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Some military officers and analysts fear that the quest for new accountability may have a downside: Will too many letters of reprimand cause commanders on the ground to worry more about possible discipline than about leading their soldiers in combat?
Col. Thomas Kolditz, professor and head of the department of behavioral sciences and leadership at West Point, said he doesn't believe the battles of Wanat, Kamdesh and Ganjgal and the resulting reprimands will make commanders on the ground more risk-averse.
"Commanders' commitment to [taking care of their soldiers] is so great that I'd be surprised if even a single one was fretting over whether they might get a letter of reprimand if something goes wrong," he said. "That's just not how they're put together."
Officers, like members of any profession, understand the importance of accountability, Kolditz said.
"If we were less professional, we'd just continue with our operations until Congress or someone else held us accountable in some way," he said. "But we don't do that. We have our own professional understanding about what's acceptable and what's not acceptable, and we hold one another accountable."
In 2003, Kolditz interviewed about 60 soldiers and Marines and 36 Iraqi prisoners about leadership and why they fought.
Kolditz said he found that competent and caring leaders who shared the risks with their subordinates, who didn't give themselves more creature comforts than what their subordinates received, were most successful.
"Leaders have to demonstrate that they have their own skin in the game," he said.
Media attention on the battle in Wanat — and its subsequent investigations — has reverberated within the Army, and it sparked a wide-ranging discussion on the blog hosted by the Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Many of the posters felt the scrutiny faced by the commanders being disciplined would lead to their peers being more risk-averse.
"At a time when many Army commanders are feeling pressure from their leaders to take fewer risks ... this level of ‘arm-chair quarterbacking' will stifle initiative and place commanders in the field in a more reactionary mode, which is not conducive to successful military operations," one major wrote.
Another major wrote: "The last thing senior leaders should want is their subordinate commanders wondering ‘what if' every time they get into a fight. ... Reality is the fog of war still exists and people are going to make mistakes. The [precedents] we are establishing could get people hurt due to commanders exercising too much caution and not reacting fast enough to situations."
Yet another major said this: "It will be interesting to see where this new trend leads. Is it just an uptick in gross negligence and the appropriate accountability actions? Or are we returning to the days of zero defects?"
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