The strategic corporal is a term you might have heard thrown around. Here is a definition from an Australian army officer:
A strategic corporal is a soldier that possesses technical mastery in the skill of arms while being aware that his judgment, decision-making and action can all have strategic and political consequences that can affect the outcome of a given mission and the reputation of his country.
Here is a former Marine (whom I know) discussing the concept:
When deployed overseas, corporals often lead their teams and squads on patrols in dangerous places that are at times far from direct supervision. Corporals have to make quick decisions, some of which can carry strategic implications.
The implication is that corporals (a stand-in for low-level NCOs) need to make decisions of greater import than their past counterparts.
That, however, is not quite correct; Marines (and soldiers) have long carried out important missions far from supervision — corporals made the same sorts of decisions in previous wars. Rather, they have become strategic corporals because their screw-ups carry bigger consequences. General Karl Eikenberry:
A breach of the law of land warfare by an infantry squad of ten soldiers during the Battle for Normandy was a matter handled at lower echelons of command and strategically inconsequential. General Eisenhower, the theater-level commander, was not held accountable for such acts of misconduct because they were not relevant to the conduct of the war at his level. Yet, consistent with the term ‘‘strategic corporal,’’ we have seen how similar violations of discipline and regulations have had catastrophic consequences during the wars we have waged in the 21st century. Fallout from the Abu Ghraib scandal, murders of civilians, and violations of enemy corpses are illustrations.
But is it true that low-level screw ups have had big strategic consequences in the recent wars? Imagine that Abu Ghraib never happened. What would have been the strategic consequences? Would we currently have American troops in Iraq? Would it be less violent or under a different government or less aligned with Iran? This is not clear.
More relevantly, Abu Ghraib was a failure at higher levels. A corporal might make a decision in the field with no way for higher echelons to supervise. (For example, deciding how aggressively to drive in rural Nangarhar.) But at Abu Ghraib the NCOs making the insane decisions should not have been able to make them. Even one accepts that the torture scandal had strategic consequences, the failure was at the officer level.
The corpse-urination scandal in Afghanistan was more clearly at the NCO level (possibly) but did it really have strategic consequences? Imagine it never happened. Would we have appreciably greater civilian support? Would there be sufficiently fewer green-on-blue attacks to affect the strategic situation? This seems unlikely.
That said, General Eikenberry makes an excellent point. In theory, low-level decisions could have strategic consequences. So here is my question. Can anyone provide an example of an NCO-level decision that both carried strategic consequences and would not have been possible or relevant in a war that took place before, say, 1975?