Best Defense

Here is why I soon might turn down command: I’d rather make a difference

Here is a thoughtful note from an colonel wrestling with the decision about whether to turn down command. He agrees with the major (below) that it isn’t just deployments that are bothering people in his shoes, but more the poor leadership at the top. Tom, I can’t be the only one telling you stuff like ...

Here is a thoughtful note from an colonel wrestling with the decision about whether to turn down command. He agrees with the major (below) that it isn’t just deployments that are bothering people in his shoes, but more the poor leadership at the top.

Tom,

I can’t be the only one telling you stuff like this…

Bottom line: I have a strong operational background — have done all the “right” things — deployed my ass off — been to all the schools (2 masters degrees, though as you read below — I’m not a fan of the degrees) — and more importantly for your post, I am getting ready to fill out my O6 command preference selection for the board that convenes in July.

I know a number of great warriors that have dropped their papers and walked. Either turned down command or requested to not be considered. Family, money, and deployments had little to do with it. In all cases, families were strong and wives supported the obvious grind to be expected with command and further promotion. In a nutshell it is simple — every single one of them simply reached the tipping point in terms of disgust with what they saw in our system (DOD). These aren’t a bunch of knuckle-heads I’m talking about — these were officers that shocked a lot of people by walking away from it. One of your respondents made a comment about how important command is for Marines, and that’s very true. However, for most of us the motivator that keeps us going is knowing that we make a difference — leadership is so very critical, much more so then most realize.

Making a difference. Once you reach a point where you’re now sitting at the table with the decision makers and the glaring nonsense becomes evident — you realize making a difference is more in line with contributing on a team like Oxfam or any number of other NGOs that are doing more with less and without the fanfare. — You can’t help but wonder which team should I be playing for? Where will my personal and professional contribution weigh more?

I have seen half a dozen O5/O6’s either turn down command (one a guaranteed stepping stone to O7) or request they not be considered by the board (since they already made a decision to retire). In every case — every case — deployments, civilian pay, and family considerations were not the PRIMARY influence.

After years of dedicated service, doing the right thing, leading warriors who joined for all the right reasons, attending all the required PME schools, executing the “mandatory” b-billet tours, you now find yourself as one of “they” (at HHQ). Imagine the surprise to discover there is no magic happening behind the green door. All those years assuming that the GO/FOs were working their asses off to refine/tune regional/theater/strategic paths that make sense of what
subordinate commands/units are executing —  well, hang on — not so fast. All that “strategic stuff” you learned at Top Level School was really cool in the classroom, but… here’s what you more often hear: “… we’ll get to that cool stuff later after we iron out & synchronize our social calendars” (and “why in the hell do I only have one secretary when the GO/FO across the hall has three? — shit me a point paper on that one”).

No bitterness — just plain surprise. So, 24+ years into it — closely reaching that mystical point where you think you really can help make a difference — and you get slapped in the face with the emperors’ not wearing clothes. Tom, you’ve asked the right question before — why aren’t more of these folks getting fired?

Truth is — most of these O5/O6’s are turning down command because they’ve spent their entire professional lives making a difference and having an impact. The reality is (as I contemplate my own cmd selection form) — some of the NGOs out there are contributing more to a better end then our own organization. Wouldn’t it make more sense to play on that team vice carrying some of these whacko’s on my back?

Bottom-line, Tom, you do a great job pointing out the O5/O6 commanders that are being booted (as they deserve) — but we’re doing a piss-poor job getting rid of the dead weight above that level; as long as that continues… a lot of good senior officers will continue to bail out. I didn’t spend all this time to join a damn social club or spend an hour counting who has more secretaries. I’ve got about 2 weeks to make a decision and although command is the greatest job in the military, I’m not sure it’s worth more of my time.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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