I've just finished reading an investigation relating to a grudge Col. Michael Steele developed against one of his battalion commanders in Iraq. Any sympathy I had for Steele, a veteran of the "Black Hawk Down" battle in Somalia in October 1993, pretty much evaporated as I read the report by Brig. Gen. Rickey L. Rife, the 101st Airborne's assistant division commander for support, on how Steele handled his brigade (also called a BCT, for "brigade combat team").
"Four of seven battalion commanders thought the 3rd BCT command climate could best be described as negative, intimidating, oppressive, frustration and zero tolerance. This was echoed by five of the seven battalion command sergeants major [the most senior enlisted soldiers in the brigade], two of whom had been threatened with relief.''
Two of the battalion commanders said they wanted to get out of the brigade because of "the demoralizing climate created by the 3rd BCT commander"-that is, Col. Steele. The majority view of battalion leadership was that the brigade had a "uniformly poor" climate, Rife found.
Rife's report exonerated Steele of the charge that he had created a command climate that encouraged "illegal, wanton, or superfluous killing." But his findings beg the question of why Steele was left in command for so long when he clearly was at odds with where the Army was trying to go in Iraq, and was leading a unit that had many officers and NCOs chafing under his macho bullshit leadership.
"Soldiers repeatedly stated the brigade commander's expectation was for insurgents to be killed, rather than captured or detained -- if the ROE [rules of engagement] permitted," Rife notes. Actually, in a counterinsurgency campaign, many in the Army had learned by this time, the best thing to do with most insurgents, but not with the hard-core al Qaeda guys, was to turn them -- that is, bring them over to the American side. The second best was to capture them and interrogate them. The third and worst option was to kill them, which meant their intelligence value was lost, and their relatives were antagonized and looking for revenge. Indeed, just a year later, U.S. policy in Iraq was to put the Sunni insurgents on the American payroll -- almost 100,000 of them, by some accounts.
I find Steele's case more egregious than that of a similar officer, Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, because it occurred after two years of additional hard-won experience in Iraq. Back in 2004, at the time that Sassaman's battalion engaged in crimes such as making hand-cuffed Iraqi prisoners jump into the Tigris River, it was arguable to some that fear and intimidation of Iraqis was still the way to go. By the time Steele got to Iraq, that debate was pretty much over inside the Army.
(Hat tip to Wikileaks.org and its overtaxed servers)
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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.