Student Workshop on Civil-Military Operations by Noah Kulak (A’19)

by tuftsigl
Apr 29

War has always included an element of uncertainty, a gray zone, made more intense by the different ways wars are waged today.  Battle lines are murky.  Enemy combatants blend into the urban or rural communities.  Even the end goals may be unclear to both policymakers and commanding officers alike.

I was privileged to be part of an ALLIES delegation that visited the United States Military Academy at West Point to learn about how the U.S. Army intends to address such challenges.  It was part of the 2018 Student Workshop for Civil-Military Operations, focusing on “Operations in Dense Urban Environments,” and the USMA Mission Command Conference, exploring the organizational and ethical challenges of commanding small units.

The speakers for the workshop included Cpt. Brett Reichert and Cpt. Mark Zwirgzdas, recently returned from advising Iraqi forces in Mosul, and retired Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the former Chief of Staff of the Army. Gen. Odierno and others emphasized that as the military’s role now includes foreign aid, advising, and community relations in combat zones, it is even more important to cooperate with NGOs and local groups in order to succeed. Odierno was confident in the Army’s capability to fulfill its missions, but candid about the difficulties and confusion of multilateral operations. At the Mission Command conference later that day, we were given a sobering rundown of the tragedy and costs associated with this uncertainty.

The lecture, entitled “Building Trust in Today’s Army,” dealt with the Mahmudiyah rape and killings committed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2006. We had read beforehand Black Hearts, a nonfiction account of the responsible unit’s operations in Iraq, but it was a surprise to see former members of the unit come up on stage and talk about their experiences. All emphasized the toxic command atmosphere at every level in 2006, from the unclear political objectives commanders had to translate into orders, to the lack of basic supervision of soldiers. But we heard echoes of the morning’s discussion as soldiers discussed how they had treated a battlefield filled with gray areas and independent forces as black and white and had eventually become convinced that all Iraqis were their enemies. 

Members of the unit, PFC Justin Watt and Sgt. John Diem, had gone around their commanding officers to report the war crime. Diem made a powerful case for a different black and white morality, where soldiers’ ethical behavior and lines that could not be crossed mattered for the long-term success of any mission. While the workshop showed how the U.S. Army is strategically preparing for complex and multilateral operations, we came away convinced that the lessons on moral responsibility Watt and Diem put forward at the conference are equally necessary for their success.