Sweet Enemies

There I was…Balad Air Base, Iraq, 2003. It is July, I am in the headquarters tent of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. I am a Liaison between my commander, COL Charles Yriarte, who is the base commander, and the 3rd BDE commander, who owns the real estate outside of the base. My shift starts at 7 p.m., and ends at 7 a.m.. The tent is right at 100 to 110 when my shift starts, and slowly cools to the mid 80’s or so by the morning. I monitor radio traffic and goings-on from the base defense (towers and gates) and the infantry guys from 3BCT. We have been hit with coordinated mortar attacks a few times, and I am learning the flow of how the 3BCT operates. It is obvious that I am tolerated and not much else by the leadership, though I feel I have gained some respect from the enlisted and the S-3 (operations major) as we have talked into the wee hours, and after I was the only one to stay at his post when the first round of mortars hit in June (thanks to my high school track coach, Dan Nipp, and his visualization training).

We have seen the enemy…and it is us.

On this night, we get hit, again, by mortars. The guys on the towers and at the north gate are reporting flashes from the mortar tubes, and they have the hardware (.50 Cal machine gun)to light up the guys they can see dropping rounds on us. People on the base are being subject to deadly fire dropping down from above. I have the reports from the gate and the tower, and instantly do the intersection of the lines and come up with a location. There are no 3bct troops there, or anywhere close to there. I report the location to the 3BCT officer in charge at that moment, and ask for permission to fire, as we must do since the bad guys are outside the base and his command owns the turf. He looks at me, with such great disdain, and says nothing. The rounds continue to drop on our base, I repeat my plea as the guys in the tower and at the gate are screaming to be allowed to engage. Still, nothing….I take this to mean that the major would rather let troops on the base continue to get pounded than to let the guys at the north gate light up the attackers and be done with it. I become hopeless, realizing that promotions and glory outweigh saving lives for some officers. The attackers gingerly hop into their vehicle and drive off down the road. Several minutes later, the infantry unit outside the wire that is part of the 3bct rolls up. The damage has been done, the attackers lived to do it again, and I have received my crash course in “good army officer conduct”.

Where are the leaders that refuse to let US soldiers be compromised, for their own personal benefit. I know there must be some, although I learn that most are not cut of that cloth. If they are, they must be incredibly brilliant at playing the games and staving off the sharks of the officer corps. I do believe that some such men and women do make it to the highest ranks, but their numbers are few.

The military became “Zero Defects” during the Vietnam era according to LTC David Hackworth, in his book “About Face”. This means that if an officer makes one big mistake, that his career is done. I saw this happen to a great leader when a situation outside of his control was pinned on him by his commander. He was sent back to the states in an admin role, surely to be passed over for promotion and booted out of the military, for a fall that his commander should have taken.  The culture has ensured that in order to get promoted, you need to be clinically safe and to not get anything pinned on you as your fault. This creates a culture where it is encouraged that you backstab and degrade your peers, and subvert honesty for “results”, in order to make the grade. A few leaders make it without engaging in this, but not many.

Zero Defect Schools?

Has NCLB (or the new and friendlier ESEA) done this to public schooling? Are we approaching “zero defects” in our approach to shutting down schools and firing principals? If a school does not produce polished test scores, the surely it is broken (in the eyes of the federal government). When schools start to be shut down, and staff lose their jobs due to this thinking, it produces thinking amongst them that they must succeed in having students pass tests, which in turn encourages otherwise good teachers to start doing things in their classrooms that are not so good. The culture of schooling has become its own worst enemy.

Where are the leaders – the true leaders, that will stand up to the state and federal governments and tell them that their well intended experiment is killing teachers, stressing out students, and driving school and district administrators to either do what is bad for kids (drill and kill to pass the test) or to get out? I am for accountability for schools, but the way it is playing out now, it has the effect of mandating short term drill and kill learning. This may look good for the press, but when these kids figure out that their youth and learning have been compromised for the sake of the adults to comply with a cruel law, and they are ill prepared to leave school, test scores will be the least of our worries.

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