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January 2009

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Leadership: Combat Leaders and Lessons
Review by John M. Handley, Ph.D.

LeadershipColonel James L. Abrahamson, USA (Ret.) and Colonel Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr., USA (Ret.) Editors, Leadership: Combat Leaders and Lessons, Bigfork, Montana: Stand Up America, USA, 2008; 184 pages plus 7 pages of biographical information on 15 contributors; ISBN 978-0-615-25574-3; paperback.

Fourteen members and one honorary member of the United States Military Academy class of 1959 decided to present the 2009 USMA graduating class, on the fiftieth anniversary of their graduation, a book on leadership that includes 25 vignettes dealing with leadership issues and concerns and their respective “lessons learned.” 

The first chapter of the book includes five historical accounts of earlier USMA graduates, Generals Lee, Grant, Pershing, MacArthur, and Patton, and leadership challenges they met and overcame.  The Lee and Grant examples both involve giving credit to the troops for victories while accepting the responsibility and blame for any defeats. 

With Pershing, one sees the combination of nation building with sufficient force to bring about a peaceful settlement of a dispute near the start of the twentieth century in the Philippines. The MacArthur example examines leadership from the front, while the story about Patton focuses on his aggressive ability to rapidly take the war to the enemy and fight when and where he chose to fight. 
Chapter two provides three leadership examples from the Vietnam advisory period, pre-1965, and includes the remarkable and inspiring story of Medal of Honor recipient, Captain Humbert “Rocky” Versace. 

The third chapter also addresses lessons learned from Vietnam, with ten vignettes from the post-1965 American military campaign period, three of which describe leadership under fire, with others on the role the U.S. Air Force played in saving the lives of American service personnel on the ground; mentoring; loyalty; courage; rebuilding a demoralized unit; facing anti-war protestors; and the importance of a thorough investigation of all the facts before making a decision to relieve an officer of command. 

In chapter four, one encounters the post-Vietnam period of the American military experience.  The first lesson learned comes from the absolutely intriguing account of Major General Nicholas Krawciw when he served in 1973 as a “frocked” lieutenant colonel (one wears the rank but is paid at a lower rank) in the United Nations Truce Supervision Association (UNTSO) before, during, and after the Yom Kippur War.  

Two separate lessons concerning integrity are found in examples provided by USAF Major General William Cohen, then a young lieutenant serving as a navigator on a B-52, and Colonel Andrew O’Meara, when serving as a tank battalion commander at Fort Hood in 1975.  The last two examples involve knowing how and when to obtain good advice from experienced warrant officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), as well as when to make your own informed decisions that may differ from the advice you are receiving.

This short book on leadership concludes with chapter five, which includes the final two examples of lessons learned.  The first essay, written by former USAF Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, presents a fascinating account of the 1986 air raid on Libya, entitled “ELDORADO CANYON.”  This essay is worth the price of the book.  It is an excellent explanation of the complicated planning and training that went into creating the operation, to include marshalling and launching multiple airframes from multiple airfields, minimal and/or last-minute coordination with allies, operations security (and the lack of it in Washington), and several small deception operations that assisted in the successful completion of the mission with the unfortunate loss of one F-111 and its two-man crew.

The last essay of chapter five is a slightly edited republication of “A Commander’s Perspective” by General Frederick Franks, the VII Corps commander during the first Gulf War of 1991.  This essay first appeared in Military Review in 1996.  General Franks both begins and ends his perspective with the quote: “Don’t worry, General, we trust you” (165; 184).  The 20-page essay purports to discuss the three components required to be a skillful battlefield commander: character, leadership skills, and competence. 

One could read this essay as a defense of the charge levied at General Franks by General Schwarzkopf of moving his corps too slowly and thus allowing major elements of the Iraqi Republican Guard to slip through the “back door” and escape encirclement.  It was General Franks’ job to close the door.  For example, under character, General Franks says to know yourself, to have the courage to be who you are, “even in the face of modern battle, with its external pressures such as instant coverage of operations, post-action second-guessing and instant judgment by others…. It is not an easy thing, this retaining your own sense of self in a culture that demands obedience in battle” (167). 

In another possible dig at General Schwarzkopf, General Frank asserts, “There is no room for a “me first” attitude in battle…. The spotlight should be on the lead not the leaders (169, italics in the original).  Battle command, according to General Franks, is “not being threatened by new ideas or questioning by subordinates in the heat of battle” (170).  General Franks advises commanders to get away from their command posts and be upfront with their units (174), something General Schwarzkopf either did not or could not do, and he complains about commanders ordering subordinate commanders away from their units for meetings rather than going to the subordinate commander himself (176).  

General Franks seems to complain about the fact that he had with him only some 40% of the original VII Corps, with the bulk of the corps coming from U.S. and allied units he did not know and with whom he had not served (177).  He also had to incorporate new weapons systems on unfamiliar desert geography completely alien to his experiences in Europe (180). 

This last essay appears more of an apology to explain why General Franks was slow and reasonably circumspect in the movement of his corps as opposed to lessons learned for modern battlefield leaders.  Of course, since I retired from the Army as a colonel, and I was not there with VII Corps, I am probably being overly critical.

Regardless, the rest of the book is excellent, especially the moving essay on “Rocky” Versace, the UNTSO essay, the two essays on integrity, and the essay on Operation ELDORADO CANYON.  For anyone interested in leadership skills, whether military or civilian, I highly recommend this small book of leadership lessons learned.


Colonel (ret.) John M. Handley, Ph.D., American Diplomacy Publishers Vice-President for Outreach, is Adjunct Professor of International Relations for Webster University's Ft. Bragg and Pope AFB campuses. Col. Handley spent most of his Army career in military intelligence, including as Dean of the School of Attaché Training at the Defense Intelligence College, and Deputy, Resource Management, for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

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