Michael's Dispatches

Values Message

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One of the reasons I trust General Petraeus is he just comes right out and says what needs to be said. The letter which he sent to our forces serving in Iraq (posted below) is a case in point. The letter is more important than it might appear on first glance.

There is great stress in combat, and this particular type of combat can be very frustrating. Stress in combat increases the potential for something bad to happen. Strong commanders are the only thing standing between us and another Abu Grahaib or Haditha. If something like that were to happen now, it would be a terrible setback in a war that we can still win.  I am in Fallujah now, and those who have closely followed the war will need little reminder about what happened here in April 2004, and how our reprisal to barbarism caused an esclation in the war.  (Fallujah is much quieter these days, and there has been great progress in the Anbar region.  Enough progress to actually get media coverage.)

The progress is very real.  But the potential for a disaster is also real.  During the last mission I went on with the Brits, we lost two soldiers to IEDs. There were civilians around who clearly knew what happened: 48 IEDs had been put out for us and killed the guys that came behind the vehicle I was riding in.  (The enemy let us pass, then hit a convoy.)  The potential was there for reprisal, but the British leadership was strong and the soldiers were very professional. 

I wrote about something similar when I was in Mosul earlier this year. We lost 5 of our own (4 soldiers and interpreter) to a massive IED.  There was obvious potential for something bad to happen.  But again, our leadership was very strong, as I described in the post, Desolate Roads, Part Two:

The Howling Wind

There were five occupants in the humvee: 2LT Mark Daily born in Irvine, California; SSG John Cooper born in Cleveland, Ohio; SGT Ian Anderson born in Prairie Village, Kansas; Specialist Matthew Grimm from Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Matt Grimm had recently been awarded a Purple Heart for injuries he suffered while on patrol in a humvee that came under attack. It was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade that killed Sergeant Brent Dunkleberger. Matt had been driving the day Brent was killed, and he was driving again on the morning of 15 January. The fifth occupant was “Jacob,” a Christian Assyrian-Iraqi, born in Mosul in 1967, now performing arguably the most dangerous job in Iraq: interpreter for American combat forces.

There were a couple of occupied two-story houses just next to the road, and an unfinished house, from which at least one terrorist had run a wire to the explosive.

Specialist Matt Grimm was in the driver’s seat. The gunner was wearing extra protection. The enemy saw them coming and at the precise moment when the humvee was nearly perfectly over the bomb, it detonated. Heavy pieces of the humvee, some weighing hundreds of pounds, flew as far as 200 yards away, some crashing atop the second stories of Iraqi homes, while others splashed into a nearby swampy area. Our soldiers and Jacob the interpreter died within a fraction of a second, almost certainly having no idea they even drove over a bomb.

SFC Brian Sipp and I were sitting in an office waiting to attend a ceremony for turning over authority to the Iraqi 2nd Army Division, when the sound rumbled over this base at 8:32 AM, probably just as the dense cloud billowed away from the scene and revealed the massive crater in the road. Minutes later, Major Rod Cunningham told us that at least four soldiers had been killed. Apparently he was unaware Jacob had been in the truck.

James Pippen, the CSM of 2-7 Cavalry, immediately prepared to roll out with a section. I rolled with CSM Pippen to the seat of the blast, a site which was not yet fully secured. This being war, there was the chance of second, third or fourth bombs, or that an enemy who knew how we would respond was waiting for us with a car bomb, mortars, snipers, name it.

CSM Pippen took charge of the scene—officers and enlisted men alike—and set the tone for the recovery, working first on security and finding his lost soldiers. Although the task was disturbing, CSM Pippen wanted every piece of man and machine out of there, and in deeds as much as with direct orders he initiated a respectful battlefield recovery and identification of remains.

The smell of fuel and wreckage had a chokehold on the debris field. The damage was jaggedly inconsistent: while rigid items had shattered into bits, those items with “give” distorted but remained amazingly intact. A case of water bottles had blown apart and the bottles were scattered all around, but I didn’t see any that were split open. They were in perfect condition. Radios were shattered, but paper items merely scattered about. Night-vision devices blown to pieces, but MREs (packaged meals) tossed around but otherwise completely unharmed, unburned, and not even scorched.

The two families who lived in the two houses closest to the bomb were canvassed but the occupants claimed ignorance. A man from the first house seemed upset about the debris that landed on his roof. The soldiers were amazingly focused and professional, even to the man who seemed mostly to mind the mess. After some such attacks, families get paid by the Americans for the damages.

It seemed nearly inconceivable that the enemy could remove perhaps 1,500 pounds of soil and replace it with 1,500 pounds of explosives (according to experts), and nobody in those two houses would have noticed. I looked at that man on the roof of his house and dark thoughts fell upon me. But CSM Pippen set the tone, and the professionalism of all his men kept the situation in check.

In Mosul, strong commanders and incredible discipline among soldiers held those feelings at bay and ensured that professionalism was the watchword for the mission. CSM Pippen embodied what General Petraeus wrote about when he penned: “Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemies.”

Perhaps more subtly but no less powerfully, commanders also demonstrate adherence to values when it is just soldiers working out of the view of Iraqis. I saw this first-hand in Baghdad when I embedded with the I-4 CAV, and  I wrote about a commander setting a clear moral tone for his troops as they moved into the Combat Outpost Amanche:

It wasn’t enough to just secure the place. LTC James Crider, commander of the 1-4 Cav, was serious about showing to the owners that their college would be cared for during this war and about aligning the actions of his soldiers with the statements they make. By 27 March, valuables were being locked down.

When we came back into the library, a soldier was awake and up on a ladder. A company commander, maybe it was Captain Cook, asked something like, “What are you doing?”
“Looking for something to read, sir.”
“Nope. This doesn’t belong to us. Get down from there and leave the books alone.”
“Yes sir,” and the young soldier crawled down.

I see how difficult it can be to maintain this in times of high stress, and how easy it can be to overlook this when there is so much loss and frustration.  But we truly are making progress in Iraq, I see it every day, and it is important to spotlight a strong commander stepping up and making us all remember who we are and what we stand for. 

We are making progress but the odds are still against us.  We cannot take chances or play fast and loose with our own values. In addition to something immoral occurring, it could be the final straw for this war.  All it would take is a weak leader behaving immorally, or a tired leader not recognizing the stress level of his soldiers and reacting accordingly, and we might have the proverbial straw that breaks this camel’s back.

This letter from General Petraeus deserves the widest possible dissemination.  It should be published widely, and posted on every headquarters wall, and read aloud by every troop in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We can pummel al Qaeda and other terrorists mercilessly and grind them into the dirt, but we cannot afford to turn local populations against us while we do it.

From General Petraeus: 

Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen serving in Multi-National Force-Iraq:

Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity, and do what is right. Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy. This fight depends on securing the population, which must understand that we—not our enemies—occupy the moral high ground. This strategy has shown results in recent months. Al Qaeda’s indiscriminate attacks, for example, have finally started to turn a substantial proportion ofthe Iraqi population against it.

In view of this, I was concerned by the results of a recently released survey conducted last fall in Iraq that revealed an apparent unwillingness on the part of some US personnel to report illegal actions taken by fellow members of their units. The study also indicated that a small percentage of those surveyed may have mistreated noncombatants. This survey should spur reflection on our conduct in combat.

I fully appreciate the emotions that one experiences in Iraq. I also know first hand the bonds between members of the ” brotherhood of the close fight. ” Seeing a fellow trooper killed by a barbaric enemy can spark frustration, anger, and a desire for immediate revenge. As hard as it might be, however, we must not let these emotions lead us—or our comrades in arrns—to commit hasty, illegal actions. In the event that we witness or hear of such actions, we must not let our bonds prevent us from speaking up.

Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone “talk;” however, what the individual says may be of questionable value. In fact, our experience in applying the interrogation standards laid out in the Army Field Manual (2-22.3) on Human Intelligence Collector Operations that was published last year shows that the techniques in the manual work effectively and humanely in eliciting information from detainees.

We are, indeed, warriors. We train to kill our enemies. We are engaged in combat, we must pursue the enemy relentlessly, and we must be violent at times. What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight, however, is how we behave. In everything we do, we must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect. While we are warriors, we are also all human beings. Stress caused by lengthy deployments and combat is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign that we are human. If you feel such stress, do not hesitate to talk to your chain of command, your chaplain, or a medical expert.

We should use the survey results to renew our commitment to the values and standards that make us who we are and to spur re-examinat ion of these issues. Leaders, in part icular, need to discuss these issues with their troopers—and, as always, they need to set the right example and strive to ensure proper conduct. We should never underestimate the importance of good leadership and the difference it can make.

Thanks for what you continue to do. It is an honor to serve with each of you.

David H. Petraeus,

General, United States Army


Download the statement as a PDF here.



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