SGT Bales: A City on the Hill’s Fallen Guard

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(Preface:  The author has never served in the armed forces.  The author has never experienced combat.  The author submits the following in complete humility as a layman.)

So you gotta look at O.J.'s situation. He's paying $25,000 a month in alimony, got a another man driving around in his car and f*cking his wife in a house he's still paying the mortgage on. Now I'm not saying he should have killed her... but I understand.

Comedian Chris Rock, “Bring the Pain”

On March 17, the United States Army identified Staff Sgt. Robert Bales as the American soldier accused of killing Afghan civilians on March 11.  On March 23, the United States Army officially charged SGT Bales with seventeen counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder.  Bales allegedly left his base in the early morning hours and shot Afghans, including women and nine children, while they slept in their beds, then burned some of the bodies.  Bales' civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, has commented the government will have difficulty proving its case due to the lack of a crime scene and important physical evidence like fingerprints.  Media reporting has produced information on his personal life, in particular, arrests and incidents involving alcohol.  The administration of justice in this extremely sensitive case will take time.  The author submits the following not to assign blame beyond SGT Bales or to condemn the mission in Afghanistan, but, to bring attention, respectfully, to the environment of trust, credibility, and accountability under which SGT Bales has apparently been serving.

The Fourth Deployment

SGT Bales served three tours in Iraq and his tour in Afghanistan was his fourth and this incident has returned attention to the consequences of repeated deployments over a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

In the very first year of the war, numerous observers contended operational requirements exceeded force structure and maintaining the current deployment tempo would impair the Army.  In December 2004, LT GEN James R. Helmly, Chief of the U.S. Army Reserve, submitted a memorandum warning his forces were in “grave danger of being unable to meet other operational requirements... and [was] rapidly degenerating into a ‘broken’ force.”  Two years later, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff GEN Peter Schoomaker testified to a congressional committee that the pace of repeated deployments with insufficient dwell time between operations would "break the active component.”

In the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report, the Obama Administration explicitly sought to distinguish itself from the preceding Bush administration (and the tenure of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) by emphasizing its commitment to focus on the well-being of the servicemember.  The Obama Administration asserted the Department of Defense would now “elevate the need to preserve and enhance the All Volunteer Force and [had] included this priority in our force planning and in our strategy deliberations.”  Accordingly, the administration would emphasize wounded warrior care, supporting families, and “managing the deployment tempo.”  

Former Secretary Rumsfeld had resisted suggestions to increase the overall size of U.S. ground force components.  However, after his resignation, his successor Robert M. Gates submitted and received approval for proposals in 2009 to increase both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.  The increases mitigated the situation (as did decisions to reduce the number of forces in Iraq), but only minimally, as the Obama Administration simultaneously committed the military to surge in Afghanistan.

The deployment tempo concerned leadership and observers alike because many feared a high level would negatively impact re-enlistment, especially when the war lasted longer than expected.

Admittedly counterintuitive, a recent Congressional Research Servie report on retention (03/2012) acknowledged that the high operational tempo may actually have had a positive impact on retention, citing a number of studies by third parties, such as RAND and the Center for Naval Analyses.  The studies had found  that deployments can enhance retention, perhaps by providing participants with a sense of accomplishment.  However, the RAND report also found that the Army was indeed an exception.  The effect of deployment on Army reenlistment had been positive before 2002 and during the first few years of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the effect decreased after 2002 and turned negative in 2006.

At that time (2006), the CRS issued a report entitled “Army Officer Shortages” and reported that Army personnel estimates indicated a future shortage of active duty officers, especially in the ranks of "senior" captain and major.  The CRS noted a 2005 Army survey on officer careers found that separating officers indicated that 48% were leaving due to lengthy family separations and 42.1% felt there were too many deployments.  Nonetheless, the CRS did not observe a dramatic increase in in higher company grade attrition to date, and concluded attrition and the deployment tempo did not appear to have played a major role in projected officer shortages.

Given the long lead time to develop such officers, the principal concern was that  critical unit leadership positions would remain vacant, would be filled by more junior and less experienced officers. Indeed, CRS reported the concern that the Army’s unusually high promotion rates for the FY2001-2005 period, combined with wartime strains and the emphasis on manning the modular units, may have “diluted” the overall quality of the Army officer corps.

What This Cohort Has Revealed

In October 2010, Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh and Chief of Staff of the Army General George W. Casey directed the initiation of the Profession of Arms campaign.  As stated on the related U.S. Army website, the service is conducting the review because “[a]fter more than nine years of persistent conflict, the Army is in transition and needs to reflect on where we are as a profession and how we are going to adapt to remain successful as we continue to serve this nation in a complex operating environment.”

COL Charles D. Allen (Ret.), a member of the Army Profession Campaign's research team, summarized the efforts findings in the Autumn 2011 issue of Parameters, a US Army War College Journal.  Based on a methodology which included comprehensive surveys and focus group discussions, COL Allen reported that the “Trust Climate” is generally positive within organizations and at one level up or down, but not necessarily with respect to Army senior leaders. COL Allen reported:

While leader development initiatives serve as critical components of professional development, only 31.3 percent agreed or strongly agree their organization had effective programs, coupled with just 27 percent who agreed or strongly agreed that leader development programs provided a realistic assessment of strengths and were essential in helping them grow professionally. This particular response reveals an apparent void in what is a perceived need and what is provided in organizations to develop professionals. It may be more indicative of an institutional failing when only 48.5 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "I am actively taught about what it means to be an Army professional." [Emphasis added]

About two-thirds agreed or strongly agreed with statements: "I trust other members of this unit/organization" and "I can trust my subordinates to fully support my directive," indicative of trust in direct leaders. One in five, however, disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, "When an Army Senior Leader says something, you can believe it is true.

“Institutional Trust” is a concern, … Forty percent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed, "The Army no longer demonstrates that it is committed to me as much as it expects me to be committed.

“In general, the Center for Army Leadership reported that a variety of data indicate that Army leaders are competent professionals who trust each other and believe that their unit will accomplish its mission. There, however, appears to be less trust at the institutional level of the Army. Specifically, there is low trust in the future of the Army and its evaluation system. Both interpersonal trust and institutional trust increase with rank-the more senior the individual, the more asserted trust and confidence in others and the institution. [Emphasis added]

COL Charles D. Allen’s findings were echoed in an essay by Ryan M. Hinds, of the Army Research Institute, and John P. Steele, Ph.D., a studies team leader at the Center for Army Leadership, in the January/February 2012 issue of Military Review.  Dr. Steele is the project lead for the Center for Army Leadership Annual Survey of Army Leadership (CASAL), which assesses and tracks trends in Army leader attitudes, leader development, quality of leadership, and the contribution of leadership to mission accomplishment. The CASAL featured over 100 questions covering topics on the quality of leadership and leader development. Their essay summarized the results of the 2010 CASAL.  Hind and Steele reported:

Trend data indicates that Army leaders are lacking in developing their subordinates for future leadership roles. … A two-thirds favorability rating has been established in research as a threshold for acceptability. Since 2006, no more than 61 percent of active duty Army leaders have rated Develops Others favorably. While this competency has improved in the last several years, it is still well below the acceptability threshold and rated much lower than all other core competencies.

Another issue identified by CASAL data is toxic leadership. Toxic leaders are those self-absorbed and self-promoting leaders who work to meet their own personal goals and the goals of the organization at the expense of their subordinates. … Common behaviors among toxic leaders include avoiding subordinates, denigrating subordinates, hoarding information and job tasks, micromanaging, and acting aggressively toward or intimidating others. We estimate that, based on several CASAL data points, one leader in five is viewed negatively for … ‘being a real jerk’

When asked to estimate how big of a problem toxic leadership is in the military on a scale of one to seven, 39 percent of leaders responded six or seven, indicating a serious problem, while only 13 percent responded with one or two, indicating it was not a problem. … Unfortunately, there is no indication that this issue with toxic leadership will correct itself. Promotion of toxic leaders along with lack of negative feedback from subordinates, as well as their willingness to emulate toxic leaders, creates a cycle of toxicity that is not easily broken.

...the success of superiors who are toxic reinforces the message to their subordinates that this is what the path to success looks like. Unfortunately, 50 percent of those subordinates who indicated they worked for a toxic leader expected him to receive further promotion, and 18 percent indicated that they would still emulate him.

Institutional education has a 58 percent favorability rating, a 9 percent increase from 2009, … [u]nfortunately, only 49 percent responded that their most recent professional military education course course actually improved their ability to develop subordinates.

Hind and Steele justifiably recommended changing the culture and incentives.  Unfortunately, the vehicle that should facilitate such change has been found “antiquated and flawed.”  

In the same issue of Military Review, US Army LT COL Scott M. Halter, a strategic planner in the Pentagon, provided a critical assessment of Army's Human Capital Management System.  LT COL Halter wrote the system has four primary shortcomings, of which the last is, again, a loss the trust.  Paraphrasing a flag officer’s observation, LT COL Halter commented, “we are an Army of people, but what we do worst is manage those people.”

Going To War With The Commanders You Have...

Turning the pages of Military Review again and a reader will find an essay by US Army LT COL Joe Doty (Ret.), a leadership and ethics consultant, and US Navy CAPT Chuck Doty (Ret.) on Command Responsibility and Accountability.

Pointedly, Doty and Doty asked -- before the SGT Bales incident -- “[h]ow responsible and accountable should commanders be for a high suicide rate, incidents of sexual harassment, war crimes, or a high number of drug-and alcohol-related incidents within their units?”  For Doty and Doty, accountability should revolve around whether the commander knew or should have known the unit's level of readiness and its command climate.  More precisely, Doty and Doty argued commanders set their units up for success primarily through the command climates they establish and the command climate sets the conditions for how the unit and its soldiers should act when the commander is not around.

Doty and Doty asserted their essay was not to justify micro-management or insubordination, but to simply remind commanders to critically assess who they are as commanders, what their responsibilities entail, and whether they are ready for the privilege and responsibility of commanding America's soldiers.

...Not the Commanders We Need

In his memorable May 2007 “A Failure In Generalship,” LT COL Paul Yingling excoriated the nation’s top commanders.  Characterizing courage, both moral and physical, as the first characteristic of generalship, LT COL Yingling asserted “[f]ailing to visualize future battlefields represents a lapse in professional competence, but seeing those fields clearly and saying nothing is an even more serious lapse in professional character.”  

After summarizing the failure in Vietnam and setbacks in Iraq, LT COL Yingling blamed not an individual or individuals, but a structure apparently incapable of producing competent general officers.  LT COL Yingling forthrightly asserted, “[t]he system that produces our generals does little to reward creativity and moral courage. … In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity.”

To underscore their temerity, LT COL Yingling recounted how some professional military men had blamed their lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters.

LT COL Yingling included the above as an aside, but Doty and Doty commented on this, recommending commanders purposely establish and maintain a positive and ethical climate in their units, and declared:

[t]here is no such thing as a neutral or noncommand climate. Something is going to happen based on the words and actions of the commander.” [Emphasis added]

Wait... Which Commanders Are We Talking About?

In a final visit to Military Review, the reader will find an essay by US Army LT COL Douglas Pryer, the current intelligence chief for Task Force 2010 in Afghanistan, discussing the imperative of Moral Communication.  Noting the role played by information technologies in crafting the narrative of contemporary warfare, LT COL Pryer reminds the reader “armed conflict is more a matter of mind (perceptions and judgment) than weapons.”

America’s first experience with such a conflict came during the Vietnam War.  As LT COL Pryer noted, the difference between flag officer characterizations of the conflict and reporting by news correspondents about conditions on the ground in the mid-1960s resulted in a “credibility gap,” that undermined support for the war.  Moreover, the gap only worsened as the American public learned about the massacre at My Lai (May 1968) and read excerpts of the Pentagon Papers (June 1971).

To preserve credibility, LT COL Pryer directed specific recommendations to the Army and contended the entire military needs to learn how to adapt as rapidly as the narrative does.

Unimpeachable counsel, but credibility during wartime can only be established by the civilian leadership.  More specifically, the elected commander-in-chief and his appointed executives.

A credibility gap akin to that of the Vietnam era has not re-emerged, but recent pronouncements are disconcerting.  

In July 2011, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated his belief that “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda.”  However, on 03/26/2012, US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, in an interview with Christian Science Monitor, warned Al Qaeda could return if the American public signaled it was ready to end the ten year war effort there.

As for accountability, another Doty and Doty observation prevails -- the words and actions of the commander will govern.

In this case, the commander-in-chief.

On March 26, President Barack Obama was recorded assuring outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he will have "more flexibility" to deal with contentious issues like missile defense after the U.S. presidential election.

Unlike military personnel, for whom accountability means being evaluated over and over again, the president is essentially accountable for his words and deeds just once -- when he stands for re-election.  For the president to assert his flexibility will increase after the last occasion he will stand before voters -- the only time he will be accountable -- is reprehensible.

Reprehensible. Inexcusable.  Thinkable?

As noted above, SGT Bales served three tours in Iraq -- where he suffered a head injury and a foot injury -- and his tour in Afghanistan was his fourth.

According to the entry on Wikipedia, his service, and in particular, his second through fourth tours, occurred during the period when concerns arose about the quantity and quality of Army servicemembers.  

His service occurred during a period when significant numbers of his peers observed instances of “toxic leadership” and experienced a loss of trust in their commanders.

His service occurred during a period when senior commanders paid insufficient to the development of their subordinates.

His service occurred during a period when general flag officers were accused of failing to exercise critical thinking when advising civilian decision makers on the execution of the war.

His service ended amidst civilian policy-makers communicating conflicting signals about the progress of the war in which he was fighting.

His service ended amidst a commander-in-chief communicating his disregard for the mechanism by which the American public hold him accountable.

SGT Bales may be a unassailable saint or he may be a unrepetant sinner.  His alleged conduct is reprehensible and inexcusable and he will be held accountable.  But his lapse may just be thinkable, just might be understandable given the dearth of trust, credibility, and accountability in which SGT Bales served.


LT COL Pryer’s closing words, emphasis added as they written before SGT Bales’s arrest, suffice here:

...the question remains: What will the final cost be in terms of casualties, mission failure, and the erosion of our nation's moral authority if our warship should stay on its current course? After a decade of warfare and all the painful, sometimes shameful tribulations that these years have contained, it is troubling to think that these costs could be much higher still.

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