Cavalry State of Mind: A Book Review

If you ain’t Cav you ain’t shit! – traditional U.S. Cavalry saying

A book review of Jimmy Blackmon’s* Pale Horse: Hunting Terrorists and Commanding Heroes in the 101st Airborne Division

U.S. military leadership and civilian policy makers are once again eyeing Europe and Russia’s assumed resurgence as a near-peer competitor. Talk of issues like Russia’s new army divisions being established in its Western and Southern Military Districts has NATO generally, and the U.S. specifically dusting off Cold War era manuals and refocusing U.S. military efforts back on mechanized warfare. After 15 years of fighting wars that primarily consist of counterinsurgency (COIN) and counter-terrorism (CT) operations, many U.S. military and civilian leaders are wondering what COIN and CT lessons (learned over the past decade and a half) can be transferred with the U.S. military’s strategic pivot from Iraq and Afghanistan to eastern Europe as well as to the western Pacific. Colonel (Ret.) Jimmy Blackmon’s Pale Horse: Hunting Terrorists and Commanding Heroes in the 101st Airborne Division provides a guide on the lessons learned in Afghanistan that can be transferred to any future conflict. Colonel Blackmon’s simple premise of cavalry being a state of mind, with its inherent missions of reconnaissance and security, and how leaders empower and develop subordinates is both tactically and strategically sound for any battle, present or future.

Unlike most war memoirs, Colonel (then Lieutenant Colonel) Blackmon’s book on commanding an Army aviation task force (7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division) doesn’t specifically focus on his experience, instead it focuses on the 7-17 Cav troopers and the infantry soldiers they supported in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces. As Col. Blackmon told me “my book isn’t about me, it’s about the soldiers, and it’s the story of their fight.” Col. Blackmon provides a view of the war in Afghanistan as it is fought from above, and provides insight into battles fought at Wanat, Korengal, and OP Bari Ali. This perspective provides the reader with a certain clarity that is rarely found in the media coverage of the war in Afghanistan.Task Force (TF) Pale Horse was not a traditional air cavalry squadron when it deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. TF Pale Horse was task organized with OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, AH-64D Apaches, CH-47F Chinooks, UH-60M Black Hawks, UH-60L Medevac, and Hunter unmanned aerial vehicles. TF Pale Horse didn’t just supply and support the ground forces; TF Pale Horse became a battlefield sensor. This sensor mission required every pilot, regardless of helicopter (or its traditional role of lift, attack, or reconnaissance), every aircraft crew member, and every member of the TF’s headquarters element to embrace the concept of reconnaissance and security. After every mission, pilots and air crews were to observe and report what they saw and encountered. Pilots were required to debrief the TF’s intelligence section following each mission. This cavalry state of mind of observing and reporting wasn’t something Col. Blackmon and his TF were specifically tasked to do, it was a mission that TF Pale Horse developed and executed to support the U.S. Army ground commander in the Central Kunar Valley.

In addition to imbuing every TF Pale Horse pilot with what Colonel Blackmon calls “a cavalry state of mind,” Col. Blackmon also, like all good leaders, empowered his subordinates and staff to develop new tactics and techniques. One such empowerment was the developing and encouraging the TF intelligence section to glean and analyze the information provided by TF pilots and air crew. This analysis resulted in what they called their enemy’s (named the “syndicate” by the intel section) Modus Operandi Template (MOTEMP). This MOTEMP helped TF Pale Horse interdict and disrupt the syndicate’s attacks on U.S. forces in the Central Kunar Valley. The syndicate’s MOTEMP showed a consistent, and complacent (a fatal mistake) process in which the enemy would get supplies and weapons from the bordering region of Pakistan, move these supplies and weapons through the Hindu Kush mountains to cache sites in the Central Kunar Valley. Following the movement and caching of supplies and weapons, the syndicate would meet, plan, and rehearse its next set of attacks. As with most counterinsurgency forces, the syndicate would then move to fighting positions, attack, coordinate follow on attacks if possible, and then regress. Because TF intel section’s correct analysis and identifying the syndicate’s stand operating procedure before, during, and after an attack, TF Pale Horse was able to begin interdicting and disrupting the enemy prior to it executing its attacks.

What Col. Blackmon’s Pale Horse shows is what good leaders have always known, and that is empowering subordinates to adjust the mission on the fly is a key ingredient in tactical success. The cavalry concept of reconnaissance and security cannot be successful unless every cav trooper believes in it. Col. Blackmon created a command environment which enabled attack, lift, utility, and recon helicopter pilots to become integral components of a cavalry outfit. Col. Blackmon empowered an intelligence section, led by a captain, to do what intelligence analysts do best and that is look at a puzzle or problem and then connects the dots based on good field reports and analytical acumen.

The concept of leading through empowerment of subordinates and molding a military unit into a single cohesive entity that is capable of interdicting and disrupting the enemy is not novel nor is it specific to Afghanistan. Even though Col. Blackmon’s memoir doesn’t provide strategic-level insight, it does provide an example of how military units should be led regardless of the type of unit it is, and it shows how a good command environment produces unique and effective ways to fight the enemy. Col. Blackmon tells a good war story of TF Pale Horse and its operations in Afghanistan if one takes his book at a singular level, but he also provides an example of how any fight in any area of operations or theater can be affected by the leader’s willingness to empower subordinates to innovate and then use those innovations in the fight. Pale Horse is more than a war memoir, it is a testament to the TF’s men and women, and it is a timeless guide on how to lead.

*Disclaimer: I am a friend and former National War College classmate of Jimmy’s.

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