Lessons Learned: War Crimes, Hard Choices and Harder Consequences Final Chapter

September 2, 2014  
Categories: Assorted Ramblings

War Crimes, Hard Choices and Harder Consequences, the Final Chapter: Lessons Learned

[Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX and Part X.]


Full disclosure: I struggled writing this chapter, and barely finished it late yesterday. I didn’t struggle because there weren’t any lessons to be learned, I struggled because there were so many. I think the lessons learned could fill a long, long book; obviously, I couldn’t list them all here. So I choose a few that stood out most, and explained them. Like my thoughts as I wrote this chapter, these lessons are explained at random, in no particular order. Unlike previous chapters, every opinion expressed here is mine and mine alone.


This series may have gotten a very simple point across: don’t commit crimes or tolerate those who do. But war isn’t simple. I started this series asking you to put yourself into Justin Watt’s shoes, now I’ll ask you to consider another hypothetical situation:

You’re a soldier in first platoon. You arrive at the Alamo just after the attack and realize, to your horror, that Menchaca and Tucker have been abducted. You help pull Babineau’s body out of the muddy canal where he had been killed. Along with the rest of the platoon, you hope against hope that your friends will be rescued alive.

Engineer bridge at the Alamo

They aren’t. Several days later, their tortured, mutilated bodies are found. Dozens of IEDs are planted around them. Explosives are in their bodies. They suffered horribly before they died.

The day after Menchaca and Tucker’s bodies are recovered, the enemy releases a video. The video shows a group of masked insurgents standing around the mutilated bodies. Your battalion’s intelligence section watches the videos and recognizes one of the insurgents. He’s been detained before, intelligence has his biometrics and knows where he lives. Your platoon receives the mission to raid his home.

As you approach the house, someone opens fire from a window. One of your friends stumbles back toward the Humvees, wounded in the arm and leg. You and the rest of the platoon breach the door and start clearing rooms. An AK juts from a doorway and fires a burst down the hall. Another soldier falls, screaming in agony from a stomach wound. You and others trade volleys with the insurgent while a medic drags the shrieking casualty to safety. As you prep a grenade, the AK sails out the doorway and clatters to the floor.

Hands reach through the doorway, then a grinning man steps out. “Okay, Ameriki,” he sneers. “You catch me.” His hands are up, no weapons visible. You stow your grenade back in its pouch and take a step toward the man. And a full ten seconds after the man surrenders, the soldier beside you sends a three-round burst into him.

The insurgent falls dead. You turn toward your fellow soldier. He’s nearly in tears with fury. He was a close friend to Babineau, Tucker and Menchaca, and to the man shot in the stomach during the raid. He’s twenty years old, a good soldier. And he just committed murder.

Are you going to turn him in?

I think I know how most combat veterans would answer. I know how most soldiers have answered throughout history. I know Eric Lauzier’s answer, because I didn’t even finish the hypothetical before he blurted, “There’s no way in hell that guy would be taken alive. I’d tell my men to shoot him on sight. And to shoot him in the gut, so he wouldn’t die right away.”

And I think I know my answer. The Army wouldn’t approve of it.

I didn’t write this to defend murder, or justify not reporting a crime. I wrote it to remind everyone that we soldiers live in a world far from the theoretical, black and white, classroom version of war. Our rules say killing an insurgent who tortured our friends to death is wrong, but sniping a uniformed, unarmed 17-year old conscript as he fills canteens by a river is just peachy. War is not an activity that lends itself to clear definitions of right and wrong.

Lesson number one of this story might be, “Don’t oversimplify things.” Yes, rape and murder of civilians are always wrong. That doesn’t mean it’s simple for a criminal’s fellow soldiers to turn him in. The Army might do well to understand the varying levels of “wrong” we can do in war, make an effort to understand human nature, and stop pretending we can set a “just say no” policy about wrongdoing. Telling soldiers to always report misconduct, without acknowledging how insanely difficult that can be, doesn’t prepare soldiers to face Justin Watt’s horrible moral dilemma.

images_Raven Concealment Systems


In The Forgotten Soldier, Guy Sajer’s memoir of his service as a German soldier in World War II, he described his surrender on the Western Front. Sajer had fought through brutal campaigns against the Soviet Army, endured allied air raids and lost countless friends. At the end of the war he wound up in a trench with children and old men, facing advancing American troops. As he prepared for a fight he knew they would lose, an older man rushed down the trench ordering everyone to lay their weapons down.

“I surrendered to Americans in the First World War,” he told them. “They’re not a bad sort.”

How many Americans survived because of that old veteran’s advice? Germans knew they could usually surrender to us and live, so they didn’t fight us to the death. That wasn’t the case on the Eastern Front.

I think we soldiers sometimes forget the foundations behind the laws of war. They’re not there to tie our hands (although that’s how it often feels), and they’re not there to get us thrown in prison. They exist to show the world, and especially our enemies, that we’re not brutal conquerors. We fight fair and treat everyone with respect. That can be frustrating to those of us actually in the fight, especially when our enemy are brutal murderers who follow no rules at all. But in the end our adherence to rules keeps more of us alive.

And it should go without saying that we don’t victimize civilians. Yes, we have to watch our backs around many of them. We can’t trust many/most of them. But if we rape and murder them, we create lifelong enemies. In the book Nam, an anonymous Marine Vietnam veteran observed, “I knew Marines who made more [VC] than they killed, just by treating them bad.” If we act like Genghis Khan at the head of a Mongol horde, we guarantee eternal hatred of Americans.


One thing I’ve learned after 25 years of service, 19 years with the Army, is that the Army’s standard reaction is overreaction. Why do I say that? Because American soldiers serving in combat zones have been issued rape whistles.

Our troops carry weapons everywhere. Any rapist should be terrified to discover that his intended victim is a soldier. Rather than blow a whistle, a soldier should stab a rapist’s guts out or shoot him repeatedly in the face. But because we have a highly-publicized sexual assault problem in the military, our leaders overreact and throw out ridiculous “solutions” to pacify public opinion. And soldiers are taught to blow a whistle and wait for rescue instead of giving rapists the painful death they deserve.

In regards to war crimes, our leaders’ overreaction would likely be along the lines of “turn in your fellow soldiers for any misconduct, no matter what.” Which can create an atmosphere where soldiers don’t trust each other and are more scared of getting into legal trouble than of being wounded or killed. This breeds hesitation, when action is required.

In Afghanistan I knew a retired Special Forces sergeant working as a contractor. One day he caught a supply convoy to our firebase, and a sergeant briefed the convoy team before they left Bagram. As the sergeant reviewed the escalation of force policy, he punctuated each step with a threat.

“If you have to fire a warning shot, aim in front of the car. But if the round hits someone, you’re going to jail! If you have to disable the car, aim for the radiator. But if you accidentally hit the driver you’re going to jail! Only shoot the driver as a last resort. But if the driver turns out to be a civilian you’re going to jail!”

The former SF soldier couldn’t take it anymore. He pushed his way forward, stood in front of the sergeant and said, “If you think you have to shoot, shoot. As long as you think you’re doing the right thing, everyone should have your back.” Then he stepped back into the ranks, leaving the sergeant speechless.

If a soldier acts in good faith and believes he did the right thing, whether that right thing was shooting when he truly thought he needed to shoot or turning in fellow soldiers for committing rape and murder, we should have his back. Threats of jail only encourage soldiers to do nothing.


This series of articles hasn’t only been an indictment of individuals. It’s an indictment of an institution. This wasn’t simply a dishonorable act by four soldiers, it was a dishonorable act by the Army.

Why do I say that? Because when the smoke cleared, four soldiers were in prison, two others had been dishonorably discharged, others were unofficially punished, the platoon leader and company commander were removed from leadership positions. But the battalion commander, who was probably most responsible for the conditions that led both to the murders and the Alamo attack, was promoted. He’s now either retired or close to it.

The battalion sergeant major (whose name, along with several others, I haven’t mentioned because I didn’t want this series to turn into a Joe-level bitch session against leadership) may still be in the Army. I didn’t talk to him, and he refused to speak to Jim Frederick while Frederick was writing Blackhearts. Frederick described what was probably the second-best illustration of the sergeant major’s leadership ability: after the Alamo attack, the sergeant major went to first platoon’s patrol base. First platoon was going crazy trying to figure out where their abducted soldiers were. Rather than organize a search or give the men encouragement, the sergeant major got angry about discarded cigarette butts. And he made first platoon police call the base.

The best illustration of his “leadership”, in my opinion, was his abject failure to stand up for Watt when Watt turned in the murderers. As far as I know, the sergeant major never suffered any negative consequences for anything he did in Iraq.

No official Army sources would ever back up what I’m about to say, but from the perspective of a senior NCO, I’d say Colonel Kunk’s promotion and the sergeant major’s free ride provide a horrible, crappy lesson learned: we warfighters are on our own. Leadership that lives echelons above reality doesn’t understand what we’re really doing, and sometimes doesn’t care to find out. Whatever disaster befalls us at ground level will be no more than a blip on their career progression. Maybe that’s cynical, but there’s plenty of reason to believe it.

Like Watt, Diem, Lauzier, Yribe and every other soldier in this “NCO-driven war”, I’ve been outside the wire on missions where the highest ranking soldier was a staff sergeant and every officer was back on base. We faced the IEDs and small-arms fire, they set the policies. Often they didn’t understand the consequences of those policies.

Before we arrived in Iraq my battalion pushed us to create a “Convoy Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)”. So we wrote it in America, before we knew the actual conditions on the ground. When we arrived in Iraq it took about a week to learn our SOP was worthless. Our teams immediately changed their tactics to reflect that reality. Our battalion leadership didn’t.

A senior leader from our battalion staff joined us on a short convoy once. His vehicle was in front of mine. Battalion SOP said our convoy speed was 45 miles per hour, so that’s how fast his vehicle drove. We had learned that speed was our best defense against IEDs, so we pushed our vehicles to go as fast as possible. The rest of the convoy traveled at about 60, but the senior leader’s vehicle wouldn’t go faster than 45. It fell back and created a huge gap. We tailgated it and my gunner signaled to his gunner to speed up (they didn’t have a radio). His vehicle wouldn’t speed up. I told my driver to pass him. He fell further back in the convoy, but still wouldn’t speed up.

During a short halt the senior leader’s Humvee stopped in front of mine. The senior leader approached me, carrying a copy of the SOP, and angrily asked, “Where’s your convoy SOP?” I told him I didn’t have it. He glared at me and said, “You know the SOP says convoy speed is 45 miles per hour, right?” I tried to explain that IEDs are less effective against faster convoys. He simply pointed out the 45 MPH rule, and went back to his vehicle. When we moved again, he went 45. And we passed him again.

Eventually he gave up. His driver sped up so they wouldn’t be left behind, and he didn’t say anything else to me about it. But the battalion leadership still stuck to its ineffective SOP, and we on the roads continued to ignore it. Because our leaders were echelons above reality.

When our senior leaders don’t understand what we’re doing, or don’t get the actual conditions we’re facing, they set policies we can’t follow. Once we soldiers realize our leadership is out of touch and enforcing rules that make us more likely to die, we create our own rules and choose our own leaders. We don’t have any other choice. That’s how first platoon devolved from a platoon into a tribe.

I understand the delicate balance between keeping soldiers safe and preventing them from shooting everything in sight. But policies have to reflect actual reality rather than the theoretical, sterile view that too many senior leaders seem to have. To that end, I’d suggest every senior leader, from company command upward, actually go on missions with their troops. I don’t mean sleeping in the back of an MRAP on a convoy. I mean getting your fat ass out on foot and being an extra rifle. Perspectives change real fast when you’re facing the same dangers and problems you’re ordering your troops to face.

Colonel Kunk must have known about the IED threat his troops were facing; after all, his own PSD team took a hit that killed three men. Yet he continually disregarded input from company commanders and first sergeants about the danger their troops were in. When one of his companies developed a patrol SOP that helped them spot IEDs before detonation, he ordered everyone to follow it. But that company’s AO was wide open. Bravo’s AO was full of dense vegetation which sometimes grew right beside the roads. The other company’s SOP worked in their AO, but wouldn’t work in Bravo’s. But Kunk wouldn’t listen to Bravo’s objections.

He also made Bravo risk their lives to escort gravel trucks to battalion headquarters, so the battalion staff could walk on gravel instead of mud. And he made Bravo’s leaders travel IED-laden roads to go to him for briefings, instead of doing it by phone. At least one Bravo soldier was wounded by an IED on a mission to give an unnecessary face-to-face briefing.

None of the soldiers I interviewed remembered Kunk going on a single foot patrol with Bravo. If he had, he might have understood why his one-SOP-fits-all approach didn’t work.

Maybe this is so obvious I shouldn’t waste time explaining it, but I will anyway. To be an effective leader, you HAVE to know what your troops are facing. You can’t interpret reality from emails and intelligence reports. There is no substitute for actual experience.

In Afghanistan I had a much “bigger picture” view of the war than I did in Iraq. On convoys in Iraq, my entire focus often shrank to the left shoulder, two lanes and right shoulder of the highway immediately in front of me. In Afghanistan I was part of the intelligence community, but was on a small firebase and routinely embedded with maneuver elements. I knew what the war looked like up close, and what it looked like to senior leadership. I was always amazed at the disconnect between what we experienced outside the wire versus the perception of it back on the FOB.

This subject could fill its own series of books, and I won’t go too far into it. The bottom line is that too many leaders today are never given the opportunity to develop combat leadership skills. When they arrive in-country they’re immediately assigned to a staff where their primary responsibility is building PowerPoint slides to brief a commander. They come home from a yearlong deployment having been screamed at for not using the right color on a slide, or letting the explanation of their slide run thirty seconds longer during the brief than it did during rehearsal, but never having actually led troops on a mission. Many never even leave the wire.

How are these leaders then supposed to understand the stresses Justin Watt, John Diem, Eric Lauzier and Tony Yribe faced daily, for months at a time? And more importantly, isn’t it their responsibility to understand?

In 1917, British General Sir Douglas Haig began an offensive to capture the Belgian village of Passchendaele. He reportedly ignored multiple warnings about difficult terrain surrounding the objective. Before and during the battle, incessant shelling around the village created a vast sea of mud that literally swallowed soldiers alive. 250,000 British soldiers died in a fight that was supposed to last two days but actually took ninety-nine. 55,000 British soldiers are missing from that battle, most lost forever in the mud. Near the end of the offensive one of Haig’s generals, Sir Lancelot Kiggell, visited the battlefield. He reportedly saw all the mud, broke down in tears and asked, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in this?”

Today, almost 100 years after Passchendaele, there is no excuse for leaders to not know what their soldiers are facing. Any leader who doesn’t know, just doesn’t care to know. The information is there for any leader who wants it.


Based on reader reaction, I know that most of you understand how horrible rape and murder are, and understand why we expect our soldiers to act with honor no matter the conditions. But I’m sure some readers have still said, “Watt and Diem should have kept their mouth shut,” or some version of “Snitches get stitches.” Some people still have an “us versus them” mentality that demands loyalty to our side, no matter how wrong we might be.

Pure evil doesn’t deserve loyalty. The brutal gang rape and murder of a 14-year old girl are pure evil. So are the murders of her parents and 6-year old sister. If anyone doesn’t understand why soldiers who rape and murder little girls need to be punished for their crime, I can’t explain it to them.

What I can explain is this: Americans are better than Iraqi insurgents. We’re better than ISIS. We’re better than the Soviets who treated German women as their reward for defeating the Nazis. We aren’t better than them because we’re afraid of getting in trouble for rape and murder; we’re better because we aren’t rapists and murderers. I’m not proud to be American because of any “My country right or wrong” bullshit. I’m proud to be American because we try to do the right thing.

Yes, we’ve made mistakes. No, we’re not perfect. But we aren’t a nation of criminals. Despite all our mistakes during the last 13 years of war, Iraqis and Afghans are still trying like hell to move here. Despite all our sins during World War II, millions of Germans and Japanese gave up everything to become Americans afterward. Despite our tons of excesses in Vietnam, countless Vietnamese risked their lives to get here. They didn’t come here because they thought we’d murder them. They knew that to Americans, innocent lives matter.

Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi was an innocent 14-year old girl. Her life mattered. Hadeel Qasim Hamza was only 6, guilty of nothing at all. Her life mattered. Fakhriyah Taha Muhsin and Qasim Hamza Raheem weren’t insurgents, they were just parents who endured the agony of hearing their daughter being raped before they were murdered. Their lives mattered.

Four dishonorable criminals acted like their lives didn’t matter. But other Americans, who stayed true to who we are as a nation, remembered how important those innocent lives were. And they reminded me why I’m proud to be American.

Please share any other lessons you feel we should take from this incident. I hope all of us military leaders will use these soldiers’ stories to show our troops the true meaning of “honor under fire”. Thank you for reading, and thanks to Justin Watt, John Diem, Eric Lauzier and Tony Yribe for having the courage to talk about the hell they went through. They didn’t do it because they wanted to relive agony they’d rather forget. They did it to help us, the military, and every man and woman who will someday go downrange in our nation’s defense.

Sunset in Iraq War Crimes Chris Hernandez 2

breachbangclear.com_site_images_Chris_Hernandez_Author_BreachBangClear4Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris (seen here on patrol in Afghanistan) may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LIGHT writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley and Proof of Our Resolve. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog, Iron Mike Magazine, Kit Up! and Under the Radar. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.

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Chris Hernandez

Chris Hernandez

About the Author

Chris Hernandez may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin' team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles - the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn't groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.


  1. Tim

    A great read, I would recommend this series to any and every one.

    But I do have a minor meta-issue with this series. Starting at part six, and on all follow articles, I can’t find any links to the next part in the series. I ended up needing to to a domain restricted google search to find the rest of them. While I was able to find them, someone less interested, or perhaps turned off by the subject matter, might not have tried as hard. Just a minor issue you may want to resolve.

  2. Aub

    I think that this series was some of your best work to date. I also enjoy your “What it’s really like to be a cop” stuff on your own site, as well as your fiction work. Keep up the good work sir. You offer great insight to us civilans and it is appreciated.

  3. IZ and AFG vet

    Great series of articles. Thank you for taking the time find words to express these incredibly difficult concepts. Great job!

  4. Former Talon Soldier

    I had no problem with him, but CSM Edwards should not escape impunity. Excellent series! That the Kunk gun made Colonel shows the flaws in the promotion system.

    • Chris Hernandez author

      Edwards shouldn’t, but to me he seemed more ineffective and inconsequential than anything else. Kunk was a constant negative influence. I had forgotten about the “Kunk Gun”, I wish I had mentioned it.

  5. Rob

    Great series, well written, impressive acces to the sources. Reading some of these comments, a recurring theme is that this incident and it’s aftermath should be used in training. I agree. Have you considered submission to a professional journal? I think that’s what will get the visibility needed. Also, incident itself is likely to be studied for years. You’ve covered a perspective that needs to be included in future academic research. Thank you for the work.

    • Chris Hernandez author


      Thanks, I appreciate that. I’m pretty much blind on professional journals, have anything specific in mind?

      • Rob

        Good question. Several are published at Leavenworth. I’d bet TRADOC has one. Perhaps CAPE would have a recommendation. Let me chew on it.

  6. ekimp252

    If only all officers and NCOs were cut from the same cloth as Lt Quincy and SFC Nunez. Sorry, can’t help but connect the dots from reality to fiction. Thanks again for bringing this to us, there are powerful lessons to be learned. Hopefully the right folks will take notice.

    • Chris Hernandez author


      I appreciate that. But Quincy and Nunez experience their own moral failure in Line in the Valley, so I don’t know if they’re the best example.

      When I happened upon this story, I thought it was pretty ironic that I had just published a novel about soldiers who experience an impossible moral dilemma at war.

  7. CombatMissionary

    Dammit… you’re a thousand percent right. I get sick to death of PowerPoint officers who point to policy and numbers as an excuse to throw Solider care out the window at the first opportunity. I saw too much of it in Afghanistan, and I see even more in garrison. I recently turned down an opportunity to be a team NCOIC, despite the 1SG, SGM, MAJ and LTC all pushing me to take it because that’s how fed up I am with PowerPoint officers. The OIC I would have worked with seems like he’d cross a busy street to spit on his own people. I’ve gotten”exceeds expectations” on my last seven NCOERs, but the Hell with that guy. There’s nothing I can do as NCOIC to help my team, and all I’d do is turn into the pointy end of downshift policies if I took the job. So fuck that. The OIC can eat shit. Officers come and go. I’ll be NCOIC when I can be useful to someone, not just be a whipping boy for a disconnected asshat and the unwilling enforcer of dickhead policies ducking my team over.

    • Chris Hernandez author


      I see we’re in roughly the same place, attitude-wise. 🙂

      I currently have some good officers and NCOs pushing me to work on becoming a CSM. I keep telling them I have no desire to do it. Plus, I hate reflective belts.

      • ssgcmwatson

        Could you be the one CSM in the Army that bucked the PT belt trend?

        • Chris Hernandez author

          I think I’d be the CSM who breaks the record for shortest amount of time before being busted back to 1SG. 🙂

  8. Dustin

    On point Brother, Thanks for putting it into words..

    • Chris Hernandez author

      Thank you Dustin, I appreciate that.

  9. Dan Atwater

    This whole series is powerful and eye-opening. Thank you for writing it.

    People like the SGM and Colonel are why I’m glad I didn’t re-enlist

    • Chris Hernandez author


      I understand that (boy do I understand that). But on the other hand, I feel like I have to stay in to counteract those kind of leaders. Not that I’m a great leader or NCO but I at least care about my troops, which doesn’t seem to be the case with Kunk and his CSM.

  10. Matt

    Thank you for all the work you did to bring this piece to bare. It is a story that must be told, and hopefully in doing so we can become better. We deserve to be better, and that which we seek to serve deserve better. Please continue to do such works, and make them available to us.

    • Chris Hernandez author


      I hope to do that, thank you. I actually never expected to write this series though, it really just dropped into my lap. If another opportunity comes along I’d be happy to do something like this again. It’s been a serious eye-opener for me, a something that will stay with me the rest of my life.

  11. Richard Skull

    Excellent, excellent series. Great job.

    • Chris Hernandez author

      I appreciate that Richard, thank you.

  12. Chris Hernandez author

    Inked, I’m hoping you chime in here with your feelings on the entire series. Your opinion carries a lot of weight.

  13. knighthaunter

    Thank you for writing this.

    • Chris Hernandez author

      Thank you sir, I appreciate that.

  14. EN

    There’s so much stuff floating around my head on this that it’s making me sick. I’m an old guy… and I don’t like officers to this day. I’ve seen some good ones, but for the most part unless their ass is on the line, they’re not only bad, they’re usually more affective than the enemy. In my mind the United States Army officer corps is the problem. It all stems from their. You’re going to have assholes and psychos in any plt and it’s a sad fact assholes and psychos are far more reliable than too many officers.

    Chris Taylor:

    “Day by day, I struggle to maintain not only my strength but my sanity.

    It’s all a blur. I have no energy to write. I don’t know what’s right

    and what’s wrong anymore. The morale of the men is low. A civil war in

    the platoon. Half the men with Elias, half with Barnes. There’s a lot of

    suspicion and hate. I can’t believe we’re fighting each other when we

    should be fighting them.”

    • Chris Hernandez author


      I’ve met far too many good officers to dislike them in general (although I used to joke about my violent, homicidal hatred of officers). What bothers me is that the officer culture pushes them away from actual leadership experience and toward staff/management instead.

      Interesting quote from Platoon, by the way. And absolutely appropriate.

      • EN

        Yeah, it’s all been done before although to Chris Taylor it neither matters nor even registers. And yes, it is the culture, that’s the problem. But how do you fight culture?

    • CombatMissionary

      How much of this is directly attributable to the fact that “Shit was working, so I didn’t fuck with it” isn’t acceptable as an OER bullet? Too many officers try to reinvent the wheel as soon as they get given a position, because then (after they inevitably fuck shit up) they change metrics and claim victory for the new program that replaced the one that worked, which was invariably developed by an NCO, or an officer who actually listened to NCOs. So some new leader waltzes into town, fucks with shit so he can get an OER bullet, and Soldiers die because next thing you know, we have to wear PT belts on our heads and whistle Dixie while beating off a Major before we’re allowed to tell Privates to not step on that IED. “Left shit the Hell alone” should get immediate nominations for achievement medals for some officers.

      • EN

        Yep, it used to be a given that any Lt Col. who’d been passed over twice before he got their was your biggest enemy. Not only would the wheel be reinvented, but Jesus his own self was going to have to change. When one of these jokers showed up as the new BN CO anyone who’d been successful was immediately in his cross hairs so he could prove you didn’t know what you knew.

      • Chris Hernandez author


        When I was in Iraq my company was temporarily placed under command of a different battalion commander. We expected new rules to come down, but none did. The temporary BC gathered us together about a week later, and his first question was, “Alright, since I took over, what has changed?” We answered, “Nothing, sir.” He responded, “That’s right, nothing changed. You guys know how to do your jobs and there’s no reason for me to change anything.”

        That was one of the most inspiring leadership moments I’ve ever experienced.

        • CombatMissionary

          Did you get a DNA sample? Can we clone him? 🙂

        • ssgcmwatson

          I had a similar experience – change of command ceremony for a company commander. Outgoing company commander gushed remarks for what seemed like forever. Incoming company commander took two minutes to say essentially “glad to be here, all policies remain in effect, continue mission.”

          • Chris Hernandez author

            Former enlisted man?

            • ssgcmwatson

              Yup… was right around when I was promoted to E5… I remember my squad leader saying “that’s how it’s done”

              • Brian

                My assumption of command speech was literally under 10 seconds. “Thanks for the opportunity and the trust, all policies and procedures remain in effect.”

                There’s a whole bunch of officer-hating going on here, but there are those of us who recognize the problem just as plainly and strive to counter it. The debate rages in my head frequently, “Get out and leave the bullshit behind rather than being counted part of the problem? Or stay and try to make a difference?” I know the same is true of many of my peers, and certainly of the men I call friends. I’ve chosen the second answer and frequently regretted it. I can only hope that my subordinates don’t. Thus far, the feedback (and I actually seek it rather than relying on our bullshit 360/MSAF block-check) is that I’ve made a difference, if only to the people immediately surrounding me. Small victories. Find a way to win. Illegitimi non carborundum

                Chris, it bears pointing out that the “officer culture” you refer to below isn’t officer culture so much as our absolutely atrocious inability to manage talent and reliance on an industrial age model of treating officers as interchangeable cogs. Got a square peg and a round hole? Better pound that peg harder. I listened to an O-6 a few weeks ago who explained that we manage about 10-20% of our people and the rest is just filling squares. I believe it. We all know you can love the Army yet it will never love you back…but hearing that was truly depressing. I was happier when I only suspected how poorly we manage talent.

                I can offer no higher praise than to observe that you’ve made a difference with your writing. I’ve recommended it to many friends and have even seen comrades from foreign armies discussing it among their peers. I suspect that this will be used by many leaders in LPD sessions (and hopefully in more informal, consistent mentoring that actually makes a difference). I know I have and will continue to do so. Thanks for the awesome series.

                • Chris Hernandez author


                  I mentioned in an earlier chapter that I’ve known far too many good officers to hate them all; however, I think the officer culture does push officers away from actual leadership in favor of administrative tasks and assignments. The same thing happens at the senior NCO level. We’re constantly told our job is to “take care of soldiers” by writing NCOERs, submitting awards recommendations, pushing NCOES, etc, but not actually leading them or knowing how to accomplish combat missions. That’s why we have E-8s and E-9s who have almost literally no soldier skills at all. When I was a young Marine I thought only the most stellar warfighters rose to senior NCO level. I lost that dream when I watched a CSM trying to link two sections of four SAW rounds, literally by holding the sections with the rounds pointing opposite directions and just pushing them against each other. The army need to realize that actually leading soldiers also counts as “taking care” of them.

                  In the last 13 years, it seems like the entire army has turned into an anti-war movement. Admin tasks such as required distance learning courses take more and more time (especially in the NG), and are always higher priority than actual training. At drill we often hear “if all the delinquent NCOERs aren’t turned in by 0800, all training ceases until those reports are submitted.” We never hear, “All admin tasks are suspended until every soldier is trained to call for fire.”

                  So these problems definitely aren’t restricted to the officer corps. Unfortunately, problems in the officer corps have a larger impact on the army as a whole.

                  Thank you for the well-written and thoughtful comments, sir. If you don’t mind me asking, what foreign army soldiers were talking about this story? If you like you can email me at [email protected].

  15. MK262 MOD1

    As Fitz said, “Thank you so much”. This is a tremendous and innovative examination of a difficult and very convoluted problem. Your effort and unique insights show through at every turn. I have been and will continue to broadcast its presence to everyone in my tiny sphere of influence.

    Your restraint is admirable in regards to how you discuss the lack of consequences for those who failed so miserably to lead. I personally would have been typing over the noise of a gallows being built.

    I would argue that THE pivotal failure at issue here would be the necrosis of command. The Army simply must not allow the position of command to decay from one of leadership to one of management. In this case, miss-management. Every soldier hopes to work for a Richard Winters. Far too frequently, they get a kunk.

    The powerpoint ranger phenomenon is a cycle that simply has to be broken. That can only happen from within the highest levels of the foodchain. I hope and I pray that somewhere, the right general reads this piece or one like it and is willing to put forth the effort and endure the sacrifice to start that process.

    Thank you again Chris for your efforts and for getting the word out about the bravery and determination of those who would not stand for the injustice that was at play.

    • Chris Hernandez author

      Thank you sir, I appreciate that. I’d like to point out that at times I thought there was very little interest in this series, your comments restored my faith.

  16. SGT Fisher

    I had theabsolute pleasure of going to recruiting school with SSG Diem. I had read

    Blackhearts twice while on my second deployment, but when I first met him the

    connection didn’t click. Regardless, he and I had many conversations over many

    a beer, and I remember being more impressed with his intellect and professionalism

    than anyone I’d ever met in the Army, not to mention he’s fucking hilarious. We

    got around to talking about his deployment and his willingness to discuss the

    lessons he learned from that has had a huge effect on how I think as a leader. A

    big thanks to all the guys who contributed to these articles. And Diem, I hope

    you’re not hating recruiting as much as I am!

    • Chris Hernandez author

      He hasn’t told me he hates recruiting, but he’s kind of a reserved guy. 🙂

  17. Fitz

    Thank you. Thank you so much. Would that this become unequivocally required reading, military and beyond, the final thoughts in particular. Sharing with everyone I know, esp those still in senior NCO and Officer positions.

    – Fitz

    • Chris Hernandez author

      Thank you Fitz, and please let me know what others think about this series. I’d really like to see this incident being used for training on a much wider scale than it is now.

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