Posted by: A.R. Cherian | November 5, 2009

Two courageous acts of leadership during war

Connected to our discussions on leadership in class, I read two WSJ articles on brave American soldiers who went against orders during WWII and the Iraq war of 2003.

The first article was about Lt. John Withers, a black soldier, who befriended a polish holocaust survivor (who they called Peewee) and gave him shelter and food and allowed him to stay with his army company. This was illegal to do at the time, and Lt. Withers could have been dishonorably discharged and lost his dreams of earning a Phd with the GI bill. However, Lt. Withers felt it was the right thing to do and a friendship blossomed. The article went on to detail their emotional reunion almost 50 years later in Hartford, CT in 2001 after Lt. Withers’ son tracked down Peewee (now Martin Weigen). These two men who had endured racism and discrimination in different forms, had formed a lasting bond during the war, and reconnected 50 years later as if they were just gone for a day.

The second article discussed the firing of Marine Colonel Joe D. Dowdy during the Iraq invasion of 2003. The colonel was dismissed from his command because of an age-old tension in warfare: men vs. mission – in which he favored his men. The Colonel was given orders from his superiors to speed through cities on the outskirts of Baghdad, however in one city, Kut, Col. Dowdy hunkered down and chose a alternate route around the city because he felt that it would imperile his division. Col. Dowdy’s superiors saw speed as paramount in the tactics for the war, but Col. Dowdy thought sacrificing everything for speed would be disastrous to his men. Colonel Dowdy had a strong history of treating his men like equals in the highly stratified Marine Corps. He had the respect and admiration of his men, from the grunts up. Colonel Dowdy’s decisions to favor his men over the mission, led to his dismissal from his post during warfare – a highly unusual thing to do in modern American warfare. It made the news during the war.

My opinions on both of these articles are mixed. I believe the first article about Lt. John Withers, and his decision to go against orders and hide the survivors was very different than the decision by Col. Dowdy to go against the orders of his superiors. The first case happened when the war was dying down and after the war, whereas the second case was in the midst of intense fire-fights during the war. Lives were not at risk in the first case, only Lt. John Withers’ career and future college goals, however in the second case, the lives of Col. Dowdy’s men and even his own life were clearly at risk. Col. Dowdy’s refusal may have saved some of the lives of his men, but his decision could have also put in danger the lives of men in other divisions who depended on Col. Dowdy arriving with speed.

I think the decision that Lt. John Withers made was a wonderful and courageous decision. In the second case, I have a hard time accepting the decision of Col. Dowdy in a time where following orders is crucial so that there is no confusion or rogue commanders. Lt. Withers did not disobey his orders during the battle, whereas Col. Dowdy did – and I think that makes the difference.  I believe that during the battle, decisions should be followed and as  the second article stated, choosing between men and mission should never be either or, but always a balance.


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