Best Defense

A letter to the West Point Class of 2014: No combat patch? That’s no problem!

A letter to the West Point Class of 2014: No combat patch? That’s no problem!

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on April 22, 2014.

By Maj. Crispin Burke
Best Defense guest columnist

An article in the New York Times the other day examined the West Point class of 2014, which faces the dubious distinction of being the first class in nearly a dozen years to enter a peacetime army.

It’s a daunting experience for a new lieutenant to lead soldiers twice their age, even more so to do it as a as a "slick sleeve" — the derogatory term given to soldiers who lack the distinctive "combat patch" on their right shoulder. Let me offer the Class of 2014 two pieces of advice.

First, take a few lessons from West Point’s Class of 1976. Believe it or not, I bet that even brand-new 2nd Lt. Ray Odierno probably had the same fears that you did. His class joined their platoons shortly after the nation had concluded what was, at that time, the longest war in its history. They survived their time as platoon leader — just as you all will — and they all went on to serve our country well when we inevitably found ourselves in wars again in Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, the Balkans, Iraq, and even today in Afghanistan.

But while the Class of ’76 went on to achieve great things in wartime, their greatest contribution was in rebuilding a badly battered Army. That’s something that you’ll be doing over the next few years, though fortunately, our Army is hardly in the terrible shape it was in then.

Those lieutenants had to crack down on indiscipline, including criminal behavior and drug abuse — which has been on the rise as of late in today’s Army, unfortunately. They had to rethink the roles of women in our armed forces. Most importantly, they had to make tough decisions as to whom to keep and whom to let go. It’ll be more important now than ever to counsel your soldiers regularly. Do it in writing. Get to know their goals, and give them a plan to achieve them. Learn to use the resources the Army has in place to aid those who truly need help — such as those who are struggling with PTSD. But ultimately, learn how to give candid advice to those soldiers who simply won’t make it through the drawdown, and empower them with the resources they need to be successful as veterans. (Hint: If you’re uncertain how to counsel a platoon sergeant with 20 years of service and three combat deployments, ask around at PlatoonLeader.army.mil.)

Second, read and write. Do it often.

Human beings have, for better or worse, been fighting wars for the better part of five thousand years — there’s very little you’ll encounter in modern war which someone hasn’t lived through already.

For instance, I recently had the opportunity to finish a book about the Duke of Wellington during the Peninsular Campaign during the Napoleonic Wars. You may think there’s little we can learn from the Napoleonic Wars in the era of drones and cyberwar — but you’d be mistaken. Indeed, the Iron Duke had many of the same experiences, and headaches, two hundred years ago as our commanders today. Wellington operated as part of a joint force with the Royal Navy, fighting a hybrid war alongside Spanish insurgents, and, during the course of the campaign, he was to find that his greatest enemies weren’t the French, but rather, a hidebound army bureaucracy and disgruntled officers who vented their frustration through press leaks.

But don’t stop at history. Start reading through some of the publications at the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL). While our Army has been amassing vast combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s become painfully apparent that some skills have atrophied, and that we’ve accumulated some bad habits. Twelve years of being wedded to massive forward operating bases will do that. We’ve made vast strides in computer technology, no doubt, but you’ll have to consider how you may fight without computers. Could you command without PowerPoint slides and fragmentary orders emailed to you every hour? I would argue we can’t.

It’ll be up to you to teach soldiers to un-learn many bad habits, while learning new ones. Be sure to do your peers a favor — write down your observations and send them to CALL. Not only will it help your peers, but you’ll learn something when you go through the process of composing your thoughts, putting them to paper, and going through the publishing process. This will help you later, whether you choose to stay in the Army, or if you go into the civilian world.

The last thing I’ll say about reading is that you need to be wary of those who claim they know what the next war will be like. They are almost always laughably wrong, as Colonel Keith Nightingale wrote on this blog recently. We thought we’d never do counterinsurgency (after Vietnam), or nation-building (after the Balkans) again. Look where we are now. We thought airborne operations were an anachronism. Look at Mali. Never say never.

Get ready to learn. Get ready to make mistakes. Get ready to learn from those mistakes. The Army’s going to be doing a lot of great, new things over the next few years.

To the West Point Class of 2014, thanks for your decision to serve, and I look forward to seeing you in our units.

Major Crispin J. Burke is a U.S. Army officer stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. He spent his entire platoon leader time and some of his company command time as a "slick sleeve" as well. His views are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense.