Been down this military road

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The incident on Friday along the Baghdad International Airport road resulted in the wounding of the Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena and the death of her rescuer, Nicola Calipari. It was a tragic moment, and regardless of who will eventually be found at fault it was clearly a setback in our efforts to hold together a shrinking coalition in Iraq. The lesson here is that in recent wars an isolated action can have enormous strategic consequences.

Metaphorically speaking we’ve been down this road before. Recall the international outcry following the bombing of the Al Firdos command bunker in downtown Baghdad that killed several hundred innocent Iraqi civilians during the first Gulf War. The result was a radical alteration in the air campaign strategy. Essentially the embarrassment of the event compelled the first President Bush to put Baghdad off limits to future aerial strikes. Even after the war the bunker became something of a national shrine within the Arab world symbolizing the perfidy of American military methods.

But the killing along the Baghdad International Airport road is different. The decision to strike the Al Firdos bunker was made by generals. Friday’s incident was the work of privates and sergeants. These young men, many of them teen-agers, had established a checkpoint along one of the most dangerous portions of one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the world. Dozens of young soldiers had been killed by suicide bombers there. It was nighttime. These soldiers had only recently arrived in Iraq. At that tragic moment they had perhaps two or three seconds to make a life or death decision. Is this an enemy driving a car loaded with hundreds of pounds of artillery and mortar shells ready to explode? Or is it an innocent civilian confused and frightened by the glare of spotlights and the terror of tracer bullets coursing into the night sky?

The Baghdad International Airport road tragedy offers a teachable moment for those charged with making key decisions concerning the future of defense policy. The lesson to be learned is this: In this new age of warfare, privates, corporals and sergeants, not generals, make key strategic decisions. On thousands of occasions in places like the graveyards of Najaf and the back alleys of Fallujah, lower-ranking soldiers and Marines are responsible for saving lives or taking them. If they hesitate too long to open fire they die. If they open fire too precipitously, an innocent dies. And as we learned Friday, the consequences of these decisions can change the course of war.

The incident along the Baghdad International Airport road suggests that the strategic realities of this war demand changes in our defense priorities. Our young soldiers and Marines are the best in the world.

But now that privates, sergeants and lieutenants have become strategic decision-makers we must make them better. We spend years and millions of dollars to train officer pilots but often we send our young privates to fight with only a few months of preparation. We know virtually everything about the physiological, psychological and sociological composition of astronauts and pilots but virtually nothing about the human dynamics of soldiers and Marines in close combat. We know that building high-performing small units takes time. Like a good wine, squads and platoons need time to age and mature. But our small units are in such short supply now that they are being sent into combat often with insufficient time to train, coalesce and bond.

We will spend literally trillions over the next decade building ships, planes, missiles and military satellites. But how much money will we spend to make better tactical units? Sadly, very little. The Baghdad International Airport road incident should be a wake-up call to alert us to the fact that this war demands nothing less than a revolution in how this country selects, trains and bonds squads and platoons. Wars like this one are not won by shock and awe. Victory will come with collective successes in a very long series of small tactical engagements.

Success depends on the ability of small units to think and react correctly in terribly ambiguous and uncertain circumstances. We must spend the money, attention, time and scientific research to make them better. A soldier or Marine walking point or guarding a checkpoint is the ultimate weapon in this war. He will determine victory or defeat. He does his duty for about $1,300 a month. He trusts that his nation has done all it can to bring him back home alive and in one piece. It’s time that we stop and take a very close look at how we prepare him for this dangerous and unforgiving task.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.

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