Academic journal article Parameters

Transforming Strategic Leader Education for the 21st-Century Army

Academic journal article Parameters

Transforming Strategic Leader Education for the 21st-Century Army

Article excerpt

"It's our duty to develop soldiers and leaders who have the skills necessary to succeed today and in the future."

General Eric K. Shinseki Chief of Staff, US Army [1]

Four years ago in Brcko, Bosnia-Herzegovina, a US Army captain and his platoon leaders were given the mission to protect and hold a bridge, a critical terrain feature at the epicenter of the three-way ethnic conflict in Bosnia. Their mission was clearly tactical in nature: physically guard and hold the bridge; do not allow it to fall into the hands of any of the ethnic factions. Surrendering the bridge would give the side that controls it a new and distinct advantage vis-a-vis its adversaries. Failure to hold the bridge could upset the tenuous peace that had recently been established and was being enforced by NATO forces. It could put the entire peacekeeping mission in jeopardy. Destroying the bridge to prevent its capture was not an option-that would undermine the overall effort and the goal of economic reconstruction and development. The tactical mission had significant strategic implications, a situation dramatically different from that confronting junior officers even as recently as the Gulf War. If the u nit didn't accomplish its assigned mission, that could lead directly to strategic failure.

The captain and his lieutenants were given a second piece of guidance that had been reinforced during weeks of pre-deployment training. They were to avoid the use of deadly force if at all possible. According to the rules of engagement, the soldiers could shoot to kill if they believed their lives were in danger, but they were discouraged from being quick to shoot. The chain of command wanted to avoid a shooting incident, fearing that broadcast images of dead or injured civilians shot by NATO peacekeepers could undermine the fragile political and public support for SFOR's mission. The officers were also told to avoid US casualties. The American public would not tolerate another Somalia or Beirut, and so a platoon of dead GIs could also lead directly to strategic failure.

Imagine what the platoon leaders must have thought, then, when the unit came under assault by ethnic Serbs. A mob of civilians--many of them women and elderly men--gathered and marched on the position, trying to force the American soldiers aside. The confrontation became violent. The mob began to hurl rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails, and other debris at the soldiers in an attempt to take over the bridge. Incited by ringleaders in the rear of the crowd, the mob next attacked the Americans by swinging long boards that had spikes driven through the ends. The Serbs were able to swing the boards over the rows of protective concertina wire and injure the American defenders. The platoon leaders called urgently for reinforcements, and the soldiers did all they could to hold the bridge without shooting the attacking Serbs. But no reinforcements could arrive in time, the violence continued to escalate, and the American position became more tenuous. The young officers had to decide whether to fire on the attacking civ ilians, withdraw from the bridge, or continue to hold while risking serious injury or death to their soldiers. [2] What should they do?

More important from an institutional perspective, what had the Army done to prepare the officers for this situation? What did "right" look like? Were these officers making a tactical, operational, or strategic decision? Were they in reality making all three?

In numerous situations in the post-Cold War strategic environment--from the Balkans to Haiti, from Mogadishu to Los Angeles--American military forces at the lowest tactical levels have and will continue to make potentially strategic-level decisions as they carry out increasingly complex missions in a significantly expanded professional jurisdiction. In addition to traditional warfighting, Army leaders from top to bottom must be able to deal with the increased political and cultural complexities of peace operations, stability and support operations, humanitarian interventions, forward presence and engagement, homeland defense, and more. …

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