Sometimes, you really don’t understand

Good article over at CJO on empathy and understanding for leaders.

The first thing I learned from this experience is that unless you’ve personally experienced a problem, it is unlikely you fully understand the issue. We can listen, we can learn, and we can empathize, but we’ll never have the same perspective as someone who has been on the receiving end of racism, sexual harassment and assault, or any of the other serious issues facing our formations.

Do We Really Understand?. By: James McLaughlin | by CoCMD & PLT LDR | Leadership Counts! | Mar, 2021 | Medium

When brought a problem, many leaders have a tendency to rush to demonstrate understanding.

“Ah yes, I understand,” often replying with some similar (but potentially off the mark) anecdote in an attempt to build rapport.

Better, is to admit when this is something you haven’t experienced, and to try to listen and find where your gaps are, and then use your experience to marshall resources where appropriate.

Instead of “I understand how that must feel,” maybe “That must be really hard.”

Squishy? Yes. But it can go a long way.

There’s also some good anecdotes in this piece about failing to salute, which can be embarrassing.

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“It’s hard when you have your homogenous club…”

I was listening to Tim Ferriss’ interview with writer and former San Francisco firefighter Caroline Paul. Late in the podcast (1:22:00) she talks about developing a thick skin, and what it was like being one of only a handful of women in the fire department. The quote below struck me as particularly relevant to the current – and ongoing – saga of female integration into combat arms.

“I mean, it’s hard when you have your homogenous club, like we all do, if you look at your friends they all look like you, and then suddenly it’s forcibly opened, and it’s just difficult. It’s right. You shouldn’t have your club necessarily, you don’t have a right to it, but, still, it’s going to be hard, and I really did empathize with that.”

It’s very rare to hear empathy for the loss of “the homogenous club.” It takes a lot of maturity to be a trailblazer in this regard yet still understand what the other might be feeling and have empathy – especially when you think that feeling is wrong.

I’ve written previously about the infantry being the last “all-boys club” and that a lot of the defense of maintaining an all-male infantry might be couched in protecting that status.

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On the Iraqi “will to fight”

iso group photo

You may remember the way policy makers and anonymous sources blamed the Iraqi Army’s failure to hold territory in the wake of ISIS’ advances on their lack of a “will to fight.” It was hard, as you can imagine, to figure out how a numerically superior and better equipped professional military could simply wash away when faced with what amounts to a lightly-trained criminal gang. The Iraqi Army had more people, more guns, and were trained by the the best military in the world leading up to their defeats in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul.

Barely hidden in many of the accusations of lacking “will” was the idea that there are impenetrable cultural reasons that explained it.

Or stated another way, Iraqis just don’t have the guts to fight.

Of course, that’s a silly argument since a great number of ISIS fighters are Iraqi, and they don’t seem to have a problem waging effective warfare. Still, it doesn’t stop people from making it.

When Mosul fell, there was a great deal of outrage from outsiders over the seeming unwillingness of the Iraqi Army to defend their own territory. Here was the Iraqi Army with the real opportunity to engage ISIS on the battlefield – an opportunity that a lot of arm-chair generals seem to fantasize about – and instead of wrapping their hands around the necks of ISIS’ throats, they ran away.

As someone who researched the nature of Iraqi military service, and spent time in Iraq and watched an entire Army disintegrate overnight, it didn’t seem that strange to me.

Major Adam Scher, a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, also didn’t think it seemed that strange. He tackled the issue in a good article on The Army Press called Collapse of the Iraqi Army’s Will to Fight: A Lack of Motivation, Training, or Force GenerationHe also wrote a shorter piece on the same issue for Task & Purpose back in December.

The thing that Scher does that many do not, is engage his own empathy in an attempt to try to understand why something might actually happen instead of just going for the low-hanging fruit – in this case, “culture.”

Scher writes:

“The Iraqi Army lacks trust in its equipment, training and its soldiers because between 2011, when coalition forces left Iraq, and 2014, when ISIS attacked, the Iraqi Army executed almost no training, effectively recruited no new soldiers, and broke or sold the majority of the military equipment it had acquired between 2004 and 2011.”

And:

“As Iraqi forces tossed their weapons, abandoned their vehicles, and fled the battle, many blamed the Iraqis for a lack of motivation without investigating the myriad administrative and logistical failures that set the conditions for even the bravest fighters to flee the battlefield.”

An even more important point that Scher makes is the proximity of the Iraqi soldier to the battlefield. This is a war that is happening in their own cities and neighborhoods. Soldiers, and even potential soldiers are under the constant and near threat of violence. Army recruiting lines are rich targets for suicide bombers. The severe brutality of ISIS doesn’t need to be recounted here, but imagine what it would be like to join a teetering Iraqi Army facing a vicious, highly motivated group that has no qualms about using just about any techniques necessary to defeat you.

And more importantly, what you might feel if you were joining the Army and leaving your family behind.

On this, Scher writes:

“Another key administrative aspect of the will to fight is the belief that one’s family is protected during the fight and will be taken care of if the soldier makes the ultimate sacrifice. Between 2011 and 2014, Iraqi Army soldiers were not trained in proper first aid or medical evacuation procedures, meaning they had almost no confidence they could survive a battlefield injury, and a lack of a veterans health program means that any soldier who dies in battle effectively economically cripples their family.  ISIS exploits this failed administrative system by specifically targeting family members of the Iraqi military:

“ISIL capitalized on soldiers’ fear that they and their families would be targeted if they fought as rumors spread. Soldiers had little faith in the military’s ability to protect them, their families, or prevent infiltration … reducing [the Iraqi army] to a state where innuendo and psychological operations could push units towards collapse without prolonged direct combat.””

One of the key takeaways of my research on Iraqi military perspectives was that notions about military service are not universal. This is especially true in the Iraqi case, where men drafted into the Iraqi military complained that their youths were wasted. Unlike most Western nations, simply being a member of the military does not garner a person significant social status, and there is usually very little in terms of veterans’ benefits.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Scher that the solution to these problems reside in replicating the American force generation model, his understanding of some of the root causes of the Iraqi collapse is refreshing, especially when so many others are content to simply blame “their culture.”

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