- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
Tom note: This originally appeared in War Council, a fine blog out of West Point. I am running it here with the permission of the author, who is in Afghanistan, and of the blogkeeper.
By Lt. Scott Ginther, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
After ardently attempting once to write an essay on "what I know now that I wish I knew then," I realized that writing even just a two or three paged paper is something cadets do not want to read. This being said, when I was posed with this task I swore I would do three things: 1) provide an honest answer, 2) express the truth in the most unvarnished way possible, and 3) keep things short. Therefore, I have decided to make a list that cadets can squeeze in between their class and sports demands, and their beloved naps and "Not Being At West Point" time.
1. You’re not going to be the greatest Platoon Leader Ever — This is hard to come to grips with for new lieutenants. Especially considering the competitive spirit among most West Pointers — and Soldiers at-large. The reality is most Soldiers in your future platoons will have between 5-12 platoon leaders before they become Sergeants First Class. Chances are they’ve had someone better than you. This is not a knock on personal talent or capability, but rather a matter of perspective. Excluding outliers, most new platoon leaders have zero experience in the Army. You are there to learn and make yourself better, not be the subject matter expert.
2. You may not be the greatest, but you’re the most responsible — Again, this is another facet that is hard to come to terms with. You may not be the most experienced in terms of tactics, time or doctrine, but you’re the only one that has been formally trained on leading. Your job is to take responsibility. You are the best qualified member of your platoon to pull your Soldiers together collectively and make things happen. You control your own consequences.
3. "Should" is the most dangerous word in the Army — As a lieutenant when your PSG, XO, CO and especially your Soldiers ask you questions – no matter how important – you cannot respond with "It should be done already, sir." Or, "We should be at this grid coordinate." Check on things and get oversight so you don’t have to say "I should not have done that, sir."
4. Don’t be tougher than you have to but don’t be indulgent either — If you try and John Wayne your way through PL time and you’re really more of a Woody Allen, your Soldiers will instantly see your ruse and not respond to you. Be YOURSELF.
5. Most of the time you’ll have no idea what you’re doing — This cold bucket of water is strange and uncomfortable at first, but you’ll have many tasks assigned to you at once that you’re going to have no idea where to start. I have gotten farther on problems just by deciding to dig in somewhere and not stop working or asking questions until circumstances become clear. You WILL figure things out. Turn off your $250,000 educated-brain for a second and stop arriving at the conclusion that the world is going to end because of you. Just close your eyes, grit your teeth and clear the jump door.
6. Your parents probably did a better job prepping you for leadership than anyone — If your parents taught you to get along with everybody as a kid, work in school, made you clean your room, be home by curfew and they trusted you, you’ll be alright. Being a good, honest person has gotten me much farther in my relationships in the Army than I ever expected.
7. West Pointers are spoiled — Yes you are. Even if you’re the nicest most considerate person in the world, you won’t realize the gift and legacy West Point is bestowing on you until well after you’ve graduated. The organizational infrastructure and support — let alone the Ivy League quality education – is something that can’t be matched. There’s a reason why West Point ranks in Forbes magazine’s top five universities in the country on nearly a consecutive basis. Don’t squander the opportunities you have because of the infamous "cadet cynicism." This Academy has been in business for 200+ years.
8. Start ruck marching — Do it a lot, and do it often. Especially if you plan on branching infantry, no one really cares how much you can bench. Your Soldiers are going to care how far you can take them in the disgusting, soupy Georgia heat and humidity with Banana Spiders hanging in the vines in front of your face. Furthermore, bench pressing is not going to get you your "Go" at Ranger School anyway. The mountains of Dahlonega are unforgiving to body builders and top heavy guys.
9. Band of Brothers, Black Hawk Down, The Unforgiving Minute and other sources — Just because you read these books and saw these movies doesn’t make you an expert on warfare or the next Chris Kyle or Mike Murphy. Furthermore, these sources are not the benchmarks for which you should measure the fallibility of tactical or technical opinions and TTPs of others around you. These are personal accounts and reflections on leadership, personal challenges and demons, and should supplement your development as a leader, Soldier and as a person.
10. Don’t focus on being a badass — Focus on being the PL your Soldiers need you to be. Finding, fixing and finishing the enemies of the United States with extreme prejudice is awesome, but as an officer, you’re not a trigger puller. Your main weapon system is thirty-five to forty other trigger pullers. Learn when to be a hard-ass and when to be a human being, I suggest reading Eric Greitens’ book, The Heart and the Fist.
11. Stop being "slugs" — I absolutely hated this at West Point. I never understood why people would voluntarily go to USMA, just to become soft and do the bare minimum. You’re setting the tone for the rest of your Army career to be rather unenjoyable and you’re screwing over your future Soldiers. Get out now.
12. Stop being "brutal" — I also absolutely hated this at West Point. I never understood the "tool-bags" working their asses off just to gain praise from the administration. Being a good West Pointer is NOT the same as being a good Army Officer. Success bred from arrogance is not success at all.
13. Stop the division between "good" cadets and "bad" cadets — Like I said before, being a good West Pointer does not equate to being a good Army Officer. Work on your weaknesses now because they’ll be amplified in the Army. Work together as a class! You WILL run into your classmates and other West Pointers that know who you are all the time. If you’re a an arrogant "tool" now, and you get paired up with that "slug" you hated when you move on to Ranger School, you’re both going to have to earn each other’s tabs, or go home empty handed. Moreover, the RI’s know who you are and they can see this.
14. Take time to learn your school’s history — I feel that if West Point (and cadets) as an institution did a better job of this early on, I think cadets would have a better understanding of a.) what they are getting into, and b.) a deeper appreciation of their Academy. We all know the big names, battles and events throughout USMA’s history; but just barely. These pivotal events and monumental men are often relegated to lofty figures and dates in history books, not a living part of each cadet’s heritage. Doing this will help you figure out why you decided to come (or stay) at West Point in the first place.
15. Since when did Microsoft Xcel become a leadership tool? — This is a huge pet peeve of mine. When I was a cadet, I saw way too many kids immediately go to computers, spreadsheets and power point to solve problems. Yes, these are skills you will use at nausea when you’re a lieutenant, but get outside of your own head and go work with your Soldiers. Memos, briefings and trackers can only get you so far. Everyday interactions with Soldiers ultimately enforce and set standards.
16. Your Soldiers will do stupid things — I always heard this as a cadet, but I didn’t realize how stupid things could get. I can’t delve into examples without long stories, but be prepared to encounter circumstance you thought only happened in the movies.
17. Your Soldiers will do amazing things — Far more often than your Soldiers doing stupid things, you will be blown away at how talented they are. I have the following Soldiers in my platoon: a former blacksmith and rodeo clown, a NASCAR pit crewman, two carpenters, a private who is a multi-millionaire and drives and Audi R8, a Sugar Bowl-winning, University of West Virginia offensive lineman and a SSG who graduated college at 17 years old and taught physics at Tulane before the age of 26.
18. Lieutenants will do stupid things — This issue often gets swept under the rug. I understand that as brand new lieutenants you will do every day stupid things; it’s expected of you in your learning experience. But more and more often I’m seeing or hearing of lieutenants doing inexcusably stupid things that land them in prison and out of the Army. Every incident I’ve seen or heard involves alcohol.
19. NCOs will help you not do stupid things — Everyday I am completely blown away by how hardworking, and professional this brassy, prideful group can be. Sergeants indeed run the Army. Your platoon can function without you, but it cannot function without NCOs. For the umpteenth time, trust your NCOs. You do not know more than they do, this is their Army not yours, officers just get to drive it for awhile.
20. Friends of yours are going to die (and not necessarily in combat) — This won’t necessarily happen in combat. Fortunately I’ve only had three friends of mine killed throughout my Army career. Surprisingly though, only one was in combat, he was not a West Pointer. 2LT Justin Lee Sisson was my best friend and the best lieutenant I’ve ever seen. He was a Florida State grad, prior service and Ranger and Sapper qualified. The Motorcycle VBIED that hit him didn’t discern between how well trained he was or where he came from. This job is very, very real. Don’t wait to realize this until you are looking at your best friend’s mother at his funeral.
I hope this list will be worth all cadets’ time and they can relate to it. A message to cadets everywhere: Please — above all things — take personal accountability of your personal development. It will not be long before you have to "grow up" and do things on your own and be proactive.
1LT Scott Ginther (USMA ’11) was a proud member of the West Point Boxing Team and member of cadet company A-2. He is currently a Platoon Leader with A Co., 1-504th PIR, 1BCT, 82nd ABN DIV. This is an unofficial expression of opinion; views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Military Academy, Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.