Leading Our Soldiers to Fight with Honor

Army, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Leading Our Soldiers to Fight with Honor


To: Company Commanders

From: Company Commanders

He who fights monsters should look into it that he himself does not become a monster. When you gaze long into the Abyss, the Abyss also gazes into you.

-Friedrich Nietzsche

Extended combat operations, especially counterinsurgency operations, unleash forces that can distort our Soldiers' moral compasses. The intense emotions of combat-fear, anger, grief, frustration, power, exhilaration-are experienced with a complexity and scale unlike anything outside of war. In this environment, we are called upon to lead our Soldiers to engage the enemy without becoming like him, to kill the murderers without becoming murderers ourselves. The overwhelming majority of us succeed, even if the media focus on isolated incidents of leadership failure. Listen in as recent commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan share their experiences of how they trained and led their Soldiers to fight with honor.

Lead by consistent, personal example...

Jeff VanAntwerp

Commander, A/1-24 IN, 1st BDE, 25th ID (SBCT)

From my experience, the only way to ensure that Soldiers will do the right thing, in any situation, is to develop meaningful relationships with them and consistently model correct behavior through personal example. ROE briefings, vignettes and AARs are great, but they are all secondary to leadership by personal example that is grounded in values that don't change when the shooting starts. Regardless of whether I was at the opening of a park, trying to avoid being suffocated by excited children as I handed out soccer balls or locking down a neighborhood in search of an AIF shooter who had just injured one of our own, Soldiers did as our leaders did because we were committed to leading by consistent, personal example.

Obviously you, the company commander, and your platoon leaders and platoon sergeants can't be everywhere. But you need to be in a lot of places a lot of the time to ensure that the respectful treatment of people becomes habit, regardless of the circumstance. To really be consistent, you must know who you are and your Soldiers must know the fundamental values that govern your behavior. If a week went by and I had not been on a patrol at least once with each of my platoons, it was unusual. In a yearlong deployment, your leaders and Soldiers will get beyond the feeling that you are somehow checking on them or evaluating their performance. They will see patrols-just like card games on the FOB, a day at the range, or PT-as a chance to learn about your expectations and develop their relationship with you.

Sometimes physically setting the example is easy and opportunities abound. It may be the difference between breaking the car window or asking for the keys when the intelligence on the target is suspect, or slowing down and using the horn rather than throwing objects at people's cars.

But sometimes it can be really hard. After one of my soldiers had been shot and subsequently died en route to the CSH, I went straight back to the neighborhood, determined to find the shooter or get some information. I was still crying and incredibly angry as I picked a house near where I thought was the shooter's original location. I asked the man at the door what he had heard or seen, and when he denied knowing anything, I slammed him into his door and verbally went off! Within two minutes, my platoon leader and interpreter were doing the same thing. I quickly changed my demeanor and reminded them that the shooter was most likely not from the neighborhood and that the people were just afraid. I later apologized to the man and his family. A few minutes later, a young boy approached my battalion commander and described how the shooter had fired from the rear seat of a gray Opel sedan with some distinguishable markings. Two days later, the same platoon killed the insurgent as he stepped out of his gray sedan with an RPK with a 75-round drum and took aim on my TAC. …

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