Sounds Like a Pete Seger Song…

On a more sobering military note, an amazing piece appears in this month’s Marine Corps Gazette‘s ‘Commentary on the Corps’ section (unavailable on the web, more’s the pity). I say amazing but mean bold, ballsy, forthright, completely unvarnished and ‘holy crap, can’t wait to see the letters to the editor next month‘ amazing. It’s a scathing assessment titled “Where Have All the Colonels Gone? ~ Are colonels transformed when assigned to HQMC*?” and written by the incredibly courageous LtCol Peter T. Gaynor, USMC.
Arriving at HQMC one month before September 11th, he chronicles his disillusionment with the politics of self preservation that has it’s cold fingers wrapped around the senior officers of today’s PC military.

“For those unfamiliar with the structure and organization of HQMC, lieutenant generals are the Deputy Commandants for departments (Plans, Policies, and Operations; Programs and Resources; etc.), brigadier generals lead divisions (operations, logistics plans, etc.) and colonels lead branches (requirements(operations), logistics operations and sustainment centers, etc.). Majors and lieutenants colonels are the action officers who keep the big machine running. The “beltway colonels” are tasked to generate the fire and man the tiller of the colossal beast called HQMC.”

He speaks of the regard and respect colonels are held in, considered “the senators of our Corps” and how he fully expected to be both inspired and in awe of actually being exposed to the movers and shakers at the top ~ having the rare opportunity to run with the big dogs.

“…yet something strange has happened here at headquarters I did not expect. Somewhere between command and assignment to HQMC, the majority of Marine colonels seemed to have lost their way. For some seemingly unknown reason these colonels appear to wallow in indecisiveness, foot dragging and, in some cases, incompetence.”

…”They have become an obstacle where once they were standard bearers.”

*Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, D.C.

LtCol Gaynor goes on to acknowledge those who are picking up the slack and notes he had the ‘distinct pleasure to work for one.’ Someone unafraid to lead his Marines, to make a decision without general officer advice, who stood up for what he believed right and (as has been my own fortunate experience) took care of his Marines. He wonders why a senior officer would be reluctant to flex his muscle, as most are ‘post-command’. In laymen’s terms, there’s really no room for upward mobility ~ they’ve hit the ceiling promotion/career wise, so ‘what’s to lose?’ in effect. He wonders if many are looking for positions with defense contractors, ‘have a plan for transitioning to a lucrative general service position or a lucrative executive service position’, or even some sort of think tank spot. A laundry list, point by point, is provided of how one spots these beltway bovines. (“Seek guidance from superior officers on almost every issue. (This gives you cover if the decision goes bad-plausible deniability.) ~ Offer no substantive input to your subordinates’ documents or briefs, while at the same time refusing to forward materials to higher authority. (This method allows you to appear like action is being taken while not forwarding any potential controversial materila that may upset your boss.) ~ Take full credit for all your subordinates’ successes, while publicly blaming them for any perceived failures.”and so on.)
You can almost hear the wistfulness in his voice when he asks ‘how does a Corps-with 229 years of proud traditions and historically significant combat successes-breed this brand of Marine officer?’ You can hear the sorrow when he muses:

“I can’t answer these questions, but I am inclined to think that in the end, for the majority of these colonels, it has simply become easier to say yes than no. Answering yes means it just gets done, and no one is upset (most especially your boss.). Answering no means you have to explain and defend your answer and position, and even worse, you may well upset your boss. Unfortunately, by saying yes they have abdicated from their leadership role in many circumstances.”

I saw this very thing creeping into the airwing side of the Marine Corps during my last years on active duty. I’m sure it was military wide, but think it took a little longer to gnaw it’s way through our leather necks. I first checked into my A-6 Intruder Squadron VMA(AW)242 in El Toro, the summer of ’81. At that time I was the second WM (Woman Marine-no cute ass nicknames for us) ever at 242. As you can imagine, there was the usual resentment from the jarheads. (But I knew full well before joining that the Marine Corps was the last bastion of Neanderthalism and, having grown up with Bingley, Crusader and the Mountain Man, knew what it took to be one of the guys.) The thing about those early years ~when the squadron was a motley collection of every type of humanoid known: sincere, dynamic, dopers, dumb asses, twits, best buddies, etc.~ that I learned and tried to follow to my last day as a SNCO was ‘take care of your troops‘. The senior SNCO’s and officers in 242 were willing to give you enough rope to hang yourself, take that chance you wouldn’t and back you up as you went, consquences be damned to themselves if they believed in you and what you were doing. I always strove to be the person you wanted at your back. That’s pretty much gone now, with a few notable exceptions like Major Dad, who does his damnedest to pass on the concept. Everyone’s concerned about that next fitness report, pissing someone off, on and on. God forbid they exercise any creative initiative. Cover Your Ass has become an epidemic.
There’s now also a revolting degree of command arrogance. During my first few tours, everybody down to the lowliest Lt. knew the name of the lowliest hydraulic knuckledragger and would say ‘How are you today, LCpl Schmuck’ or ‘Yo, LCpl Schmuck! Thanks for getting the bird ready yesterday’. It was an honor and privilege to serve with those guys. Today’s aircrew, with few exceptions, check the book, climb in the plane, break it, land it and go home. They haven’t the faintest clue who’s staying ’til dawn so they can break it again. And feel absolutely no compulsion to acknowledge the effort.
LtCol Gaynor thoughtfully provides a checklist for Marine colonels heading to HQMC. One standout: “Take care of your Marines and they will take care of you. Sometimes a simple thank you can work wonders.” But the most important:
Remember you are a colonel of Marines.
He closes with advice: “The opportunity to demonstrate leadership occurs in many different places and under many different circumstances-from the battle field to the beltway. Never sacrifice an opportunity to make the difference-your Marines are waiting and watching.” He notes:”Headquarters is the same as any command in that Marines will make incredible sacrifices for leaders they respect. And like any good Marine, they will make those same sacrifices for a leader they do not respect-simply because they are Marines”
Oh, how I wish there was a link for you all to be able to read the whole thing. And to appreciate the courage it takes to speak out in a climate like this.
Remember you are a colonel of Marines.
Amen to that. He is.

One Response to “Sounds Like a Pete Seger Song…”

  1. The Real JeffS says:


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