By Jim Garamone
/ Published January 10, 2018
Strategic decisions made in the Pentagon have immediate and far-reaching effects on service members around the world. National Geographic’s documentary “Chain of Command” shows both sides of that process.
The eight-part show premiered last night at the Newseum here -- showing the first episode “By, With, Through.”
The series looks at the war against violent extremism starting in Mosul, Iraq, and branching out -- in later episodes -- around the world. The series begins on television on January 15.
The effort began two years ago and has spanned two administrations, said Courtney Monroe, the chief executive officer for National Geographic Global Networks, as she introduced the documentary. Videographers and reporters traveled around the world filming service members doing their jobs in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Niger and in Washington -- where the strategic decisions are made.
The first episode action’s takes viewers from the Tank -- the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s meeting room in the Pentagon -- to a line company of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul working by, with and through Iraqi allies to liberate eastern Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. These are real soldiers doing real jobs in defense of the United States. These troops are proud of the jobs they are doing and stress that what they are doing is keeping terrorism away from American shores.
The National Geographic film crews had incredible access, and Monroe gave a shout-out to Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, then-special assistant for public affairs to the chairman, for setting the tone of cooperation between the news organization and the military. National Geographic and the military developed trust over the course of the project. The National Geographic crew received access to some places not usually photographed, such as the Combined Air Operations Center, and placed a camera aboard an F-22 Raptor doing missions over Mosul. In the Pentagon, they videotaped inside the Tank, and videotaped conversations among advisers at an in-house think tank dedicated to developing strategy.
Geographic videographers traveled with Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and embedded with troops fighting against extremists. The juxtaposition of those images in the series drives home the connection between the two.
Hicks, now the acting Navy chief of information, said this illustrates the vision that National Geographic had when they first approached him with the idea. He supported the project, “because of their history of telling great stories, the interlocking elements of what makes us humans. The chairman’s … emphasis was about making the story about the people on the ground doing the hard work.”
Army Capt. Mark Zwirgzdas of the 82nd Airborne Division was featured in the film and spoke as part of the panel. The captain has more than one deployment to Iraq under his belt, and he noted that his most recent deployment was fundamentally different to his previous combat tours.
In the past, Zwirgzdas said, the feeling among service members was that American forces would handle all of it. Now, however, the understanding is, “This is [the Iraqis’] timeline, this is their plan,” he said. “We help them execute, we aid that. It’s their country and they should win.”
A key element in the series depicts the procedures American and Iraqi service members employ to avoid civilian casualties. This is especially hard when ISIS uses civilians as human shields.
“Ultimately, it is more important to us to fight the right way and avoid civilian casualties than it is to get everything as fast as we can,” Zwirgzdas said. “We struck the right balance with our Iraqi counterparts understanding the situation.”