Small Wars Journal

Two Soldiers I Served With Died In The Philippines. They Didn’t Have To.

Sat, 10/10/2015 - 8:45am

September ambushes me every year.

Life rushes by, and then I realize it’s another September,  and another difficult anniversary. I look down at the band on my wrist, the scuffed aluminum band that soldiers wear to commemorate the dead. 

Read more at The Observer. H/T SWJ friend Colonel (Retired) Dave Maxwell.  



Mon, 10/12/2015 - 8:45am

I think this is an important piece by Justin Richmond. It takes courage to share the lessons of war, especially those where we have lost friends and family, and even more so when they are lessons on where we all, Mr. Richmond included, need to do better.

Couple of points up front, I never served in the Philippines so I can't comment as eloquently, or with as much credibility, on OEF-P operations, or JSOTF-P improvements over the years. That said, I did my fair share of time in "garden spots" around the globe, and unfortunately, have also experienced, as most of you have, the pain of loss of our warrior brothers. After nearly a decade of service I did some work across Africa with special operations forces as a contractor, and then joined the federal government focusing on civil-military issues, primarily in post-conflict environments.

Mr. Richmond's key points are that, during his time in the Philippines, as with my time in Afghanistan or elsewhere, we, generally, weren't doing it right. We did miss out on cultural dynamics, understanding true ethnic, social, gender, and economic cleavages within the societies in which we were operating, unilaterally, or partnered with host nation forces. certainly there was a tremendous amount of tactical success at the team level, but as we aggregate up beyond the tactical level, our gains become less obvious. The Philippines has, on the surface, turned out better than the debacles Iraq and Afghanistan, but the tension is just below the surface and the place remains a powder keg, just waiting for one event, or one malign actor, to blow the roof off all over again.

While the loss of SFC Shaw and SSG Martin is tragic to their friends and family members, there have been thousands of tragic losses across the services since 9/11 - each with a unique story behind the sacrifice, and truth be told, lessons learned in each one of them as to where we can, and must, do better.

With all due respect to COL (Ret) Maxwell's NCO buddy, his comments about disrespecting or not taking into account the feelings of Shaw's and Martin's family is disingenuous - when did we stop asking ourselves what went wrong? When did we stop trying to do better? The circumstances around their deaths will not make their loss any more or less tragic for those left behind. I believe Mr. Richmond's examination of the surrounding circumstances simply helps us to do better - to reduce the likelihood that future operations like this, directly or partnered, will take place because we are better armed - mentally, operationally, culturally. The reflection piece is a painful reminder of the cost of war, even when done right. SFC Shaw and SSG Martin's legacy could be to help us keep Mr. Richmond's points in mind so we don't lose future operators in a similar manner.

The only point I may critique in Mr. Richmond's piece is that, while "Jack and Chris didn't have to die," its war, and bad things happen to good people. We will never know if it was simply their time, or if the op had been cancelled out of an awareness of the cultural factors at play they would have made it home with the rest of their team mates. What we do know is that there are lessons in their sacrifice. And if we throw stones at the messenger, fail to heed his valuable and astute warnings, and think parochially in defense of our operational units, structures, or Departments or Agencies, we miss the whole damn point.

I hope folks re-read Mr. Richmond's piece in an effort to pull the lessons learned from his effort. His sharing was, in may ways, soul-searing and courageous. While I didn't know SFC Shaw or SSG Martin, I know many men and women like them, and continue to serve (in a different capacity) with them in harm's way. For me, Justin's piece will help me do my best to ensure the teams, the JSOTFs, the CJSOTFs and their interagency partners continue to get it right.

We are much further along than we were in 2006 in Afghanistan, or 2009 when Mr. Richmond was in the Philippines, but these lessons are always important. Thanks, Justin, for sharing such a personal incident, and for linking it to your efforts over the past 6 years to improve our efforts in this space.

We don't have it exactly right just yet but we are getting there.

He's absolutely right that governance is the problem, and his supervisors were absolutely right that a US task force had no capacity or right to step in and try to force a change in governance. That was the essential contradiction of the mission from the start: Philippine sovereignty and the basic parameters of the mission made it impossible for the US force to address the root causes of the conflict.


Tue, 10/13/2015 - 10:57pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Part of the problem with perceptions of corruption and its impact goes back to the way we define the word. When American academics say "corruption" they typically refer simply to stealing money from the government, a pernicious enough practice but one which can simply be seen as an unofficial tax, manageable unless it is prohibitive in size. Many countries noted for extreme corruption (China being a classic example) have still managed to show impressive economic gains.

"Corruption" here has a rather broader meaning, embracing a wide range of methods by which the power and resources of the state and the privileges of position are exploited for personal gain. The embraces exemption from law, forcible suppression of political and economic competition, collusion with organized crime, etc. In many areas, Mindanao notably included, the ability of government agencies to deliver services is deliberately crippled. Anyone in need of services goes not to an agency, but to a mayor, governor, congressman, or other local boss, with the bosses or their people giving out these services as personal favors, for which loyalty and service are expected in return. In effect, government services are channeled through individuals, rather than an apolitical bureaucracy, allowing the feudal lords to sustain a patronage system without dipping into their own resources. In many areas it becomes almost impossible for an ordinary household to survive without becoming retainers of one feudal lord or another. This is not a system conducive to progress, or to sustained peace.

The AFP has learned some things about handling civilians, though they still behave better when Americans are around, which of course they no longer are, and it is yet to be seen how long these changes will hold up. Serious problems remain. One is an institutional culture that places personal loyalty above institutional loyalty, requiring that personnel cover for each other and remain silent even in the face of malfeasance that places other members of the institution at risk. A blunt illustration: most of the weapons and ammunition in the local black market and in rebel hands trace back to government arsenals. They are sold. Everybody knows it, everybody refers to it in private conversation, but it is not mentioned publicly, ever. Nobody blows the whistle, because you don't blow another man's racket, even if it endangers you. In civilian life, we have what's called "SOP", the standard practice of contractors on government projects paying anything from 20 to 35% of the contract sum to the politicians who expedited the project. Again, everybody knows, it's taken for granted... but you can't mention it in public. That's why the Wikileaks fantasy is so appealing: it would force these issues out in the open where they belong.

Back in 2004 an Australian journalist friend went up to Cabanatuan to ask about a case in which local police had arrested a Muslim convert with known connections to arms dealers and Islamic militants, a man named Mario Barrientos. At the time of his arrest Mr Barrientos had in his possession 17 Claymore mines and 2kg of C4. This is stuff that, generally speaking, one prefers to keep off the streets and out of the hands of terrorists. It is not stuff that one finds on street corners just anywhere. The local police chief, a quite articulate fellow who had some training in the US courtesy of the FBI, said outright, on video, that the material had been sold by soldiers from nearby Fort Magsaysay, an installation where US forces train regularly. He said it was a real problem for them, as arms dealers were flocking to the area to make purchases. of course that was never mentioned in the local press coverage. Mario Barrientos was quickly released on bail and never seen again.

How do you win a war when your own people are selling weapons to the enemy... and when it is considered bad form to mention that in public discourse, even though everybody knows it is happening?

Bill M.

Mon, 10/12/2015 - 11:26pm

In reply to by Dayuhan


Unfortunately we have some academics at the Naval Postgraduate School and other locations that promote the myth that corruption just isn't that important. Corruption is simply part of the culture, so we can "defeat" insurgencies, drug cartels, terrorists, etc. without mitigating the impact of corruption. Sadly, many in the military simply translate these opinions as fact, and ignore the problem they clearly see.

When you examine our collective shortcomings and failures in these recent, and not so recent, interventions they are almost always undone by corrupt partners. Our failure to recognize this and to somehow deal with it is a condition that prevents our current approach to COIN,CT, and CNT from being effective. I'm not stating we can fix it, but if excessive corruption exists and our strategy relies on good governance, then it is probably time to rethink our approach. We also add to the problem when organizations like the CIA buy off local corrupt leaders for influence. These transactional relationships simply reinforce the problem that is often the underlying cause of the conflict. The are the do loops we get ourselves into.

You're absolutely correct that "collusion between government officials and bandits/rebels/terrorists/criminals continues to be the norm". In many ways, we unintentionally simply played into reinforcing the status quo by bringing in more money that feed the current system rather than changing it. I'm not sure exposing the corruption would do much, in fact I think the locals know who is on the take, but they are powerless to do anything about it.

My hope is the younger generation in the north seems to be pushing for more transparent government, and with the advent of social media, they may even hold the government increasingly accountable. That may be a pie in the sky dream, but people power in the Philippines did oust Marcos. Today there still seems to be a positive trend with the Philippine youth. Of course, that has little to do with OEF, and more to do the impact of education and open media over time. However, I do think OEF-P gradually increased the professionalism of the Philippine security forces. They way they deal with civilians now is significantly different than it was when the mission first started. That will be important when the people once again demand corrupt politicians step down from office.


Mon, 10/12/2015 - 10:48pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I think the gains were largely illusory, which is why they were so quickly wiped out. When you get down to basics, it's still a feudal society and deeply corrupt. Nothing has been done or is likely to be done to address the basic grievance over loss of Muslim lands to state-sponsored settlers from the north. Collusion between government officials and bandits/rebels/terrorists/criminals continues to be the norm. The majority populace still hates and fears Muslims and opposes any compromise or accommodation. These are internal Philippine problems and they are not issues that a mission like OEF/P can realistically hope to address.

Certainly US operations did leave a generally favorable impression of Americans, but if anything that only underscored the indifference, corruption, and incapacity of indigenous governance.

Sometimes, in moments of frustration, I wish the US would put its intel resources to use and prepare a really detailed report on corruption and collusion in Mindanao, naming names, addressing specific incidents, and concluding that military and even civilian cooperation is futile until the Philippine Government is prepared to bring its own representatives within the rule of law. Stamp "top secret" all over it, tie it up in a pretty pink ribbon, and make sure it gets to Wikileaks. That would piss a lot of people off, burn some bridges, and shake the boat up bigtime... but it's a boat that badly needs shaking.

Bill M.

Mon, 10/12/2015 - 12:52pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Time will tell, the PNP mission was a major set back that may very well erase a decade plus of gains. I remain cautiously optimistic, but realize there still major hurdles that need to be overcome in the political realm.

In some countries like Pakistan and Yemen HVI hunting was essential to disrupt attacks on the homeland and elsewhere. They were/are simultaneously valuable and counterproductive. In short, they are security operations to prevent near or midterm attacks. In most cases they won't defeat the movement, but they often result in disrupting attacks. At the end of the day it is a value call, unfortunately it seems we default to HVI hunting as "the" strategy, instead of simply being necessary security operations.


Sat, 10/10/2015 - 8:52pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I wish I could agree with you on the positive long term trend, but unfortunately it is not the case. The sad reality is that we are probably closer to going back to full scale war in the south than we have been at any time in the last 20 years. I don't know how much you follow recent events, but the whole thing unraveled completely after a single incident last January, which if anything illustrates how fragile the whole process was from the start.

As you might guess, the incident in question involved a "high value target". The target was killed, but in the process an entire unit of the PNP SAF, a "blocking force" supporting the main mission, was completely wiped out, with no relief from nearby Army or PNP units. SAF suffered 44 KIA. There are still questions over how it all happened, but the outcome was a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment. A peace agreement that took years to draft has been essentially shredded and the peace process is back to zero. There's still an uncomfortable peace in the field, but much of the majority populace is screaming for war, even genocide, and politicians are deliberately whipping up emotion to serve their own purposes (elections in 2016).

It's not looking at all happy, and not much, if anything, has changed...

I liked the quote at the end of his article, "It was Max Weber who told us that politics is the 'strong and slow boring of hard boards.' The sentence that follows, and the one almost no one quotes, is that the work 'takes both passion and perspective.' In wars like these, I’ve come to realize that we have proceeded with an excess of passion and a lack of perspective”.

I think Justin's observations about the bad timing of the operation to take out the kidnap for ransom group is correct. No doubt it created negative sentiment, but ultimately there is considerable doubt if that is the reason Sergeants Shaw and Martin were lost to an IED. I won't dwell on that, these two men were Soldiers serving on freedom's edge who gave their all for the cause. As for popular sentiment in the Southern Philippines, positive and negative sentiment ebbed and flowed for our collective efforts over the years. That is the nature of these operations, in many ways it is a competition for positive perception. The word competition means others are looking to shape the perception of our actions as negative.

A lot of mistakes were made in the Philippines over the last few years, but that is a small part of the whole. The greater whole points to a positive trend over the long term. That progress is due to a lot of hard steady-state work by the Philippine security forces, U.S. military, USAID, NGOs, and concerned Filipino citizens all taking action. Again, it is a competitive environment, so it isn’t linear. There are a wide range of actors violently opposed these efforts to build a peaceful environment. Terrorists were never the only “bad” guys down there. This was never a problem that could be solved overnight, and it could never be solved by tracking down and neutralizing so called high value targets (that were anything but high value).

I think a serious error, or a serious flaw in our mindset since 9/11 is reflected by the mantra, "intelligence driven operations." This dumbs down operations to finding red and then applying force against red. We can do this for a decade and make no progress as noted in all of our current and recent conflicts. Operations should support strategy, and intelligence should inform, not drive operations. If Justin's assessment is correct, the operation conducted on Eid was an example of a short sighted intelligence driven operation. If everyone understood the long term aims (part of strategy) and the operational environment (yes, the social, political, religious factors) a risk assessment informed by context could/would have been conducted and it would have seemed apparent that the juice wasn't worth the squeeze. I am still of the mindset that 90% of our shortcomings are based on our shortcomings in developing strategy. Our forces are phenomenal at the tactical level, but as someone once said (it wasn't Sun Tzu), tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 10/10/2015 - 1:28pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Is this entirely fair?

I think it's probably correct in the greater scheme of things and I know just as many people in my world (medical) need reminders like this because we do tend to think we'd do it perfectly "if only I had any power to run things!"

Doesn't the system (yours and mine) sort of raise them up that way? If you train a person to think he or she is something extraordinary and your very doctrine is that exposure to this key element of personality can change worlds, then it's going to come back at you this way from time to time.

It's hard to ask for empathy if you are not going to give it first. That's pure pain on that page. Stepping back maybe requires being heard first.

I might be reading the comment incorrectly because there is a lot of wisdom to it and maybe I just think pain should first be acknowledged without judgement--and then the teaching lessons can be made.

I really don't know.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 10/10/2015 - 9:44am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

As a follow-up, I received these comments from a retired SF NCO with whom I served for many years:

Your comments are a bright line in an off Page one conflict.
Just from a GED and NCO: Mr. Richmond has too much self-centrism and “I know the truth”; and sadly near zero feeling or love for the families of SFC Shaw and SSG Martin in whom he seeds doubt.
So, each September to serve his apparent ego or victimhood, he is going to inflict doubt and pain upon the families . . .???
Mr. Richmond molds the story to assuage his acquired syndrome: a coalescing of victimhood and Horatioism. He is a victim, and if only he was the Commander things would be different. If only he was listened to and taken for his huge worth – things would have been different.
The truth nuggets are only visible to him; and all others are blind, too weak, or morally acquiescent. Only he is Horatio.
Sorry, Sir, my take is that of an NCO of a peer NCO. As I read more and more of his writing, I was reminded of Cervantes, not Homer.
I wish Mr. Richmond great success in his endeavors. I wish him following winds in his entrepreneurship.
And most of all as brother NCOs, I wish him peace.
And Mr. Richmond, please think of peace for the families and of the true Horatio’s: SFC Shaw and SSG Martin.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 10/10/2015 - 9:43am

This pains me to read and send. Where you stand depends on where sit and this young former sergeant is now sitting in a bad place based on his tragic experience. The experience of this young psychological operations soldier is heartbreaking. But he provides important perspectives few see. I have to take issue with his belief that we were "buying loyalty for us" though his insights on governance are very important. But it pains me because his snapshot in time experience does not illustrate the work that has been done on governance issues (e.g., return of absentee mayors, peaceful election and transfer of of power between rival families in 2007, the huge amount information provided to Philippine intelligence by Philippine citizens, the ruling out of calling former MNLF soldiers "integrees" by the Task Force Sulu CG in 2007 because they were now simply Philippine soldiers, Muslim soldiers taking duty for Christian soldiers on Christian holidays and Christian soldiers taking duty for Muslim soldiers on Muslim holidays and much more). The actions of the Philippine Marines are also painful to read because we had seen so much improvement in the Philippine military's methods of operations since 2001. But his views, rightly or wrongly, will be forever etched in his mind based on his tragic experience and we should read this and learn from him. But I know he will accuse me of being one of those commanding officers but regardless I will pay attention to what he has written, especially his concluding paragraph.

QUOTE: What bothers me most isn’t that Jack and Chris died. Everyone who signed on the line after 9/11 knew what could happen. No, what tears my insides up is that they didn’t have to die, that our task force got it wrong, and no matter what justification commanding officers give or what the official story says, this was a preventable mistake—and two men didn’t come home because of it. END QUOTE


QUOTE: It was Max Weber who told us that politics is the “strong and slow boring of hard boards.” The sentence that follows, and the one almost no one quotes, is that the work “takes both passion and perspective.” In wars like these, I’ve come to realize that we have proceeded with an excess of passion and a lack of perspective. Jack and Chris died because of our lack of perspective, and while they won’t come back, my faint hope is that we can learn from the mistakes that have cost families and nations so dearly. END QUOTE