We are joined with the former colonel, author, and history teacher Paul Yingling. Samuel P.N. Cook interviews his former mentor on how to successfully use narrative to unite an organisation and overcome adversity. Using examples from the Battle of Tal Afar, Paul and Sam dissect the incredible role their mentor General H.R McMaster (current security advisor to the White House) played in changing the course of the Gulf War. You will learn how a new narrative and mutual respect won the battle of Tal Afar with minimal casualties, and how this can help your leadership in the business world.
Guest: Samuel P.N. Cook and Paul Yingling
Date Added: Jan 10, 2018 9:33:51 AM
Length: 88 min
Podcast moments that will matter to you:
Introduction story of Paul Yingling in Iraq
Why stories are useful, according to Paul
Simple stories do more harm than good
Introduction to Samuel’s mentor Lt. General H.R. McMaster and why he chose Paul Yingling to “represent” McMaster in this podcast
Paul’s early life and beginning of his military career
Why people need to tell stories
How particularly emotional experiences are distorted when told as stories
Key differences between how stories were formed in the past compared to now in the digital age.
Importance of understanding usefulness of stories rather than just memorizing facts
Ways to develop as a leader in life
The importance of being adaptable. Plans don’t always go as planned.
Ways to develop as a leader in life
More of Paul’s experiences with leadership in Iraq
How narratives influence real-life events that change the course of history
How to provide discipline in your organisation using powerful narratives.
Paul Yingling: [00:00:17] My memories of the Gulf War are small and sharp like the fragments of a shattered mirror. The silence on the plane ride to Saudi Arabia. The nightmares about poison gas. The Death Letter to my 7 month old daughter. The Iraqi ID card with the numbers 1973, north of the breach. Had I just killed a 17 year old boy eating peanut butter crackers during the movement to contact?
[00:00:45] The BMP that exploded behind us during the night battle. The twisted burning tangle of metal and flesh on the highway. The stinking choking blackness of the oil well fires. Playing softball in the desert; the heat, the flies.
[00:01:03] Later, General Reine gave a speech to explain what the 1st Infantry Division had accomplished in the war. The Big Red One reached the front line Iraqi defenses to facilitate the forward passage of the first British armored division and seven corps attack against Iraq's Republican Guard. The division then attacked East destroying the 37th Brigade of the 12th Iraqi tank division at the Battle of 73 Easting. The division then cut off the retreat of Iraqi forces fleeing north from Kuwait. The line of carnage stretching between Kuwait and Iraq was named the Highway of Death.
[00:01:41] When people ask me about the Gulf War I tell them what the general told me. I don't doubt that it's true or at least true enough to make sense. The general's story is just that, a story with a beginning, middle and an end. I'm sure the general has his own fragmented memories of what happened. His fragments, like mine, are real but don't really make sense. We create a narrative to help people understand what happened, but it's reconstructed after the fact.
[00:02:13] When that BMP blew up behind me, I had no idea that it was part of the 37th Iraqi brigade. I don't even remember if the general said that in his speech. I looked up 1st Infantry Division on Wikipedia and whoever wrote that article seemed to know where that BMP came from.
Mathematicians use linear regression to establish a correlation between two variables... They plot data on a graph and draw a line that best fits the pattern created by the data points. The line might not actually touch any of the points. However, if drawn properly it minimizes the distance between the points in the line. It might even tell a story about the relationship between the variables.
[00:02:59] Historians have their own version of linear regression. At best, they seek out all of the available data points and try to connect the dots. They draw the line that takes the form of a narrative; a story with a beginning, middle and an end. The best historians acknowledge that the story is provisional, based on the data points available.
[00:03:24] They wonder about the silences in history. The missing data from the losers, the powerless, and the inarticulate. Not all scholars are so careful. Some start with the story and look for data points to confirm it. However, all stories, carefully constructed or otherwise, are lines that smooth out a jumble of dots. The distance between the line and the dot is the difference between the story and the truth.
[00:03:54] After the United States invaded Iraq, I had a great deal to say and I said it was a great deal of confidence. The decision to invade was a blunder but not an irrevocable one. The U.S. military had to change the way it was organized, trained, and equipped to prevail in irregular warfare.
The generals leading the war were incompetent or dishonest or both. Then, my audiences shared both my conclusions and my confidence. I had been to the dangerous places, I had read the great books, and I knew the important people. I drew smooth straight lines. I told clear simple stories. I spent the better part of a decade writing and fighting. For me, they were nearly the same thing.
[00:04:40] Somewhere along the way I learned a great deal and became less sure of everything. Now, hardly anybody asks me about my experiences in Iraq. If someone does ask, I'll just shake my head in disgust or say only- it was bad. The conversation usually stops there and it's just as well. I no longer have a great deal to say. I cannot give a speech explaining the big picture. There is no story to tell. There is no line to connect the dots.
[00:05:12] Now, I'm a history teacher. I challenge my kids to be skeptical of smooth, straight lines and simple, clear stories. I wonder along with them how the experts know the things they say they know. I ask them to listen for the silences. Someday, perhaps historians will make sense of it all. I hope they do their work carefully. My kids will be watching.
[00:05:37] Every Memorial Day I remember the people I lost in Iraq. Rafael, Joe, Jeffrey, Doug, Joe, Travis, Tory, Rowdy. I say their names and the day and the place where each died. My memories of their deaths are the small, sharp fragments of shattered lives.
Samuel: [00:06:15] That is a piece written by Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Paul Yingling, who is our guest on this podcast. And the subject of today's podcast is my first mentor in the Army, my mentor throughout my career in the Army, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster -as is his current rank as of October 2017, where he's serving as the national security adviser for the United States President, Donald Trump.
[00:06:44] The reason I brought Paul on this podcast was because Paul served with me on staff for then Colonel McMaster during the battle of Tal Afar in 2005, which was my first deployment to Iraq. And Paul and I both had a front row seat, his a lot more involved in the actual operations of producing things and mine a lot less involved in producing anything, but very close to watching the details of a man performing at a very high level in history or historical event for the United States in recent history.
[00:07:23] And Paul and I got to see that campaign unfold. And we also got to see the story that was told afterwards. And the reason I'm bringing Paul on here is a couple of reasons. First of all Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster is quite busy and not available for podcast interviews at this point.
But [00:07:42] also Paul is the person I view is most instrumental in crafting the story of that campaign because his job was to be in charge of the information warfare of the unit, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He was brought in specifically for that. And also I watched Paul perform with a great amount of skill and calm in tense situations and I just always had a lot of respect for him and enjoyed speaking to him during these very stressful moments serving on the staff of an armored cavalry regiment of 5000 U.S. soldiers in combat in Iraq. And there are many other things about Paul, which I'm going to let him do a short introduction about himself, his background, and Paul I actually know you originally from my time as a cadet at West Point although I think I didn't have any classes with you.
I got to see around the halls as a social sciences professor but go ahead and just give a short official background or what is your story, Paul? The smooth line of your life here?
Paul Yingling: [00:08:50] Well, thank you Sam and thanks for the opportunity to talk with your listeners, and you're right. I will now present the smoothly curated story of what I want you to know about me as opposed to the truth. I'll leave it to you and your listeners to sort out the rest.
[00:09:08] So I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I graduated from Duquesne University in 1989 and was commissioned in the U.S. Army as a field artillery officer. It was an interesting time to be commissioned. It was at the end of the Cold War and my initial assignment was to the First Infantry Division and that assignment resulted in my participation in the 1991 Gulf War.
[00:09:34] I later served in Europe and I commanded a battery that was among the initial entry forces for the 1995 NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia. I was then fortunate enough to be selected to teach at West Point, where we met. I first attended graduate school at the University of Chicago studying political science and political theory and then taught those subjects at West Point from '98 to 2000.
Another interesting time because you and others were both my students and the junior leaders who would fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I went on to Command General Staff College and the School of Advanced Military Studies for two years at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Was a division planner in Korea and then in 2003 began the first of three tours in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.
[00:10:34] The second tour was with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. The third tour was as a battalion commander involved in detainee operations, and I should mention the first was right after the initial invasion. I was the executive officer of a battalion and we trained Iraqi security forces and secured unexploded ordnance from the insurgents. And then towards the end of my career, I taught counterinsurgency and counterterrorism at the Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany.
[00:11:00] So that is the short, smooth, curated line telling only the details I would like and omit those I don't. But now let's get to the truth.
Samuel: [00:11:11] Yeah let's dig into the truth. Paul, first point I would-before we get into the meat of the episode which is discussing a man we both know and have a lot of respect for H.R. McMaster. I had you read that article to start the podcast in a different way and it's just such a powerful, think one of the most powerful essays I've ever read on the reality of war and if you have been in an intense situation in your life whether or not it's combat or something else, everyone's had their different dramatic, scary situations.
There's a really interesting phenomenon where you remember these things for the rest of your life, these sensory moments and they form some kind of waypoints I guess in your memory bank from all those other moments you forget.
And definitely the intense ones in war a bit more numerous than other other points of life and I just really appreciate your ability to put the story into context because that's what this podcast is all about. We've been talking since the beginning about a story, the nature of the story and the history of the story, whether it's true or not, and what's the use of story if you're never going to have a true story?
[00:12:26] And no story is 100% true. I don't even think it's close to the truth because we don't even understand the complexity of ourselves even if we're trying to be honest. What's your take on the story, Paul and how do you use it in your life to deal with the memory of past and I think more importantly to craft your way forward?
Paul Yingling: [00:12:49] Yes Sam, I think that's a great question and I appreciate you opening with that insight, the importance of story. And to me storytelling is the most human of activities. You know, we humans are language users and tool builders and stories are a tool using language to communicate meaning. So the very best stories tell us something about ourselves and our role in the universe and our relationship to other human beings.
[00:13:21] But as you critically point out no story is completely true. Almost by definition, a story requires us to select some details and omit others to tell a story from a particular perspective and thereby omitting other perspectives. So even when we're conscientious about the details we include, the perspectives we embrace, we're never going to be 100% accurate even when our commitment is to truthfulness and accuracy. Now, it's also important to say that most storytellers and I would include myself in this criticism, are not 100% committed to truthfulness and accuracy.
[00:14:06] We want to tell stories about our experiences in our lives that give our sacrifices and our service and the risks we take and the hardships we endure meaning. And sometimes that struggle to derive meaning from traumatic experiences distorts that reality.
[00:14:29] And I think that's nowhere more true than in warfare where we all endure this intensely traumatic, violent, jarring experience and then afterward we try to assign meaning and purpose to those disjointed terrifying disorienting events.
[00:14:51] And that translation from the disorienting violent experience of combat, to the more deliberate process of making meaning can and does twist the reality of war when it's retold.
Samuel: [00:15:07] And is that a bad thing or is that OK?
Paul Yingling: [00:15:10] I would say that's an inevitable thing. Human beings are simply not capable of dispassionately describing the most traumatic events of their life. And so while we should absolutely embrace the narrative accounts of warfare from combat veterans and we can learn a great deal from those accounts. We should always keep in mind that those accounts are provisional and incomplete. If our commitment truly is to understanding in a complete way the horror and the complexity and the violence and the chaos of warfare, then we have to seek out as many perspectives as we can.
[00:15:58] When I mentioned in the essay the importance of seeking out the experience of the inarticulate, of the losers, of those who were not heard from. That is a historical necessity and it's difficult. So, for example, the American Revolution. One of the primary sources by which we know about the experience of the privates in the Continental Army is from a single private from Connecticut named Joseph Plum Martin. And the reason we know about Joseph Plum Martin because he was, unusually for a private in the Continental Army, highly literate. He was a prolific letter writer with a sarcastic sense of humor -just the sort of guy that historians love. So when we tell the story of the private in the Continental Army we tell Joseph Plum Martin's story.
[00:16:50] That's not a bad thing but he's the one who left us a written record that means there are hundreds of thousands of records that we don't have letters we didn't receive letters that may not have never even been written because those soldiers were illiterate and couldn't write their story. And those stories are lost to history.
[00:17:12] So while I think it's inevitable that history comes to us in fragments, we need to understand our responsibility to piece those fragments together into the complete story we can, even as we admit with some humility that the story will never be.
Samuel: [00:17:33] And Paul we served at a different time in warfare, where there's a digital footprint. In fact, I worked on the history of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. I wrote a long history of the unit that we submitted as part of the citation for the Unit Award, and the opposite problem we had was there's so much information to go through, so many digital records for the listener.
[00:18:06] If you're hearing this imagine your own life. All the digital records that exist in your own life. If someone were to come in and investigate the nature, the essence of your own life. Text messages and emails and transcripts of phone calls and your cell phone traced where you've been your whole life, since cell phones came out, in your pocket and all those different things. Maybe it's a lot harder to make truth now, Paul, in the digital age or do you think it's better?
Paul Yingling: [00:18:40] Sam, I would agree with you that the sheer volume of information presents its own challenge in terms of determining the truth. And I would say that's by no means is limited to history. Even in our own time, in contemporary media accounts of current events, we have so much information to sort through and figuring out what sources are valid, whose perspectives are legitimate, whose sources are credible, this challenge is made greater by the fact that we have so much data to sort through. And you as a historian working for another historian and General McMaster were probably more conscientious than most about both the preservation of records and the construction of a coherent narrative. Again, there are dozens of tactical units for all sorts of reasons, whether it's through carelessness or classification or anything else, who perhaps couldn't record their story with such care. And again as these events fade into memory they are simplified, they are smoothed out, and in some cases, they are lost altogether.
Samuel: [00:19:54] And I think that's really the point that I want to bring to the listener, most of whom are potentially not going to serve in such a high-stakes, chaotic, violent environment. We can hope that history holds here...
[00:20:07] But bringing this back down to the lives of those around you that affect you. You taught high school history Paul, and you also have children that you are teaching. How do you apply the lessons that you've learned about a story to giving the children, both those that are biological and those that you've mentored in your care, lessons to live their life by? What is the usefulness of a story and what's the dark side of a story and how do you impart that?
Paul Yingling: [00:20:39] Yes, I think in so many ways the usefulness of story is to convey our common human experience in ways that matter to the lives of our kids in the future. So if all our kids do is memorize and regurgitate the details of the Battle of the Somme or the Stanford Prison Experiment or the rise and fall of the Third Reich then we have done a great disservice to those young people because those details are literally dead and meaningless.
[00:21:21] Unless somehow those stories matter in the lives of those kids as they move into the future. So, for example, when we talk about the rise and fall of the Third Reich or the Stanford Prison Experiment, what we're really talking about in so many ways is the complexity and the moral ambiguity of power. So for example when the Nazis rose to power in the 1930's they had a story to tell about the victimization of Germany and of Germans and of the rightfulness of throwing off the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles. And Third Reich engaged in monstrous acts of an abuse of power based on a story about why they were right.
[00:22:11] When I teach my kids in psychology about the Stanford Prison Experiment, although on a vastly smaller scale and not nearly as monstrous as the Third Reich, still, we have a situation in which people abuse their power that they were entrusted with based on a story of why they were right. So if we do our work properly when kids come away from a psychology class or history class or mathematics class or any educational experience, they don't just learn the details of some long dead story or theory, they learn a tangible meaningful experience that matters in their own lives. You know the Third Reich is dead and gone and we can hope it never rises from the ashes of history again. But [00:23:02] the risk of the abuse of power and the commission of monstrous acts based on a story about why my tribe is right. That danger is with us every single day. It's inherent in the human condition, and that's what I hope my kids take away from those educational experiences.
Samuel: [00:23:26] It would be great to sit in a history class with you again, Paul, and I'd love to see how you do that with your students. I remember when I used to teach history, I would like to give my students the thought exercise of just examining their own life and the truth of their smooth, straight story as you call it, and the lack of accuracy of it.
[00:23:50] And I think that was really sobering for them to all look at their own life story and realize that they really didn't have anything they just had a smooth story that they want people to hear. But the complexity of what was really driving them to go to West Point, to join the army was far deeper.
It wasn't just some patriotic cover story that they were giving or some family history cover story, but it was far more complex and for reasons they didn't even know were there because they hadn't understood themselves as well as they could. And even when you do try and understand yourself you forget things, and you selectively leave out things in your life, and then you come to terms with the fact that you really don't know yourself that well. In fact, I think that's part of our journey in life, is just to rediscover ourselves.
[00:24:40] And then you multiply that by 7 billion people on the planet and then multiply that by everyone's interactions with each other and their communities and their towns and their cities and their regions and then their countries and all those stories happening in all those different levels and how they interact. And then you go back throughout history. It's mind-boggling how inaccurate we are with the stories we tell ourselves about the history of our countries.
Paul Yingling: [00:25:09] Yeah. And I would like to key in on that point you've made about self-awareness, about how we can construct a narrative about ourselves that while not false is incomplete. I do a lot of work with leading development, and one challenge that I put before people with whom I'm discussing the topic is the importance of sharing your mistakes. So we have plenty of leaders who are willing to stand up in front of an audience and say I'm tolerant of mistakes, I encourage mistakes, I will underwrite your mistakes and I'm willing to talk about your mistakes. Words, not mine. And that's a fatal flaw because of course when you say I'm tolerant of mistakes or you can learn from mistakes but you withhold your own. There is an element of hypocrisy in there. So for example when I talk about leadership I talk about the biggest leadership mistake I made as a young officer commanding troops in Bosnia during the initial entry as naval forces in the former Yugoslavia was I did not return home for the birth of my daughter.
[00:26:24] I thought I was indispensable. I told myself a story about how I was indispensable and was not there for that critical life moment. And I can't get that back. I tell that story when I talk about the importance of sustaining a healthy family and personal life when faced with significant responsibilities.
And I don't tell that story just because I want people to know that I made a mistake. Although I think it's important that they see that I've made mistakes and learned from them, but also that mistake might help them in the same way that the big history of the Stanford prison experiment, or of the Third Reich might help people. The history of my own hubris about my own indispensable nature. I think can help people as well.
So as leaders think about developing themselves and developing others first becoming self-aware of your mistakes and second being willing to share those mistakes and those weaknesses with others, it's a really powerful leadership tool, but it requires that you make yourself vulnerable. Lots of leaders are uncomfortable with that task, but it's critically important.
Samuel: [00:27:39] Paul, one of the things that you brought to mind there was I had a business that didn't work, I think two years ago. And I remember I was speaking on stage about last October of 2016 about marketing, and I got up there and then decided to talk a lot about the failure of my last business in that talk.
Just to contrast the success of my recent campaign, and I remember when I got off stage one of my members of my team looked at me and said: "You really should not have talked about that much.I think it was overdone." And perhaps it was, but the impact of that was we got an inundation of clients to the point where that was the impetus behind launching our annual coaching group, the Story Guild, we got that from that talk.
[00:28:37] I do think there is a lot of power and vulnerability in being open about your mistakes. And right now as a coach, when I do make mistakes because I do have people looking up to me as a coach, I have to always try and be conscious of pointing them out and owning up to them as quickly as possible because otherwise I don't think you're as useful to the rest of the people that you're trying to impact.
Paul Yingling: [00:28:59] Yeah, I couldn't agree more, Sam, you know, when I was a graduate student in Chicago, the best teaching advice that I got, now I think it's the best leadership advice I've gotten is it's not about you.
[00:29:14] So invariably a teacher is going to face a moment, same with a coach, same with a leader, where you don't know the answer or the answer you thought you knew is wrong. And if your first thought is, Oh, gosh, how does this make me look? What is the impact on my credibility? What about my reputation? Then you're already solving the wrong problem.
[00:29:38] If you are truly committed to developing a learning organization a mistake is an opportunity to learn and grow. You know, Henry Ford famously had an executive who made a big mistake that cost Ford Motor Company a significant amount of money, and the executive being an honorable man tendered his resignation and Henry Ford's of back across the desk and he said what do you mean I've just paid millions for your education.
That I think that is the right model. You know those hard won mistakes, those dearly painful moments are an investment in our development and we should be generous about spreading the benefits of that investment to others.
Samuel: [00:30:22] I think, Paul, you've really hit on a key point that I like to impart to people that I'm working with and members of my team. When in marketing we start a campaign, and one of the things that we do is we start testing. And testing is great, because if you have a 10% conversion rate or 15% conversion rate on a page and you're able to get it to 20% then you've doubled or you've you've probably increased by about 30% your return on that marketing campaign, which is huge advantage, huge amount of leverage for your business.
But the dirty little mistake of testing, and this is why a lot of people don't overdo it, is a lot of your tests fail because you just aren't as smart as you think you are about your assumptions as to why what you're doing was working and how you can make it better.
[00:31:11] And the greatest lesson I learned in testing for marketing was every experiment you run as a success if you're determined to learn from that experiment. And usually it's the ones that don't work where you learn the most, where you have an assumption as to why something would work better -whether that's a headline on a page or placement of a video or a length of a video, and then you have a theory as to why it would work better or not and then you test it.
And one of the theories that we've actually tested was people would say, well, you have to have short videos on Facebook because no one has attention span these days because everyone's bombarded with information. And we tested short versus long videos and we found long videos worked better. We've done that multiple times even testing long ad copy versus short copy and the assumptions that we make and tell ourselves are very often wrong and to have the ability to test things and then get meaning from that event, the 'what's the story?'
I think Mark Twain said, 'there are lies, there are damn lies and there are statistics.'And my CFO consultant for our company came up to me and said you know numbers are worthless because there are just things on a piece of paper. It's the story behind the numbers that really matter.
Paul Yingling: [00:32:30] Yeah, and Sam I think this is very relevant to our discussion about warfare as well because whether it is Tal Afar or other campaigns, in any conflict you go in with a plan. And for the sake of the scientific method that's our hypothesis. The thing we think is going to solve whatever tactical problem we're presented with, and we take that plan and put it on the battlefield, and we tested it against thinking, adaptive enemy. The great thing about the enemy is he will reveal our false assumptions either in the form of casualties, catastrophic losses, tactical defeats -
But if there's a flaw in our thinking the enemy will reveal it. And then what comes next is critically important: How do we adapt? What happens after we learn that our plan was wrong? Incomplete? Overlooked a critical detail? That constant adaptation and counter-adaptation isn't just a matter of the application of tactics. It is in some cases the application of narrative. What is the meaning and the purpose for which this violent struggle is occurring? and I think that was true in Tal Afar.
[00:33:41] And I think it's true in every conflict. Ultimately we are in a struggle for meaning when we are in warfare and that struggle is a continuous adaptation to create meaning out of chaos.
Samuel: [00:33:58] Speaking of Tal Afar, Paul, let's dig in because that's the main subject. So well, first of all I'd like you to offer a introduction of the topic of the podcast which is I think the best practitioner of warfare in our generation is definitely at the level of command that we got to see in the brigade level in the US Army and probably one of the deepest thinkers in warfare in this generation as evidenced by his selection to be on the national security adviser for the president. So introduced to our listener, Paul, from your perspective, H.R. McMaster.
Paul Yingling: [00:34:38] Yeah. So to me, H.R. is one of the most brilliant officers of his generation for both his scholarship and his military service as a soldier. He commanded troops in the battle of the 73 Easting, he was actually forward of the 1st Infantry Division, and although I didn't know it at the time, my forces passed through his cavalry troop in the battle of the 73 Easting as part of that operation to destroy Iraq's Republican Guard in the Gulf War.
And he performed brilliantly attacking a larger force with his cavalry troops, seizing the initiative, doing exactly what we want cavalry forces to do. Enabling the commitment of the 1st Infantry Division and seven corps in a way to complete our mission of the destruction of the Republican Guard. He wrote a terrific book, 'Dereliction of Duty', where he talked about the obligation of leaders to tell blunt truths to power and the failure of the Joint Chiefs in Vietnam to provide candid professional military advice to political decision-makers in that conflict.
He then returned to the operational force in command with distinction to include in Iraq. And so as both a soldier and a scholar he was very well suited to take on what, as you know, was an incredibly complex environment in Tal Afar.
Samuel: [00:36:11] And Paul how well did you know H.R personally before you joined the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, or was it just by only reputation?
Paul Yingling: [00:36:20] Only by reputation. The first time we met was on the initial reconnaissance to Iraq, where a group of leaders from the regiment went initially to Baghdad because that was where the regiment was initially to be deployed and conducted a leader's reconnaissance.
[00:36:36] That was the first time I met him, I knew him before then only by reputation. And then so over the course of the next year, primarily 2005 and early 2006 with you and 5000 of our closest friends we all got to know each other quite well.
Samuel: [00:36:52] And actually, I remember going on that reconnaissance trip with you to South Baghdad, and that was quite an interesting introduction to the country.
Paul Yingling: [00:37:03] Yeah, for a lot of reasons. I remember how Chief of Staff of the army, then Colonel Mark Milley, was in charge of forces patrolling those canal roads in south Baghdad - one of the most dangerous environments in Iraq. I also remember a small town on the Tigris River, and we were getting an operations briefing -not Milley's forces but from another unit.
And the assessment was, well we assessed this area as quiet. And when we asked why, I remember H.R's response. He said, 'well, why do you think that?' They said, 'well nothing ever happens there.' And when H.R. asked, 'well, how do you know that?' The answer was, 'well, we never go there.'...
[00:37:44] So yeah, you know what's coming next. I think that very night the police station was hit and every one of the police officers in that station was murdered by Al Qaeda forces. And so again a false narrative that the enemy falsified, that the area was quiet because the enemy was preparing to attack.
And so most assault positions are quiet, that's why they're assault positions, and in fact that's exactly what we witnessed there. So it was an eye opening experience and the introduction to probably one of the pivotal points in the war in Iraq.
Samuel: [00:38:20] It's like the, I think it's the parable of the turkey in behavioral economics, where life is really good. In fact, extraordinarily good for a turkey that's just getting fed and fed and fed and no one else is getting this kind of attention.
I must be special and then they end up on your Thanksgiving table -for Christmas in Europe here. And so it's interesting the stories we tell ourselves about things when they're happening. Paul let's move in on Tal Afar, because the 3rd Cavalry Regiment - we'll put a link in the show notes to the battle of Tal Afar and there are many different press articles from there and in fact, that's something Paul and I will go into how that happened.
[00:39:05] The battle in Tal Afar happened in 2005 and it was a large scale operation in a town in northwest Iraq. And, Paul, talk about the battle of Tal Afar. Just lay the overall context, we moved up there -and tell us that smooth straight story so that we can all understand.
Paul Yingling: [00:39:24] Yeah. So I'll try to make sense of what was an incredibly chaotic time. First the environment. It's worth describing in a little bit of detail. So Tal Afar is a small town midway between Mosul and the Syrian border. And it was important for the insurgents because it was a way station where insurgent forces traveling from Syria could stop, rest, resupply, and move into Mosul or south into Baghdad.
So from their perspective the insurgency there was a critical link in their network of resupplying, rearming, and training forces for the battles of the big population centers in Mosul and in Baghdad. The internal dynamics of Tal Afar are also remarkable. So from a sectarian perspective, the town was almost evenly divided between Sunni and Shia Iraqis. And as was true in most portions of Iraq during Saddam's time, the Sunnis held power and the Shi'a, although they were a numerical majority in the town, were brutally and violently suppressed by the Sunni minority.
And linguistically, it's also significant to point out that the town's language was Turkmen which has no written form and is spoken in very few places outside of this small corner of northwestern Iraq. So that meant that linguistically this town was even more isolated than most sharing similar geographic features because of its unique language background.
[00:41:15] That was perfect for the insurgents because that meant that they could terrorize this town, and there would be very little communication and connection to the outside world, so it served the insurgent's purposes very well.
The regimen as you pointed out was initially deployed to South Baghdad, not to northwestern Iraq, but it became clear that this supply line between the Syrian border, the town of Ulcinjar and Mosul that insurgent forces were more or less flowing freely along these resupply lines. And that had to be disrupted in order to see any kind of success in the big population centers of Mosul and Baghdad.
[00:41:58] So the regiment arrived in the spring of 2005, conducted an initial reconnaissance operation called Operation Rifles Forward, where we attempted to understand the dynamics of the region linguistically, culturally, politically, as well as the tactics of how the insurgent forces were using these resupply lines to impact the larger population centers in Mosul and Baghdad.
[00:42:29] It became clear that the insurgents were using sectarian violence as an instrument to create a chaotic environment in which they could then operate with impunity. The insurgents were primarily Sunni locals, although with a strong cadre of Al Qaeda leaders especially in certain critical specialties, like bomb building, intelligence propaganda. The Al Qaeda leadership essentially imposed itself on this larger sectarian struggle and used it for its own purposes.
The Shi'a majority response was played right into the hands of this narrative, where the Shi'a having been a brutally suppressed majority for so long, then engaged in its own brutal acts of reprisal against their Sunni neighbors. And so this was the environment that the regiment entered in the spring of 2005.
[00:43:29] Initially, the civilian population was anxious to be rid of the terrorism association with Al Qaeda. And they provided a great deal of intelligence and based on that intelligence we were able to capture a number of significant leaders.
[00:43:43] However, as a response the Al Qaeda forces then turned and engaged in a brutal campaign of reprisal against the civilians and that caused intelligence to dry up. It caused increased tension between the Sunni and Shi'a sects within the city and it became clear by the late summer of 2005 that only a large scale operation was going to defeat Al Qaeda.
This was a high priority Abu Musab al Sharkawi heralded the battle of Tal Afar as a seminal moment in the war. He believed that this would result in the U.S. defeat, which would change the tide of the war, so the stakes were very high. And this required both a kinetic component and a diplomatic component if you'd like I can get into that. But I also want to just pause that thorny complexity in describing the environment before we get into the campaign of Operation Restoring Rights or clarifying the details before we get into the campaign itself.
Samuel: [00:44:53] Now Paul, I think that was a great smooth story with enough nuance so that people understand that it was quite a baffling environment in which to operate, and that's what we dove into. And before we get into this, Paul, I'd just like to ask you a little bit of your perspective at this point.
You were tasked with running the information campaign and at the time in the United States Army, I remember actually having a conversation with an officer who told me I don't do politics I'm here to fight a war. And I was a little bit miffed at that statement because the way I understood it was we were accomplishing a political objective for our government, which we voted for and sent our army over there.
And the attitude among many officers, most of the officers actually, at the beginning of the war was that we're here to fight and do what we were paid and trained to do, rather than to engage in this touchy-feely talking, taking care of the local population stuff.
You were put in the situation where you were a proponent for all of that. And how did you feel about taking that position and how did you get along with H.R. who had quite a reputation as a war fighter, you know, the best of the best in terms of high-intensity war fighting.
Paul Yingling: [00:46:19] Yeah, so a couple of points it's keen on there. One is the mental models that the U.S. Army carried into Iraq were fundamentally flawed, as a result of catastrophic success. That might seem a little bit paradoxical, but in the 1991 Gulf War the U.S. Army experienced catastrophic success.
We trained, organized, equipped, for a particular kind of battle and we did so at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California preparing for a large scale conventional warfare on a battlefield largely devoid of civilians.
[00:46:59] And in the 1991 Gulf War Saddam gave us exactly the war we'd been preparing for. And we were spectacularly successful, catastrophically successful, in the sense that we did not leave that war with a curiosity about how our enemies might adapt.
[00:47:20] If you're thinking, adaptive enemy witnessing the 1991 Gulf War, the last thing you're going to do is climb into a tank and fight the U.S. Army, or even more absurdly climb into a plane and fight the U.S. Air Force. So the lesson is that our enemies took that war was the only way to fight the United States, was to use terrorist and insurgent tactics: to shed uniforms, hide behind civilian populations, hide in plain sight, and use the techniques of insurgency: ambush, surprise roadside bombs, terrorizing civilian populations, to do what conventional armies cannot, that is drive the U.S. Army from the field.
H.R had a very sophisticated understanding of insurgency based on his scholarship regarding Vietnam. I've done some study on my own, at West Point in Chicago, and in collaboration with another dear friend of mine, then Major John Nagl, whom I taught with the West Point. I think you knew as well, and John had written a book called "Learning to eat soup with a knife" and he studied insurgency and learning organizations and conventional forces adapting to defeating insurgents. So I think the Vietnam experience was well-known to H.R. and well enough known to me, that that served as sort of a common mental model, but I'll also say that H.R. had a sophisticated understanding of history. You probably remember that after major operations were complete.
He took regimental leaders to the Battle of Gaugamela, fought by Alexander and Xerxes, and in fact, Tal Afa lay on the approach route of the Alexander to the Battle of Gaugamela.
[00:49:05] And so he had a deep understanding of antiquity and the advantage of that is that unlike most of the army, which was wedded to a conventional doctrine, H.R. had a deep historical understanding that allowed him to depart from that doctrine, or have alternative mental models from that doctrine when that doctrine was insufficient. So I can remember one meeting with the Sheik's early on in the campaign when H.R. stood up in front of this group of tribal Sheiks - Sunni and Shi'a - and they were sort of assessing this new commander. And his tone was to me a pitch-perfect combination of diplomacy and violence.
And where he said that the United States may have entered Iraq with an incomplete understanding of the dynamics of the country and may have inadvertently done harm and that perhaps that is the result of some of those mistakes there was a belief in honorable resistance.
But now, and this is H.R's message, not mine, the time for honorable resistance is over, the place to resolve your disputes is Iraqi politics, and this sort of veiled fist under the velvet glove message was, 'don't make me kill your young men to convince you that I'm serious.
[00:50:34] And to me that was a remarkable message. it reminded me of the younger Scipio in Spain or the campaigns of Brasidas and Thrace during the Peloponnesian War where the operational commander isn't just seeking out and fighting pitched battles. He is removing forces from the battlefield through the use of diplomacy.
I remember the Levy's description of Scipio the younger, saying that Scipio rather than pursue Hannibalm maneuvered his forces from town to town receiving rebellious chieftains back into Rome's allegiance. And that operation was a combination of diplomacy and the threat or use of violence.
And I thought H.R's mental model for Iraq in many ways was informed by a deep and sophisticated understanding of history, that perhaps was not as widespread in the forest as it should have been.
Samuel: [00:51:35] One of my favorite quotes comes from a friend and mentor of mine, which we interviewed in an earlier episode, Chris Kolenda. When I was doing an interview with him he said, 'well, there's this idea of developing intellectual courage, which is the idea that you can be wrong and the humility to spot when you're wrong and just go learn the things you need to learn to adapt.' And he said, 'well, how do you develop intellectual courage?
And that's easy you just need experience live 100 lifetimes.' And then he said 'well, how do you live 100 lifetimes? you can't that's not possible unless you study history. And a historian someone who studies stories and studies other people stories is a thief. A thief of experience.
[00:52:23] The beautiful thing is these people are dead and gone and want you to benefit from their experience, that was their goal in life was to leave a history that was worth reading about. That's why they're in the history books. That's what H.R. McMaster was so good at, as he read so many things. And I remember even in Iraq he was reading books, we had books on his nightstand when he went in to go wake him up you know get it get him ready for whatever and he just asked the sergeants.
I remember Sergeant Hodges would have to go get them when he was down for rest that he rarely got. And there were always books on the nightstand, a lot of times on his chest that he'd fallen asleep reading. Paul, I want to get into some -let's give a broad overview of what happened.
[00:53:17] This is the very smooth story and then to get into some shards of memories here because there are some very vivid memories I have, and I know that you have that I'd like to share to give some context. But after we got into the city of Tal Afar and did the initial very tough fighting and identifying the problems, I came up there and in late summer of 2005, because the campaign started back in April and I was in south Baghdad until then.
And I remember coming up there and I knew what was about to happen, which was a large offensive in Tal Afar, and I was girding myself as the adjutant for Colonel McMaster to ride along with him anywhere and everywhere he wanted to go in the helicopters or vehicles.
[00:54:07] I was expecting him to actually be a lot more out in the fighting which, there was plenty of fighting going on in the city, and he certainly didn't shy from it. He never was one to shirk danger. In fact, I remember one time in the operation there was a grenade attack right across the street from where we were when I was walking with them.
And General Rashid and Lara Logan, the camera woman was with them from CBS News, and he started running towards the site of the attack. And his bodyguard sergeant just had to tackle him. And to watch this colonel with a much taller but certainly not much stronger man as himself, his sergeant Hodges tackle a full colonel from going to the site of an attack that was ongoing because he felt like he wanted to get into the where the action was and not shirk danger was quite an interesting moment.
And then obviously the forces around him were very well trained and took care of that situation and were able to kill the two people who attacked the Iraqi soldiers with us. I think that was actually Colonel Riley who did that.
[00:55:21] But it was very interesting to see those. That was a shard in the context of a very big situation which is we were clearing the battlefield of the last remnants as it was towards the end of the campaign. Before that, there was a huge amount of activity and fighting in late August. I think the last five days of August when the campaign started and there are some very tough moments during that time that we all remember.
And then early September and I remember going out with Colonel McMaster to the castle in the center of Tal Afar, you have this great Ottoman fortification and below it is the most violent part of the city which twisted streets and tanks and armored vehicles couldn't get down. And at night, sleeping while I'm hearing brass from AC 130 gunships and Apache helicopters rained down on our position, just calmly plunking down. And just some of those memories were really interesting. What were some of your memories from that campaign and from your perch and any interactions with H.R. McMaster that are memorable?
Paul Yingling: [00:56:32] So first, the macro level operation. So by the summer of 2005, we determined that a large scale operation was necessary to clear the city of insurgents. And so we began both a political and a military shaping operations, by shaping operation I mean creating the conditions that would allow a successful main force effort to clear the city on the political side. That meant convincing both senior U.S. officers as well as the Iraqi government of the necessity of such an operation.
[00:57:10] For example there was a Sunni faction in Baghdad that was telling a narrative that there were no Al Qaeda forces in Tal Afar that it was purely a local problem in which they were persecuted by the Shi'a majority.
And then there was a Shi'a narrative which said that every civilian in the city was somehow complicit with Al Qaeda and it required the most brutal kind of repression. The truth was somewhere in the middle.
There was a significant Al Qaeda force there, but there were also many innocent people who were just trapped in the middle. And so our challenge was to convey the necessity of conducting a large scale, but precise operation that targeted Al Qaeda while protecting the civilian population.
[00:58:01] Not an easy task to do. But that was the political task that was primarily with I was involved in. There was also a military task of both securing the border crossings around El Sinjar and the surrounding communities before going into the city itself.
Also based on the advice that we got from an Iraqi leader creating a berm -a physical obstacle between- that surrounded the city that would narrow the possibility of entrance and exit to a few points that we could easily control. That was not a U.S. idea.
That was an Iraqi idea. It seemed a bit strange to us, almost medieval siege warfare if you will, but it was right that those Iraqi leaders understood the psychology of what it would mean to create that obstacle and limit the ways in and out of the city. And that was probably one of the most important contributions that we got from Iraqi partners.
[00:58:56] There was also the importance of building a partnership with the third Iraqi Infantry Division commanded by Major General Rashid and building those relationships, so that when we began conducting this operation it would be based on a foundation of a solid partnership. So that all took place prior to the operation and then the operation itself was relatively short and through the use of a combination of precision strikes and overwhelming force, Al Qaeda forces fled the city.
Without a pitched door to door battle that Al Qaeda predicted that our worst critics imagine. That horrific bloodbath of a door by door, house by house battle that would harm innocent civilians largely didn't take place. Mostly because the shaping operations were conducted in advance and by the discipline of the soldiers who conducted the operations themselves.
Samuel: [00:59:57] And Paul, there was a really interesting perspective. You were more on the planning and actually watching the macro picture and I had a few more -let's say shards as you say, just because I my role was not to do anything productive on the war fighting side, but take care of the administration for the Colonel as he moved around the battlefield to try and enable him to be more productive.
That was my effort. I would coordinate with people like you who are doing the deep thinking and looking at the big picture. And one of my memories from that campaign was was just simply how many meetings that General McMaster was doing, when he was visibly almost uncomfortable that there was fighting going on all around him in the city and he was sitting inside a meeting talking, but also the discipline and the seriousness he gave to that function as he was the storyteller of the unit.
[01:01:00] He was the chief politician, the chief diplomat, the chief internal morale officer of the soldiers. He spent a lot of time, I watched him, I drove him around on the base and obviously went into all these meetings with Iraqi Army police and the locals tribal sheiks.
And he said the same thing over and over again. And he was so disciplined about saying that exact story that you said which was, we've made mistakes, empathy, humility, admitting when you're wrong and then pivoting to the time for honorable resistance is over because the alternative for your family and the future of your children is even worse than siding with the government which was supported by the United States Army.
And it was just really interesting to see how much time, I was shocked at how much time -and obviously there were moments like the grenade attack and some other moments and sadly some, I think the colonel wasn't in the vehicle at the time, but his vehicle was hit when he wasn't there and there were some casualties in that.
And there were some very tough moments, but he spent a lot of time talking and I was shocked by that. I thought from reading the history books that it was all just action and that's not the reality
Paul Yingling: [01:02:22] And so I think it's important when people visualize modern warfare to not lend too much credence to the Hollywood portrayal of combat, as sort of this perpetual activity of kinetic warfare, certainly that is an incredibly important aspect of the battle and military forces have to be good at those tactical engagements.
But if we are to use the Sun Tzu's mantra, which McMaster is thoroughly familiar with: the ultimate skill is to subdue your enemy without fighting. If he could take young men off the battlefield without killing them. If he could remove forces from the enemy's formation through diplomacy then that created a better peace for the post-conflict environment. And ultimately that's what we're aiming for in warfare is a better peace.
[01:03:18] And so the fewer young men that have to die before the enemy is convinced that he's defeated, the better. So long as the enemy is at the end of the day convinced that he's defeated. And so McMaster worked very hard, as did other leaders working for him, to convince the enemy that there was no possible, honorable, successful, way to fight their way out of this conflict.
That the resolution of the sectarian dispute would have to occur in the political environment, and that the prospect of fighting the U.S. Army in a pitched battle could only result in their deaths. But there was an honorable alternative to that and that was participating in politics.
You're absolutely right about the number of meetings, I can remember one sitting down in the castle of the old Ottoman fort that overlooked the key area of the city, the Serraj district and was sort of the heart of Tel Afar.
[01:04:19] And we were meeting with a sheik, his name was Taufiq and he was going on and on about the crimes of a neighboring tribe, and how the Farhod said stolen his livestock and kidnapped his sons and raped his daughters. And I was writing all this down furiously and I thought, 'wow, this is really good intelligence.' And McMaster leans over to me and puts his hand on my shoulder and says this all happened in the 1980s.
Both laughing at that because it was so fresh in this Sheik's mind and he wanted to convey these wrongs with such a sense of passion in me. And McMaster very dutifully listened to his complaints and factored them into his estimate of the situation and that ultimately crafted a message about how all these Sheik's hundreds of years old grievances could be resolved in the current political framework.
So yes, it takes a lot of discipline to sit through stories that are decades or hundreds of years old and listen to those grievances, and return to that central information theme of the-time-for-honorable-resistance is over. And yes I thought McMaster did a great job of that. You asked about some of the other shards.
[01:05:42] I remember one example of this was when the Iraqi government fell for the Shi'a narrative, that in fact this was a population wholly given over to Al Qaeda and brutal repression was necessary and the mantra in the Iraqi press, especially in the Shi'a communities, was send in the wolves, meaning send in the Wolf Brigade.
And they were a sectarian unit comprised entirely of Shi'a soldiers and leaders, known for their brutal mistreatment of prisoners and civilians. And in fact, we had evidence of this Wolf Brigade torturing prisoners. Whipping them with battery cables and conducting the most brutal kinds of interrogation. And one of the things that McMaster tasked me to do is to create the messaging that we could push to Baghdad to get the walls removed. And then put these horrible pictures -these examples of torture on the part of Shi'a forces.
And in fact, we did that. So that was yet another example of the combining information with military power to achieve an end. Had that sectarian force remained in Tel Afar, then the Sunni population would have been enraged they would have become the very thing that they were accused of being, which is a force wholly given over to Al Qaeda.
And instead their removal basically removed one of the central grievances of the Sunni population and made a better, less violent peace possible. Not through military power but through the use of diplomacy.
Samuel: [01:07:32] And Paul, so many different short sharp memories come up. But I think that it's safe to say to the listener listening to this if you're not familiar with the Iraq war and specifically the battle of Tal Afar, which I'm assuming 99% of the audience it is. This is an example of the power of story at the highest level, where the stakes are highest.
[01:07:59] And this campaign, the reason it's so well-known in American military history in Iraq is because it is the campaign that was the first one to successfully pacify a city without a huge amount of violence. There was a battle of Fallujah, where the Marine Corps basically had a huge fight at the end of 2004, right before we got to Iraq. And unfortunately the city was basically emptied of its population and the remainder there were killed, or captured, or escaped, in a pitched battle that was quite violent.
[01:08:30] And there was an anticipation that this would be another such battle and it wasn't. And a lot of the reason was the deep thinking and sophistication that happened on the staff of Colonel McMaster because he was a student of history, and he knew that the center of success was not fighting the enemy, but getting support from the local population.
Which was a huge shift in the thinking of the forces in Iraq. In fact, I remember the mission statement and that the thing we were told we were over there to do was to defeat anti Iraqi forces. And that changed when General Petraeus became the commander.
As a result of the experience in Tal Afar which was the mission became to support the Iraqi government and get the population on their side, that was a huge shift. Language matters, words matter. The emphasis of what you say you're going to do matters. And I think, the lesson I want to draw for all listeners to this is the power of story to not just make sense of the past but to create the future.
[01:09:44] I remember a very clear moment, Paul, when we were going into the Soreide district. Colonel McMaster is at the castle and he was supposed to go in with our forces and we got the command from the general that we had to hold on and not attack at a certain moment.
And there was this big concern that a lot of people were going to get away, as the civilian population was evacuated. And I remember watching Colonel McMaster get upset that he was not able to do what he wanted to do at that moment.
[01:10:20] But he had this extraordinary ability to get over that and say, 'OK, well this is the new story of the operation which is this was the plan all along.' Even though it wasn't because the general had foiled our designs.
And we're going to make this the new story. This is the story of the operation, which is we're going to not destroy the city, which I don't think was ever the plan obviously. But there could have been a bit more if we wouldn't have been ordered to stop at the moment.
[01:10:50] The whole city was surrounded, civilians were allowed to evacuate and what we found was a bunch of men, women, and children -sorry women and children, who were actually men dressed up as women, to get out of the city.
And you and General McMaster through your shop were able to make huge public relations gains on that saying, look at these big tough lions of to offer dressing as women trying to escape the city and rather than fighting them embarrassing them and shaming them which I think is way worse in that part of the world kind of pulled you know the emperor has no clothes type moment and I remember that very powerfully that that wasn't necessarily the plan to let them get out unscathed because a lot of them did escape and tried to escape but we ended up managing to bring in a lot of people and screen them and make sure that most of the people who tried to escape were not escaping.
[01:11:51] But the funny part was them trying to escape as women in the PR or the story that came out of that was I think quite powerful.
Paul Yingling: [01:11:59] Yeah I would agree with Sam and I would point out that you know the power narrative is not just a backward-looking element.
[01:12:08] So MacMaster met a lot not just with Iraqi leaders but a lot with our own soldiers and telling them the story about why we were there what we were trying to accomplish to build the capacity of the Iraqi government to provide security and essential services for all the citizens of Iraq. That's what we were doing. That's why we were there and being incredibly disciplined.
For example, the use of racial or religious slurs was strictly prohibited and McMaster are pretty tough on people who would use some of those ugly slurs that that was counter to our efforts.
[01:12:49] He told the story of these lines of to offer escaping in women's clothes. And that story spread far and wide on Iraqi media. Humiliating them and furthering that story. But he didn't never allowed the use of photographs of prisoners for propaganda purposes because that was inconsistent with the Geneva Conventions. Again the narrative of respect for the rule of law and conducting operations in accordance with the rule of law for the purpose of providing safety to innocent people.
That story wasn't just a backward-looking reconstruction of what we did. It was a tool to provide discipline and focus to the forces who were having to make life and death decisions every single day and shoot don't shoot decisions that were incredibly difficult.
And by telling our story over and over again not just the Iraqi people but to our own soldiers that empowered every one of those 5000 soldiers to make the right individual choices because they knew why they were doing what they were doing.
[01:13:56] And so the importance of narrative to provide discipline and focus to your own organization I think is an often overlooked benefit of a narrative.
Samuel: Yeah Paul one of the amazing things that he was able to do is take a tough situation where he couldn't control the environment and turn it into a positive. And one of the really tough situations and what Tal Afar was actually known for was the sheer number of people, that because of this blending of fighters with civilians who are trying to escape this part of the city, there were a large number of military age males detained.
That was a very tough situation logistically to manage. The discipline of the soldiers was managed. I think at one point we had the second largest prison in the United States Army system after the central facility in Iraq. Just because we had a lot of screening to do to make sure that we didn't release people who weren't dangerous back into the battlefield.
The great thing that McMaster did was go to the soldiers and say, this is an amazing opportunity to show them that we're not the infidel monsters that they've been told that we are. And a lot of these people who fought us or may want to fight us. This is their first chance to really meet us and let's treat them with an abundance of respect and kindness which is counterintuitive in some ways if you listen to it.
But actually, it's not because if you can't do the other extreme, which is basically torture and murder people. The only other option, the best option really is to treat people way better than they thought they ever would have been treated by you and changed their perspective and their story about you.
And one at a time have people go back home and say you know what. When I left the American jail they gave me this fresh set of clothes and some money. And I've never been treated better and I've never eaten better. That was his focus was. It's a story down at the individual level accounts and that's going to make a big difference. These things will add up.
Paul Yingling: [01:16:00] Right. And those weren't just acts of benevolence for the sake of benevolence. Those were operational decisions to treat people in a manner that would keep them out of the fight.
And so just like you would undertake a tactical operation to keep an enemy force from getting onto the battlefield. This was an information operation to keep people from getting onto the battlefield.
It was as strategic and as deliberate as any kinetic battle involving firepower, but it involved information and that information kept people off the battlefield and that was a very deliberate and well thought out tactical decision.
Samuel: [01:16:37] Yeah and just to show the power of taking on certain unpredicted situations and figuring out where it fits into the overall goal.
Your journey, as you are as you're on, and crafting a story that rallies the people who had to execute it which the people in the organization, the soldiers. Because it was very confusing and he was very good at clarifying for them why they're doing what they're doing.
[01:17:04] Finally communicating the message to the people who you are trying to influence, which is the tribes, the local population and the people who are considering fighting. And the great achievement of the campaign was getting people to stop fighting because they saw, through great communication of which you were the leader for the regiment under General McMaster's guidance, that took people to the point where they didn't need to fight and objectives were achieved with a lot less violence and loss of life than otherwise would have been the case.
[01:17:40] And that is one of the most gratifying things to me that as I look back at these incredibly complex, complicated experiences. I have a lot of gratitude for the fact that I was with great people like yourself and Colonel McMaster, who did the best they could in a bad situation to, I think, saved a lot of lives both American and Iraqis.
Paul Yingling: [01:18:04] And this is maybe a good bookend to the story, that the history you created, along with Gen. McMaster was important - not just the document here's what we did- it was important to the soldiers. They lived in this incredibly chaotic time.
And if you were a cavalry trooper your entire war might have consisted of bouncing around in the back of a cavalry fighting vehicle, getting out 50 yards before an objective, getting shot at, returning fire, capturing some people and then doing it again the next day. And that might have been your life for 365 days.
And just like my experience in the Gulf War, those were shards, fragments which made no sense. But when the regiment took the time to explain what happened, why those individual battles mattered, and how they changed the course of the war, and how they influence people's lives and made people safer. That process helped turn an incredibly traumatic experience into a source of pride and camaraderie and cohesion.
So I think it's really important for organizations, when you go through a difficult time, to explain both during and after that experience why it's important, what we went through, why it mattered, and how we're better off on the other side for having made those sacrifices, taking those risks, endured those hardships.
So, the power of narrative and making sense of difficulty is really important. Not just so that the world understands, but so that your own organization understands why that suffering mattered and why it was meaningful and how difficult though it was, it was worthwhile.
Samuel: [01:19:53] Yeah. And I think Paul, that was the great gifts that the soldiers who served in the regiment have coming out of that, is the soldiers that we left behind who didn't come back that you names. And I remember all of them. In fact, some were peers and good friends of mine and watching Colonel McMaster who was incredibly compassionate towards the families.
And you know, I remember he would go out at 2:00 a.m. with a satellite phone that he'd asked one of the communications sergeants to get the wife of a widow on the phone. A widow from a soldier from the unit and he didn't have to do that. He'd already written his formal letter of condolence which I helped him to draft.
And those were incredibly tough moments. He'd done the things he needed to do. But he went way above that because he wanted to give the members of the unit who’d experience that loss and the families that the hardest ones to deal with that meaning around that.
[01:21:05] And I know from personal experience when I lost my brother four years ago, it was really hard to get meaning out of that for a long time. And that was something I struggled to make sense with. And why did this happen? It's hard not to be angry.
A big breakthrough my life was figuring out how to make meaning out of that. He was a composer and he was always scared that he would not make enough money or be able to get paid for the thing that he loved to do, and he felt like he was studying the wrong thing and he'd be a failure. And one of my greatest joys now is to actually employ composers in my media company, a lot like my little brother who never thought they would have got paid to do you know regular site to do this job.
And it's just great. And the other things that I look at are some things about mental health, and things that he struggled with because he had me ended up passing away with -a doctor misprescribed some drug combinations of brain drugs that didn't react well, and as his heart stopped and he was perfectly healthy and it was, it’s still a mystery to us. And it was hard to make meaning of that.
[01:22:18] So when something bad happens in your life, and you know Paul, we lived through this together and saw a lot of people go through it.
And if a listener has a bad moment, we've all had bad moments, some more than others. It's really important to try and tell yourself a better story around that, that's not dishonest.
[01:22:38] That doesn't ignore facts but is just more constructive and more powerful and allows you to have a better impact going forward.
Paul Yingling: [01:22:51] And you know the story of your brother I think is just an example of the incredible power of meaning. You know I had a similar sort of revelation you know September 5th 2005 when we were going into the castle to conduct the big operation.
[01:23:11] And Sergeant Hodges, the same Sergeant you described as having tackled H.R. for trying to get into a grenade fight a few weeks earlier, was his Bradley crew was bringing us to the castle. And as you recall there was only one way in and one way out, and that was incredibly dangerous. But that was the geography. There was no other choice.
And on the way in we got hit with an IED and we maneuver defined the trigger man but ultimately couldn't. And so we had to continue the mission, in this case, it was to take me and other members of the regimental headquarters to the castle to conduct this operation. And on the way out they were hit again.
[01:23:49] And as you recall Corporal Jeffrey Williams was killed in that blast and the blast was so severe that initially, we couldn't find his body because the blast had been so catastrophic.
[01:24:02] And I remember the memorial for Corporal Williams, and Sergeant Hodges who has this giant of a man weeping and visibly shaking from grief and I also remember H.R talking to him and it wasn't that it was OK or that these things happened.
It was the message that Corporal Adam's death had meaning and purpose and it mattered. And through the conduct of our operations, we honored his life by showing that that sacrifice mattered. And as you know we lost some 43 people and that conversation occurred with every one of those losses, as well as with our wounded.
That catastrophic and a horrific though these losses were that our wounded soldiers experience that it mattered. And I would agree with you that conveying that sense of purpose to people in crisis is fundamental leading them through it.
Samuel: Yeah I remember that day quite clearly because I had not formally met him, I didn't know him personally, but I was in the vehicle with Corporal Williams right before we got out of the vehicle. And I remember I was actually supposed to go back in that vehicle to the base. That was the original plan.
[01:25:30] And I remember looking at general McMath -or Colonel McMaster and saying, I think I'm just going to stay here I don't think it's necessary, I don't feel like going back. He was in the vehicle next to me and that was where I would have been. And that really haunted me for a while. Thinking about well why did I make that decision it was almost just some random thing.
But I remember looking at Colonel McMaster who said yes stay here. And we were in the command post and we heard the blast and what had happened. And then we heard the news. I remember writing those letters and that was the hardest part of my job.
And I always told my soldiers when I was going back to Iraq when they're complaining about how hard we are training them. I just told them I've written way too many letters and I don't want to write another one.
[01:26:14] I saw Colonel McMaster when we wrote these letters and he used to get mad at me when I’d make mistakes because they had to be right. And he said very well and eloquently, ‘we resolve to live our lives better in honor of the sacrifice made for our freedom.’
[01:26:32] And I always had the sense when I got back in 2008 to New York City after my second tour, and the second tour was when we lost a lot more good people, including peers of mine, friends of mine, other commanders Rory, Rowdy Inman and Tori Mallard.
And I remember just thinking I just need to live this life to the fullest and that's the meaning I wanted to take out of that because it was hard to process otherwise right.
[01:27:03] The same thing was for my brother I feel like, not in a bad way now, not in a way that it's destructive, but a very productive way. I'm doing the things that he wished he would have been able to do and do that for him and I know he's smiling down. So, I think you know that's the power of story and that's why I'm so passionate about it. I'm using it and I figured it out through some hard knocks how to use it personally and if I can inspire others or show others how to inspire others to do it. That's the role of teachers and coaches.
Paul Yingling: [01:27:35] Yeah I couldn't agree more, Sam.
Samuel: [01:27:37] Well Paul, thank you so much for taking me down memory lane. Some of the best of times and the worst of times I think in my life both. And for your amazing insights, I know anyone who's been through this podcast is going to listen and really reflect on a lot of things in life and there are few people in the world who can inspire that like yourself. So it's a pleasure and an honor to have you on the show.
Paul Yingling: [01:28:03] Well thanks Sam and thanks to you for hosting this and to your listeners for enduring our memory lane strewing though it was with explosives and other assorted mishaps. But it's a privilege to have this forum to tell these stories. And I hope as we've discussed that there is a larger meaning that your listeners can take from them.
[01:28:24] And with that thank you. Story matters podcast listener for joining us for another show if the StoryMatters podcast season on mentors and please stay tuned for the next guest which will have a short preview of the next show.