[June 18, 2020] Wednesday afternoon, October 5, 2005; hot, sunny, dusty, and smelly. It was just like any other day. My engineer design section was inspecting one of the large canals in southeast Baghdad, Iraq. Their task was to find out whether the canal could supply water for our military bases in the area when it came under attack by insurgents. The Lieutenant leading the section was new. My men discovered that day to follow the leader is not always good.
Not all leaders are good at what they do. They don’t all have the skills, experience, or insights with which to lead men into battle or to solve a problem in a company manufacturing widgets. In these pages of my website, I have been consistent about what it takes to be a good leader, one who can both accomplish the mission and take care of his troops. Fighting on a battlefield puts to the test all we know about leadership and how it can succeed one day and fail the next.
Lieutenant Johnson had completed the Engineer Basic Officer Course at the top of his class. He was trained in college as a Civil Engineer and had begun work on his Masters in Engineering. Like many engineer officers in the U.S. Army, he was one of the rising stars among the “new” and smartest engineers who could juggle multiple priorities in a challenging environment.
However, that day he failed to heed the warnings of our Intelligence Officer, who had alerted us to a small group of Shia insurgents in the vicinity of the canal. In the After Action Report, he admitted to ignoring the warnings since he figured Wednesday, the beginning of one of the holiest Muslim holidays, Ramadan, would be reason enough for insurgents to rest and pray. He was wrong.
They say that complacency kills. We had been in the country for nearly ten months. We knew the terrain, the enemy, the environment, and had our tactics down pat. Our unit had accomplished more than anyone could have imagined just a year earlier, and yet we did not expect an attack on a 15-soldier well-armed element. Fortunately, no one was killed. A few Purple Hearts were awarded, but the attack sparked a serious debate about whether we were overconfident, too smug, or just excessively careless to complete a simple mission.
Leadership is one of those things that failure is sometimes not an option. If you lose, you may die, and your troops too may die. For a long time, the insurgency had allowed engineers to pass through their lines without interference because we were builders, not fighters. On this day, the calculus changed, and we were in for a fight for our lives. Sometimes it not a good idea to follow the leader.