Deconstructing the 5 Paragraph Operations Order
Swinging open the passenger door of our small Mitsubishi SUV, known in army circles as an NTV or non-tactical vehicle, I hop out. We’re already late. This is my first visit to the Al Faw Palace in Baghdad. I need to make a strong first impression. I’m out and walking at a quickened pace before the vehicle driver has even had the chance to kill the engine. He’s racing to catch up as I range walk toward the entry access point. My new compadre approaches the Ugandan guards first. He’s obviously well known to them and they greet him by first name and with a large white smile. Their thick English accents surprise me and seems oddly out of place. I on the other hand am a stranger to them. They’re much more skeptical of my credentials. No smile is offered. I assume over this next year I’ll earn a similar level of friendliness and familiarity. A short halt and we are past the guards and moving toward the over-sized wooden doors of this magnificent palace.
This moment offers significant closure for me, twenty-five years in the waiting. My platoon never made it this far north in the first Gulf War. That was my very first conflict. It had ended somewhat prematurely. Still reeling from exhaustion and jet lag, I was enjoying this momentary high nonetheless.
I just arrived here yesterday after a quick pass-through in Kuwait. No matter how well traveled you may be, there’s nothing that could prepare you for Ali Al Salem. This was tent city cluster on a grand scale. If the effort of dragging your crap through the sand to your transient tent weren’t taxing enough, then straining to understand the loud speakers that squawked incessantly would drive you mad. I was so nervous about missing my flight, that I finally just said ‘screw it’ and I lugged my way to the plywood terminal and resigned myself to just crashing out on my bags. I had been chunked out the door of our NTV down there about eight-teen hours ago. It’s been an endless adventure getting up to Baghdad. I was a worthless bobble-head on the cargo flight. Thank goodness I was headed into a permissive landing strip. Otherwise, I’d just be at the mercy of my enemy.
We pass into the palace. Wow! I think to myself. What a great locale to conduct some serious planning. This is first class. We cross the grand foyer and my friend directs me through another set of gargantuan wooden doors.
My eyes scan the room. Here sit about 150 highly skilled army officers in a double horseshoe formation. Microphones are set in front of each planning rep on the inside circle. Everyone is looking at 10’ slides projected on the front wall or at the 30’x30’ map on the ground. It’s an impressive array of people and products. I’m not intimidated one bit. This is my time to step up to the plate and make my division’s presence known. There’s a new kid in town. I have news to deliver certain to make a shockwave.
My escort points to the left. He directs me to a chair immediately behind the man I will replace. Up until now we’ve only spoken on the phone or via email. This is our first face to face. I’m just a ‘backseater’. I take the seat immediately behind him; he spins, covers the microphone, smiles, introduces himself and shakes my hand. “Welcome, glad to finally see you here.” I return a similar greeting. “I don’t have time to bring you up to speed, but a lot has changed since you left Fort Lewis.” I nod my agreement.
It’s only been a few short months since I was sitting quietly, proudly in a white chair on a green lawn surrounded by the best lieutenant colonels and colonels across the globe. My father was there to share in this moment as well. We were all adorned in our dress uniforms sporting various colors and cuts. Together, we were an impressive sight to behold. The moment of crossing that gazebo and being handed my US Army War College diploma is etched in my mind. Additionally, it marked the beginning of another transition. This time I’d leave the academic rigors of reading, debate and composition for the more kinetic and arduous environment of a deployment. The role of playing Chief of Plans was how the taxpayers would receive their pound of my flesh for the gift of giving me a resident year in Carlisle. I don’t want to let them down.
The palace room is erupting in discontent and spirited discourse. This is pretty normal. Although I’ve never presided over an planning audience of this size I can appreciate the magnitude of its purpose. This certainly wasn’t a sandy patch of dirt in Dammam where I delivered my first combat OPORD twenty-five years ago. Nevertheless, I can empathize with the lead planning team. They’re struggling to maintain a fair balance between productive cross talk and outright chaos. I don’t want to make it worse; but, here it goes, I have no choice.
Un-velcroing my left shoulder pocket I pull out a 3×5 card. I succinctly write our concept for how to best close out our time in Iraq. It differs from that of my new friend. I’ve read his commander’s plan. I’m here to inject my commander’s thumbprint before it’s too late. Here it goes. As the speaking roles wind their way around the room, it is rapidly approaching our turn. I hand my card to the man I will be replacing. He eyes it. I anticipate then sense his stress. “What?” he whispers loudly to me. “Are you certain?” I nod in affirmation.
Now, it wouldn’t be prudent or relevant necessarily for this passage to disclose to you the details of my message. But, rest assured, he did read it aloud to the room. It created a great deal of angst and table fist pounding. Yay, I was responsible for an immediate, unscheduled break. I was being summoned like a school kid on the playground to the head table. An outstretched hand, palm up, index finger flexing back and forth the ‘come over here this minute’ universal symbol. Nobody knew me ten minutes ago. Everyone knows me now.
Trust was established soon thereafter when my commander was reached via telephone and he confirmed the message we were delivering was legitimate. The initial shock wore off and things began to settle into a rhythm. My new colleague showed me the hot spots to eat and catch a movie in Baghdad. We even took some time and looked at some of the spots the Air Force had demonstrated our resolve.
A couple of days passed, our ideas became cemented into the overall plan and we headed out for Basra. It would be a bit of a lengthy ride and there are no restrooms on an army Blackhawk. My body was still adjusting to its new diet plan. I wasn’t excited about this trip south. As we re-entered Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), I made a quick beeline for the port-a-can. The Ugandan guards gave me huge smiles now. My colleague waited patiently in earshot and even dug through his kit to find me an Imodium pill. This was greatly appreciated, but with no water nearby, I managed to get it stuck in my throat. This dilemma yielded more smiles out of our friendly guards. I wasn’t at my best to say the least.
‘The bird is here, let’s go’. Okay, this was it, hold it together, you can do this, I kept repeating to myself. We walked out toward the 60 only to be redirected on the hot tarmac to a beautiful, this is too good to be true, leer jet. OMG, I said to myself. Now, we’d travel like Van Halen. We’d be up and then touching down almost as quickly as a lawn dart. ‘Kaboom’, a mega loud explosion erupted and a plume appeared a klick or so in front of me, I crouched. No one else budged. ‘That’s a controlled detonation rookie’. Oops, I’m losing street credit in a hurry. I better get it together fast.
News of our meeting in Baghdad preceded our landing. My team was already on their game. The relief in place and upcoming transfer of authority between our two staffs and commands were well underway by the time I made it to my desk. I wasn’t afforded time to embrace my quarters or container-housing unit (CHU) before I was brought to the outgoing commanding general’s office. He skipped the cordial welcoming, tossed me his pointer and gazed toward his large wall map of Iraq. “Show me what you’re talking about”. This was another moment I had been preparing for months. I demonstrated my ability to navigate our plan over the map with his laser pointer while providing supporting narrative off the cuff. He may not have liked our plan any more than before, but he certainly couldn’t criticize the delivery.
No good deed goes unpunished so they say. That was oh so true in this case. I had succeeded in carrying our message. My team huddled up. They had already scouted a sweet quiet location where we could talk out of earshot. We’d use this spot on numerous occasions when real work needed to be sorted out. The G5 team was comprised of a sharp group of field grade officers and non-commissioned officers. Some had already distinguished themselves as commanders or operations officers on prior rotations, some were graduates from the School of Advanced Military Study (SAMS), all were captains of their craft. The bad news was the knowledge our predecessors had gifted us was already a fully developed plan, ready for wear, down to the finest detail, but now rendered inoperable. My success equated to a ‘do over’ on the entire thing. We’d have to deconstruct their plan and rebuild it completely integrating our components. Our own plan was only about a forty-percent product upon arrival. Despite our best efforts stateside, there is only so much you can intelligently abstract. You must have first hand, real time information to truly complete a quality plan.
For the first time I began to realize just what the Design Methodology was all about. To me, this was it. Our approach to the deconstruction and reconstruction of the improved plan was just that; our design. Anyone who has taken on a major reconstruction of his or her home knows full well what I am talking about. It would be much easier to start with nothing, using new materials, and build from the ground up. To fully develop our plan would be a major reconstruction and we were the team to do it.
In the end, our plan had to be wheeled into the commanding general’s office using two dollies. Our supporting slides numbered well into the hundreds. But, most proudly, we were able to distill our real message to just seven sharp, conceptual slides. To borrow from the words of Winston Churchill; ‘it would have been shorter if we’d had more time.’ An incredible amount of critical thinking, coupled with a ruthless schedule resulted in an impressive completed order for our division. I’m grateful for the opportunity and for the dedicated good works of my team. We sought end-state conditions favorable for the United States of America. History must decide if we succeeded.