combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2006

Bugle and Bell
musings on the soul of war

Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.
by Anne Sexton ["The Saints Come Marching In"]

The Virtue of Unabashed Awkwardness in Military Leadership and Everyday Life

Command presence is not necessarily squeaky clean.

During the Vietnam War, it was discovered that West Point graduates were, in general, less effective in platoon and company grade commands than were those officers who received their commissions via the ROTC programs in public universities. This was considered to be an anomaly inasmuch as the elite West Pointers were more knowledgeable in military matters, were the cream of a highly selective process, and were more composed in their personal decorum. They had spent their four years of post-secondary study in a purely military environment, whereas the ROTC grads studied in a civilian environment with their military training having been a part-time endeavor.

The catch, of course, was that these were the Sixties and Seventies. The enlisted men whom both varieties of officers would command in the field were largely draftees — college drop-outs, would-be hippies, angry, young black men, the offspring of blue-collar families, and country boys to whom group discipline was a joke. The ROTC-trained officers had received more exposure to the awkward diversity of the day — peace protests, marijuana smoke-ins, the free speech movement with its prevalence of the F word, long hair and beards, sexual blatancy, and the universal questioning of everything. They were more familiar with the grab-bag of men that they would be called to lead. They were better-equipped to deal with situations – both in combat and at the base camp – that did not go by the book.

The ROTC grads did not always have the answer at their fingertips, but they could – with whatever awkwardness it took – ask for assistance with an answer, create an answer, experiment with the answer(s), and/or take an imperfect answer and run with it. They could decide on the basis of an informed intuition. They could lead people who had no intention of making the military a career. They could give high-fives to the grunts who made it through another day while the West Pointers might be trying to decide which medal to award to whichever soldier did not give a shit about medals.

Thucydides said, in the Fifth Century B.C., "It is frequently a misfortune to have very brilliant men in charge of affairs; they expect too much of ordinary men." It isn't that the ROTC-trained officers weren't brilliant; it is that they weren't hung up on their brilliance.

A situation analogous to this was faced by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lansing (Michigan) in the 1970's. Their experience had been that of training priests at considerable expense in sheltered seminaries where the subtle nuances of the faith were dissected and then ordaining them and sending them out to be leaders in parishes where the same Counter-cultural Revolution breaking out in the universities was making inroads with the faithful. Too many of the seminary graduates were either unequipped to answer and deal with the liberation in the air, or they became liberated themselves — sometimes by means of leaving the priesthood and getting married.

The Diocese of Lansing, therefore, took the unprecedented step of sending some seminarians – during the early years of their theological training – to do graduate work at Michigan State University while doing volunteer work in the community. These seminarians lived in a house provided by the Diocese right next to the secular campus with all its temptations, diversions, and opportunities for personal growth. Instead of just saying no to the world that they would eventually serve, those in priestly formation more closely identified with that world. If the clash of the world and of the heavenly ideals proved to be too much for a seminarian, at least he and the Diocese knew it before he was ordained and unleashed on a parish.

Although this particular program confronted potentially awkward situations instead of sweeping them under the rug, it was the exception rather than the rule in the Catholic Church of the time. Many dioceses would later – especially in the 1990's – regret having swept potentially awkward situations under the rug especially in the wake of revelations of the abuse by some priests and the havoc that it created in the lives of some parishioners.

Well-meaning and well-bred men who too often end up stifling any awkward truths – because they might prove to be embarrassing – are the cadre of the good ol' boy networks spawned by the military academies and the seminaries. Their purpose is to protect and promote their own, but the result can be a self-deceiving facade. Facades, in the long run, result in the loss of confidence, the loss of wars, and the loss of souls.

When you're the top dog, you don't have to put on the dog.

Frequently one may observe, on any large, Stateside, military base, the fact that high-ranking officers are content to drive non-late-model economy cars while the young bucks in the N.C.O. ranks are careening about in new Corvettes or equivalent muscle cars. The corporals and sergeants are trying to convince themselves that they are somebody; the top brass know that they themselves (as well as the N.C.O.s on whom they depend) are somebody.

The epitome of the know-it-all trying to be somebody is Lieutenant Fuzz in the Beetle Bailey cartoon strip. The more that he tries to feign not being awkward, the more awkward he appears.

Occasionally, military leaders have cultivated an affected humility in order that their humble troops may feel an empathy with them. The patrician Douglas MacArthur sported a large, corncob pipe fit for a classic redneck (and the chances are that any junior officer who would have tried to join him on the humbler-than-thou bandwagon would have been mercilessly chastised). General Ulysses S. Grant – who had a greater claim on genuine humility if not outright crudeness at times – wore the soiled tunic of a private when accepting the surrender of the Confederates at Appomattox Court House.

Often cited has been the story of President Lincoln's response to someone who complained that Grant drank too much. Lincoln suggested that the brand of whiskey which Grant preferred be found out, and the president stated his wish that that brand be sent to all his generals because maybe that would enable them, like Grant, to fight.

When Lewis Chesty Puller – the Marine of World War II and Korea fame – ascended the enlisted and officer ranks from private to lieutenant general, he never forgot where he came from. When he was base commander at Camp Lejeune and was taking an early-morning walk, he came upon a hands-on-hips second lieutenant being saluted over and over by a private. When the lieutenant recognized the general, he snapped to attention and saluted.

"What's going on here?" Puller inquired.

"This private," pointed the lieutenant with an accusatory finger, "disobeyed the military manual when he failed to observe my approach within the prescribed number of paces in which he is required to render to me a salute. So I am helping him to remember in the future; I am requiring him to salute me one hundred times before continuing to his destination."

"Very good. Very instructive," said the general. "How many salutes has he rendered to you so far?"

"Forty-seven, Sir," or some such number was the reply.

"Are you aware, Lieutenant, that the manual also requires that every salute rendered by an enlisted man to an officer be returned by that officer? It would appear that you are forty-seven salutes behind. You shall catch up on your end of the obligation before continuing to salute back-and-forth with this private to the count of one hundred."

Enlisted men loved Chesty Puller who was more comfortable in combat than in standing on ceremony. It is generally assumed that it is the more ceremonious types in the military and in politics who prevented this winner of five Navy Crosses from ever receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor or becoming Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Colonel Harry Summers of the U.S. Army War College was once quoted as saying, "A man who cannot love cannot command."

Love, by its very nature, is awkward.

Whether it is the love of a parent for a child or that of a bridegroom for the bride, love can be associated with sweaty palms, a trembling voice, and a red-faced bashfulness. However, just as courage (according to Mark Twain) is not the absence of fear but, rather, the will to proceed despite one's fear, so it is with the awkwardness of love. Love is not the absence of bashfulness but, rather, the will to proceed unabashedly on behalf of the beloved.

It is the false lover – the equivalent of the make-out artist – who is oily and smooth and without awkwardness. His glibness passes for eloquence; he inspires hope in the short run while laying a foundation of hopelessness in the long run for the would-be beloved.

This contention – the interrelationship of courage and love – is, admittedly, in disagreement with the classic viewpoint promulgated by Machiavelli: "A prince who is a man of courage and is able to command, who knows how to preserve order in his state, need never regret [not] having founded his security on the affection of the people." In any case, it is not the purpose of the military leader to be loved by his people; it is for him to have the heartfelt intent to love his people and to lead accordingly. Whether that love is unrequited or is returned is a matter for poetry and not for the accomplishment of the mission.

One of the beauties of COMBAT magazine is that its vision can encompass poetry — that siren song that allows hardened warriors, however awkwardly, to reveal their shock-absorbing softness, their inner strength.

I close by recalling a poetic moment which occurred on December 25 – Christmas Day – in 1966. It was about three o'clock in the morning.

Several other enlisted Marines and I were stationed on an old French bunker off the end of the runway and along the perimeter of the Da Nang airbase in Vietnam. The monsoon rains were relentless, but the proverbial beans, bullets, and bandages still had to be flown in by gutsy pilots.

A chartered Flying Tiger Airlines craft had been approaching the runway in front of us when a combination of poor visibility and malfunction of the instruments caused the craft to descend prematurely and crash in the Vietnamese village before us. The deafening fireball was followed by screams of civilians who had been caught in the wake of the destruction. This was followed shortly thereafter by the sound of small-arms fire as the ever-present enemy sought to salvage what they could of any remaining cargo and to kill the U.S. corpsmen and medics sent out from the airbase to assist and to bring in a number of civilian casualties. There was the further risk of exploding munitions that had been part of the cargo.

We were hunkered down in the partially flooded bunker and, with hearts pounding and eyes trying to focus through the rain and the smoke to the front, were trying to provide cover for the beleaguered rescuers. A lone figure startled us when he, with a splash, joined us from the rear of our bunker. Almost as disconcerting were the three stars that he wore on his drenched soft cover.

It was Lieutenant General Lewis W. Walt (what is it about these men with the first name of Lewis?), the commander of all U.S. forces in the I Corps region of northern South Vietnam.

He asked that we not let him distract us from our mission to the front but asked, over our shoulders, the nature of the situation and if there were any further means at his disposal that might assist us in meeting it. He complemented us on our conduct of our mission, and without further standing on ceremony, turned to exit and to run – making as small a target of himself as he could – down toward the next bunker and its small contingent of wet Marines.

"Keep up the good work, Marines!" bellowed Walt. "Merry Christmas!"

Big Lew Walt was a close, personal friend of longtime Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes. Neither man could be said to have always had a squeaky clean command presence, but, to their respective troops and players, they were both treasured diamonds in the rough.

contributed by B. Keith Cossey

Table of

C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones