Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest Winner: Leadership from the Front

By Captain William J. Bowers, USMC

But what about leaders who have been around for a while? Are we as ready as we should be to lead Marines in the "three-block war," where high-intensity conflict, peacekeeping operations, and humanitarian assistance efforts often coexist? The nature of urban terrain and its compartmentalizing effects require leaders to push power down so tactical decisions can be made quickly and decisively. At the same time, history shows that leaders must be visible at the front to offset the terror and confusion that young Marines feel in battle. The psychological labyrinth of the three-block war underscores this. Too many leaders cite the "power down" mantra of maneuver warfare to rationalize inadequate preparation for the three-block war. By studying Greek hoplite infantry combat, the Russian war in Chechnya, and the U.S. Marines' actions during the battle for Hué City, leaders can see clearly that to fight and win in the urban jungles of the 21st century, involvement and presence at the front are required both in battle and in garrison.

The Greek Model

The psychological fear—even terror—that our youngest Marines will face in urban conflict are quite similar to the fears of the citizen footsoldiers of ancient Greece—the hoplites. Like hoplite infantry combat, urban conflict is marked by extremely close ranges, little maneuver room, decreased visibility and situational awareness, and heightened uncertainty for the most junior Marines. The fusion of peacekeeping and high-intensity conflict situations exacerbates the terror and confusion. Interestingly, many classical scholars have argued that it was only the incredible courage mustered by the Greek hoplites that enabled their civilization—and ultimately Western civilization—to survive against overwhelming odds. Hoplite infantry combat clearly demonstrates that battlefield success depended on their leaders being out in front.

In The Western Way of War , Victor Davis Hanson states that it was the personal leadership of the Greek stratego, the commanding officer of each phalanx, that inspired the hoplites to fight armed the brutal conditions of the ancient battlefield. 1 The Battle of Marathon provides an outstanding example of this model of leadership. The Athenian generals Callimachus and Militiades led the vastly outnumbered Greek hoplites in a charge across the plain, to defeat the Persian invaders. 2 Callimachus was killed during this battle; tellingly, other successful leaders—including Achilles, Hector, Leonidas, Brasidas, Nicias, Demosthenes, Epameinondas, and Alexander the Great—all died (or died later from wounds) while personally leading their armies into battle. 3 Decentralization and initiative always had their place in hoplite battle, of which the Iliad has several examples, but neither concept ever came close to replacing or lessening the importance of leading from the front. How long would the Spartans have held Thermopylae Pass if Leonidas had issued a mission order to "hold the pass," and then went to the rear to shape the battlespace or achieve information dominance? The answer is obvious.

Greek leaders placed themselves in front because that was the best way to inspire their men during harrowing battles. They knew true empowerment requires officer involvement and presence. Conflict in the 21st century requires the same officer involvement. But in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, officers of the Russian Army did not lead from the front; their units suffered the consequences.

The Russian Army in Chechnya

The Russian Army forgot the simple maxim that if officers are unwilling to share in their soldiersi hardships, the soldiers will not respond. In his book Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power , Anatol Lieven analyzes many reasons for the Russian Armyis humiliation in Chechnya. Lieven leaves no stone unturned in his scathing indictment of the Russian system: social, economic, ethnic, political, and military. As a journalist without military experience, writing from his own observations in Chechnya and Russia, Lieven is correct in blaming more than one institution for the Russian Army's defeat. But any military officer reading this book will notice quickly that good leadership at the tactical level would have overcome almost all of the ills that afflicted the Russian Army in Chechnya.

The Russian officers, unlike the Greek strategos , did not want to be up front. As a group, they rationalized their noninvolvement. Consider the following statement by a Russian major in Grozny:

But a man has to think of his family, after all, and the pay [as a security guard] would be five times or more what I'm getting now, even with the bonus for serving here [in Chechnya]. Anyway, the government has shown that it doesn't give a damn for its soldiers or policemen. That's just the way it is these days. Who would be a soldier if you could work in a bank? 4

What young soldier would follow this officer? With field-grade leaders saying things like this, it is no surprise to read these words, written by a 19-year-old Russian private of the 65th Motorized Rifle Regiment, whose convoy was slaughtered entering Grozny in January 1995:

The commanders gave us no map, no briefing, just told us to follow the BMP in front, but it got lost and ended up following us. . . . I asked our officer where we were, he said he didn't know—somewhere near the railway station. No, he didn't have a map either. I asked for orders from our company commander, Lieutenant Chernychenko, and they told me he'd already run for it. Then we tried to escape. That was when I was wounded, by a sniper—I'd got out of the BMP to try to find a way out. . . . My friends had to leave me behind, they said they couldnit carry me. I don't blame them—two of them were wounded themselves, one in the arm and one in the ear . . . I lay there for three or four hours, and then the Chechens found me. They operated on me at a hospital in Grozny, then brought me here. They treated me well, though I was their enemy. I did not want to be their enemy, to come here to kill other farmers. I am a farmer myself. If Yeltsin and Grachev want this war, let them come and fight themselves, not send us to die. 5

Why was there no unit cohesion, and how could the soldiers have left behind their wounded? Where was the squad leader? Who supervised convoy rehearsals? Did the troops know what their mission was? Tactical leadership broke down completely.

A Chechen soldier remembered the same attack:

The Russian soldiers stayed in their armor, so we just stood on the balconies and dropped grenades onto their vehicles as they drove by underneath. The Russians are cowards. They can't bear to come out of shelter and fight us man-to-man. They are no match for us. That is why we beat them and will always beat them. 6

The Chechens did not use tactical wizardry to beat the Russians; they just capitalized on the passivity of Russian leaders. Urban conflict in Chechnya required more presence and involvement than the Russian officers offered. This failure of officer leadership in the city streets of Grozny had its roots in the barracks of Russia.

Russian officers disengaged themselves from barracks life and failed to establish an environment of brotherhood-in-arms on their bases. The result was dyedovshchina , or grandfatherism, which best can be described as hazing and servitude taken to an extreme level. 7 New conscripts routinely are humiliated by older conscripts and volunteers. This unchecked hazing at the tactical level awakened the ethnic and cultural demons beneath the Army's strategic surface. In 1996, 543 soldiers committed suicide, largely as a result of dyedovshchina . 8 When the Russian Army went into Chechnya, it was plagued with such deep internal hatred, combustive ethnic tension, and high rates of suicide and murder that almost any adversity would have easily divided its already strained troops. Dyedovschina and officer disengagement engendered a lack of trust in the chain of command, and the breakdown of unit cohesion seen in Grozny.

In almost every regard, the Russian officer corps showed observers how not to prepare for 21st-century urban conflict. Russian officers led from the rear and lost.

The Marines in Hué City

Good leadership at the tactical level can overcome challenges similar to those faced by the Russian Army. In 1968, U.S. Marines in Hué City faced many of the same challenges that the Russian Army faced in the battle for Grozny in Chechnya: urban terrain, political unrest, an unpopular war, ubiquitous media presence, and ethnic tension at home. But here, tactical leadership made the difference; Marine commanders led from the front.

The first Marine unit engaged in the retaking of Hué City was Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, commanded by Captain Gordon Batcheller. Batcheller was the commanding officer in the reinforced convoy when the Marines entered Hué City. Although he would have been able to justify safely staying toward the rear, Batcheller knew where he belonged.

Captain Batcheller noticed that the platoon sergeant leading the forward platoon—Staff Sergeant Godfrey's 2nd Platoon—was obviously anxious about his increased responsibilities, so the captain joined him atop the lead tank with his two radiomen and a corpsman. Batcheller wanted to be on hand to steady the novice platoon leader. The captain knew that the point was not the best place for the company commander to be, but he felt he had no choice. 9

Captain Batcheller was wounded seriously while leading his company, but his actions created a climate that fostered camaraderie and unit cohesion. Batchelleris replacement as Alpha Company Commander was Gunnery Sergeant J. L. Canley, the company gunnery sergeant. Like his CO, Canley led Alpha 1/1 from the front.

[Gunny Canley] the huge noncom was standing in the middle of the roadway, oblivious to the bullets that spattered all around him, directing the clearing of an [North Vietnamese Army] NVA-occupied building. 10

The Marines of Alpha 1/1, like the Greek hoplites of earlier times, responded to Batcheller's and Canley's leadership, and began the painful process of recapturing Hué City.

After being ordered to bring his company into the battle at Hué City, the commander of Hotel Company 2/5, Captain George R. Christmas, took several steps to ensure that each of his Marines knew what to do in case his convoy got ambushed. He studied his enemy and their tactics, developed detailed plans for all hands in his company, then conducted several immediate-action drills and rehearsals. 11 The North Vietnamese did ambush Hotel 2/5's convoy later that day, but the Marines reacted as they had rehearsed and beat the enemy back. Captain Christmas was in the midst of the action the whole time. The contrast between the outcome of Hotel 2/5's convoy and the Russian 65th Motorized Rifle Regiment's convoy could not be greater. Good tactical leadership made the difference.

When a Marine attack on an NVA-held building bogged down during the slow recapture of the city, Captain Christmas again raced to the front to see what could be done. After determining that supporting fire from a nearby M-48 was needed to help his company accomplish the mission, he took decisive action.

The desperate NVA poured heavy machine gun fire in the direction of the tank, and both of the B-40 rockets they fired at the armored vehicle struck the frontal glacis plate as Captain Christmas was climbing aboard the turret. With Ron Christmas standing tall behind the turret, directing fire, the tank fired five 90mm rounds into the NVA-held building. With the tank and Marines providing a base of fire, the Hotel 2/5 reserve platoon swept in with CS gas grenades and quickly reduced the opposition. 12

Captain Christmas's actions contrast sharply with the Chechen soldier's account of how the Russian leaders stayed bottled up in their armor, presenting very easy targets.

Leadership from the front was not limited to Marine company-grade officers and noncommissioned officers in Hué City. The battalion commander of 2/5, Lieutenant Colonel Ernie Cheatham, took personal action to help eliminate a 12.7mm NVA machine gun that pinned down his attacking Marines. With his own M-16 rifle, he marked the target for his 106mm recoilless rifle gunners. Although the NVA fired back desperately, Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham showed presence of mind and kept his tracer rounds on the NVA target. 13 Thanks to Cheatham's assistance and courage, the 106 gunners found their target and destroyed the NVA machine-gun position. 14 Like Militiades and Leonidas, Cheatham set the example. The Russian major in Grozny who wanted to work in a bank never would have taken such action.

The Marines won the Battle of Hué City because officers were willing to risk their lives by fighting alongside their troops. These Marine officers probably would downplay their actions in the Battle for Hué City, and instead state how the heroic actions of young Marines in their commands made the difference in victory. Cohesion, trust in the chain of command, and an incredible degree of commitment characterized all of the Marines who recaptured Hué City. Collectively, their actions show how best to prepare for 21st-century urban conflict.

Technology and whiz-bang information systems may tempt leaders to try to control battles by staying at command posts in the rear. As the Russian experience in Chechnya shows, this will not work in urban combat. Moreover, the Russian Army shows how lack of leadership involvement in barracks life and failure to check brutal and severe hazing at the tactical level can create cracks in a unit that will split wide open when confronting adversity. At the same time, the many similarities between hoplite infantry combat and 21st-century urban conflict highlight the need for the same type of leadership the Greek strategos and the Marine officers in Hué City provided: involved, up front, and personally inspiring their troops. The lure of technology and the current teachings of maneuver warfare, with its emphasis on decentralization and pushing power down, should neither dissuade nor distract us from staying involved with our Marines' lives or from providing a stabilizing presence forward on the battlefield. To fight and win in the urban jungles of the 21st century, we must practice maneuver warfare from the front.

Captain Bowers is a combat engineer officer, currently serving as the operations officer for the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, 1st Force Service Support Group, Camp Pendleton, California. Previously, he served as a company commander and assistant operations officer in the 7th Engineer Support Battalion. He was named the "Combat Engineer Officer of the Year" for 1998 by the Marine Corps Engineer Association.

   1. Victor Davis Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 107. back to article
   2. Herodotus, The Histories (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), pp. 491-494. back to article
   3. Hanson, pp. 113-116. back to article
   4. Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 53. back to article
   5. Ibid., p. 110. back to article
   6. Ibid., p. 109. back to article
   7. Ibid., pp. 290-293. back to article
   8. Ibid., p. 290. back to article
   9. Eric Hammel, Fire in the Streets: the Battle for Hué, Tet 1968 (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1991), p. 65. back to article
  10. Ibid., p. 76. back to article
  11. Ibid., pp. 118-119. back to article
  12. Ibid., p. 219. back to article
  13. Ibid., pp. 157-158. back to article
  14. Ibid., p. 158. back to article




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