03 October 2014

Remember Keating: A Five-Year Retrospective, Part 4

This is the fourth part in a six-part series. Read Part 1. Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 5. Read Part 6.

"I will never accept defeat."

The enemy had breached the perimeter at COP Keating. The officer in charge, 1LT Andrew Bundermann, a 24-year-old graduate of West Point, stepped outside of the operations center to see his camp overrun and in flames; hundreds of enemy fighters still advanced toward them. He decided the Americans would have to consolidate their position and abandon the outer parts of the camp. "We need to fight this out; we need to hold our ground," Bundermann told his first sergeant and SSG Romesha. "F--- that," replied Romesha. “We need to retake this fucking camp and drive the f---ing Taliban out."

Bundermann’s idea to consolidate was probably the wisest, rationally. It was calculated. By all accounts, Bundermann was a good officer; His superiors said that he managed the battle effectively. But it was Romesha’s emotional response, a reaction based on refusing to give up what some members of his team had already died for. It was grounded in ethos.

1LT Andrew Bundermann and SGT Brad Larson
Romesha’s decision didn’t really make much sense in the moment that he made it. Nevertheless, his two superiors—Bundermann and 1SG Hill—agreed and proceeded to devise a counterattack. It was profitable only in retrospect, but it was an action borne of the dissonant and chaotic.

Organizing in combat is about men and women who seize those dissonant and surprising moments to direct action.

Whether Romesha’s instinct was resultant of systematic training or traits he brought to the Army is beside the point. The Ethos is articulated and reinforced in training and throughout Army activity, finding its way even into the citation for the Medal of Honor that Romesha was awarded in 2013:

"Undeterred by his injuries, SSG Romesha continued to fight and upon the arrival of another soldier to aid him and the assistant gunner, he again rushed through the exposed avenue to assemble additional soldiers."

Enactment helps us understand the process by which the individual acts in these chaotic situations. Romesha and his teammates formulated a plan to defeat the enemy, now inside the wire. But plans and goals seem to pose a counterexample to the retrospective conception of enacting and organizing. Remember that meaning and justification are used to create order from chaos, to maintain micro-stability during disruptive moments. One remedy, then, is to change the future tense of plans to future perfect tense. "I will never accept defeat" becomes, "I will not have been defeated." In this way, enactment becomes a way to avoid thinking about the disruptive nature of an alternative future. It allows the actors to avoid considering what the world would be like if he had to inhabit it as defeated actors.

Ethos allows soldiers to formulate such plans against all logic. In combat, sometimes logic reigns—as when Black hawk Medevac helicopter pilots refused to land at the COP for over 10 hours because of the intense fire (though a senior officer in the brigade told me a few days ago that that decision may not have been the right one). But as soldiers try to recover some form of stability and order during battle, they tend to organize under ethical considerations rather than rational ones. Refusing to accept defeat is one such consideration.

The above was adapted from a paper I submitted in a doctoral seminar in organizational communication. The paper was titled, "More than Mere Words: Enacting the Warrior Ethos in Combat."

Quotes from the Soldiers are taken from The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by the eminent Jake Tapper. References to enactment, sensemaking, and other social psychology ideas are mainly from the various works of Karl E. Weick. 

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