Micro-management: The curse of military command
Overtime, we will probably learn exactly what happened when 15 British sailors and marines were captured by Iranian forces. But, even now, we can make some educated guesses as to what happened.
In this age of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, the captain of the British destroyer knew his ship’s position within about 30 feet. He was operating under a U.N. mandate to patrol international waters at the head of the Persian Gulf. So, you can bet the British captain was not about to botch up his career by launching a detachment of his sailors and marines into Iranian waters.
Moreover, if his ship or ship’s company were attacked, the British destroyer possessed sufficient firepower to send any seaborne threats to the bottom before you could say, as the British are wont to do: “And Bob’s your uncle.”
Now, let’s put ourselves in the place of the commander of the detachment about to be launched to inspect vessels suspected of violating the U.N. Mandate. It seems to this old soldier that one would ask the captain, “Sir, what happens if we get surrounded by hostile patrol boats and their sailors are brandishing automatic weapons? Can I order my troops to shoot? Do you have the necessary authority to take the hostile boats under fire? Moreover, if we are taken prisoner, do you have the authority, under the Doctrine of Hot Pursuit, to enter Iranian waters and try to rescue us?”
Apparently, the answers to those two questions must have been (had they been asked): “No, you may not shoot their sailors. No, I do not have the necessary authority to take the hostile boats under fire. No, I am not authorized to pursue hostile vessels under the Doctrine of Hot Pursuit. I will have to radio up the chain-of-command, explain what is happening and see if I can get permission to take any hostile patrol boats under fire and come to your rescue.”
Maybe, it’s just all those years I spent as a paratrooper and in the planning of both airborne and airmobile operations, but we were taught to ask our superiors some really tough questions. Indeed, it is a tenet of airborne operations that every jumper clear down to the last private in the last rank is briefed in excruciating detail on what is supposed to happen and on all the foreseeable contingencies when the operation does not go as planned which, due to the fog of war, is often the case. That way, if senior officers or NCOs are killed, junior ranks can rise to the occasion, and have.
Central to that way of military thinking and planning is the idea that “Blind obedience is misplaced loyalty.” In other words, if your commander is about to order you to do something that is going to FUBAR your men and, probably, his career, you have a duty to speak up and, in the kindest possible way, tell him or her that they are full of male bovine excreta.
Even though the British captain was following orders from above, his career is now in the dustbin, as the British would say. The stigma of doing nothing while his troops were spirited off into captivity will follow him forever – even into his early retirement.
So, we come to a problem that plagued us in Vietnam and ever since the Communications Revolution allowed troops in the field to be micro-managed from, in this case, London, and, during Vietnam, from Lyndon Johnson/Robert McNamara Washington.
Lest we offend some nation or religion or political orientation (like the Left) or lest we cause collateral damage, the Rules of Engagement (drawn up by lawyers and politicians) are so restrictive, the commanders on the ground or at sea might as well stay home.
We spend a fortune attracting and training men and women of good character and judgment. Then, we forbid them to use it.
Syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, is a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and a former research fellow at the U.S. Military History Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2007. William Hamilton.