Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

The Profession of Arms

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Profession

That’s what military service is called. It’s a term of art for those who dedicate their lives to the protection, preservation and defense of our country and its people. My love for those troops, who are, right now, in Artillery Batteries in Incrilik, Turkey, or Infantry Battalions on Korea’s DMZ, Armor at Fort Bliss, or on a submarine under the Arctic, and even in space (Astronauts are US Air Force) is unwavering.

Let’s make a distinction between the troops and their leadership. Their leadership is swayed by money (defense contractors flood the Pentagon to lobby the military to push Congress to continue funding for programs the military doesn’t even want), by influence (the revolving door between military service and work in the private industry is more obvious than a red light in a backstreet Parisian whorehouse), or entitlement (if the officer in charge of the military’s anti sexual harassment arm can be arrested for sexual harassment, then we have a problem).

Other failings of leadership? There are plenty. Arlington National Cemetery management of remains so poor that they aren’t even sure who is buried where, or who is in the caskets they inter. Walter Reed Army Medical Center coincidentally closed after revelations of despicable treatment of wounded soldiers. And the VA, unable to come to an agreement with the Pentagon over a computer system to help distribute help and manage the medical records of returned soldiers, while those soldiers wait years for that help.

Clearly, these armchair warriors, as Bruce Hornsby accurately termed them in “The End of Innocence” do often fail. By contrast, the soldiers who follow those orders rarely do. It is no wonder that in talking about the horror of battle and the service to our nation, Abraham Lincoln didn’t mention the bureaucracy when talking about those who gave their last full measure in the service to an earlier United States.

There was a recent discussion on Linkedin about whether corruption is an inherent part of human nature that we must all live with as part of the cost of doing business, or whether it could be eradicated for a much more pristine outcome. I am not so naïve’ as to think that we will always be able to overcome our base natures. But if we willingly buy into some of it, shouldn’t we, for the sake of morality, try to be all in?

Namely, if a civilian leader understands that military power yields to civil power, shouldn’t civil power wielders understand the responsibility they have to carefully hold and fiercely steward the lives of those men and women who fight our wars? And if a military leader understands the oath of service, shouldn’t they be willing to do whatever it takes to protect their troops with every ounce of everything they have, whether at the front of a convoy in a humvee or behind a desk?  Should civil leaders and military leaders be complicit in padding the pockets of the military industrial complex while using our sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers as gear grease in that machine?  Should we support regimes who we befriend solely because they are the enemies of our enemies?  Should we participate in conflicts with no clear strategy for winning, no clear path for leaving and no good rationale for joining?  Poor leadership says, in order, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

I have served as both a civil servant and a soldier. And I can tell you, without hesitation, if you respect and love your boss, you will figuratively and literally go through hell for them. You will be cause you know they will protect you and kick your ass when you need it. As corny as it sounds, you know it’s because they trust you, they get out of your way and let you do the job they hired you for, trained you for. They love you and you love them.

And if you don’t love and respect your boss? It’s because you see your boss is more concerned with themselves. You see that your boss takes your effort and gives you no credit. You see your boss working to undermine you. You see them not as they portray themselves, but as they are; weak, cowardly and full of betrayal. This person you do not love, or respect. These people rely on patronage, and tenure. On manipulation of the rules. They are surrounded by the fat of their position, whether literal or figurative. They may seem enlightened and proactive and think of themselves as such, but they are pedestrian and reactionary.  They are seduced by themselves.  Poor leaders never think they are poor, which is part of the tragedy. They do not realize that they simply are not worthy of being followed.  For the good of the people they serve, they need to be extricated and forgotten in every way except as lessons to future leaders. They know who they are.

The troops, that’s another story. My best memory of troops is one morning, me and a small group from a detachment I was with out of the Pentagon, were on our way to morning mess at Fort Bliss. It was about 0400. And because Fort Bliss is a large, sprawling post, it has a very wide and very long company road. And on this morning, there were several Battalions of troops marching to breakfast. Each battalion was calling its own cadence, and they were trying to out call each other. I looked up and saw a black sky full of stars. I looked up the company road as far as I could see and saw troops singing. And I looked down the company road as far as I could see and saw troops singing. A chorus of thousands of voices singing different songs, but all singing the same music. And I cried because it was so beautiful.

That may sound militaristic to some. But what it was was a brotherhood and a sisterhood of people who do what nobody else does knowing they may, at any moment, be asked to die doing it. My love for the service was sealed in that moment. And though I may no longer be in the military, I will always be military. So, when I see the troops coming home, wounded, inadequately cared for, neglected and forgotten, I think, “I am healthy. I am strong. I can think cogently. I will do what I can to help right this. To not forget this.”

I can tell their stories. I can donate money. I can be a witness.

Amat victoria curam

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