Last month over 1,500 family members who have lost a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan gathered at Arlington National Cemetery at the behest of an organization called Faces of the Fallen, which has assembled dozens of artists to paint portraits of those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the keynote speaker. While his speech managed to strike a few emotional chords, it was what he did after speaking that was remarkable. Hours after his speech concluded General Myers was still standing out in a cold drizzle talking at length to any family member who wanted to have a word with him. As the man ultimately responsible for ordering the missions that resulted in many of these American deaths, this must have been an incredibly hard thing for him to endure. Still, he never hurried a single person and listened as bereaved family members told him about the child, the spouse, or the sibling they had lost.
It would have been an easy matter for General Myers to claim pressing business and escape as soon as his speech concluded. In fact, he could have ordered a subordinate to represent him at the reception and spared himself the pain of meeting these families. Of course, no real leader would do such a thing. Like General Eisenhower, who felt compelled to go visit the paratroops on the eve of D-Day and meet the men who were expecting to take 90 percent losses, General Myers could not send anyone else to do what must be the most difficult part of his job.
I am reliably informed that General Myers starts each workday with a full briefing on the circumstances of every American casualty in the previous 24 hours. I can think of no more emotionally searing way to begin what are often long, arduous days. This is not something he has to do and I imagine he continues it only because it is a daily reminder that any decision he makes can have a dire consequence for the men and women who make it happen. During World War II, General George Marshall, the first chairman, did much the same thing. Every day he sent the casualty list to the White House to remind the president that real people died as a result of every order given. General Marshall continued this despite a White House request that the practice be discontinued.
This is a brief but telling glimpse at the character of a single man. The incredible thing is that this pattern reveals itself at every level of the chain of command. For generations, writers, moviemakers, and singers have made fortunes depicting cold, unfeeling officers who callously send young soldiers out to die while sitting safely in the rear. The stereotype still persists today and there is no more horrendous lie perpetrated about the people who lead our great soldiers into combat. Please note that I said “lead” and not “send.” The Americans who have entrusted their youth to these leaders deserve to know the character of the men and women in command.
On a recent trip to Iraq I was with a small group of civilians and officers when truck loads of care packages for the soldiers were being unloaded. The boxes were opened for the soldiers to grab what they wanted. Earlier, one of the officers mentioned that he needed to get some razors from the Post Exchange. One of the civilians in our group spotted a shaving kit in a box, grabbed it, and handed it to the officer in need of razors saying, “This will save you a trip.” Without a pause the officer threw the kit back in the box and replied, “That stuff was sent over for the troops to use, not me.” The civilian mentioned that the officer was also a soldier serving in Iraq and no one would begrudge him the kit. The officer did his best to explain and then finally said, “That is not how it works. Just watch.”
So we stood off to the side and watched. Over the next half hour, while a couple of hundred soldiers took what they wanted from the boxes about two dozen Army and Marine officers came over and looked to see what was in the boxes. Every one of them left empty handed. It was as clear a testament as I could personally imagine that they had internalized the idea that the needs of the soldiers came before their own.
Later that same day I was invited to go on a patrol with some soldiers from the 2nd BDE of the 10th Mountain Division along one of the more dangerous routes in Iraq. The patrol was led by the company commander, who tries to get out on at least one patrol a day with his men. Remarkably, the brigade commander, Colonel Mark Milley was also going along. Milley, despite an awesome workload and responsibility for over 5,000 soldiers, makes time to go on at least two patrols a week. There are a lot of things Col. Milley could be doing rather than sharing the risks of combat patrols with his soldiers on a regular basis, but he believes that nothing is nearly as important as being seen by his soldiers at the points of real danger. Also coming along was Brigadier General Anthony Cucolo, who was on a fact-finding tour after spending the previous six months in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. Colonels and generals carrying rifles out on patrol with infantry squads is a long way from the common perception of senior officers sitting in the rear moving pins on maps, but it is the daily reality in Iraq.
At one point during the night, the patrol pulled up to a checkpoint that was watching a road intersection, a favorite terrorist target. Col Milley was far from happy with what he found. In his professional judgment the soldiers at the checkpoint had made so many mistakes that they were inviting an attack. In what could be called a well-controlled rage, Col. Milley called the company commander on his radio, only to discover he was spending the night at another checkpoint some distance away. Col. Milley admitted that it was a bit harder to be mad at the captain when he is out sharing the danger with his men. Going to the next level of command, the battalion commander, he ordered that the entire checkpoint be replaced in the next 45 minutes and that the leadership currently at the checkpoint be retrained on their duties before they were sent out again. It was past midnight when he gave this order, meaning a lot of sleepless hours for the battalion leadership.
With that done, Col. Milley turned to BG Cucolo and said, “A lot of people are going to be hating me and cursing my name tonight.” As I walked away BG Cucolo commented, “That there is a lot more to loving your soldiers than making sure that they always love you.”
That statement brought home something I had already noticed about the military leaders it has been my privilege to know. They truly love the soldiers they lead. While researching a book about the Iraq war I found it imperative that I try and keep any discussion with commanders away from the subject of the men they lost in combat or I would rapidly lose most of whatever time I had to conduct the interview. When the subject of casualties was broached the interviewees would without exception stare away and start recounting every loss their units had suffered in minute detail. It was plainly visible that every one of these leaders felt each loss deep within their souls. A trauma nurse said that the hardest thing she did in Iraq was comfort a burly Marine colonel who was sobbing. Someone in the group said he must have been wounded pretty badly. The nurse was puzzled for a minute and replied, “He was not hurt. His Marines were.” It has been my experience that no commander ever suffers more than when he loses one of the men or women entrusted to his care. That they are able to find the will to carry on despite grievous heartache tells much about the leadership of our Armed Forces. When, as sometimes happens, our commanders fail in combat, it is never because they did not care about their men. Often it is because they cared too much.
For those who have not experienced it, it is almost impossible to explain the depth of feeling that commanders feel for their organizations and the people within them. I have seen infantry commanders who are absolutely fearless in combat break down crying when giving up their commands and moving on to other assignments. I know dozens of officers who have already done one or more tours in Iraq who cannot watch the news because they feel guilty about being safe at home while their comrades are still in danger. I have met dozens of officers who are volunteering for second and third tours in Iraq, simply because young Americans are fighting and dying there and they feel a deep need to be with them.
Those with no familiarity with America’s warriors might say they just like fighting and killing. Those people have never spoken to an officer who has been in a hard fight. They have never heard the cracking voice as he relates the difficulty of looking at people, whether enemy or ally, killed as a result of his orders. They have never heard the anguish of a leader replaying for the thousandth time the loss of one of his own. They did not hear an armored company commander answer a question about how he felt about having his soldiers rebuild schools after fighting to seize Baghdad literally days before. He said, “I cannot tell you how great it feels to be able to stop killing and start helping people.” Such is the overwhelming compassion of those who fight our wars.
–Jim Lacey is a Washington-based writer focused on international and military issues.