Recently, I’ve been reading a book called “Black Hearts”, a story about a platoon from the 101 Airborne is Iraq. The story is not a pretty one. It is in fact so disturbing to me that I’ve had to put the book down for days at a time on several occasions. But I will finish it eventually. At the core of the story are bad Army leaders, who think they can bully and abuse people into performing well. One leader in particular, a battalion commander, lords himself over his company captains and blames them for every bad turn the war takes in his area of responsibility.
As I continued reading the book, one point kept standing out: America simply didn’t have enough troops to do all of the things necessary to control the country. In one instance the commander ordered that checkpoints be set up along a road, manned by a squad of soldiers at a time. Because there were so few troops, the checkpoints were usually only manned by 4 troops instead of 10-12. In order to satisfy brigade staff, the battalion reports indicated the checkpoints were fully manned, just so brigade would’t complain. The soldiers would have to stay at these checkpoints for days on end, sleeping on the ground or in their vehicles and never taking their body armor off because of regulations. Eventually an insurgent simply walked up to a checkpoint and shot two soldiers, killing them. One soldier had his helmet off and was shot in the neck. Investigators found that he would have dies even if he had his helmet on, but the battalion commander told the soldiers of his unit that the dead soldier “deserved to die”, because he had his helmet off.
In this situation, a lack of troops made the effects of bad leadership much worse. In fact, too few troops makes everything worse in military operations. One would think this would be obvious, but the modern military is obsessed with technology to the point it believes it needs only a skeleton crew of humans. In the current environment, soldiers are so busy that many times they don’t even know how to use newer technology because there is no time to train. I can attest to this fact.
My brigade at Ft. Drum, the 1st Brigade Combat Team, is currently at only 70% manning. This is due to draw downs and the fact that units in Europe have not yet been dissolved, so troops are spread thin. The 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum is the most deployed unit in the Army since 2001. Everyday is chaos at my unit. There is not enough solders or time to get everything done that needs doing. I feel, personally, as if I have to know everything about everything, that there are no systems in place to keep things running smoothly. Training and maintenance go by the wayside because we are always trying to catch up on bureaucratic functions. In effect, we are a self-licking ice cream cone. It is very stressful on everyone, especially the enlisted people, since shit always rolls downhill. Remember, a Private gets in more trouble for losing his rifle than a General does for losing a war.
A few months ago my unit took a “command climate survey”, in which soldiers were asked to rate their leaders and general working environment. The number one complaint from non-commission officers was that they felt they were over worked. I’m sure many people in many jobs feel they are over worked, but I wish people could see the hours and work that a typical NCO int he Army puts in.
Today, our battalion commander, a man I very much admire, spoke to 2-22 Infantry. We are preparing for a large training exercise and were given very short notice about the event. The commander said that when he was first coming up in the Army, the unit would have had two years notice to prepare. This year we were given 21 days. The amount of stress this creates is difficult to explain. And things like this happen almost monthly at my unit. There is no individual in the Army to blame, but we as a nation and our government has to look very seriously at the effect our high tempo-low numbers strategy is having on our military and the individuals that make it up. The low retention and high suicide rates are no coincidence.