not feeling very footballish today. My Army Issue Android Stress/Anxiety App says I need to eat a box of chocolates. Copy and paste from the Early Bird. I fully endorse COL Tunnell.
Christian Science Monitor (csmonitor.com)
October 28, 2010
Pentagon Had Red Flags About Command Climate In ‘Kill Team’ Stryker Brigade
Five soldiers in the 5th Stryker brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division are
charged with forming a ‘kill team’ in Afghanistan. The commander of that
brigade is not implicated in any criminal proceedings, but some Pentagon
officials worry that his aggressive philosophy might have been an ‘enabler.’
By Anna Mulrine, Staff writer
WASHINGTON – While recovering from grievous wounds of a violent tour in
northern Iraq between 2003 and 2004, Army Col. Harry Tunnell reflected on
the lessons he learned there. One in particular was clear: Peacekeeping
methods weren’t working.
What did work were measures that “political correctness dictates that we
cannot talk about,” he later wrote in a paper published by the US Army.
“Military leaders must stay focused on the destruction of the enemy. It is
virtually impossible to convince any committed terrorist who hates America
to change his or her point of view – they must be attacked relentlessly.”
It was an aggressive approach that Tunnell continued to promote among his
troops in the five years following his tour in Iraq, even as the Pentagon
had begun shifting toward a more nuanced vision of warfare focused on
protecting civilians and, in some cases, promoting the reintegration of
As the 5th brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, which Tunnell commanded for
three years, was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in June 2009, senior
Army officials questioned Tunnell’s leadership focus with growing concern,
and discussed the possibility of removing him from command.
Now, Tunnell’s tenure is raising fresh questions in the halls of the
Five soldiers in Tunnell’s brigade stand accused of war crimes, including
creating a self-described “kill team” that allegedly targeted unarmed Afghan
men and cut off their fingers as war trophies. There is no indication that
Tunnell, who declined requests to be interviewed for this story, condoned or
had any knowledge of the alleged murders. Nor is he implicated in any
criminal proceedings. Soldiers and commanders interviewed for this article
emphasize that he never exhorted troops to do anything unethical or immoral.
But military officials are debating the extent to which the climate set by
Tunnell influenced the actions of his troops, hundreds of miles away and far
down the chain of command.
The question has been raised before, in the case of commanders who oversaw
the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, for example.
The narrative of Tunnell’s leadership is particularly significant to the
Pentagon now, however, as it endeavors to instill in troops a new ethic of
fighting in its current wars – using the least force necessary rather than
the maximum force permissible.
The Monitor interviewed a dozen officers and officials who have served with
Tunnell or who witnessed him leading troops in recent years. As active-duty
members of the military, they could speak only on condition of anonymity
because of Pentagon strictures against talking to the press without official
Some sources suggest that Tunnell set a tone that was not only out of line
with Pentagon doctrine, but was inflammatory and potentially dangerous.
“When you feel violent intent coming down from the command and into the
culture of the brigade, that’s when you end up with things like the rogue
platoon,” says a senior US military official who worked with the brigade in
early 2009 at the National Training Center before it deployed to
Afghanistan. “He established a culture that allowed that kind of mindset to
percolate. And there are second- and third-order effects that come with
that. Clearly, the guys who were pulling the trigger are the proximate cause
of the crime, but the culture itself is the enabler.”
Others argue that Tunnell’s aggressive posture was fair enough, and even
necessary, for infantry troops who must prepare to kill, and also to be
killed, on behalf of their country. They point out that the brigade was,
after all, equipped with Stryker vehicles designed for soldiers working in
some of the most violent regions of any conflict. And Kandahar Province –
the cradle of the Taliban – was precisely where the 5/2 brigade was headed
for a year-long tour.
“He was a confident, aggressive leader,” says one officer who served under
him. “To make any connection between Tunnell and what the [alleged kill
squad] did just because he was enemy-focused is a stretch. That was about
leadership at a much lower level.”
What had become increasingly apparent to military officials was Tunnell’s
reluctance to embrace a strategy of counterinsurgency, which focused on
ratcheting down violence and winning over the local population with
development measures. It was an approach Tunnell criticized as overly
intellectual and something soldiers simply weren’t best equipped to do,
troops under his command say.
He instead advocated his own “counter-guerrilla” strategy, directing his
military intelligence officers in Afghanistan to create a “Guerrilla Hunter
Killer Field Manual” for the brigade. Tunnell’s efforts to push for
counter-guerrilla operations over a counterinsurgency strategy went well
beyond semantics: It was a philosophy, troops say, that emphasized
destroying the enemy above all else.
Face paint and intimidation
In Iraq during his 2003 to 2004 tour, Tunnell’s units began taking steps to
make it clear to insurgents that the US military would not shy away from a
fight. He encouraged the use of camouflage face paint. “This simple
non-verbal cue intimidated the local population – at least initially – and
allowed us to gain easier compliance from them,” Tunnell wrote.
Meanwhile, the military was changing. Top commanders would soon tell troops
that wearing sunglasses – much less camouflage face paint – sent the wrong
message to locals.
Tunnell grappled with these changes, which were already percolating during
his Iraq tour, and their implications. How could commanders replicate the
success of previous counterinsurgency campaigns without the use of
“oppressive measures” that had helped to make them successful, he wondered
in his paper. How do you win a war while still maintaining a 21st-century
standard of ethics?
Tunnell’s answer was his own straightforward doctrine: destroy the enemy.
But there was a growing awareness among his subordinates and his superiors
that Tunnell’s emphasis came with a cost. “When you lay that general command
philosophy out there, then there are thousands of day-to-day decisions from
the first commander down to the private to determine what you should and
shouldn’t do,” says retired Lt. Col. Richard Demaree, a battalion commander
in the brigade for two years, until he was transferred weeks before the
brigade deployed after publicly disagreeing with Tunnell on this issue. “Are
you going to spend your time protecting the population, or are you going to
Questions about Tunnell’s leadership focus began to emerge well before the
brigade’s deployment to Afghanistan. It had long been an open secret among
Tunnell’s subordinates that their boss disdained the word
Some in the brigade also believed that Tunnell was trying to raise his
profile in the military by coining his own terms, including “guerrilla
hunter killer teams.” “He was trying to create a new doctrinal term,” says
one officer who served under Tunnell. “But it didn’t catch on.”
Readying for an Afghan tour
In February 2009, the brigade arrived at the National Training Center in
Fort Irwin, Calif., to begin its predeployment exercises. Some observers
tasked with evaluating the performance of the units that came through soon
noticed that Tunnell had set a tone that focused on killing the enemy to the
exclusion of much else.
Commanders at the NTC submit a campaign plan that highlights what their
brigade will accomplish during their year-long tours. The plan is supposed
to incorporate security, economics, governance, and education. “Tunnell
wrote one where the only thing that was on it was basically saying in 50
different ways how he was going to destroy the enemy,” says Demaree.
The senior military official who observed Tunnell’s brigade at the NTC
offers a similar account. When an observer encouraged Tunnell to discuss the
“nonlethal lines of efforts” that his brigade would be undertaking,
including development, “Tunnell said, ‘I don’t have a single non-lethal
soldier in my brigade,’ ” the senior military official says.
Other officers within the battalion shared their concerns, says the senior
official. “I had two staff officers [in Tunnell’s brigade] separately tell
me that they were afraid that the brigade was going to end up on CNN for
‘all the wrong reasons,’ ” he says.
In response, trainers tried to help officers in the brigade take steps to
“lead from the middle to ensure that didn’t happen,” says the senior
official, who adds that some other military officials raised the possibility
of removing Tunnell from command in discussions that included a two-star
Army spokesmen declined to discuss the matter, due to the ongoing
investigation of the five men under Tunnell’s command – proceedings in which
he may be called as a witness. Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, leader of the
alleged “kill team” suspected of targeting innocent Afghan civilians in 2009
and 2010, had served on Tunnell’s personal security detail before coming to
the platoon where the murders were alleged to have taken place.
“This guy was in and around Tunnell on a daily basis,” Demaree says. “How
much his personal day-to-day words and actions may or may not have
influenced this NCO who directly worked for him” is unclear, he adds. “But
he was one of 20-some-odd guys whose sole purpose was to protect Tunnell as
he moved around the battlefield. You know all those guys personally. There’s
a lot of personal discussion that occurs, and they know you better than
Troops interviewed for this article reject the notion that Tunnell’s
philosophy led any troops to commit homicide. “Whatever Tunnell’s failures
may have been at higher levels, that doesn’t make people engage in
psychopathic behavior. That is a failure of leadership, but it happened way
lower than Tunnell,” says one junior officer in the brigade.
An aggressive mindset – just what was needed?
Tunnell was a respected commander who projected a strong persona and
encouraged his soldiers to do the same, others add. “You can never yell at a
commander for being too aggressive. There’s no such thing,” says the junior
officer. “You want infantrymen to be aggressive and violent. You also want
them to be well-trained and honorable.”
Many soldiers were appreciative of Tunnell’s take-the-offensive mindset.
Another junior officer under Tunnell’s command recalls when he first came
into contact with the colonel, just before the brigade deployed. “The only
time I saw him talk, it was a big pep talk, like an NFL coach before a
game,” says the officer, whose company had earned a “counter-guerrilla
streamer” – an honor invented by Tunnell. (Tunnell had also come up with the
brigade’s motto: “Strike and Destroy.”)
“He told us, ‘You are hunters of men, you are the greatest strike force in
the Army’ – basically, that we are the deadliest, most bad-ass thing that
the world has seen in quite a while,” the officer adds. “At the time, I
thought of it as a nice little pump-up-the-troops speech. I also thought I
would not want to run into this guy in a back alley at night.”
It was also probably not a speech they would have heard from many other
senior military leaders, says the officer. “It certainly wasn’t, ‘Alright
men, we’re going to get in there, take it slow, gather intel and help these
people to have a better life.’ Some commanders do take that tack,” says the
officer. “For Tunnell it was, ‘You’re a bunch of killers.’ ”
A battered brigade
On the ground, Tunnell’s aggressive philosophy played out in practical ways,
soldiers say. Within a couple days of arriving into the dangerous Arghandab
Valley, one company received instructions to begin conducting two
platoon-size ambushes a night.
It was a demanding, though not outlandish, order, but one platoon commander,
feeling he had inadequate intelligence and preparation, made the decision to
call off the ambush the first night out. “We were walking through fields
with eight-foot-high walls in every direction, passing through choke points
like crazy. I thought if anybody was going to be ambushed, it was going to
be us,” he says. “There was nothing ethically wrong with my order, but I
felt like it was stupid. I didn’t know what the ground was like, and I
thought I would be putting my platoon in much more risk.”
During its tour, the brigade lost 37 troops and saw 238 wounded – a figure
that amounted to a 10 percent casualty rate in some units and considerable
loss by the standards of modern warfare. Many of the soldiers were
experiencing tremendous stress, say officers within the brigade, one factor
that could be taken into account during the proceedings for the 5/2 soldiers
currently awaiting trial.
But some officials continue to wonder whether Tunnell’s approach may have
resulted in unnecessary harm to both US soldiers and Afghan civilians. “From
a command perspective, it was, ‘We’re going to take an iron fist approach.’
And I wonder if it was a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says one US official who
worked with the brigade soldiers in Afghanistan. “They were seeing more
kinetic activity, but they were also bringing a lot of kinetic activity,”
says the official, using the Pentagon language for offensive operations.
During the brigade’s tour, Tunnell was brought in for a video teleconference
reprimand with senior military leadership. “He was taking a browbeating over
this whole counter-guerrilla” philosophy, says one military official who
witnessed it. “Tunnell would kind of try to explain it, then couch it in a
very politically correct way, saying he was not just out looking for a body
But some officials suggest that the Army confused soldiers under Tunnell by
not removing him from command before the brigade deployed. “The fact that
the Army chose to keep him in command sent a mixed message to Tunnell’s
subordinates. They had to think about who’s right here,” Demaree says.
“Everyone knows Tunnell openly disagrees with counterinsurgency philosophy,
but no one’s doing anything about it.”
That apparent contradiction routinely affected the decisions made by those
under him. “Despite things senior leadership said, I had to do this one last
check and say, ‘Is Tunnell going to agree with this?’ And if it was
something other than going after and destroying the enemy,” Demaree says, “I
knew the answer was going to be no.”
Not unethical, but not with the program
Within the Pentagon, some senior officials speculated about the decision not
to remove Tunnell from command – even after repeated warnings about his
unwillingness to embrace counterinsurgency principles.
“It’s a big decision to remove a brigade commander from his command and,
most important, he had done nothing unethical,” says the senior military
official who was at NTC.
Demaree agrees: “I would never accuse Tunnell of promoting something that’s
immoral or unethical by any means.”
And as the brigade’s tour progressed, some units under his command that did
embrace counterinsurgency principles were credited with helping to turn
around pockets of the violent Arghandab Valley.
Given what is alleged to have happened within the brigade, however, Tunnell
seems unlikely to rise any further in the ranks, senior officials say. After
his tour in Afghanistan ended in June, he was assigned to be the executive
officer for a three-star general in accessions command at Fort Knox – not
the sort of high-profile Pentagon staff job working with four-stars that
generally goes to brigade commanders whose careers are on the rise, they
“The Army has a way of penalizing people without penalizing them,” says a
senior defense official.
Others say that despite the concerns about Tunnell’s leadership style, they
understand his offensive mindset – to an extent. “As a Stryker brigade
commander, you have to motivate soldiers who you are asking to do very
dangerous things,” says the senior US military official who was at the NTC.
“But you have to temper that with rule of law, and telling troops that,
‘Hey, part of winning this conflict is going to be every time you pull the
trigger, you’ve got to make sure it’s the right thing to do.’ Then 20 years
from now when you’re waking up in the middle of the night, that’s what’s
going to keep you on the right side of PTSD [post-traumatic stress
disorder]. That’s what’s going to keep you sane.”