media case.)

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Have a plan. Have another plan for when the first plan doesn't work."

This, I think is the best one! Maybe it was the 15 years of childhood being with an Army dad, maybe I just never wanted to look unprepared, but no matter what the situation, there's always been a Plan B - and I made my kids have one too. When they were little, it was, 'let's play make believe and pretend it doesn't work. . .whatcha gonna do?'; then when they were older it was, 'sheesh, son, ya don't wanna look stupid in front of your girlfriend, do ya? Whatcha gonna do?' And now, they ask me what my Plan B is!

People think it's OCD, but it sure helps you have a perfect landing, when you fall.

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the Berthold Brecht (a german drama writer) quote:

Ja mach nur einen Plan, sei nur ein grosses Licht!
Und dann mach noch 'nen Plan, geh'n tun sie beide nicht.

(loose translation)

Go on, make a plan, let everyone know what a brighthead you are!
Then make another plan, they both won't work.


PS: Seems to fit Clausewitz's Mantra: Since no plan survives enemy contact, be prepared to react, be flexible.

12:42 PM  

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