If you’re just tuning in, over on Tom Rick’s Best Defense, 1LT Max Lujan wrote a piece entitled: One Way To Improve the Army: Make Company Grade Officers Do Their Jobs.
His post was not well received for a couple of reasons. First, by writing about his current unit, under his real name, he basically outed peers to his left and right as well as his senior leaders. He called out his battalion level leadership among other things for failing to correct deficiencies within it. He mentioned specific incidents that can easily be traced back to the individuals involved and at least once incident that could potentially involve a criminal investigation. Second, the proposed five platforms he recommends installing in all junior officers aren’t something you can insert over time.
So rather than rehash what has been done masterfully by El Snarkistani and a particularly insightful post about second chances by Private Snuffy as well as a really great question about whether we’re actually contributing to the organization or if we’re just bitching by Power Point Sapper, I’m going to talk about some of the hard lessons I learned as a lieutenant about needs vs wants.
Full disclosure, I cut my teeth as an officer in First Cav so I’m familiar with the territory that Lujan is writing in. I was not a brand new lieutenant, though. I had been a sergeant first class in my prior service days so I had a whole bunch of unlearning to do as well as fresh learning. It remains one of my most formative military experiences and I for one am grateful to the captains in the S3 in particular who didn’t cut me any slack but didn’t let me step on my crank, either.
LT Lujan wants officers to be held accountable. He wants to see people punished for screwing up. He’s even holding people accountable for things that inherently come with experience and sometimes done. Social skills are not something everyone is gifted with. However, he didn’t criticize his peers social skills. What he described was someone being nervous. “Bumbling 22 year old” is how I would actually describe a lot of 2LTs. It’s pretty much a dick move to call someone out on a public forum for being nervous briefing their entire platoon. Experience will make someone better at briefings. Only maturity can maybe make you less of a dick. Maybe instead of calling his peer out in public, he could have pulled him to the side and said hey, want to practice that briefing before hand? Build the team instead of tearing it down.
But that said, I’ve been in a position where I badly wanted someone held accountable. I didn’t want this person just fired. I wanted public humiliation. I wanted tarring and feathering.
What I could not understand – and it took me years to finally figure it out with the help of a couple of those captains I mentioned above- was why this individual did not get fired. Why wasn’t the relief for cause OER done and believe me, the cause was substantial. Incompetence of the highest mark and it was not due to inexperience.
The lesson I learned in that incident was two fold. First, you can’t fire everyone. As much as I despise many things that Rumsfeld did as Sec Def, one thing he said is absolutely true: you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you have. What LT Lujan is doing is spending his time wishing he was in some high speed unit where everyone is superman and no one ever screws up. Well, those units don’t exist. So you can piss and moan about the unit you’re in or you can figure out how to make it better. I have a hard time seeing how his post on The Best Defense is contributing to the fight. I can easily see, however, how it’s not.
The second lesson is between wants and needs. Remember that incompetent individual I mentioned a few minutes ago? What I wanted was firing. What I needed was someone to get in there that knew their job. I got what I needed – it was infinitely more important to get that duty position filled with someone who knew what the hell they were doing. That one person was a single point of failure. Getting the job done was more important than my petty desire to see this person fired. And? It took about three years but that person is no longer in the military. The system takes time but it does, I believe, a decent job of weeding out the incompetent.
Sadly, our system does not do a good job of weeding out toxicity. We tend to reward guys and gals who will be dicks to make the mission happen. I’ve served in units where the commander didn’t believe in second chances. Once failed pt test and you were done. That didn’t engender much loyalty to the officers or the unit. We have a harder time capturing guys who may not set their buddies up for failure but certainly don’t go out of their way to make sure that someone who is struggling gets a hand.
It must be nice to know you’ve never screwed up. That you’ll never fail a pt test and that you’ve never once been in a position where your integrity is tested or that you’ve never been nervous before an important briefing. But like that high speed unit where no one ever screws up, it’s been my experience (and with 19+ years in service, I actually get to use that expression) that those people are the first ones begging for a second chance when they finally do step in it.
I’ll end on this note. LT is right – there is an problem in the officer corps but it’s not what he mentions. We have blind spots and this lieutenant pointed out some of them, rightly or wrongly. But the problem isn’t that he pointed out the blind spots. It’s how he went about it.
He’s new to the army (no West Point doesn’t count) and he clearly doesn’t know how it works otherwise he never would have written that post like he did. Or he would have gotten feedback from trusted individuals to make it less likely that he was about to step in his crank. Or better yet, he would have made an office call with his commander and asked “sir, I have some real questions about things that I see in this unit and I really need to understand what the decision making process is here.” An office call would have demonstrated a maturity, a professionalism and a willingness to learn that I did not see in this young lieutenant’s post.
Failing to recognize his own blind spots is a major shortcoming but like many life lessons, it comes with experience. Learning humility, though, that takes someone willing to hold a mirror up and take a good hard look.