Friday, August 31, 2012

Army Officers and the Warrior Ethos

     The blog On Violence recently posted a number of articles on the culture of the U.S. Army and why junior officers are so often portrayed as incompenet bufoons in popular media. The discussion also addressed the performance of actual officers and the high standards achieved by lieutenants compared to their enlisted counterparts. Some called it classist. Others claimed the young officers were just better than the rank and file. I think they all missed the mark and replied as follows:
     This is a fascinating subject that I’ve given much thought and observation to over the years. I spent nine years as an Army combat arms officer, starting in the active force and ending in the National Guard with an Iraq deployment thrown in for good measure. The following observations refer to active Army combat leaders. The National Guard is an entirely different animal.

     It seems to me that lieutenants perform at such high levels (physical, technical, mental, ethical) because they have to. Their commanders expect it and so do the men they lead. It’s a cornerstone of the ancient warrior ethos. As the old adage goes, ‘You can’t lead from the rear.’ The Army is not an aristocracy. It’s a meritocracy. Rank and personal respect are earned, not given. As such, a lieutenant is not an aristocrat. He’s a warrior leader. The alpha male. Anybody about to lead a gang of hot blooded meat eating trigger pullers into combat better understand that. An LT that falls out of a run, fails to qualify on the rifle range, gets a DUI, or goes down as heat casualty is perceived as weak and usually relieved on the spot. Oh, by the way, good enough simply isn’t good enough. You better at or near the top. If you aren’t, neither your men nor your commander will respect you. And that’s before you even get to the officer stuff you gotta do. No excuses. No slack. It’s a pressure cooker. It’s hard as hell. And it makes for a damn fine officer corp. The same is true of junior NCOs. While he may not beat the LT, that buck sergeant better be able to outrun, outmarch, and outshoot his men. Fear of failure is a great motivator.

      Imagine being tossed into a platoon where everybody has more time in the chow line than you have in uniform with the punch line, ‘You’re in charge, o’ green and clueless one.’ No time to ease into the role. It’s sink or swim. All will step on their cranks at some point, but the smart ones learn from their mistakes. Some fail, but most find their way. The bad ones stick out like sore thumbs and cause hardship for their men. The good ones forge on, do their best, and make their men proud.

     There’s another part of the warrior ethos that is almost universally ignored by popular media. It’s the concept of putting the troops first. A warrior leader at any level eats last, sleeps least, and takes all the blame. Field Marshal Sir William Slim put it best when he said to his subordinates, “I tell you, as officers, that you will not eat, sleep, smoke, sit down or lie down until your soldiers have had a chance to do these things. If you do this, they will follow you to the ends of the earth. If you do not, I will break you in front of your regiments.” The U.S. Army sums this up in four words: Mission first. People always.

     The movie (and the book) We Were Soldiers gets it right. For brevity’s sake (too late), I’ll just say that the Sobelesque LT was the minority just as in actual units. I try to reflect such truth in my own writing.

     As to why does the media portrays officers with such disdain…When do they ever show leaders differently? You name it – police chiefs, fire chiefs, CEOs, politicians, even fathers. All are portrayed as incompetent, corrupt, or both. I suppose they think it makes for better storytelling. The groupthink is that good guys & boy scouts are boring. Even superheroes are pretty screwed up lately. They all have to have a dark side or be deeply troubled. The last one I can think of that didn’t have some serious mental issues was Christopher Reeves’ Superman in 1978.

     The lead by example mentality is what sets our military apart. A platoon leader’s job is tough. A company commander’s is even tougher. The crucible of platoon leadership separates the studs from the duds and makes for tough, demanding, competent, and uncompromising senior officers. Sure, there are exceptions and even the good ones screw up. But I’ve worked in many arenas with all kinds of people. And the officers, NCOs, and enlisted soldiers in the Army remain the finest I’ve ever met. I count it as an honor to have served in such fine company.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Starship Troopers Reloaded

     Here's a link to preview the new CGI film, Starship Troopers: Invasion.
This version of Robert A. Heinlein's classic novel is being touted as the most faithful film adaptation yet. I hope they're right. I watched this clip and it's pretty action-packed, but action isn't what made this book a classic.
     I first read this book as a young armor lieutenant. It was required reading for every officer in our battalion -- ordered by the colonel himself. I'm glad he did. The social commentary Heinlein deftly injected was like nothing I'd ever read before (yes, that's an admission of a misspent, literary deprived youth). The depth of subtle (sometimes not so subtle) examination of our society and its virtues and flaws made a HUGE and lasting impression. The concept of citizenship, the roll of the military in society, and the culture of the military itself (Everybody fights!) are key subjects that stand out in my mind. It made me a fan of sci-fi and has impacted my own writing in a big way.
     Again, I hope this new work does the original justice. Reminiscing about this amazing book makes me want to read it all over again.    

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Death of the E-Book?

Hugh Mcguire gave a talk to TED (the lecture series, nit the talking teddy bear) a while back. His subject was the changing nature of the publishing industry. He speculates that e-books and print books will soon be joined by (and eventually eclipsed by) web-books. You can watch the video for the details.

He may be right, but I see some problems if his prediction comes true. Web-books sounds like they would work well for non-fiction, textbooks, and religious texts. The integration of photos, maps, graphs, etc would be a great addition to these types of books. But what about novels? If we really wanted pictures, wouldn’t novels already have them?
Fiction is about imagination. Linking to the image of a character or setting would not only hinder the reader from forming their own version of these thing in her mind, it would interrupt the flow of words and intrude upon the ‘realty’ the author worked so hard to create. After all, if we wanted a story ‘shown’ to us, we’d wait for the movie. I think this type of book would lead to lazy writers and less imaginative readers.
The other thing Hugh mentioned was the ability for everyone who reads a book to post comments for everyone else to see. I may be wrong, but this sounds like chaos. Are we really gonna turn Moby Dick and War and Peace into Wikipedia. There’s a reason e-books are so similar to print books…We love them. Reading is a very personal experience. We bond with the books we read (at least the ones we like). I’m sure many of you (like me) have stacks of tomes that we read long ago but can’t bring ourselves to toss out. Come on, admit it. You know you do.
I think e-books are safe for a while. At least the novels anyway. So download those e-books you’ve been waiting to read. Curl up on the couch with a blanket and a hot mug of cocoa on a rainy day. And read to your heart’s content.