The Most Important of Questions

It is the question that American soldiers have been asking since there have been American soldiers.  It is the question that NCOs have dreaded answering since there have been NCOs.  It is the question that drives the purpose of all we do.  It is the question that means more than any other.  It is the question that we are so horrible at answering.  It is the question “Why?”.

At all points in my career, I have heard officers and NCOs mutter phrases similar to, “Soldiers these days always want to know why.  We used to just do what we were told.”  They utter this with lament as if some golden age has passed.  It is a phrase that seems to have been uttered throughout the history of the US Army.  Do soldiers really need to know why?  YES!

Teaching a soldier what without teaching a soldier why is a machine-like process.  It creates soldiers that can DO but not soldiers that can THINK.  To many, this seems like what we want as a military.  Don’t we want soldiers that will execute without question?  While we do want soldiers who, at the point of contact, will not question the orders of their leaders, we do not want soldiers that do not understand why they do what they do.  Why, you might ask?

Combat has evolved into a fluid environment.  In linear warfare, a soldier needed to march forward, fire on command and reload as fast as possible.  In fourth and third generation warfare, the battle changes rapidly and soldiers who can think offer a clear advantage over those who can’t.  Soldiers who just know what to do but not why are less apt to innovate.  A soldier that knows that he does x to make y happen, but realizes x is not working may figure out some z that will lead to y.  A soldier that doesn’t, will likely continue to do x in futility.  Understanding why gives a soldier the tools to get the job done.

A captain in Maneuver Captain’s Career Course will fail if he briefs an operations order without giving a purpose (answering why).  That same captain may later take command and be quite successful (ratings-wise) without ever providing a purpose for training or any other events.  Why would it be so important that soldiers understand the purpose behind a combat operation but nothing else they do to prepare for combat or to operate in combat?

An enterprising commander I once had looked at me and said, “We don’t necessarily need to achieve our task so long as we achieve our purpose.”  Those word are, in my mind, true.  If my mission is to Seize a hill in order to Prevent the enemy from enveloping another company, which is more important, the task or the purpose?  If I am leading this operation and suddenly realize that seizing the hill is not feasible or it is too costly but I can think of another way to prevent to the enemy from enveloping the other company, shouldn’t I shift course?  What if there is no enemy on or near the hill?  Will seizing it prevent the enemy from enveloping the other company?  Perhaps, but likely not.

This is an essential element of mission command.  A commander has to be able to react swiftly to the situation and take steps to accomplish the mission even if it is against the prescribed course of action in a plan.  Commanders who understand the why behind their actions and know the intent of the next higher two commanders can use initiative in combat.  Those who subscribe to a rigid format will seize the hill even as it becomes apparent it will have no effect on the enemy.

Extend this down the chain.  Lieutenants need the be similarly equipped and so do NCOs.  And, this is not just in a tactical sense.  The importance of understanding why has magnified in the past 60 years.  Soldiers, NCOs and junior officers now make decisions that can impact strategy or cause international turmoil.  Therefore, it is important that they know why they do what they do.  Look at this situation:  Lieutenant X is leading a patrol that takes a small amount of rifle fire from a small hamlet.  The lieutenant has three likely courses of action.  Course of action 1: Lieutenant X orders his platoon to suppress the fire with all they’ve got because he’s been taught to respond to contact with overwhelming firepower.  Civilians die.  The hamlet is shot up.  The unit is set back months if not years.  Course of action 2: Lieutenant X is paralyzed by the rules of engagement (ROE) and not wanting to cause civilian casualties, either gets pinned down or breaks contact.  The enemy is encouraged or at least not deterred and the soldiers are angry because nothing happened to the enemy. Course of action 3: Lieutenant X has a strong understanding of the ROE, knows the purpose of the application of firepower and maneuver, and has been trained to quickly make decisions.  He orients on the fire, suppresses with minimal deviation (such as a machine gun on a tripod) while maneuvering an element to attack the enemy.  No civilians die.  The enemy is killed or captured.  Morale is high.  Which is best?

Course of action 3 is certainly best.  The lieutenant has taken out the enemy and preserved the work of his unit while also sending a strong message to the enemy.  This occurs because he knows why the ROE exists, why he applies firepower and why he is conducting the patrol in the first place.  Lieutenant X has avoided major repercussions from the people of the area, avoided the ire of his platoon for not taking out the man who shot at them, and denied the enemy the ability to see the population as a safe haven.

Why do soldiers need to know why?  Though there are many reasons, the most important is that soldiers feed the NCO ranks and, to a small degree, the officer ranks.  How do you create an innovative, adaptive leader if the leader starts as a machine?  Many may scoff at offering soldiers a reason believing it may create soldiers that question everything.  However, are we afraid to tell soldiers the reason because they’ll question more or because we don’t know why ourselves?  Is there harm in soldier knowing why?  Maybe if he is the guy who has to test the air after a CBRNE attack.  But, for the most part, mindless soldiers are not necessarily good soldiers.

Answer why.  In fact, don’t answer it, offer it before it is asked.  Morale will improve, efficiency and effectiveness will increase, and leaders will become more adaptive.  The most important question, the one we answer the least, is the one we need to focus on.

Those who know why survive and thrive.  There used to be a beer named Bud Dry and the tag line was, “Why ask why?  Bud Dry.”  When’s the last time you saw a Bud Dry in a cooler?

Read, Think, Write…Change Your Life

On Joe Byerly’s blog, An Enlightened Soldier, there is a post titled, “Think, Write, and Publish: An Army Captain’s Perspective”.  Joe writes of the need for junior officers to take the ideas in their heads and put them into the public forum so that those ideas can benefit the military profession.  His argument is compelling and he does not shy away from acknowledging potential issues such as doors being closed or negative feedback.  He further argues that writing also opens doors and is ultimately good for everyone.  I’d like to demonstrate the power of reading, thinking, writing and publishing.

In March of 2009 I moved into a new office at the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course (IBOLC) headquarters.  Like all military offices, the predecessor left me an assortment of things such as manuals, office supplies and the ubiquitous keys to nothing.  One particular item he left is of note: a copy of the book Company Command: Unleashing the Power of the Army Profession by Nancy Dixon, Nate Allen, Tony Burgess, Pete Kilner, and Steve Schweitzer (2005).  My commander walked in, saw the book and pointed to it saying, “That’s a good book.  You should read that before taking command.”  So, I diligently took the book, placed it in the hutch of the desk and never touched it again…that is until I was cleaning my desk out for the last time 18 months later.

I was familiar with two of the authors, Nate Allen and Tony Burgess, having read their other book Taking the Guidon: Exceptional Leadership at the Company Level (2001) several years before.  Nate Allen had also led a professional development session with my cadet company in 2001 or 2001, but I’d never spoken to him personally.  Despite this, I only took the book with me when I left because the title was the job I sought, company command.  I was en route to Fort Lewis, WA, and my previous battalion commander was there and indicated I would take command soon due to my date of rank relative to other inbound captains.  Suddenly, there was an immediacy to my preparations.

Sitting in my packed up apartment waiting for the movers I cracked the book and I barely put it down before finishing it.  It is a fast read but an inspiring one.  How much good could we do if we all came together to share our experiences and advice?  The book centers on the professional forum that allows this to happen.  I was familiar with the sister site,, having used it in its infancy sparingly as a lieutenant but then abandoning it.  Immediately upon finishing the book, I logged on to the site, created an account and began to ask questions of current and former company commanders.  I was leaving a job training future platoon leaders and had led two of my own in Iraq so, while I pulled advice from commanders, I became comfortable answering questions from lieutenants and cadets on  If this was all I got out of it, I would have been a better officer and my company would have been better, but events would transpire to enrich my life.

As predicted by my previous battalion commander, I took command relatively quickly and so used the forum often.  I started becoming comfortable providing command advice as well.  The forum allows users to rate your responses as helpful and soon I was up to 100 helpful votes which made me feel pretty good.  The guys who ran the forum sent me an award, an engraved mini-bat, and that made me feel good as well and inspired me to continue contributing.  In 2011, Tony Burgess, one of the forum’s developers and on of the co-authors of the aforementioned book, contacted me and said he was coming out to Fort Lewis and asked if I wanted to meet up.  I took the opportunity to bring my lieutenants and have them meet someone who has dedicated his life to developing company level leaders.  We spent about two hours talking about leadership and leadership development.  It was probably one of the better afternoons of my command.

I continued to contribute to the forum as I could and tried my best to keep up in 2012 while I was deployed to Afghanistan.  Sometime toward the end of my deployment, Tony contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in bringing a team of lieutenants to West Point to speak to cadets about deployment.  I jumped at the chance.  After Tony’s team cleared several road blocks, we traveled to West Point at the end of February and I had the opportunity to meet Jason Wayne and Jonathan Silk both of whom I’d only known through the forum as well as Tom Morel and Katie Christy who are key players that I hadn’t been aware of (though I was familiar with Tom as he had been my roommate’s instructor when I was a cadet).  The opportunity to speak to cadets was amazing (here is an example of what we did), but it was meeting these individuals that really has been important in my life.  To see the dynamic at play, these five working in small office toward a singular goal, was amazing.  It was a team with total buy in with a laser beam focus, as Tony might say.

Two months later, I met up with these five once more in Georgia to help with a leader development workshop and talk about the professional forums. where I also met Pete Kilner, Joe Byerly (whose blog inspired this post), and Micah Klein, people I’d known of but never met.  Joe and Jon have certainly become peer mentors for me, people I can bounce ideas off of and talk to frankly and openly.  Tony and Pete are infantry officers who have gone where I am going and great people to seek advice from in terms of leadership and career track.  They are both men who have moved up in rank but continued their dedication to company-level leader development.  Micah brings a different perspective to things and it is inspiring to interact with someone who is as dedicated as he is to developing others.  His attitude is infectious.  Jason has moved on to serve as a battalion XO but will be someone I reach to often when I take over as an operations officer a few years down the road.  Tom and Katie are incredible people who go out of their way and beyond their “pay grade” to assist in leader development.  Truly, they are two of the most amazing DA civilians I have met; people who do what needs to be done to achieve desired outcomes.

So, let’s look back.  In March of 2009, I came into possession of a book and 18 months later, I decided to read that book.  Now, I know Tony, Pete, Jason, Jon, Katie, Tom, Joe, and Micah  They are friends, mentors, you name it and I would not know anyone of them nor have benefited personally or professionally had I not read a particular book, one that I dismissed for a long time.  These are people I am positive I will interact with throughout my life.

What about publishing though?  In March of this year, I read eagerly the back and forth between retired LTG Barno and active LTG Hodges on regarding the bleeding of officer talent in the Army.  I felt that the conversation needed a junior officer’s perspective as it was about junior officers.  I penned an article, “A Junior Officer’s Perspective on Brain Drain”, sitting in my hotel room as I prepared to move across the country having finished two commands at Ft. Lewis.  I wrote the article, let my wife read it and provide feedback and then went to bed.  I woke up, proofread it and fired it off to  Later that day, I received a nice note from the editor that they had passed the article around the office but decided not to use it.  Disappointed, I saved the document to my computer and went about my life.  It certainly wasn’t my first article rejection and likely won’t be my last.

A few months later I decided to try Small Wars Journal (call it an epiphany).  Within 24 hours of sending it to the editors, it was up on the site and I received a wave of e-mails form junior officers, senior field grades and retirees.  I was encouraged that I wasn’t alone in my thoughts.  Two of the people who contacted me stand out because of the relationship I’ve built with them.  First is Dennis Laich, author of the Generally Speaking blog.  He contacted me and we have since developed a relationship.  He lives near me and he has opened me up to new ideas.  I just finished his book, Skin in the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots, which I never would have known about had I not written and published.  His book has provided me great information for writing projects of mine and his perspective is a change of pace from most current and former senior leaders.  I don’t agree with everything he says, but I respect his ideas.  The other is Donald Vandergriff.  He is a leading proponent and expert of adaptive leader training and outcomes based training and has authored several articles, papers and books.  His book Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War is the best source I’ve found for adaptive leader training.  I am now developing experimental training methods for cadets at my ROTC program and he has been a major source of inspiration and resources.  Don has access to information (briefings, speeches, articles) you don’t easily find on a Google search.  My research will be much better off for it and ultimately the cadets who receive the training will be enriched and better prepared to lead America’s sons and daughters.

Publishing has aided my professional growth in a way I did not imagine.  I figured a few friends would send me words of encouragement, but did not expect to develop new relationships.  It takes courage to press send on an e-mail to an editor.  Once your thoughts are in cyber space or print, there is no going back.  In today’s electronic world, people love to throw barbs at you with the veil of anonymity on their side.  Sometimes the criticism is less than professional and at times it is simply personal.  For whatever reason, anonymous posters sometimes enjoy attacking the author’s character rather than the argument.  And, sometimes the critic is someone above you and it shuts a door as Joe talks about in his blog post.  But, publishing still brings out many good things.  It brings support, it brings a life to your idea and it can bring mentors and other opportunities.

Reading, thinking, writing and publishing have enriched my personal and professional life and given me friends I’d have no other means of meeting.  So, next time you think of picking up a book or putting down thoughts on paper, consider the life altering effects it may have…and jump right in.

Book Review: Leadership and Training for the Fight by MSG (R) Paul Howe


Leadership and Training for the Fight: A Few Thought on Leadership and Training from a Former Special Operations Soldier by MSG (R) Paul R. Howe (2005) is book with a pretty appropriate title.  MSG Howe indicates that the majority of his career was spent as a member of special operations, likely in a direct action role.  He seems to have rounded out his career as the Senior Military Instructor for an ROTC program.  MSG Howe explains his desire to write the book saying, “Too many times in our lives we find ourselves saddled with ticket punching ladder climbers and those who seek the role of leader for the wrong reasons.”

MSG Howe starts with the Boyd OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop and then goes on to speak of the combat mindset.  He then talks about selecting individuals and leaders and leadership in combat, at the individual level, team level and organizational level.  He spends a chapter on training for combat and another on planning before rounding out with a few thoughts on leadership.  Each chapter begins with a vignette from his combat experience, mostly centered on his time in Mogadishu or individual direct action hits.  He also speaks of his time in Panama.  At no time during these vignettes does he actually reveal where he was at and surely he leaves details out for security reasons.  He gives some sustains and improves for each vignette and then speaks to the subject of each chapter.  Chapters are broken up in many subsections making it easier to read.

There are many great lessons from the book.  The initial vignette speaks to a combat action where one of his soldiers (presumably an operator) gets confused during a night time hit and shoots at one of the other teams.  MSG Howe asks the question: Counsel the subordinate for shooting at friendlies or for missing?  He doesn’t answer the question but it is actually a difficult circumstance that warrants thought.  This makes the vignette very useful in a decision making exercise.  His description of Boyd’s OODA loop is also a key component.  The Military Decision Making Process is woefully inadequate for on the spot decisions.  Thus, the OODA loop is what someone at the point of contact needs.  MSG Howe also describes the importance of PACE (Primary, Alternate, Contingency and Emergency) plans without explicitly stating it.  He talks of a “layered offense” where he always knew where to go if his rifle went down, and then his secondary, etc.  These contingency plans can and should be expanded to many things like initiation of fires, signals and communication as well as casualty evacuation.

Additionally, MSG Howe points out common training failures.  One that we are all likely guilty of is having soldiers stop in training when they are “hit” (i.e. their MILES goes off, they are tagged with a simunition).  This inadvertently trains them to stop in combat when they are hit even when they have minor wounds.  He trains his soldiers to fight through until someone stops them allowing them to learn to fight on and move forward.  On that note, he speaks of a common issue with casualties being the desire to rush and bring them to safety.  Common CLS (combat life saver) classes have evolved to the “shoot first” philosophy, but MSG Howe expands on this but saying that you should only help a casualty once the threat is neutralized.  You should not even pull them to safety.

MSG Howe spends a decent amount of the book referring to where the leader goes on  battlefield.  This is relevant to the team leader and the platoon leader.  He talks about placing yourself where you can best control your soldiers which is rarely at the front of the stack or leading a bayonet charge.  Placement for leaders is a contentious issue, especially at the platoon and company level.  His many references to this should help any leader understand the problem better.  He spends a good amount of time speaking of rehearsals and AARs (after action reviews), two critical components to training and mission success.  Lastly, he speaks of involving all in the planning process and allowing leaders to plan their specific portions (at least in the lead) with enabling assets present.  For example, if a company commander had a mission he would allow the platoon assaulting the objective to choose their route to the objective and breach point and work with enablers to make it work.  This leads to buy in.

Nothing MSG Howe brings up is revolutionary.  He reinforces counseling.  He dispels special operations myths (they are just professional who train hard in the basics).  He largely demonstrates the necessity of doing things right.  Without using the phrase, MSG Howe comes across as a big proponent of mission command whereby leaders push down requirements and guidance to the lowest levels and allow those leaders to execute as they see fit.  Surely, this philosophy led to much of his success.

MSG Howe’s book suffers from three things: lack of the “how to”, extraneous opinions and poor editing.  It’s doubtful that MSG Howe intended the book to be a manual or guide, but more examples of training events and more detail would certainly bring many of his points to life.  MSG Howe uses a lot of non-professional, non-politically correct phrases such as “booger eaters” and he uses foul language at times.  While he is certainly passionate, this can harm his argument in the minds of certain readers and it can be distracting.  MSG Howe inserts his opinion in other ways.  He clearly is not impressed with the way officers are selected and trained and makes this known constantly.  This is an issue in that the book is about leadership and training.  It is not intended to prescribe changes to officer management and thus it is a distraction especially when the reader is as an officer.  He seems to believe NCOs are superior but then belittles many throughout the book.  It certainly moves him away from his theme.  Lastly, at least for me, the numerous typos became distracting.  It would be a much smoother book with a little editing.

The largest concern I have about prescribing this to someone is that MSG Howe clearly has a tactical mindset which is good for his subject but he makes statements that demonstrate his lack of strategic understanding.  For someone who cannot see this and shake it off, this book can negatively influence them into believing that we should destroy whatever we need to destroy to bring every soldier home and not worry about political consequences.  This is a popular theme but the bottom line is that war is a political endeavor and actions and decisions in war should be guided by politics.  Clauswitz tells us that war is a political endeavor and that all military actions are subordinate to political objectives.  Force should be applied only where it supports larger objectives.   This is not an excuse to get soldiers killed.  However, destroying a village to save a soldier may be good today in that it brings the soldier home.  But, it can create an enemy army tomorrow due to the deaths of many non-combatants and the desire for revenge from the survivors.  Therefore, leaders must find a balance with a simple ROE (rules of engagement) and consideration for the strategic objectives of the command.  A decade of war has demonstrated that tactical success does not necessarily equal success in war.  Therefore, it is incumbent on leaders that they  understand a higher level of math than killing the enemy = success.

For leaders that understand this, the book can be good at generating ideas, refreshing concepts or reinforcing principles.  At 197 pages, it is worth the couple of hours especially with the vignettes which can serve in future tactical decision making exercises.  All in all, it is not a must read but it is a good filler book.


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