April 21, 2005
The Strategic Corporal Shows Up in Husaybah
Writing in January, 1999 in the Marine Corps Gazette, then-Commandant, General Charles Krulak, said this about the future of the Marines:
In order to succeed under such demanding conditions they will require unwavering maturity, judgment, and strength of character. Most importantly, these missions will require them to confidently make well-reasoned and independent decisions under extreme stress -- decisions that will likely be subject to the harsh scrutiny of both the media and the court of public opinion. In many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy and will potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well. His actions, therefore, will directly impact the outcome of the larger operation; and he will become, as the title of this article suggests -- the Strategic Corporal.Last week a "strategic corporal" showed up in Husaybah, a small outpost of American force on the border of Iraq and Syria, and he blunted a company-sized terrorist attack, combined with multiple suicide car bombings. The strategic corporal in this case is actually a Lance Corporal: (h-t: the fourth rail)
"Butler — that day, that Marine — that's the critical error the insurgents made," Capt. Frank Diorio says. "They thought they could keep the Marines' heads down. But he gets back up."(More here.)
Butler, 21 and an Altoona, Pa., native, fired through the windshield of the first suicide bomber as he rammed a white dump truck through a barrier of abandoned vehicles the Marines had improvised. Barreling toward the camp's wall, the truck veered off at the last moment under volleys of Butler's gunfire.
Why are Lance Corporal Butler's actions considered "strategic"? Certainly, the heroism of those like Sgt Rafael Peralta is no less notable?
Lance Corporal Butler's actions played a major role in stopping a potential PR-bonanza for Al Qaeda. Just as the actions of the Marine who shot a wounded terrorist in Fallujah was noted by the global media, and used to the advantage of the enemy, this event has been noted by our own domestic media, and that same advantage that the enemy might have garnered by killing dozens of Marines, was stopped. Unfortunately, the pendulum doesn't swing entirely in the opposite direction: the US will not receive a corresponding boost in morale, or in good press coverage, because Marines repulsing an attack is considered the norm, and because such media coverage is not a zero-sum game.
The strategic aspects of the attack should not be underestimated. As Austin Bay has noted in The "Iraqi Tet" Fantasy, the insurgency seems to be grasping for its magical Tet moment when coalition gains will be immediately overturned via lucky media exposure:
But the Tet fantasy is so compelling. Though Tet was by most measures a disaster for the communists, as a media and hence political event, Tet snuffed "the light at the end of the tunnel." The Johnson administration had told the American public Vietnam had reached a turning point -- "the light" -- but Tet demonstrated that North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars and Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas were still capable of potent action. . . .Such theatrics are stopped by those like Lance Corporal Butler and other strategic corporals.
. . . Zarqawi's gang "used a fire truck at Husaybah as a car bomb. That's theatrics if you've ever seen theatrics," Pittman said. "They're trying to create a spectacular event, overrun a patrol or border outpost somewhere, an event with huge media value that would promote their cause and make them seem more powerful than they are."
Junior Marines are often told to read "Rifleman Dodd," a book set in the wars on the Iberian peninsula in the late 1700s-early 1800s. In the story, Dodd finds himself completely cut off from his entire unit, and in enemy territory. Rather than surrenduring, or merely surviving in hiding, he continues fighting on his own. A salty Gunny once told me of his time in the first Gulf War, attached to First Battalion, 7th Marines, commanded by then-LtCol Mattis. Mattis had just finished walking his entire battalion through the invasion plan on a giant scaled map in the desert, and then said, "Marines, if things go wrong, and you get cut off, or look around and can't find your lieutenant, or your sergeant or your corporal, you know what to do. You go toward the sound of battle and kill enemy personnel."
General Krulak later built on his "strategic corporal" concept and wrote about Cultivating Intuitive Decisionmaking:
Napoleon believed that the intuitive ability to rapidly assess the situation on the battlefield and make a sound decision was the most important quality a commander could possess. He referred to this intuition as coup d’oeuil, or "the strike of the eye," and thought that it was a gift of nature. More recently, however, practitioners of the military art have come to believe that while heredity and personality may well have an impact on an individual’s intuitive skills, these skills can also be cultivated and developed. Prior to and during World War II, the Japanese called this skill, ishin denshin, or the "sixth sense," and they observed that it began to appear after months of intense repetitive training in a cohesive unit. During the same time period, the Germans referred to the capacity to make rapid, intuitive decisions in combat as "character." They attempted to first identify innate intuition during their recruiting processes, and then cultivate the skill by forcing their officers to repeatedly make tactical decisions under stressful situations throughout their professional schooling. While some might point out that both the Germans and Japanese were on the losing end of World War II, we might be wiser to ask how they were able to achieve such great military successes given their relative size and resource limitations. Napoleon may be correct if he meant that intuition cannot be taught in the traditional sense, but both the Germans and the Japanese were successful in assuming that -- through repetition -- it could be learned.Teaching or inculcating that innate decisionmaking ability into future Marines was Krulak's goal.
The time is not far off when corporals operating independently of supervision will be the norm. The strategic corporal will not be an occasional incident of a handful of troops cut off from above, or acting on their own. Instead, our forces will be so decentralized that lance corporals and corporals will be challenged as never before. The Marine Corps is already experimenting with a concept called "Distributed Operations." (See here too.)
Distributed Operations, a new concept, empowers small tactical teams that would fight independently, miles apart in the battlespace.With Marines like Lance Corporal Butler at hand, it will not take long for distributed operations to be a reality.
* Teams would have the ability to regroup and fight as traditional Marine Corps units.
* Decision-making would be pushed down the chain of command.
Update: I'm linking to the Mudville Gazette since this may be of interest to those good folks.
Posted by Chester at April 21, 2005 11:14 PM
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