[July 6, 2019] In military terminology, the last line of defense is that position where the mission is to hold enemy forces and not allow them to pass. If an enemy breakthrough occurred, the entire organization would risk being destroyed. Leadership is often the last line of defense; there is no one or nothing else that is available to prevent failure.
In late 2006, during the Battle of Turki near the town of Baqubah, Iraq, a battle was fought over 40 hours between paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division and well-trained insurgent forces. Beginning with an ambush on American forces, insurgents aggressively fought from a fortified trench system. Fearing they would be overrun, they tenaciously defended the trenches because they had no escape, additional supplies, or replacements. Their last line of defense collapsed, and their units were destroyed by U.S. paratroopers.
The leader is the person upon which all responsibility rests. There are no do-overs, no second chances, and no cavalry charging to the rescue of the leader. Leaders are independent people with a variety of relevant experiences and crucial skills that are on-the-line for a very good reason; they have proven themselves, and they must put their skills to the test when called upon.
Leadership means being prepared for both predictable scenarios and the unpredictable. The latter – in the unpredictable circumstances – is where the best leaders shine and earn their credibility as capable, worthy leaders. An adage from “Murphy” says that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. In combat, I can attest to the fact that Murphy’s Law is accurate.
For the Iraqi insurgent commander, he underestimated his unit’s effectiveness and the skill and firepower of the 82nd Airborne troopers (everything went wrong for him). Despite employing good infantry tactics and being well-placed in a defensible trench system, he employed his last line of defense to stop the Americans. While his tactic failed, it demonstrates the proper way that leaders use what they possess to their advantage, and it also shows what happens when leaders are not fully prepared.
In war, according to Carl von Clausewitz, there is always uncertainty that creates irregular, volatile, and uncertain events. He called it the “fog of war” in his book Kriege (1832).1 Any leader who prepares his last line of defense should heed the warning given by the great military analyst Clausewitz that, “everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”