Ugly Hill

Is the hill really too tall to climb, or is it all in the mind?

I could write a million words about Ugly Hill, it’s a real place with a past so rich in history I sometimes think I could mine it forever. Even now, eight years after I first encountered it I’m still working through everything it might represent. It’s a piece of geography that dominates its surroundings, but it’s also a metaphor for how people (and armies and nations) learn, and how they don’t learn.

Ugly Hill earned its name. Seen from a distance it’s not attractive at all, it’s completely barren, misshapen, and pockmarked. Seen up close, it’s even uglier. It looks a bit like a kid at the beach made a small hill out of wet sand and then chucked rocks at it. It looks this way because it’s been abused by artillery shells and aircraft bombs for many, many decades, going back to at least the 1980s.

My introduction to Ugly Hill happened in the late summer of 2011, when 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, arrived in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The hill is in Musa Q’alah, which was one of two districts in our area of operations. The name was handed down to us from the Marines we replaced. I don’t know who originated that particular name, whether it was the Marines, the US Army, the Brits, or perhaps a translation from some of the locals. But, it was a dominant piece of terrain that overlooked the Shirgazy Wadi in the southern part of our area, so it was well known to people in that part of the world.

Another part of the pass-down we received was that Ugly Hill was too far away, too far out into bad guy country, for us to capture. It was on the “someday” list, as in we’d like to capture it someday. Fortunately for us, it was in the area controlled by one of our brilliant company commanders named George Flynn, the CO of Echo Company. As soon as he arrived he went to work, teaming up with the locals, the Afghan police, and the Afghan army, so that within about 30 days of us taking over responsibility he had set the right conditions and was ready to conduct an operation to seize the hill and expand the area under control of the Afghan police and army.

And that’s what happened. George and Echo Company led everyone else (the Afghans and the rest of our battalion) in taking Ugly Hill away from the Taliban. As was their way, the Taliban left behind a multitude of IEDs, so the operation was not cost-free. Yet George’s tireless work since he had arrived paid off. He had come up with a plan to perform dozens of smaller operations, in most cases teamed up with Afghan army and police, to convince everyone that Ugly Hill could be taken. His plan worked. Everyone, starting with his Marines and ending with the Taliban, believed Echo Company could take Ugly Hill. And they did.

Like I said, I’m certain I’ll return to this story many times, there’s a lot more that I learned from it that I would like to share. For today, here are a couple things that I think might be useful after this telling:

1. There always seems to be another group that comes along to conquer the challenges that everyone fears today. When people who are free of previous mental anchors arrive on the scene, they get a chance to look at a situation differently and see new possibilities.

2. Dominant terrain doesn’t change just because the players change. Part of perfecting the art of leadership is developing the skill to figure out what strongpoints actually give you an advantage. Leaders in every walk of life need to identify the “key terrain” in their environment and then find a way to own it.

3. Human nature doesn’t change, even though the world around us is constantly evolving. George Flynn’s series of small victories convinced everyone that the Marines and their Afghan partners could take Ugly Hill away from the Taliban. George won Ugly Hill before the actual battle took place by winning it in the minds of his people. And that made all the difference.

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