We all were there

  • Published
  • By Professor Gene Kamena, with Dr. Roy Houchin
  • Air War College
The head of the Snake has been severed,
This raid could not be weathered,
Bin Laden is dead, for he could not hide,
Only a few were sent, but we all stood at their side,
The fight is not over, but justice was done,
We will continue to serve until this war is won
~ Kamena

The special operators assigned the mission to find and then capture or kill Osama bin Laden did their jobs well. The members of this elite team were highly trained, rehearsed extensively and were well supported. They were the best our nation had to offer.

Those special operators represented each one of us. They stood in the stead of every member of our military who has served and has sacrificed over the last decade in ways those who do not serve will never fully comprehend. We were all on that mission with those special operators, if not in body then at least in spirit. This mission, now part of military heritage, will be studied, analyzed, dissected and second-guessed. We currently know little of the actual details; but in time, through released or leaked information, the details will emerge.

Just as the people who executed the mission against bin Laden were representative of every service member who has served or is serving in the war on terror, the mission itself is emblematic of military operations and all we have learned over the past decade. I find it interesting that much of what has permeated the military at large is also reflected in the special operations community. Some will say that the techniques and procedures of our special operators have been ingrained into the large military, and maybe that is true. It probably does not matter - the lines have blurred, and the best of both worlds have merged.

We were there with those select few, those Spartans who finished the task so long in coming - yes, we were all in the room with bin Laden. We also share common experiences with these special warriors. Even this sensitive and classified mission brings to the forefront the challenges and hard lessons learned by all who have fought in the war on terror.

The joint-interagency approach works: A special operator with a small-arms weapon ended the life of bin Laden. However, it took years of interagency cooperation, a massive intelligence effort and a joint strike team to get that operator into the same room with bin Laden. No single service or agency is capable of succeeding in the complex environment in which we now operate. Fighting terror is the ultimate team activity.

There are no easy victories: Even a significant win on the battlefield is difficult to translate into a strategic victory. The raid accomplished what it set out to do, find and deal with bin Laden. Although he is dead, there will be another terrorist who will take his place. The body of the snake we call "terrorism" seems to always grow another head. Moreover, the real victory comes from the strategic message, not solely from the action in the field. We seem to have difficulty in converting our vast capabilities into strategic wins. Too often we get the message exactly wrong, satisfying no one. Is it possible that we talk too much? Looking back over the last decade, strategic communications have been our Achilles' heel; it may well continue to be in the future.

Technology helps and hurts: The raid would not have been possible had it not been for overhead imagery, satellite communications, sophisticated navigation systems and advanced command and control systems. Sometimes, however, leaders have too much information making it difficult to sort out what really matters. Streaming live video of the raid to the president and his key cabinet members could well be the ultimate "ten thousand-mile screw driver." (The phrase "Ten thousand-mile screw-driver" indicates that superiors at the strategic level tend to want to get involved in tactical operations. In Vietnam, this tendency was called "the ten-thousand-foot helicopter" because superiors would hover at a safe distance -- 10,000 feet - and attempt to control action on the ground. There are no indications that the president attempted to control the operation while it was in progress, but he certainly had a ring-side seat.)

Culture is difficult: Culture matters on the battlefield, and our own culture matters as well. The question as to whether or not the president should release the death photos of bin Laden may well be a clash of cultural considerations. For instance, many Americans want proof of bin Laden's death, while many Muslims may not believe the photos even if they were released. There are no easy answers where culture is concerned. As for the burial at sea, the only thing I will say is that I doubt that I'll get a 45-minute ceremony when my time comes. Culture certainly is a two-edge sword.

Yes, we all were with those special operators, for we have walked in their shoes. Anyone who has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan knows it takes an interagency team effort to get anything done on the battlefield, there are no easy victories, technology helps and hurts and culture is difficult. These are truths learned from fighting a determined enemy for more than a decade, confirmed once again by the raid against bin Laden - the raid we were all on.