How we’re built

29Oct12

I’m going to depart from my usual war and cop stories to talk a bit about current events. To me, the most important issue in the public eye is the Benghazi consulate attack and our country’s response. If there is one single issue that’s going to drive my vote, this might be it.

I’m not going to go all the way up the chain and assign blame for our actions or inaction. A complete investigation hasn’t been done, and many others know the situation better than me. I’ll let those with access to more information argue over who is ultimately responsible.

However, one official recently made a public statement that immediately caught my attention, and I feel I have to address it. To paraphrase, the official said “We don’t commit forces if we don’t have a full picture of what’s happening on the ground.” This was to explain why our government didn’t send additional security teams or aircraft to assist consulate personnel when they were being overrun. In other words, we couldn’t dispatch Special Forces teams, or even put attack aircraft on station over the consulate, because we didn’t have enough information. According to this official, we could have put more Americans at risk if we had committed more forces without a clear understanding of what was happening at the consulate.

When I read this statement, I was shocked. Not just at the statement itself, but at the fact that the entire country didn’t rise up in angry protest at it. This person seems to lack a basic understanding of the principles that our military, and much of our country in general, operates under.

Here’s the reality: in the military, we often send troops into harm’s way without a clear understanding of what’s happening. Sometimes the entire point of the mission is to get there and find out what’s going on. I personally have been on a mission where the team I was with rolled into a confused, chaotic mess after another unit had been ambushed. We knew our guys had been hit, we knew they were under fire and had taken casualties, but we didn’t know exactly what the situation was. We went anyway.

This wasn’t some unusual, out of the ordinary, “Oh my god you’re so brave” mission. Thousands of our troops have done this over the last eleven years. And nobody in our quick reaction force  jumped up and protested, “We can’t go help that team! We don’t know exactly what’s going on! It would be wrong to send us out there!” If someone had, they would probably have been deemed untrustworthy and left behind. We wouldn’t have accepted anyone who wasn’t prepared to go to the aid of other soldiers who needed our help.

There’s a mentality at play here. Many of us in the military accept without reservation that we might have to die in order to help others. This mentality isn’t something that’s been beaten into us by the military; not all soldiers have it. But for those of us who do, I think it’s just the way we’re built. Because we’re built this way, we seek out people and organizations who embrace that mentality. We join the military, become cops, firefighters or paramedics, or are civilians who leap into action when we happen to encounter someone else’s life-threatening emergency.

I’m going to focus on police for a moment. Literally every day, police officers somewhere in America hear a fellow officer screaming on the radio for help. Officers drop whatever they’re doing and fly at top speed toward that officer in distress. They don’t say, “Hold on, I’m not leaving this spot until I know exactly what’s going on.” If one officer refused to go to another officer’s aid, they would rightfully be ostracized as a coward. If a supervisor told his officers, “Stay where you are, don’t even start heading that way until I know exactly what’s happening over there,” he or she would rightfully be labeled as a moron who no officer should ever listen to again.

I have seen officers charge headlong into danger countless times in my police career. It’s so common it only stands out when it doesn’t happen. One of the proudest moments of my life occurred one afternoon in Kosovo, when a Kosovo Police Service officer was shot outside a hotel in downtown Prishtina. When the radio call about the shooting went out, American officers from all over the city raced toward the hotel to assist. We didn’t know exactly what was going on, who or where the suspect was. As I ran down a sidewalk toward the scene, I saw a few officers from other countries going the opposite direction. Officers from fifty-four countries were participating in the Kosovo police mission, and guys from more than a few of those countries didn’t want anything to do with that shooting. But Americans rushed toward the sound of the guns, as we always do.

Maybe this sounds strange to some of you who have never been in a profession where this mentality is expected. The reasonable response to  someone’s request that you go toward danger would seem to be 1) Stay where you are, 2) Gather information, 3) Assess the danger level and overall risk, 4) Make a plan, and 5) Approach with caution. The problem with this “reasonable” approach is that catastrophes unfold quickly, time is always of the essence when our men and women’s lives are being threatened, and aggression by our enemies must be crushed with an overwhelming response. We can’t take time to wait until we have a crystal clear view of the situation.

Therefore, those of us who have vowed to protect others, who have pledged our lives to this country’s defense, are honor bound to disregard risk, mount up and go. We can throw together a plan in a helicopter, or on a plane, or in back of an armored vehicle. We can talk through actions on the objective over the radio as we’re moving. We can fall back on the basics of communication, security and firepower if we don’t have a larger plan. We can figure out what’s going on when we get there.

I’ve been in a couple of desperate situations in remote valleys thousands of miles from home. I went into them willingly. Part of the reason I could do so is that I knew I wouldn’t be abandoned; if we needed help, someone would do whatever it took to come to us. Even if a rescue effort seemed like a “suicide mission”, help would come. And for my part, I also had to be willing to do whatever it took to help other soldiers in need. For that reason, I knowingly headed into that valley with the quick reaction force to help another unit that had been brutally ambushed. For that reason, I joined a group of American and Afghan soldiers who tried to flank a large Taliban force that had ambushed a company of French Marines, killing one and badly wounding two others. For that reason, other soldiers and I were nearly killed recovering a fallen American. For that reason, a French soldier on one of my missions drowned trying to rescue another soldier who he must have known he couldn’t save.

None of what I just described is “heroism”. Heroism requires a conscious choice between remaining in safety or exposing yourself to danger. The very idea that we would abandon troops in desperate need was so foreign it would never even be considered. There was simply no question; if our people needed help, we were going.

When a parent sees their child about to be hit by a car, they don’t step back, consider the risk to themselves, take the time to fully understand the danger (What kind of car is it? How fast is it going? What are the road conditions? What is the estimated stopping distance if the driver jams on the brakes?). The parent will disregard the danger and just go. Likewise, when soldiers hear that our people are in danger and need help, we go. It’s not heroism. It’s not a choice. It’s an instinct.

I’m not saying we should send people into danger without a plan, or without consideration for risks. But I am saying we should never, under any circumstances, abandon Americans under attack. If there’s a chance, even a strong chance, that backup forces might suffer losses, so be it. We still go. And anyone who says otherwise, whether they’re a soldier, commanding general, street cop or government official, is advocating cowardice.

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4 Responses to “How we’re built”

  1. 1 Anita

    Absolutely know this is how you guys work Chris. Anyone who knows the military and other first responders know they run, not walk, into unknown situations every day. Mr. Pannetta needs to step down as do many others. Hopefully Adm. Ham will come forward with the whole truth now that he’s “retiring”.

    • Anita,

      I’m not able to identify any specific people for criticism, but I do hope everything comes out eventually. By eventually, I mean as soon as possible. It is amazing to me that there is no public uproar over this. Today ABC world news mentioned the world series, but nothing about Benghazi.

  2. 3 Tony

    I can’t recall a better explanation of the warrior mindset than what I just read.


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