An interesting post on Tom Ricks’ blog (a rerun from January) provides a little insight into Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and how his experiences as an enlisted Army infantryman in Vietnam shaped his opinion of the officer corps. It’s safe to assume they helped form his perspective on some of the generals and admirals he deals with now.
Short story long: Hagel was not impressed, like McKayla Maroney.
Here’s a telling snippet, taken from an interview the former Republican senator from Nebraska gave for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress in 2002:
“I was not much impressed with our — our battalion leaders, our XOs (executive officers, who are second-in-command of units). I don’t — I didn’t ever get a sense that they came down in, enough into the platoon, company level to really do what I thought officers should do. And the lieutenants and the captains carried the bulk, as they do in any war, essentially. But it was the sergeants. It was the senior enlisted that carried the weight. I mean really carried the weight. And it was obvious to everybody. And they — the senior sergeants were the reassuring, calming guys. And in many cases, many cases, these were the guys that didn’t fall apart. And some of the officers did. And some of the officers couldn’t read maps very well. And I just — I never had much confidence in — in a lot of the officer corps. Now, there were exceptions to that. Some exceptional officers that I saw and I served with.”
Hagel’s comments are as much a reflection about how the system is designed to work as it is about poor officership. The noncommissioned officers (NCOs) – corporals and sergeants at pay grades E-4 and E-5 – can be a strong glue that unites or a weak paste that can barely keep things together. NCOs are closest to the fight, leading fire teams of 4 men or squads consisting of 12 (Army squads consist of 9). They’re the voices most often heard above the din of gunshots and explosions. Their skill has been honed by experience (usually anywhere from 2 to 6 years time in service) and – assuming they joined sometime after graduating from high school – they are young, spanning the ages of 20 to 30. They’ve also been wounded or killed in action at a disproportionately higher rate historically, according an analysis found here).
What about the officers whom Hagel calls out? It’s time to trot out a tired war-as-sports cliche: If the unit is a football team, the head coach (commander) probably wants to allow his team’s position coaches and team captains (NCOs) to be the primary teachers and mentors to his players (the troops). It’s fine if the boss likes to mix it up occasionally (such as three-time BCS national championship coach Nick Saban going through the trouble of running defensive back drills himself), but he’d be stifling the growth of his organization and junior leaders if everything hinges on the thoughts and actions of one man.
It’s a nice bonus if the boss is competent and gives a shit, which were the issues at the bull’s eye of Hagel’s critique. Many of the officers from his world – circa Vietnam about four decades ago – were professionally incompetent, aloof to troop welfare, and/or too distant both physically and spiritually from the rank-and-file. Movies and TV shows have reinforced two officer archetypes – the clueless young lieutenant and the glory hound. Who can forget this snippet from Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” when an incensed SSG Barnes issues a tongue lashing to Wolfe, his presumptive superior, after the lieutenant calls for fire on his own men?
Or over-the-top insane Nick Nolte as a Marine battalion commander in “The Thin Red Line.”
Can the sort of bad officers Hagel derides make a good unit a bad one? Undeniably, yes. After my first combat tour, a sweeping, nearly wholesale change in my old battalion’s top officers and senior enlisted left us with some of the most indifferent, socially awkward or lazy leaders I’ve ever met.
My tormentor was the new company commander, whom I’ll call The Dwarf Pirate. Our relationship was poisoned from the start: I thought he was a lead-from-behind, immature boob who was that most dangerous of animals — he thought he knew everything and he wouldn’t listen. At the same time, he probably thought I was weak on knowledge, since I could not recite the minimum safe distances, maximum ranges and max ords of every friendly and enemy weapon system like he could.
The new first sergeant, our senior enlisted man, supposedly Mr. Common Sense, was no better – a robotic, narcissistic former drill instructor who was more interested in his “Six-Minute Abs” workout and lining up skanks with his Match.com profile than mentoring his NCOs and ensuring good order and discipline in the company.
A few things about The Dwarf Pirate really stuck in my craw. First, he hardly cared about getting to know his men and could name very few of his Marines below the rank of staff sergeant. If we didn’t have nametapes sewn onto our uniforms, PFC Smith would’ve become “Hey You!” Despite the advent of whiz-bang technologies that can guide a missile throughout a keyhole a billion miles away, military organizations are still made up of people who want to feel important and contribute to the greater good. This is a people business. Step 1: Know their names.
Second, he had a dismissive way of interacting with lower-ranking Marines. When a corporal from a sister company introduced himself as being in charge of a small team joining us for a hike, The Dwarf Pirate replied, “I don’t talk to corporals.” That went over really well with the dozens of corporals across the battalion who gave him another nickname – “Captain Shit Stain.” Put that on your nametape.
Third, the guy was a weak sister – morally and physically incapable of leading men into combat, let alone through a training exercise. Here’s the moral shortfall – The Dwarf Pirate never hesitated to cut in line in front of dozens of his men to fill his canteen cup with hot broth during a cold training day, violating the admonition learned since commissioning: Officers eat last and suffer first. Here’s the physical shortfall – after conditioning hikes, it seemed like he was always hobbling around like an old man with bandages stuck to his blistered, bare feet. No one expects every leader to be Superman, but how about a little toughness, dude? Conversations with my peers might begin with: “Hey Chairman, I saw your C.O. hobbling around like a big pussy after the hike …,” followed by several minutes of jokes about The Dwarf Pirate, before concluding with, “By the way, could I get a ride to the auto shop?”
I wish I could say the battalion commander fired him before we deployed, but he didn’t. Rash decisions made by The Dwarf Pirate would eventually cost one Marine his foot and one of mine nearly his life. As weeks turned into months in country, he became increasingly lazy and isolated from everyday operations, rarely coming out of his tent except for daily meetings and chow (if you have a patrol debrief, can it wait until after he finishes this episode of “The Family Guy?”). When the company lost two weapons within the span of three weeks, and then stopped communicating with higher headquarters during one particularly sensitive period, the other boot finally dropped and The Dwarf Pirate was relieved of command. His replacement was smarter and listened to his subordinates, but the fat-ass was as lazy as my dog on a summer afternoon.
My experience with The Dwarf Pirate shaped me more than I could ever have imagined, providing me a blueprint for exactly how not to be. It’s weird to think he was one of the top 5 influences of my professional life. The first sin of a leader is to think you have nothing to learn from others. From The Dwarf Pirate, I learned oodles.
If you made it this far, you might as well click here and cross the finish line: Gen Clarke on Leadership.
The above link will send you to a collection of speeches and comments about leadership from an old general who served through World War II, the Berlin Crisis and Korean War (thanks TJC). Much of the contents will strike you as obvious, but most leadership traits are. Putting them into practice is the hard part.