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In search of a Ulysses

Posted By David Hackworth On 03/09/2004 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

We’re engaged in a terrorist conflict that will no doubt prove to be the longest and nastiest war in our country’s history. Which means we can’t tolerate slack such as: Three National Guard combat brigades being deployed to Iraq that aren’t good-to-go; our deploying warriors still being sent to the killing fields without sufficient armored vests and vehicles; and the outrageously high number of active-duty and reserve-component troops who aren’t deployable but are being paid to soldier anyway.

All of the above – all fixable – can be blamed on bad leadership. There are just too many Perfumed Princes sporting stars who are politicians, lobbyists and salesmen rather than soldiers. Abe Lincoln went through a squad of such spoilers before he found a U.S. Grant. Today, he’d probably have to sort through at least a battalion of the top brass to find one Ulysses.

Another leadership problem – particularly pressing during a war – is the poor quality of the average Army lieutenant. The LT has the most dangerous and demanding leadership job in the Army and is presently the least prepared. That’s because the commissioning sources – West Point, ROTC and Officer Candidate School – have seldom been demanding enough, and that’s especially true today. There’s too much touchy-feely classroom stuff and nowhere near enough practical, down-in-the-dirt training so critical to developing combat leadership skills.

Then, too, most freshly minted second lieutenants aren’t made of the same true grit as their World War II grandfathers — who had their faces rubbed in the Depression and came from a harsher, far less urbanized, less politically sensitive place. But even way back then, only about 50 percent of the mass-produced LTs could make it on the battlefield.

By the Korean War, only about four out of 10 “90-day wonders” were up to the job.

And during the Vietnam War, my biggest problem while commanding three infantry battalions, two in combat and one stateside, was – no big surprise – the LTs. Or, as I not-so-fondly called them, the “weakest link.” In 1969, while skippering the 4/39th Infantry Battalion, I fired 59 of these losers — which drove our general and Col. Lee Dyment, the guy responsible for LT assignments, absolutely nuts. Not that I cared. No weak-linker was going to kill my guys.

I remember feeling that same determination during the first year of the Korean War when I repeatedly refused a battlefield commission. My top kick finally said: “Hack, if you don’t take the commission, one day some second balloon might come in and take over your platoon. He might also get a lot of people killed. Then how would you feel? You’ve got to take the promotion and look after your troops.”

So I did. And during the next 20 years of service, I discovered over and over that the majority of new LTs were seriously lacking. But by the time I was commanding my ninth company-sized unit in Germany in the early ’60s, I’d developed a magic formula: An eager-beaver LT would report in fresh out of Fort Benning, ready to command the world but incapable of leading a thirsty drunk to happy hour. “LT, meet your platoon sergeant,” I’d tell him. “Don’t give any orders or make any decisions without his approval. Walk hand-in-hand with him and learn. He was running a platoon when you were learning how to ride a tricycle, and that’s probably where he’ll be when you’re a colonel at the Pentagon.”

This system worked so well that more than 20 of the hundreds of LTs I trained became general officers. Some commanded divisions and one an Army. None were Perfumed Princes.

Here’s the extrapolation:

Make Basic Officer Entry Training run at least a year. It should be 1960s Ranger-type training designed to forge warrior leaders and weed out the talentless and the weak.

Those who manage to survive should then be assigned to regular platoons as observers under a master sergeant platoon sergeant. As soon as the platoon sergeant recommends a promotion, the new first lieutenant should be given the command of a platoon for a year. And throughout this entire learning-to-lead process, the supervising platoon sergeant would submit evaluations.

A radical departure? Absolutely. But far better than the radical departure of our grunts from Planet Earth.


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