Over the last 41 days, there have been numerous posts written on this blog that illustrate examples of supremely poor judgment, erroneous leadership decisions, and the direct (and very indirect) consequences that they bring. In general, the accusers unjustly heap extraordinary blame on a few figures who may be totally undeserving of this burden.
In a perfect war, people will still die – presumably the enemy. But there is still death. Nor is there such thing as a perfect war. The nature of war itself is inherently evil, profoundly tragic, and for many altogether terminal. It is war – the outcome of a total breakdown in diplomacy. Nevertheless, as much as many may not wish to concede it, war still serves a noble purpose.
At best, and even when prosecuted by tactical geniuses and military heroes, war is a collection of imperfect men and women carrying out an imperfect mission with results that will be, without question, also imperfect. In the case of conflict, however, the imperfection is decidedly obvious, disastrous, and awful. People die.
In a volunteer military, I believe that we, as volunteers, cede some of our right to complain about our leaders. While none of us can ever truly anticipate where we will go and what we will do, we are volunteers nevertheless – an unspoken acknowledgment that we recognize that our leaders will be imperfect because humans are also imperfect and that some decisions they make will probably be poor ones. As volunteers who purposefully offered our labor and life to the cause, we must choose to trust our leaders.
Undeniably, a position of military leadership carries with it an untold level of responsibility, and perhaps also the lifelong consequences that a decision we made was a wrong one – potentially resulting in injury and death to others. As warriors, however, we must accept it.
As a buck private with a gun, your job is simple. There is nobody else to order around and nobody else whose life may have been forever altered (or ended) by an order you issued. While we are all mutually responsible for each other, the private is mostly responsible for himself. But that changes with rank. As rank increases, so also does decision-making and responsibility – perhaps exponentially so. Realistically, we will all make mistakes. Some, however, may be more consequential than others.
Culturally, Americans love scapegoats. After 9/11, there was a concerted effort to find one man or woman who was to blame for not “reading the tea leaves.” After Hurricane Katrina, similar blame was cast on a relative few. And in the military, it is convenient, simple, though entirely inappropriate to do the same thing. We blame our leaders.
In truth, we do them a disservice, since we are holding them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. We accept our own mistakes, but not those of others. This is not to suggest that all their errors are permissible, for many are not. However, anger towards leadership ultimately accomplishes nothing. For all their faults, they cannot be held but so responsible. Foremost, they are human, as are we, and inclined to make poor decisions. Additionally, we give them blame that is best reserved for the enemy.
A commander may have rashly ignored sound advice and sent his troops into harm’s way, but we, as combatants, must accept this situation. We volunteered; and it would do us well to remember our oath of commitment. And it is ultimately not the commander that caused the casualties. It is the enemy. They are the ones who are making the concerted effort to kill, injure, and demoralize us. We and our leaders, attempting to make some order in chaos that THEY created, are left acting on training, inclinations, and ambiguous conjecture. Naturally, mistakes will be made.
The reason it is easy to blame a leader is because we can easily put a face to their names, rather than on the elusive, unknown enemy that continually harasses us. Yet this simplicity is in no way justification. The leaders didn’t kill us; the enemy did.
Accepting a leadership position means also accepting the responsibility, high demands, and consequences of one’s actions. Appropriately, leaders must take ownership of their part in choices that led to the harm or death of others. That is the burden they bear. Nor is it an enviable position. However, we must give them some grace. They, like we, are human.
The greatest blame rests not with them, but with the purveyors of evil who necessitated war in the first place. If we perpetuate the myth that poor leadership killed our comrades, we perpetuate the enemy’s cause, for we have fixated all attention and aggression on our own ranks rather than those of the aggressor. Just as we extend grace to ourselves for our own limitations, so also must we give it to our leaders. We are all created the same: fallible. Until we direct our abhorrence to the original source of evil and tragedy (the enemy), we will be unable to individually make peace with our war.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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