How Commanders Think

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Last week, I sat down with an author who is collecting material for a book about the 101st Airborne Division's part in any future conflict with Iraq. His current working title is "The Fun War." It came to him after he spoke with a number of the senior commanders of the 101st and became enamored of the idea that they were all looking forward to a war in Iraq. He is convinced that they all believe any potential conflict will be little more then an outing in the sun, and great fun for all involved.

That author is wrong.

After spending several weeks meeting with many of these same leaders and watching them conduct their daily activities, I can testify that not a single one of them considers a possible invasion of Iraq fun. In fact, they would be insulted by the very idea that anyone would attribute such a motivation to them. The proposed title also betrays a complete lack of understanding of how our professional warriors think.

As Brigadier General Freakly, the Assistant Division Commander, recently told a group of officers, "Our first and most sincere wish is not to expend our nation's blood and treasure, but if we do have to go fight, then God help them." Note the twin sentiments here — a strong desire to avoid conflict, coupled with the absolute certainty of victory if it is not.

Last weekend, I ran into several of the Division's leaders taking their kids out to movies, and others in restaurants entertaining family members who are visiting from all over the country. Each was finding his own way to say goodbye to loved ones and all of them would gladly forgo that trial if there was a way to achieve U.S. aims short of deploying for war.

At the same time, these men are part of an Army that has known nothing but victory for several decades. There are sure of their own abilities and incredibly proud of the soldiers they lead. When asked about what they expect in a fight with the Iraqi army they are, to a man, certain that they can annihilate anything thrown at them. This is not a boast. It is a certainty that comes after thousands of hours in training that is, in many ways, more demanding then actual war.

At the same time, they are taking nothing for granted — in the final days before deploying to the Gulf, they are spending thousands of man-hours reviewing plans and war-gaming every conceivable contingency among themselves. If there is one common denominator in their conversations, it is the priority of completing the mission with the least risk to the troops they lead. Another striking feature of their discussions is how much time is devoted to the concern of limiting the dangers to Iraqi civilians. If Saddam cared about his own people a fraction as much as our military leadership does, there would be no crisis.

Competence, caring and absolute professionalism are the most common characteristics of the Division's leaders with whom I have met. They may be used to winning, but they know that victory will not come without a cost. If there is to be a war in the Gulf, they want to be the ones to do it. Not because it will be fun, but because they firmly believe they are the ones best prepared fight it. They are individually certain that our best chance at the lowest possible cost is if they are leading the assault. Would the parents of the soldiers going into combat want their sons and daughters led by men who were unsure of their own ability?

None of the officers with whom I have met expect the upcoming trial to be fun. What they do expect is to win. They state this conviction not out of arrogance, but out of quiet conviction. And that is exactly what America should expect from its professional warriors.