Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail Against the Islamic State

NOTE: Today’s post was graciously submitted by Sooner Grunt (aka @soonergrunt on Twitter), a retired Army and Army National Guard Infantry NCO with two tours in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq.  He may one day go back to college to finish his degree in Political Science, but says he’ll probably just play computer games and make stuff in his shop because it’s more rewarding. Either way, he has a wealth of real-world experience, and I’m certainly happy to have him contribute! Enjoy!

When I was a Private in Infantry OSUT back in the dark ages of 1988, my Drill Sergeants had these pithy sayings that they would sling around, usually while smoking some troop, usually me, for some infraction or mistake. “Don’t assume, son. It makes an ass out of u and me!”

The two that really stuck with me, and have actual application in the career of the Infantryman are “Piss poor prior planning prevents proper performance,” and “Failing to plan is planning to fail!” These two maxims are pretty useful in many situations, both in and out of the service, but in the military, the mistakes of failure to plan or to plan properly before a mission are almost always a prime ingredient in mission failure, with all that entails. The most glaringly obvious example of this was the preparation for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The entry into Iraq, routes through the country, the isolation and destruction in detail of Saddam Hussein’s military, and the logistical support necessary to accomplish this goal were planned in detail, down to the minute that individual units were to cross the Line of Departure. But there was no planning for the aftermath. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously banned Pentagon and CENTCOM planners from planning for the days and weeks after the invasion, or even asking questions about it, under the threat of relief. His idea, if one can call it that, was that the whole thing would be over in a few months with a pre-fabricated pro-western government installed in Baghdad and the troops home in time for Thanksgiving dinner. We ended up fighting multiple factions over more than a decade and losing almost 4,500 KIA and over 32,000 WIA, with Iraqi casualties estimated around 100K to 300K killed.

This brings me to our current situation in the Middle East. With Syria engaged in a multi-way civil war, and Dictator Bashar Al Assad engaged against “moderate” Sunnis and an organization variously called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or simply, Islamic State (IS.) We want to see Assad go away, but his strongest adversary is IS. The “moderates” are the weakest and least organized of these factions. They are fighting Assad’s government and IS, who is fighting them and Assad, who is fighting pretty much everybody who isn’t a member of Assad’s Alawhite sect. IS is every bit as brutal and heinous as Assad if not more so, and they aren’t our friends either.

IS, having brutally murdered two American Journalists and posting the graphic imagery of these beheadings on social media, seems to be itching for a fight with the West, and the US in particular. Recently, media pundits and politicians have been clamoring for the US to take a more active role in attacking IS, and demanding that the President do something. The question I’d like to see the television pundits and politicians ask, and they never ask, by the way is this: “There are any number of things we CAN do, but is this something we OUGHT TO do?” The answer just might be “no.”

What bothers the shit out of me, as a former Infantry NCO who’s lead squads and platoons in Iraq and Afghanistan and spent a couple of sentences in Battalion and Brigade S-3 (Plans, Operations, and Training, for those who don’t know) shops, is this demand to do something, as if our simply dropping bombs will suddenly make things better. The people who clamor most loudly for this are, in many cases the same people who led cheers from the sidelines for the aforementioned Iraq disaster. These are frequently people who have little to no experience planning or leading combat operations of any sort and very few of whom had any skin in the game then and don’t have any now.

Successful armies plan the things they do, whether it’s conducting squad PT or invading a sovereign nation. Very successful armies constantly update those plans whenever the relevant factors change. I don’t know what, if anything, the Pentagon is planning for IS. I know that they’re planning something. The President may not have any specific intent at this time, but the J-3’s primary mission is to provide him with options should he choose to do something.

One of the biggest problems dealing with the Syrian situation is this: if we do something that hurts IS, that thing will most likely accrue positive benefits to Assad, and vice-versa. This is one case where the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. If we choose to elevate the “moderates” in the Syrian resistance (assuming that such people actually exist,) that will make things better for Assad or IS, depending on whichever of them is positioned to take advantage of the fact, at least for a short period, because they’re all fighting each other.

One of the most important questions to ask when planning an operation is “what happens next?” We can make some assumptions about what the enemy or the local population will do, based on historical precedent, but that is of relatively limited usefulness. We have to begin with the end-state in mind. What do we want the situation to look like when the last US troop is back safely at home drinking beer and playing with the kids? That’s the Strategic level of planning, and it’s damned hard to do. The enemy has a way of doing what he wants to achieve his goals regardless of what you want him to do. At the Operational level, the planning is generally aimed at creating the environment for the Strategic plans to come to fruition. It’s a smaller scale, generally with a shorter timeframe, with multiple contingency plans based on the enemy’s most likely course of action and the enemy’s most dangerous course of action. This is the domain of Theater headquarters, Corps, Divisions, and to some extent, Brigade-level mission planning. From Brigade level and below, the planning is at the Tactical level, down through Battalions and Squadrons to Companies, Troops, and Batteries, to the Platoon and finally to the Squad and Section. This is where the rubber meets the road.

At every level, planning begins with the Commander’s Intent—what does the higher Commander’s Desired End-State look like? We use the acronym MET-TC to determine what we are going to try to do and how we are going to try to do it. Mission, Enemy, Terrain and weather, Troops and support available, Time available, Civil considerations describe generally the planning considerations to take into account before the first Soldier hits the Line of Departure. And this planning has to take place at every level from the Pentagon J-3 working from the President’s intent down to the Infantry Platoon and Squads out in the middle of bad-guy country. At each level, the timeframe, area of operations, and scope of action are shrunk down to levels that are theoretically achievable by the unit responsible.

While plans at the Strategic and Operational level are frequently thought up and drafted by people with advanced degrees and decades of experience, with access to all sorts of high-tech information systems and the latest intelligence in air-conditioned facilities with nice amenities, the guys and gals who attempt to make those plans a reality are usually High School graduates and recent College graduates, in many cases doing this for the first time in the real world, and they’re running on bad food, little sleep, too much caffeine and adrenaline, using equipment that’s often unsuitable and in varying states of disrepair, and possessing very little knowledge of the outside world and their part in it. Things can go sideways very quickly at the tactical level with repercussions all the way up to the White House. All of the previous paragraphs should have led you to the realization that this shit is hard to do.

Ed: Overall, a fantastic take on why we shouldn’t rush to failure in the Middle East! If you have comments or want to continue the discussion, feel free to get at us on Twitter (@CombatCavScout & @SoonerGrunt) or leave a comment below!

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Your Brain, a Process Called Homeostasis, and Post-Traumatic Stress: A Conversation Starter

(NOTE: This is the first in a hopefully never-ending stream of guest posts from friends of mine. This one is by Science Firebird, who is a research science officer. She did a PhD while her friends did overseas tours, and that stuck with her. Now she does research in recovery from deployment-related health conditions. She’s incredibly smart, and you can follow her on Twitter, @SciFirebird.)

You’ve had it all your life. Everywhere you goes, it goes. It shapes you and you shape it. You go to war, it goes to war. Your combat helmet helps, but it doesn’t protect against everything. You come back… commence the game of push and shove in your head.

The brain is an astounding organ. Sometimes you may disagree with the things yours does (and don’t we all), but if you’re alive today, it’s in large part because of the way your brain has adapted to the environments you’ve passed through on your journey through life. It’s shaped for response, adaptation, and survival. It primes your behaviors for the same.

The thing is, it’s also complex and multi-factored and operates in ways that are to some extent dependent upon your cumulative individual experience- and to make things that much more confounding, it turns out that initiating a survival response is a little more straightforward than reversing that response. You’re alive, mission accomplished, what pressure is there for your brain to return to its pre-deployment state? You’re primed for life or death already.

Despite the talk of complexity and general holy-shit aura surrounding the topic of brain research, we do have a pretty solid basis of knowledge to work from over here. It’s not magic, after all, it’s physiology. We know the brain works in a predictable fashion. We know what drives motor activity, what drives higher cognition, what regulates body temperature, where we process threat stimuli and how we form memories, as examples. These things are the same for us all and
across species. These brain regions work together to produce a given output: say, threat response can shape memory (and in absolute terms, that could go anywhere from a more robust memory to having little memory of the actual event). These things are becoming well understood enough in the research lab that the end result is a slew of tiresome, poorly written science news headlines proclaiming “[Insert Thing Here] Rewires The Brain!”– yeah, well, simultaneously not at all and also no shit. Because the brain may maintain the same wiring diagram pattern, but it is continuously updating the strength of those connections between regions in terms of how relevant they are. This process of response and adaptation to external pressures from the neuronal network level all the way down to the cellular component level is called homeostasis, and without it we would not exist as a species.

Think of a road map. If you’ve got a mass of people commuting from the suburbs to the city, eventually they’re gonna widen the main highway to respond to demand. It’s a little bit like that. (Unless you live in the DC metro area, in which case all these dimwits do is add toll lanes.)

So here’s the bottom line. If you spend a year in an environment where people want to harm you, then you’re going to adapt to become hypervigilant to any sign of danger in your surroundings, for instance. This is a pretty expected kind of response- it’s your brain keeping you as alert as possible to threats and therefore helping you stay alive. I’d wonder a bit about anyone who didn’t respond that way. The key issue, however, is this: once you leave that place and no longer need that hypervigilance, if your brain doesn’t get the “simmer down now” signal and do so on its own via homeostasis, how do we facilitate ramping that vigilance back down to where it used to be?

That’s where the researchers have a lot of work left to do, and the clinicians are struggling for a stopgap tool in the meantime. I wish I had a well-placed bit of snark that would make this fact suck less than it does. Nothing can mitigate the huge sigh of “fuuuuck” that wells up in my mind when I look up for a moment from my daily grind and look at the bigger picture.

But about that bigger picture.

A vexing part of being on the research end here is that the basis for a PTSD diagnosis is grossly suboptimal for research. Our docs are diagnosing based on exposure to a traumatic event- this happens to lots of people in all sorts of places and situations, and not everyone who is exposed ends up with lasting effects. But beyond the basis as exposure to a traumatic event, there is the wide and varied types of responses that are included. It’s my opinion that the definition of PTSD is very wide and needs to be subcategorized, at the least. I think we are looking at a spectrum of diagnoses here, and they are currently running under one definition. It’s very hard to replicate any human condition in a preclinical model in the first place-(and in case this isn’t clear why one would do this, it’s because we can do the best mucking around in brains preclinically)- but when you set very wide goalposts and handwave away accuracy, you essentially are dismissing precision. Without precision, in my world, you’ve got nothing but a mess of data that becomes increasingly hard to assemble into a single coherent direction to drive forward. Without preclinical work, you don’t have clinical studies, and you struggle to assemble something that will help people out down the road.

So what am I trying to tell you here? Lots of things. What’s my hope for the future? I’m working on that.

But I can tell you this much. There’s not going to be a “take this pill every morning and your life will return to the way it was” problem solving approach here. I do think there will be a “take this pill before you go to your therapy session” or “take this pill after you successfully negotiate a difficult situation in the clinic or on your own” approach coming down the line. Because what causes this is an experience-dependent process, I think that so will be the path toward resolution.

After all, you go to war with the brain you have.

Ed: An interesting and thoughtful take on PTSD from an Army scientist is a pretty effin’ cool thing to have. It feels as if she could be talking to or about me here, and I know plenty of vets who feel the same. I especially appreciate the use of layman’s terms and analogies, because I’m not the smartest grunt in the world, by far. What did you guys think? Feel free to comment!