Beware of Achilles

By Lieutenant Colonel Jason L. Morris, U.S. Marine Corps

These lessons for commanders and combat leaders were gleaned from my 2010 combat deployment with the 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (3/5). The human and organizational factors so critical for persevering in combat transcend time and place. They are presented here in three distinct phases: preparation, the initial shock of high-intensity operations, and ways to sustain effectiveness through months of heavy combat.

Preparing for Combat

In October 2009, after a short post-deployment leave period, 3/5’s leadership began to prepare the battalion for its next mission. Accepting risk early, commanders decided to train systematically to the battalion’s conventional core competencies, despite its being scheduled to deploy as the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s (MEU’s) Battalion Landing Team. This decision was not difficult: the Commandant of the Marine Corps had declared that the fight was in Afghanistan. In January 2010, the Marine surge into Helmand Province was already under way, with Marjah its first major objective.

Three months later the call came. Just days before our January 2010 deployment to Bridgeport, California, a I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) decision sealed 3/5’s fate. That September, the battalion would deploy to northern Helmand Province in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)10.2. Quickly adjusting to the change, we incorporated counterinsurgency-operations education and training into all aspects of the pre-deployment training program.

There were no misconceptions about the mission ahead: Afghanistan was not Iraq. The landlocked country’s unforgiving terrain and climate required tough infantrymen; its ruthless enemy required adaptive and disciplined warriors. Counterinsurgency (COIN) challenges in Afghanistan would likely be as mental and moral as they were physical. “Strategic” small-unit leaders could lose the fight as easily as we could win it. Our mental agility and initiative would demand significant moral courage and self-discipline. With many veterans of Anbar Province in its ranks, the battalion had broad combat experience at the captain and senior noncommissioned-officer level, but fewer than five members had previously served in Afghanistan. Another challenge was integrating hundreds of young Marines for whom this would be the first deployment.

Critical to combat preparation is setting clear expectations up front, and holding people accountable. In 3/5 we built on an established commander’s intent for training, focusing on a systemic approach to mastering the tactical fundamentals at all levels and in extreme conditions—it was “brilliance in the basics.” The approach was not unique, yet 3/5 initially had to create opportunities where others saw distraction. Legacy pre-OEF Security Cooperation taskings in Korea and with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in California had found ways for company commanders to run dispersed combined operations. Training with Asian allies built confidence among Marines in partnering with foreign military personnel and using interpreters.

Understanding that most Afghans had known nothing but war, unit leaders pushed their men to and past their physical and mental limits. They believed, as did Thucydides 2,500 years ago, that “he who graduates from the severest school succeeds.” Afghan role-players in counterinsurgency scenarios complemented near-concurrent live-fire training. The battalion shot all of its ammunition and asked for more.

January cold-weather training in California’s Sierra Nevada range forced everyone to prove their mettle in winter’s worst conditions. Leadership, physical courage, and mental toughness were tested severely. In time, individuals became teammates and teams forged into squads. Five months later, the July Mission Rehearsal Exercise in the Mojave Desert, California, solidified the teamwork and trust that had been built during the intervening months. Training in extreme conditions, using live-fire exercises and COIN concepts and techniques near-simultaneously pushed people past their perceived limitations and held Marines accountable to standards. All this would pay off down the road as the casualties mounted. In the end, all hands deployed confident they had done everything possible to prepare for the campaign ahead. In September 2010, there was nothing left to do but go to Afghanistan and execute.

The Initial Shock

In the context of summer 2010’s effort to secure Marjah and the central Helmand River Valley in southwestern Afghanistan, 3/5’s September deployment went largely unnoticed. Only the British media and public took interest in the British Battle Group’s replacement by the U.S. Marines’ 3d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment (3/7) in northeastern Helmand Province. After conducting theater-specific training at Helmand Province’s Camp Leatherneck, my companies moved north to Sangin and relieved their 3/7 counterparts.

We all spent time observing and being observed by our predecessors, who had six months of on-the-ground experience. The now-standard “left-seat/right-seat” turnover process modeled on learning how to drive mandated that incoming personnel “sit in the passenger seat” for one week before a second week of being mentored “behind the wheel.” Refined over nearly seven years of COIN operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, this practice reduces the incoming unit’s steep learning curve through an assimilation process with outgoing personnel.

In assuming authority over the district, 3/5’s task from Regimental Combat Team Two (RCT-2) was simple: “conduct full-spectrum counterinsurgency operations to expand security, governance and development.” But the mission’s simplicity did not hide its inherent challenges; execution was expected to be difficult. By late September, after a temporary two-month increase, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) levels in Sangin were reduced by more than 50 percent, as the British Battle Group withdrew to Lashkar Gah. After the transfer of authority, 3/5 would have Sangin to itself.

Taliban insurgents had watched British operations for four years and understood the ISAF relief process well. During a turnover, they learned that by hurting the incoming unit early, they could dominate them psychologically. As the weeks went by and ISAF casualties mounted, the insurgents sapped their will to operate or even assume risk. On 20 September 2010, when the last British elements departed Sangin, insurgents took full advantage of the operational seam created by a unit turnover.

Planting hundreds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in and around newly demilitarized ISAF patrol bases, the insurgents then tightened their noose around the ones that remained. Thus, in spite of a thorough turnover, the unforgiving battlefield and its insurgent legion began to exact their toll. Six days before its transfer of authority, 3/5 lost its first killed in action. On 13 October, the day we assumed authority, the battalion lost four Marines in a catastrophic command-wire IED strike on a mine-resistant, ambush-protection all-terrain vehicle. Over the next three weeks, we lost 15 Marines killed in action and many amputees after more than 100 firefights against insurgent platoon and squad-size elements and IED strikes. Leaders at all levels grew accustomed to hearing the distinctive low-order detonation of an IED strike followed by the inevitable call for an urgent medevac.

Higher headquarters became increasingly concerned over the level of violence and casualties, which led to numerous command and staff-assessment visits. Some observers questioned whether or not 3/5 was prepared for its mission. Some wondered whether the leadership could hold the unit together under the strain of so many casualties. Only the support of the regimental commander, no stranger to casualties from his own 2004 deployment to Ramadi, Iraq, gave the battalion leadership the breathing room it needed to focus on overcoming the strong resistance and accomplishing the mission.

During this transition period, we gained critical operational experience and transformed ourselves into a battle-hardened team. The experience reinforced a number of key lessons for combat leaders.

Transition to Combat and Remain Forward

All units and individuals experience a transition period that begins with the first sting of combat. Comprehensive tactical and technical preparation breed high unit confidence and cohesion—prerequisites for any combat operation. The first 30 days or so normally determine who will adapt and survive the tour. In general, well-trained and mentally prepared units adjust to their new surroundings and suffer fewer casualties, whereas unprepared units suffer unnecessarily and continue to do so. Facing a tough and willful enemy, casualty counts quickly go higher. Combat leaders must endeavor to make this transition period as short and painless as possible. They must maintain a laser-like focus on the mission in the face of all distractions. Leaders must be regularly out front, assuming the same risks as juniors but not doing so carelessly.

All hands must be reminded that the mission is sacrosanct. Everything else is secondary, but every effort will be made to get them home should “something happen.” Maintaining effectiveness against a skilled adversary requires leaders to demonstrate unwavering commitment to the mission and their personnel. After the initial “thrill” of combat fades and the ranks thin, the survivors and the mission remain. During this transition period, the leader’s mental and moral strength is critical to the perseverance of both the unit and the individual.

A leader’s forward presence is beneficial not only to those he leads, but also to himself. This reassurance is even more important after sustained contact with the enemy. While forward, the leader’s observation pierces the fog of battlefield reporting and allows for increased understanding of the operating environment. From this vantage point, the commander develops tremendous efficiency in the decision-making cycle’s orientation and observation phases.

In what Air Force Colonel John Boyd called the Orient, Observe, Decide, and Act (OODA) loop, the commander no longer has to rely upon incomplete or exaggerated reporting: he sees the challenges with his own eyes. Whether in the attack or on patrol, he understands more clearly his units’ time-space challenges, tactical discipline and effectiveness, and relationship with their operating environment. In a COIN environment, he sees how his subordinates interact with local nationals and how well they know their area of operations. Do they properly apply the rules of engagement? Do they exhibit fire discipline? Have they established enough trust and security among the people to overcome the fear of insurgent retribution? From such personal observations, a leader continuously works to resolve the gap between his intent and the reality on the ground.

Be the Leader

The leader’s resolve to observe subordinate performance and correct deviations from his intent and guidance is critical. In the absence of preemptive supervision, those who move away from the mission’s purpose and spirit grow increasingly bold and reckless. “Walking the lines” discourages freelancing and enables the enforcement of guidance and standard operating procedures. It also allows the leader to see clearly what effects, if any, his plan is achieving.

The leader must ensure that standards of good order and discipline are enforced, without exception. The way a Marine operates inside his forward operating base will be how he operates outside of it. The leader’s presence reinforces expectations and builds that special bond of trust, which is like a reservoir that strengthens subordinate resolve during times of extreme hardship. Those who have been bloodied want to know he understands their challenges, is willing to share the danger, and feels their loss; they desire compassion, not pity. They want to be able to voice their ideas and concerns to someone they trust. When they trust their leadership and the mission, subordinates will continue to risk life and limb to achieve the desired ends. Timely personal reassurance and guidance ensure that those stung by recent losses remain focused on the mission; this is especially important for anyone recently empowered due to casualties.

For young leaders on their first deployment, the loss of their first man or buddy is excruciating. For those closest to the fallen, the loss is even greater. Compartmentalization may be difficult but is necessary. No leader can “go internal”; the mission and survivors remain.

Improperly addressed or ignored, grief and guilt can result in hesitation and mental withdrawal, causing costly mistakes. Well-trained soldiers with good leadership will endure incredible hardships, yet even the most courageous and determined have a breaking point. The leader must be sensitive to this and take decisive action to relieve debilitating combat stress. Timely intervention promotes a warrior’s speedy return to operations and helps prevent permanent psychological injury.

Sustain the Will to Win

Just three weeks after 3/5 assumed responsibility of Sangin, the level of violence and casualties had captured the attention of senior leaders in ISAF and the Marine Corps. By the 75-day mark, 25 Marines had been killed and more than 125 wounded. The unit suffered 20 percent combat losses during the deployment, more than 80 percent of which were during the first 90 days in country. Final casualties between October 2010 and April 2011 amounted to 29 KIA and 186 wounded for the battalion and its attachments. By early January 2011, indications were that the Taliban had lost the capacity to resist in an organized manner, and casualties dropped significantly. These numbers were not unique in OEF, but the intensity of the first 75–90 days of combat was significantly higher than any other district in Afghanistan.

No one seemed to know when or if the violence would subside, but progress on the security front continued. Meanwhile, a short-lived internal Pentagon discussion at the Defense Secretary/Commandant-level about pulling 3/5 out resulted in the decision that there would be no relief—“Absolutely not,” General James F. Amos stated, “that is not the way Marines operate.” The battalion would be reinforced but not replaced. This decision contributed greatly to the Marines’ psychological health. Nothing would have been more damaging to our collective psyche than to have been pulled out of the fight.

The battalion’s immediate higher headquarters, RCT-2, reinforced 3/5 with whatever forces it could spare—after two weeks a reinforced platoon, after 45 days an understrength company—freeing four 3/5 platoons from their base security tasks. A composite engineer company arrived at the end of November for a major breaching operation. Another infantry company arrived at the end of December, from Marjah. By mid-January 2011, 3/5 had been reinforced by almost 500 infantrymen and combat engineers.

The overall situation improved as combined Afghan and ISAF forces secured the gains from the first 90 days. Finally in late January, the level of violence dropped precipitously. As Taliban resistance crumbled, the local people sensed the insurgents’ weakness and turned to the fledgling Afghan government. By early March it was clear that 3/5 and its reinforcements had prevailed; the Taliban’s Sangin stronghold had fallen.

In assessing the unit’s accomplishments in a very challenging COIN fight, enduring leadership lessons also stand out in how to persevere through sustained combat action. Most important to our battalion’s success organizationally were its small-unit cohesion and discipline, ability to adapt organizationally, and combat resiliency.

Cohesion and Discipline

Small-unit cohesion and discipline are paramount to sustaining the will to persevere through adversity. Fortunately, 3/5 retained extremely high levels of both throughout our deployment, despite some platoons losing their commander, platoon sergeant, and all three squad leaders, plus many other NCOs, in the first 90 days. Throughout the pre-deployment training program, small-unit leaders strengthened pre-existing unit cohesion and discipline by leading through shared hardship, firmly and consistently applying standards and accountability, and instilling a pride of accomplishment. The mutual trust and esprit de corps that were built during training and operations offset the physical and psychological drain of casualties and exhaustion. Small-unit leaders who were either unwilling or incapable of enforcing standards of discipline were replaced by someone who could.

The unforgiving Sangin environment demanded our best every single day. All hands knew 3/5’s history, dating to World War I: failing or quitting were not options. The battalion returned home without a law-of-armed-conflict incident in spite of the extreme violence—a testament to small-unit leadership and the Marines’ moral courage to consistently separate the insurgent from the innocent and do the right thing.

Encourage Initiative and Maximize Resiliency

Our 3/5 leaders fostered a command climate that encouraged initiative and intellectual agility. Clear mission end-state guidance was issued, and operational performance and progress were rewarded. This paid off in dispersed operations when key leader casualties required young Marines to step forward. Solutions to battlefield problems were discussed proactively, with a bottom-up methodology. Then best practices were rapidly disseminated throughout the organization. On numerous occasions, Marines were able to “out-cycle” insurgent attempts to modify their techniques and procedures or poison relations with the local people. Lieutenants and NCOs ably learned to counter enemy adaptations, dispel rumors by retaining the moral high ground, and largely win over the population. In these ways, counterinsurgents must be able to outmaneuver the opponent physically, mentally, and morally.

Battalion leadership maximized the unit’s combat resiliency by proactively handling operational-stress cases and honoring the fallen. Marines and Navy corpsmen who were identified as suffering from combat stress were treated as far forward as possible. Trained, involved unit leaders quickly spotted symptoms and personality changes. In almost all cases, those who received treatment and rest responded positively and rapidly returned to their units.

No one wanted to be left out; everyone wanted to be with their buddies in the next firefight. Many visitors seemed astonished by the Marines’ resolve under the circumstances. The random brutality of Sangin actually increased determination, even when Marines who had done everything right were killed by an IED over which ten others had just stepped. Unit leaders’ personal engagement before and after patrols kept everyone focused and motivated to kill the enemy while safeguarding the innocent.

At the same time, leaders must guard against the callousness that can set in motion a loss of humanity. Just as Achilles went mad in Homer’s Illiad, Marines must be wary of seeking revenge or dehumanizing the enemy. No one is immune.

By scheduling services for lost comrades at the most forward position possible, the command provided an opportunity for memorializing and mourning as soon as the tactical situation allowed. Thirteen memorial services in four months also psychologically compartmentalized losses, thereby making mental room to continue the fight with focus. Achieving closure would have to come later.

The factors that gave 3/5 the will to prevail were preparation, cohesion, discipline, initiative, intellectual agility, and resiliency. I hope they will be incorporated into every unit’s training program, regardless of service.

Lieutenant Colonel Morris is stationed at the U.S. Northern Command Headquarters, Colorado Springs. During Operation Enduring Freedom 10.2, from September 2010 to April 2011 he led the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines into Sangin District, engaging in the toughest sustained combat of the Afghan war. This article is based on his National Security Affairs leadership paper at the U.S. Naval War College, where he earned a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies.


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