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.