October 04, 2003

Operation Gothic Serpent

Better known to most of you as Blackhawk Down.

Ten years ago - these men, and uncounted Somalis, died.

Because Someone had blunder'd.

These are the dead.

CWO Donovan Briley
SSG. Daniel Busch
CPL. James Cavaco
SSG. William Cleveland
SSG. Thomas Field
SFC. Earl Fillmore
CWO Raymond Frank
MSG. Gary Gordon
SGT. Cornell Houston
SGT. James Joyce
PFC. Richard Kowaleski
PFC. James Martin
MSG. Timothy Martin
SGT. Dominick Pilla
SFC. Matthew Rierson
SGT. Lorenzo Ruiz
SFC. Randall Shughart
CPL. James Smith
CWO Clifton Wolcott

These men died, so that No Man Would Be Left Behind.

Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldiers knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

The soldiers of Operation Gothic Serpent rode, flew, and walked forth to catch a Warlord.

They stayed to recover their dead, wounded, and trapped. And to wreak a terrible vengeance.

When teaching military history and ethics to young officers some years ago, I used to ask them to describe what the Medal of Honor meant to them.

I got the usual answers. Heroism, sacrifice, bravery, defiance in the face of death and overwhelming odds. I agreed. Then I asked the question again. As a leader - what does the Medal of Honor mean. Not to the recipient, but to you, and possibly about you, as a leader.

That usually drew a "What the hell is he smoking?" look from the assembled young leaders. The same look I probably would have given, at least as a lieutenant in the basic course.

In answer to my own question, I replied: It's a medal for a mistake, a horrible miscalculation, omission, laziness, on the part of someone, some commander, some staffer.

And the guy on the ground at the sharp end had to fix it.

And he did. And all too often, he died doing it.

Hey, in war, no plan survives contact with the enemy. That's why he's the enemy. Still, someone screwed up. It may not even have been someone in the immediate or near immediate chain of command. It can be at the national policy level, where risks are taken based on what seem arcane criteria to a guy hip deep in blood.

CPT Elrod found out about dealing with policy mistakes at Wake Island, for example. Or as COL Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine found out at Little Round Top, the overlooked linchpin to the line of defense of MG Meade's Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg.

Or as MSG Gary Gordon, and SFC Randall Shugart found out on 3 October, 1993, in Mogadishu.

In the "wreak a terrible vengeance" hyperlink above, where James Dunnigan writes about professionals versus amateurs, he alludes to the fact that the Rangers wanted to go back and settle accounts with the Somali force that (in a relative sense) caused them so much damage. President Clinton called them off, not wanting a wider war there, especially one that he didn't get to start.

That may have been a prudent decision, given what was known at the time. Here is where the Law of Unintended Consequences comes in. Who saw what happened at Mogadishu and took a lesson from it?

Osama bin Laden.

And he took strength and solace from it. And Aden. And Beirut. And the USS Cole, and the Embassy Bombings. Took so much solace from it in fact that he decided we were weak cowards and sent his henchmen to hit at the heart of the beast. And then a whole bunch of First Responders died, trying to rectify mistakes of policy. A whole bunch of First Responders, and over 3 thousand of the people they gave their lives trying to protect.

More medals for a mistake. Although there is at least one more that should be awarded, to Rick Rescorla.

To Osama and Saddam's current sorrow, Osama found out that we aren't weak so much as we are slow to anger. And when angered, we are very, very dangerous.

Let's take a look at that list of casualties again. It's instructive.

CWO Donovan Briley
SSG. Daniel Busch
CPL. James Cavaco
SSG. William Cleveland
SSG. Thomas Field
SFC. Earl Fillmore
CWO Raymond Frank
MSG. Gary Gordon
SGT. Cornell Houston
SGT. James Joyce
PFC. Richard Kowaleski
PFC. James Martin
MSG. Timothy Martin
SGT. Dominick Pilla
SFC. Matthew Rierson
SGT. Lorenzo Ruiz
SFC. Randall Shughart
CPL. James Smith
CWO Clifton Wolcott

There are 19 dead.

2 Privates First Class.
14 Non-commissioned officers (Corporals, though E4s, are NCO's)
3 Officers.

17 leaders. 2 private soldiers.

That's why the Iraqi Army was torn to tatters twice. That's why the Israelis can savage much larger Arab armies. Leaders who lead.

That's the difference between professionals, and amateurs. In the case of the Iraqi army, damn near every one of their officers should be stood in front of a wall and shot, by their own soldiers.

Back to the students. This is where I set the hook. I told them - don't be why someone wins the Medal of Honor. That is Not A Good Thing. And one way to start down the road to being the kind of leader who minimizes those kinds of mistakes and lapses, is to learn from the mistakes of others. As President Bush learned from the mistakes of President Clinton - lessons I'm not sure that a President Gore would have assimilated. Just as President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, and others, have made so far. But we're learning. In my job, I wade in the lessons and their application.

I study history.

For now, remember the fallen.

Bet you didn't know Taps has words.

Day is done.
Gone the sun.
From the lake,
From the hill,
From the sky.
All is well,
Sleep tonight.
God is nigh.

Sleep well, silent warriors.

From your failing hands The Torch was passed, and your successors carry it high, taking up your quarrel with the foe. They will not break faith, with you who lie in the Gardens of Stone.


Thanks to Jen Martinez at A Collection of Thoughts for reminding me, and providing the kick to my muse.

Update: Jen reminded me in her comment, below: CWO Durant, the man Shugart and Gordon were saving, has a book out.

John | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (7) | Global War on Terror (GWOT) | Observations on things Military
» She Who Will Be Obeyed! links with: Go read this:
» Boots and Sabers links with: Mistakes
» Backcountry Conservative links with: Gothic Serpent: 10 Years Later
» Random Fate links with: Another meaning to the Medal of Honor
» Hanlon's Razor links with: Another meaning to the Medal of Honor
» The Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler links with: Slow Day, Huh?
» Dancing with Dogs links with: Another linkfest
Comments on Operation Gothic Serpent
Jennifer Martinez briefed on October 4, 2003 10:03 PM

That was brilliant! Simply brilliant. I'm at a loss for words. I'm going to check out your links (for this entry) and see if there's any I haven't visited before. I've been researching Operation Gothic Serpent for some time now.

Your perspective on the MOH is interesting, I can honestly say that I never thought of it that way before.

Thanks for turning my entry into so much more... I was sad and solemn all day yesterday. I wanted to do something to mark the 10 year anniversary, and what I did was basically just for me. It was very personal. Normally I include links to further information but this one.... was different.

One last thing, if you haven't read it yet, you should get CWO4 Michael Durant's new book, "In The Company of Heroes." You will not be disappointed, it is an excellent read.

Thanks again and Thank You for your service to our Country, you are appreciated by this American.

Jennifer Martinez sends

John of Arghhh! briefed on October 4, 2003 10:15 PM

Thanks, Jen, for reminding me of the anniversary. I have a signed copy of the book!

Blackfive briefed on October 5, 2003 11:13 PM

Great post, John. I knew some of the folks that were there and I have met many MOH awardees. I think that they would all agree with you. It's amazing that any of them survived at all...because of someone else's mistake.

Jeff briefed on October 6, 2003 08:59 PM

NCO's - the backbone of the army. Very impressed with your advice to future leaders. When done right, there should be no chance or need for heroics. Thank God for our highly trained soldiers with the courage, heart and initiative to "fix it" when the plan makes first contact with the enemy.

doc Russia briefed on October 6, 2003 09:17 PM

Excellent post, sir! True words, if ever there were. I was in the School of Infantry when Somalia went down (where have the years gone?) I remember a once-busted Cpl. telling us young leathernecks that it was a case in point that training was always serious, and not merely something to fill the schedule; that we must train hard, because when the balloon went up, the time for training had already long passed. I am going to link this post to my page. If you find this disagreeable, let me know, and I will remove it immediately.