Two letters, two numbers.
The email to me, inviting me to dinner, began with two seemingly random letters, followed by two numbers. My assistant was the first one who read the email and was confused.
But I wasn’t. I smiled.
Once upon a time, I didn’t wear any visible rank or insignia, but if a ranger or another special operator saw those two letters and two numbers on a Velcro patch on my sleeve in the middle of the night, or heard those two letters and two numbers over a radio, he wouldn’t have needed to know me personally to know precisely who he was speaking to: an officer, for one, and an officer leading a particular unit. If a firefight started, or if the situation became confused, as situations in Iraq and Afghanistan often did, he could turn to me for guidance: What do we do now, sir?
This is the role of officers. They set the standard. George MacDonald Fraser, in his memoir of the Burma Campaign, wrote, “If you want to know how scared you’ve a right to be, look at the men around you. And if you happen to be a young subaltern, remember that they’re looking at you.”
I replied to my old commander’s email, addressing him by one letter, followed by two numbers, and signing off with the same four-character acronym with which he had ended his email.
We met a week later for Tex-Mex in San Antonio. One hour became two, and two hours became four, as we put the world to rights.
I had left the Army in 2004. He had gone on to lead a brigade in the worst part of Baghdad during the surge of 2007. His brigade had suffered very heavy casualties. At one point, he told me, following a particularly brutal ambush in which four soldiers had been captured and executed by the enemy, he saw a young noncommissioned officer begin to roughly handle an Iraqi onlooker. In the same moment, though, his sergeant major quickly intervened, pulling the younger soldier away.
My friend didn’t give the moment another thought because the system had worked; something had almost happened, but a leader had intervened before it did. “People ask me how, in that year, we avoided any issues with units or individuals committing atrocities,” he told me. “It’s not a hard question. It was the officers and the noncommissioned officers. They held the line.”
The nation places special faith and trust in the officers and noncommissioned officers it sends into battle. Very young Americans, mostly men, but increasing numbers of women as well, are given life-and-death authority over not only the men and women they lead but also over anyone they come into contact with. I was 23 years of age, not even two years removed from a college classroom, when I was first thrown into combat and told, more or less, to kill the right people and to make sure my men did the same.
The crazy thing is that I felt very well prepared to do just that. The Army had spent years training me for that moment, and it had spent tens of thousands of dollars before that on my university and professional military education.
You hear this a lot from officers: I knew what I was getting into, and I was well prepared for what came next.
Thousands of us, then, some of us now in our 40s and 50s, have led tactical combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been one of the most isolated occupying armies in history—mostly separated, linguistically and physically, from the men and women whose countries we occupied. Thus the fact that we have done so, over a period spanning an incredible 18 years, with so few incidents of war crimes or other abuses, is remarkable and likely unprecedented in the history of war.
This is also why the very few men and women convicted of committing war crimes—such as the officer pardoned by the president last week—are viewed with such disdain by their peers. You could be forgiven for thinking that “shitbird” is the actual doctrinal term applied to such men and women, such is the frequency with which it is used to describe those who violated their ethical codes and, in cases, the law.
But large parts of the country, and especially large parts of the more reactionary elements in society, do not understand that. Fed a steady diet of 24 and action movies, they think professional military units play out like their personal fantasies: men of righteous violence, forever straining against rules and prohibitions foisted upon them by less noble, more liberal, weaker politicians who can’t understand what it takes to win.
Since I last left the Pentagon, I have been periodically asked to talk about the war against the Islamic State. I live in Texas, and I hail from Tennessee, and I often travel through the South. The question I am asked most often, oddly but significantly, concerns the rules of engagement for our men and women overseas. Wasn’t it true—and it’s always white men of a certain age who ask me this—that our soldiers had to fight the war with one hand tied behind their back due to strict rules of engagement enforced by the White House?
I try to be patient when I get this question. On the one hand, I did often chafe at what I saw as unnecessary micromanagement from White House staffers, but on the other hand, the rules of engagement were never an issue for one simple reason: From the very start of the war against the Islamic State, all decisions regarding the rules of engagement were delegated to the senior uniformed military commander on the ground. It’s right there in the original EXORD, issued by the Pentagon.
Still, the myth persists. Portions of the public believe our men and women in uniform are unnecessarily held to unfair standards and laws, and so when a war crime is committed, it is not the fault of the officer or enlisted serviceman who committed the crime but rather the laws themselves.
But here’s what happens when the public believes such things:
First, it dishonors the thousands of men and women who successfully led combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan—often under extreme stress—without committing crimes and other atrocities. It brings those honorable men and women down to the level of the minority of men and women who chose to disgrace the flag on their shoulders.
Second, it undermines the good order and discipline that is so important to a functioning military. What message does it send, to our uniformed commanders, when civilians loudly call for the pardon of men and women who were punished for disobeying the laws and other orders their commanders ordered them to follow? What other orders, upon civilian review, are optional?
I have often argued that Americans should take more interest in their uniformed military and ask harder questions of it: How does it prioritize its use of our tax dollars? Why has it failed to achieve victory in Afghanistan? Why is there so much duplication of effort between the services, and how does interservice rivalry both help and hurt the military? The list goes on.
But if Americans aren’t going to bother to study their military, the least they can do is abstain from projecting their vengeful fever dreams upon its professionals.
You want to honor the troops? Start with that.