Writing Wrongs

September 04, 2005

Back in the day, right after making first lieutenant, I experienced the worst field exercise of my existence. How bad was it? Letís just say parts of it were worse than being deployed to Desert Storm.

If youíve ever been to the field, in Germany, in January, you need no explanation. We were knee-deep in icy mud. Iíve never been colder in my life--and Iím from Minnesota. My toes went numb at one point and now during the winters I can feel--or rather not feel--the results of that. We slept in that icy mud, or in our Humvees, ate frozen MREs, didnít bathe for nearly three weeks. It was pretty much your standard field exercise in Germany, in January.

Except. Where was the battalion commander--and the command group--in all this? They were staying in a warm, dry, German gasthaus, eating not MREs or even mess tent food, but gasthaus fare and drinking German beer. And anyone who has been on a field exercise knows, one of the directives is no alcohol. Our (married) battalion commander was also enjoying the favors of--how do I put this delicately--paid companionship. No joke.

By the time we came in from the field, the entire battalion knew. You canít keep something like that a secret for long. It ate through unit morale like a cancer. The battalionís lieutenants banded together--we knew we had to do something. But what? We went to our company commanders, who told us not to rock the boat--we had the old man (the battalion commander) right where we wanted him.

Wrong answer. We ďskipped echelonĒ up the chain of command and brought the situation to the attention of the brigade commander. The next day we had a new battalion commander. And I had my faith restored, although I never looked at that particular company commander the same way again.

Last year, I discovered my old unit, the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, was implicated in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. And more than a year later, I still donít have the words to describe the shame I feel. Even though Iím out of the service, even though, to my knowledge, I didnít know anyone involved, I still felt somehow responsible.

Let me explain. While in the 205th, I was the interrogation platoon leader. Yeah. Thatís right. Interrogation. I know the Geneva Convention. I know what should happen during an interrogation--and what shouldnít. My company commander always said, if/when the balloon went up, heíd co-locate with me, because of the ďpoliticsĒ involved with the competing agencies that jointly ran the enemy prisoner of war cage (and yeah, we called it a cage).

I read the investigation report online (and as an officer, I had used the same form to conduct investigations into minor infractions--seems odd the military uses the same form for investigating a soldier driving too fast for conditions and torture). At the time, I remember people saying Rumsfeld should be held responsible as well as the entire chain of command, while others countered that this was ridiculous, that the higher ups couldnít possibly be responsible for every single soldier.

Except. Back in the day, when I was a platoon leader, if Private ďSmithĒ screwed up, he/she didnít just get called on the carpet. Private Smithís squad leader did, and platoon sergeant, platoon leader, and company commander, all standing at attention in front of the battalion commanderís desk while trying to explain their combined poor excuse for leadership.

Itís what makes being a leader so damn hard. Youíre responsible, always, for people and things you canít control. Itís why you get to wear shiny brass on your collar, itís why you get champagne brunches at the officers club, itís why you make the big bucks. Itís why, sometimes, they play Hail to the Chief when you walk into a room.

Itís the price of leadership.

Every organization has its undesirables--we all know that. With good leadership, they might cause damage, but that damage is contained, corrected, controlled.

Why do I bring these two incidents up at this time? Because the aftermath of Katrina reminds me of how I felt, back in Germany, thawing baby wipes between my palms so I could scrub off the first layer of grime while at the same moment my battalion commander cavorted with a German prostitute. Itís the vacuum of command presence I saw when I read the Abu Ghraib report.

I want to do something. But what? What do you do when you canít ďskip echelonĒ the chain of command? Donating money and supplies doesnít seem to be enough. What do you do when you see whatís broken but donít know where to start in fixing it?

And how do you ever stop feeling responsible?

Charity Tahmaseb wrote at 11:52 a.m.