Heavy Lifting Still Boils Down to the Strategic Captain...


In a simply phenominal piece today in the New York Times, James Dao perfectly distills the essence of junior command -- the pressures and weight of decisions that have to be made -- and the outsized influence those decisions have on national policy (and personal development).

I've spent at least half of my decade in military journalism chronicling the intricate path officers take from their first days on the parade deck to their seat at company command and staff jobs. I've listened to young lieutenants who experienced unspeakable violence and death in Iraq and listened to them explain how the weight of the responsibility for those deaths impacted them. As I looked into the fresh eyes of these men ten years my junior, I always thought there was some injustice to rob them of their innocence so early.

Today's New York Times piece is a fresh look at the "strategic Captian and Lieutenant" and the pressures under which these extremely young and inexperienced Soldiers live -- and how well they do under those pressures.

As commander of Alpha Company, First Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, Captain Bonenberger was in charge not just of ensuring the safety of 150 soldiers, but also of securing the district of Imam Sahib, a volatile mix of insurgent enclaves and peaceful farming villages along the Tajikistan border.

In his first three months of command, he had led soldiers in bruising firefights, witnessed the aftermath of a devastating car bomb, nominated soldiers for valor awards and disciplined others for insubordination. He had put in countless 18-hour days writing reports, accounting for $30 million in equipment and planning missions, at least one of which he had to abandon when his Afghan partners, the local police, unexpectedly declined to participate.

Captain Bonenberger, a graduate of Yale who protested the invasion of Iraq before he joined the Army, had deployed to Afghanistan once before, as a lieutenant in 2007, but had not commanded a combat unit. Now he had the prospect, terrifying but also thrilling, of shouldering greater responsibility than he had ever known.

“You have the ability, and the responsibility, to imagine and implement the strategy that will turn your districts from red to yellow to green,” he said. “Taking command of Alpha Company was one of the crowning achievements in my life.”

I highly encourage Defense Tech readers to take some time to read the entire expansive piece either now or bookmark the URL and read it over the holidays. And when you're done, be sure to watch Sebastian Junger's equally amazing film Restrepo (available for rental or download on Netflix) on the 173rd's deployment to the Korengal last year.

With these two items in hand, the men who are fighting the war in Afghanistan will be much more personal than they ever have been before...consider it a mini-embed...

-- Christian

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