In 2003, as the 75th Ranger Regiment shifted its attention to the war in Iraq, C Company of the 2nd Battalion, 75th, was doing time as “the forgotten company” in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. Deep inside the Hindu Kush Mountain Range, narrow roads cut through poppy fields and high mountain peaks.
With mobility challenged by terrain and villages inhabited by warlord sympathizers, operating at night was a critical component of our security and the success of our missions. Daytime ops exposed us to improvised explosive devices, especially on Route Blue, where multiple IED strikes killed or wounded many and destroyed vehicles. We called the route “IED Alley.”
A few hours into one of our many nighttime convoys through IED Alley, I watched through the green screen of my night optical device (NODs) as a Toyota truck driven by one of the “slice elements” — a non-Ranger support team — drifted toward the side of the raised dirt road and careened off into a poppy field. The driver’s Afghan team scattered like popcorn from the truck bed, their eyes wide enough to see through my NODs.
The sound of crunching metal and breaking glass was cut by an “All halt!” and all four of the truck tires spun in the air impotently. We were miles from our objective and had possible casualties inside the cab.
It was at this moment I realized I had failed as a leader.
Pushing the pace is a Ranger standard. With the mission to conduct direct-action raids in unstable environments, Rangers have a knack for winning by pushing through complexity. This resolve can sometimes become stubbornness that shuts down communication, and in those moments, I try to remind myself to “keep it between the ditches.”
Taken literally, the idiom means to stay on the road while driving. Figuratively, it means to stay on the high ground and avoid extremes. Communicating effectively helps us avoid pitfalls, and when communication shuts down, the ditches come calling.
That’s exactly what happened hours before our joint force moved out on our mission that night in Kunar.
In the joint-operations fight, gaining and shedding different “slice elements” is routine. Our slice element for the mission was a small Afghan special-mission team led by an American operative we’ll call Bill.
Bill wore body armor and a collared shirt that smelled of fabric softener and home, with a weapon strung clumsily to his side. He jockeyed his black Toyota truck into the convoy as we prepped NODs for the drive, suddenly turning sheet white when I asked him to put on his NODs.
“Bill, we drive blacked out at night,” I said.
He and his team just stared at me. We were minutes from launch, and I was suddenly painfully aware of a pretty big oversight in our pre-combat inspections and mission planning. Namely, a better understanding of Bill’s equipment and capabilities.
With a long trip ahead and no time to waste if we were going to hit our target by daybreak, we slapped a set of NODs and a skull crusher (head mount) on Bill, congratulated ourselves for a rapid solution, and cranked up the convoy. Go time.
Three hours later, Bill drove into a ditch (poppy field).
We sprang into action, securing the area and assessing the situation. After confirming Bill and his men were okay, I kicked myself for my stupidity and cockiness. I was furious with my lack of communication and preparation prior to rolling out of the wire. I knew better. I sensed Bill’s tension as we cinched the NODs to his face, but I didn’t have the difficult conversation.
Bill experienced an obstacle called “mission risk versus personal risk,” a problem that occurs when the teammate feels a lack of safety in the relationship that causes him to self-preserve, even at the risk of the mission. He didn’t want to expose himself by looking a Ranger in the eyes and saying, “I can’t drive in these conditions,” or “I’m scared.” I can’t really blame him. I never gave him that option.
I experienced an obstacle called “keeping the peace,” an obstacle we see often in marriages and partnerships. Keeping the peace looks a lot like quiet when you know you should speak up.
But quiet is not to be confused with peace.
Rather than being peacekeepers, we should really want to be peacemakers. Peacemaking means asking the questions and addressing the issues to either initiate or restore communication. Peacekeeping very often is avoidance, an exit door that I walked through that night.
It was my responsibility as a leader to initiate the difficult conversation. My failure to act created the larger problem down the road. We were stuck in a ditch of my creation and the poppy field of a stirring village. My failure to have the difficult conversation destroyed crops, damaged a vehicle, compromised our position, and nearly killed some of our companions.
All over modern America today, relationships are damaged by a lack of difficult conversations. I see people jumping into their ditches in fear or pushing others into ditches not of their own choosing on critical issues that need to be addressed with care.
The ditches of any complex issue are dangerous places to be. If we’re not careful, they can become ideological trenches in a war of ego and opinion.
When we dig our own ditches, they become like shallow graves, burying us in our own certainty and self-righteousness in ways that shut us off from caring about others and achieving progress. But when we focus less on winning and more on trying to understand one another, we find the will to have a difficult conversation, to understand sincerely, and to align upon a common purpose, even if we don’t agree on everything.
We often have much to agree upon, and disagreement by itself is not inherently good or bad. And disagreeing with each other is a far better outcome than disagreeing without one another.
Difficult conversations are the rope holding us together in tension between the ditches. We all have memories of the damages in the ditches, but are we willing to learn from those experiences and change before we suffer more losses?
I pray that we are, especially as I recall the helplessness of that night in Kunar when I could have thrown Bill the rope instead of a pair of NODs.
As dawn began creeping over the mountaintops, we were stuck with a dead truck and no air support to cover our movement by day. We had a target with a hit time to achieve and a village of Afghans waking to find their livelihoods disrupted by foreign invaders.
Accidents happen. When they are avoidable and happen on our watches, they become crucible moments in our formations as leaders.
Winching a dead truck up onto the road as our Afghan counterparts apologized to the farmers and paid them for their losses, I learned a lot about peacemaking. The cost of inaction remains with me today, but I feel blessed that my mistake only cost us a mission. It could just as easily have cost us a life.
We all came together as a team and got our convoy up and running again just in time to clear the area before sunrise. We drove away with the whole force intact and a lifelong lesson. The damage done in that ditch reminds me that a difficult conversation together is a far better alternative than the damage wrought by the silence that keeps us apart.
Difficult conversations help us stay between the ditches and, one would hope, find higher ground together. And together is what we all desperately need more of today.