|All Points West: We’re on the same team|
|August 05, 2016 Frank Marquez|
I carry an Army Values card in my wallet. It lists traits that effectively improve the way soldiers do business. Those values are listed in this order: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service (Sacrifice), Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. There’s a trait I would emphasize. Integrity.
I kept these values in mind, as I listened to speaker and author Kris Paranto at the Gering Civic Center on July 28. Brought to town by local Republicans, Kris, a former Army Ranger, contracted to serve as a security specialist for the Central Intelligence Agency in Benghazi, Libya, and was one of a handful of Americans who fought off a terrorist attack on September 11, 2012. He came to give what turned out to be a graphic account of his experience in a ballroom filled to capacity. His story is also conveyed in a book called 13 HOURS, and duplicated in a recently released film. Holding nothing back, his talk was laced with humorous anecdotes and profanity, practices not uncommon to being an infantry soldier.
Attending as a VIP guest, I listened to Kris speak. He signed my book and we chatted about a common training ground in Guernsey, Wyoming. I felt it was important for our newspaper, the Gering Citizen, to write about a subject which concerned such a large number of people in our community. I was proud to stand with Kris, regardless of his contract status in Benghazi, a man extremely loyal to his country. Now calling his home Omaha, he downplayed his Colorado roots. At the same time, I was disheartened to learn that his story of heroism had become political fodder. I am also disheartened by the related lack of values displayed by both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, and some of their followers who have perpetrated hatred. Not that it should matter. For the record, there’s a difference between policy makers, who declare war, and the defenders of peace, who fight them.
Four Americans died in Benghazi, because mistakes were made, chief among them inadequate security for a nine-acre State Department compound. Among possible lessons, the State Department and the CIA, in a co-located annex, could have devised an agreement for protection knowing the compound was overexposed, and had endured two previous attacks. Ridiculing the CIA agents, Kris compared them with fictional agent Jason Bourne, who I liken to a James Bond on steroids. Maybe these folks in Benghazi, seeing the bigger picture, should have heeded real warnings and given a more accurate assessment of a terrorist threat up and down the chain of command. Maybe the CIA chief could have acted more quickly in making the decision to send an experienced security detail to the compound immediately after the attack, making the best use of an hour, which instead was wasted, adding to a long night of tactical mistakes, according to Kris. Minutes, nay seconds, can make all the difference in the heat of battle. In a Washington Post story published in January, the same CIA chief known as “Bob” refutes the movie version, saying he never gave the order to “stand down.”
As we say in the military, hindsight is 20/20. Could people have made better decisions? Speaking as an arm chair quarterback, sure. As someone who was not there, I am far from certain, as perhaps are the FBI and Congressional investigators, who in the end ruled out any wrongdoing or fault. Ultimately, the person in charge must bear responsibility, but who would that be? In this case, anyone directly related to dishing out orders. Any observer or anyone listening to hearsay might be wise to consider far reaching causes, such as what led to the compound being understaffed by security – a barebones budget and a fouled-up mission? Under a microscope, we might discover how communication was muddled, how orders were not quite understood, and how people made a spectrum of bad decisions at varying levels. Potentially, average Americans, unfamiliar with the military and foreign missions, could have misunderstood, misconstrued the story, making it even more unclear.
I will say this. As a veteran, I do not believe it is in my best interest to indulge in assumptions. Believe me, decisions made in Washington play out in a far different way on the battlefield. Assumptions are like land mines. Criticizing our appointed leaders and questioning orders can lead to serious breakdowns or blowups. Battles are messy enough. In the field, we are not identified as Republican, Democrat, Independent, or Libertarian. It would be ridiculous to think Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was ordered into harm’s way because of someone’s political stripes. Given intelligence reports, and security assessments made by special operators, it was incumbent upon Ambassador Stevens to leave that day, as if the anniversary of 9-11 wasn’t enough of a clue. Speaking of … It would be the same as saying President Bush could have prevented the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It would be the same as saying, commanders in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan should be disciplined because the fighting men in their charge risked their lives and died, unfairly or questionably. If this were the case, we should act to indict all our leaders for less-than-satisfactory leadership.
I’m a guy who suffers survivor’s guilt, too. As taxpayers, blood is on all our hands. Realize, we all bear responsibility for our nation’s actions. In 2011, I spent a year in Afghanistan, serving as a field historian, gathering the expurgated and uncut truth in interviews from the soldiers and others who provided support systems on the ground. I had a front row seat to seeing plans made to soldiers carrying out orders. Mistakes were made there, too. As soldiers, we know what it means to sign on the dotted line. We follow the orders of leaders appointed over us. Making spur-of-the-moment decisions is not easy.
The combat outposts I visited, dots on the maps of several provinces in the Regional East Command, encompassed some of the most active or kinetic fighting, included the Korengal Valley, which was once referred to as the deadliest place on earth. In several aggressive campaigns, soldiers were ordered to construct an outpost, which was later made famous in a book titled Restrepo by combat reporter Sebastian Junger; it was a widely watched documentary of the day-to-day lives of the soldiers assigned to it. The outpost had no real strategic advantage or objective other than to send a message to the Taliban. It was a move commanders believed would stun the enemy.
To verify accounts, someone somewhere down the road would need to interview the Taliban, and their affiliated terrorists, mercenaries, high value targets, or any label which fits neatly with your views, and it won’t matter who is in office when the truth comes out. Frankly, I can’t even begin to make sense of what occurred there in Afghanistan, not now and probably not 20 years from now when the Center for Military History takes the wrapping off my collection.
Eventually, the 101st ordered the pullback of troops, giving up ground, and the value of what the soldiers had done – the blood, sweat and tears shed – went unrealized. Soldiers died because leaders made errant decisions. That’s a part of the military, and therefore, a part of life. Would this be an indictment of just one leader? Well my friend, that’s a big grey area. If it’s a grey area for me; no doubt, it is for you, too.
What’s the real take-away here? The CIA might have provided greater insight of the days leading up to the attack. As for State Department officials, they are paid to talk, not fight. As for Americans parsing words, and basing conclusions on loose fitting arguments and ill-conceived premises, the result of which has been our unparalleled mistrust of each other, we will lose the high ground.
Remember those values I mentioned? I keep them as a reminder of the kind of leader I should be for my own troops. Because in the end, we are all Americans. We are all on the same team.