When Touchy-Feely Turns Deadly

For most of my 17-year career in the New York Army National Guard, I was an Infantry officer. A combat arms guy, attack an armed enemy, blow shit up. “Kinetics.” You get the picture.

Soft Power

Toward the end of my career, I transitioned toward a form of warfare called “soft power”. This is different from traditional military operations in that it is not coercive. In the past, it was referred to as the battle for the “Hearts and Minds”. This was the effort to win over the civilian populace and bring them over to our side. It included everything from rebuilding critical infrastructure like power plants and waterways, to repairing schools and medical clinics. The branch of the military which oversees most of this humanitarian effort is called “Civil Affairs”.

Kind of like the Peace Corps, with guns.

During my year-long deployment to Iraq in 2003-2004, my Civil Affairs troops oversaw the building and/or refurbishing of 22 schools, medical clinics and irrigation systems. One project even included a mosque. The rebuilding of an irrigation system project prompted an Iraqi farmer to turn in some insurgents.  These foreign fighters were planning on attacking about 100 of my friends and fellow soldiers. This gentleman blew the missile because he appreciated what American soldiers had done for his community, and he didn’t want anything bad to happen to them.

There are many more examples of how soft power helps the local population to take a stand against insurgents and terrorists, thereby allowing American forces to do their jobs more effectively. But this humanitarian mindset is just another weapon in America’s arsenal; there is a time and place for it to be used. The over application of soft power can actually be dangerous to our troops.

Protected areas

Population centers, schools and medical facilities have traditionally been given protected status in combat zones. Their exact locations are known to combat leaders so that they are not inadvertently targeted while firing back enemy forces. While we were in Iraq, several times our troops plotted the exact grid coordinates of villages, farmhouses, schools, etc. These positions were given to artillery and aircraft units so that these civilian locations would not be hit in the event of counterattacks against insurgent forces.

Battle of Ganjgal, Afghanistan: September 8, 2009   

A team of 3 Marines and a Navy Corpsman (medic) were pinned down by Taliban fire near a village in the Ganjgal Valley. They and others radioed to higher headquarters that they were in danger of being wiped out, but their requests for artillery fire support were denied.

Rules of Engagement

Newly emplaced ROE for reducing civilian casualties were repeatedly cited by the headquarters as the reason for not firing artillery, because the team was next to a village. However, the team leader kept telling his superiors that they were not near the village. He also let them know that the Taliban were firing at them from a school, which has always had protected status.

If the enemy are firing at you from a school, it’s no longer a school. Again, their now frantic calls were ignored. Knowing that help was not coming from the artillery battery, Marine SGT Dakota Meyer and Army Captain Will Swenson led repeated efforts- through withering fire-to reach the pinned down team. By the time they finally reached the team, the 4 men were dead.

Meyer and Swenson were both awarded Medals of Honor. Several high-ranking officers who’d denied the frantic requests for fire support were issued letters of reprimand.

Key Terrain vs. Human Terrain

In the traditional military sense, key terrain is defined as a point or area which provides a significant advantage to whomever holds it, and a disadvantage to those who don’t. This could be a ridge, a road junction, a highway. Mountains are good examples.

Hold that thought…

Human terrain, on the other hand, is the ability for forces to engage in a positive way with the local population. Hearts and Minds, Civil Affairs, etc.

Battle of Kamdesh, Afghanistan: October 3, 2009

Combat Outpost (COP) Keating, surrounded on 3 sides by mountains nearly 10,000 feet in altitude, was described by soldiers based there as “like living in a bowl”. The enemy would have a significant advantage over its defenders if they were to gain control of the high ground, which they did. The outpost had been built so that troops would be living nearly side-by-side with the locals, hopefully establishing a bond between the 2 groups. The battle for Hearts and Minds was deemed more important than the troops’ ability to defend against insurgents.

Before this battle, general officers and other commanders would visit the outpost on inspection tours, flying in at night by chopper. At first light, as the officers emerged from their sleeping quarters, they would stare up at the mountains towering above them, and wonder in shock, “Why the Hell did they put this base here?!!”

When I heard about how this outpost was situated in such a manner, I wondered the same thing. As a retired officer trained as a combat leader, I was stupefied that a base would be placed in such an indefensible position.  Nearly every leader who saw how COP Keating was located felt the same way, but no one ever did anything about it.

On the morning of the battle, at least 300 Taliban poured fire from the slopes down on COP Keating. The defenders were sitting ducks: the volume of fire prevented them from mounting an effective defense. The outpost was over-run and 8 Americans died; 2 Americans, Clint Romesha and Ty Carter, were awarded Medals of Honor for leading the counterattack which eventually took the base back from the Taliban.

Medals of Honor aren’t usually given out because things went right. These 4 brave men and their brothers were put in impossible situations, and they had to fight overwhelming odds as a direct result of bad decisions by their leaders. Many of them died as a result. In these 2 cases, stressing Hearts and Minds over tactical commence sense and the security of our servicemen and women proved deadly.

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