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

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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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