Though I saw it all around
Never thought I could be affected
Thought that we'd be the last to go
It is so strange the way things turn

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On the responsibility of command

This, again, is not the post I wanted to write. However, I just gave an impromptu lecture on the subject of command decisions. My mind is running through all that I know to try and help that person understand that when faced with a horror and a cluster-fuck, you have to make the decision. And here begins the exhaustion rambling on tactical command decision making.

Now, when military commanders (and much of my command/leadership philosophy was formed through the lens of my time in the Air Force and includes "natural command" ability, what I've learned, and what I've been forced to down the road) discuss "control of the situation" most everyday people think that means that they are in absolute command of an area in the way of "being everywhere" in a oversimplified way (such as a soldier on every corner, breaking up meetings, being able to flip a switch and cut off communications, power, services, etc). And it is to some extent. But what they really mean is that the choices they make are the choices they want to make, that their choices aren't dictated by "the enemy." And there is a difference.

In other words, being good at command means being able to avoid/manuever out of/cutting off avenues that lead to making the kind of decision I am faced with. It's being in the position of forcing/dictating the tough decisions to be made by "the opposition." Or in the case of combat, making the other guy die for his country/ideals.

So good commanders control the situation to not be forced into decisions. They change the field to make the decisions they want to make. Or, you want to make the decision of laying down fire from behind this rock or this wall instead of making the decision of retreating under SAFIRE and inviting heavy weapon fire or advancing into a cross fire trap. You want the other commander to have to make the later decision.

That's a gross oversimplification, but I hope most people can see what I'm getting at. If you're good and "in control of the situation" the choice for you is rotate your troops on a twelve hour schedule or eight hour schedule and make "the enemy" choose between resisting and giving up. It's also a matter of choosing OpTempo versus having it forced upon you.

Okay, still here? That's your goal. Force the bad decisions on the other guy.

Sometimes, though, you don't have full control of the situation and must react to other's optempo and goals. I'm faced with that. Sure, there are other avenues of action. Such as in an ambush you can try to pause to evaluate the situation, retreat, stay where you are, or attack (which may including calling in reinforcements). The better option is to avoid the ambush altogether and maybe set up a counter attack. However, sometimes you can't avoid it, or don't realize your in one until the shooting starts.

As a commander you do not have any good options at that point. Hunkering down or pausing and returning fire is playing to the other commander's decision tree and will lead to high casualties. Retreating can sometimes work, but not if you're facing a competent commander (in that case, retreat means certain death). So you're left with attack. All that needs to be decided is which way to attack (and that choice is the difference between success and failure, ie. an "attack to the rear" might not be much different that the retreat). Going forward is typically not a wise decision (unless you have armor or some other advantage such as fresh troops). After all, the ambush is designed to halt you (although if it appears the ambush is back loaded waiting for your retreat, pushing forward maybe the way to go to foil the trap). Typically picking a flanking into the heaviest fire has the greatest chance of success (again, situation on the ground may make that impossible, then choosing the path of least resistance to movement balanced against further possible ambush is best - a completely open pathway out should be avoided as that would be booby trapped).

Have I confused you all yet (I hope not, I know many of you have command experience)? There is no "good" decision in this case because there is a high probably someone is going to die or be wounded (even if you're in armor) no matter what you decide. Indecision is worse, you're all gonna die then. As a commander, you must make the choice. Well, here I'm talking about the tactical command, which means sergeants. If you're an officer and your sergeant has more combat experience there's the question and then the order. Even if the sergeant makes the decision it's still yours, you own it (that's a whole 'nother lecture).

The decision comes down to this, how many people am I willing to lose, how much damage on "the enemy" do I want to impose? The choice to avoid any chance of losing someone is gone. Your choice decides the probability of everybody making it out. And you have to make it (if you don't, your sergeant better and should, in this case the command decision flows down, not up - ie. no chance to "get orders" somebody needs to take charge and move everybody out).

You may make the wrong decision. That's the cougar I mentioned in a post a long time ago. It's hungry and it's always stalking you (Navahos have a saying, "Coyote is always out there, and he's always hungry"). But a decision must be made.

For my decision, I'm hoping to avoid the ambush, but I think we're too far in (it's up to others to see that direction and open the path). Retreat is not an option for us, in this case as it would lead to complete annihilation (it is an option for the opposition to back away from their position). Forward, in my opinion, means accepting too high a casualty rate. So if it comes to it, I will choose the cluster-fuck side and charge. We may not all make it, but there is at least the probability we will.

I'm tired, and rambling and over simplifying (and my brain is also saying, "Yeah, but given other extent factors choosing the retreat or forward charge could be better"). But I hope this make sense.

Hopefully the other avenues will play out and we can avoid the ambush decision. That is the best option at this point. The ambush choices concern risk to the Village, how much and what type of risk am I willing to accept. The person I was discussing this with didn't understand, they believed the forward charge into the ambush option was the only sensible path. I've tried to explain choosing your priorities concerning other situations. For me, these decisions come quickly (YMMV). As I told him, "If you have to make a choice between losing one person or three people, I hope you can make that decision." (and again, you want to avoid having to make that decision in the first place, but when faced with it, you must decide)

I know my priorities. When I see a third path, the lateral thinking, I'm also able to take that. Hopefully we'll get reinforcements. With this I do see a third path, a compromise, and the starting positions may be just that, starting positions. Given the view on the ground, though, it looks like it's an entrenched position and they expect I'm going to make the forward choice. They're going to be disappointed.

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