BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN — I had dinner tonight with a Lieutenant Colonel, and we were chit chatting about the various institutional barriers the Army faces in fighting this war. He brought up the idea that, indeed, the Army remains what he calls a “Peace Time Army,” that is one still geared toward long deployments home, an obsession with low casualties to the detriment of all else, and an obsessive garrison-like preoccupation with minor rules (like wearing reflector belts at night, oh how I hate that one) rather than accomplishing the larger mission.
See, every time a soldier dies, the Army must conduct what’s called a 15-6 investigation (pdf). While AR 15-6 investigations come in a variety of shapes and sizes, when a death is involved a 15-6 is ordered by a general court-marshal authority. It is a very big deal. Even if the investigation not only clears but lauds the investigated, it is such an enormous hassle, and such a distraction from doing anything else for a very long time, that it is understandable to want to avoid them whenever possible (this is ignoring the moral and ethical side of having a soldier die under one’s watch). While discussing this, the LTC got a bit agitated.
“You know what, though?” He said, his voice rising a bit. “People die in war. It sucks, but it has to happen to get things done.” I was a bit taken aback. Even though I’ve spent years in military contracting, I’m not used to hearing people talk like this. He was right—basic tenets of counterinsurgency, like what I call “the lie of force protection” (i.e. force protection makes you less safe), actually do put people at risk and make them more likely to die. Effective counterinsurgency is a dangerous business. But then the LTC dropped a bombshell that got me to thinking.
“No one has ever gotten a 15-6 for losing a village in Afghanistan,” he said. “But if he loses a soldier defending that village from the Taliban, he gets investigated.”
As soon as he said it, we both paused for a second and looked at each other.
“I think you just explained why we’re losing,” I said, meaning every word. As of late, I’ve been fighting this nagging feeling that, from command on down, there is no concerted desire to accomplish the mission, just a desire to finish one’s tour and head home and screw whoever has to pick up the pieces later.
After another pause, he looked at me and said, his mouth twisting ever so slightly, “You know, I think you’re right.”
We didn’t say much for the rest of dinner.