17 June 2010


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 18 June 2010

                "But he that dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose." Anne Bronte (1820-1849)

Some rose garden buds bloom and die in relatively short order. It's nature's lifecycle. Other rose garden buds bloom and live a long life. Likewise nature's lifecycle. Now to explain.

On the well-manicured White House grounds bordering the Oval Office is a colorful area called the Rose Garden. Not all flowers gracing the some 40 yards long by 20 yards wide plot of earth are roses but most are. It's a special place. Serene. Beautiful. Peaceful. A special place indeed.

The garden, living since 1913, was realized through the efforts of President Woodrow Wilson's wife, Ellen Loise Axson Wilson. Prior to, dating back to 1902, the same area was a colonial garden that met the vision of President Theodore Roosevelt's wife, Edith. What was it prior to 1902? Stables--for housing horses and coaches. So, you see, a garden made imminently good sense--the ground was fertile. And a rose garden made even more sense as manure, worked into rich soil, is a recommended nutrient for beautiful roses. At least at one time in our history something happening at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue made sense.

From the onset presidents made good use of the Rose Garden for official work and informal gatherings alike. Welcoming distinguished visitors, holding press conferences, making public announcements, photo ops, weddings and more have taken place in the garden. And when the President decides to remain on White House grounds, vice traveling, to meet with key staff, the approach is known as the "Rose Garden strategy." Who knows what decisions of national and international importance--some rosy and some that stink--have stemmed (no apology for the pun) from the Rose Garden. Who knows.

There are two pieces of hallowed real estate on this planet--both in the United States of America; one in the South Carolina low country the other nestled amidst the congestion of coastal Southern California--that, though beautiful, could never be mistaken for rose gardens. At least not at first glance. And that real estate is U. S. Marine Corps Recruit Depots Parris Island--officially established in 1915, and San Diego--in 1921. Special places both--where boys and girls become men and women; they are transformed into Marines.

Scattered about the Depots, typically in the vicinity of recruit barracks, are small areas about the size of the White House Rose Garden; maybe not quite as large but the width is about half the length just the same. These small "gardens" sometimes bordered by logs to retain the rich soil--sand--are affectionately known by recruits and Drill Instructors as "The Pit"--nondescript ground that can comfortably accommodate up to 80 or so recruits. Visits to the pit are brief. And intense.

The pit--like the White House Rose Garden--is a special place. Rough. Drab. Intimidating. A special place indeed.

The pit is where Senior Drill Instructors, and Senior Drill Instructors only, are authorized to take their platoons--en mass--to administer incentive training. Per page 5-4 paragraph 5003 of the 30 November 1983 edition of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Order P1510.24C--"SOP FOR MALE RECRUIT TRAINING M.C.R.D. PARRIS ISLAND S. C."--signed by the Depot's commanding general, incentive training is defined as "...an aid in instilling discipline and motivation."

For the unfamiliar, incentive training (which can be administered in the pit, or elsewhere--individually or in small groups) is a period of rigorous exercise up to 5 1/2 minutes in duration inclusive of a short rest period at the mid-point. The guidance for the types of exercises, numbers of repetitions of each, locations, times of day, etc. is extensive. Yes, female recruits, too, are subject to incentive training. After all, Marines are Marines.

Arguably more important than use for correcting minor infractions, instilling discipline and motivation, incentive training develops individual character as well as builds teamwork, camaraderie and cohesion--a bond that only a platoon of recruits going through hardship together can understand. Not to mention the added benefits of helping recruits learn to think, concentrate, and toning muscle and improving cardiovascular endurance. Yes sir, incentive training is the complete remedy for what ails recruits--in mind, body and spirit.

Marine Corps Drill Instructors are master trainers. Incentive training is merely one tool available to them to reinforce their lessons. The pit handles what furling the platoon guidon, unblousing trousers, and route stepping failed to resolve. Seniors, experienced Marines and trainers, can read the progress of their platoons like a book, and instinctively know, as there is a fine line for effectiveness, when to bellow, "To the pit," followed by the order, "Begin."

The sand of the pit, enriched with sweat, and sometimes tears and maybe even blood, is every bit as rich--even more so--than the soil of the White House Rose Garden. For the sand, has been "fertilized" by thousands and thousands of recruits over scores of years--it grows Marines. The soil of the White House Rose Garden merely grows plants; little more.

From a macro perspective, philosophically at least, not much has changed since 1983, and long before that, when it comes to Marine Corps recruit training. And that is for the good. Why tinker with something that's damn near perfect and battle tested? Marine Corps recruit training not only produces a warrior immediately responsive to orders and knows teamwork but is a better person for the experience. In fact, one objective of service in the Corps is, once complete--however long that may be, to return Marines to their communities better citizens.

In short, the Marine experience ingrains a positive spirit and mindset that there is no insurmountable obstacle. That calmness and perseverance must prevail--especially under stressful situations. Everything in recruit training, a process designed and refined over decades and decades, is a means--regardless of how puzzling to the recruit--to that end. The pit was never designed nor intended to be a rose garden proper but it is--metaphorically speaking.  

As to those traits essential for performance under pressure and during times of great stress, the White House Rose Garden comes to mind. And that thought leads into the adjoining Oval Office and our sitting president.

A week or so ago, during an on-camera interview addressing the horrible spewing of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Obama commented somebody's ass needed to be kicked. If only he could find whom to order to assume the position and brace. His remark, according to some, sparked by the urging of silly "advisors" who told him he needed to get angry in response to nearly 70% of Americans, when polled, who felt the problem was not being handled properly. A hole that needed to be plugged every bit as bad as the one at the bottom of the Gulf gushing crude.

Unquestionably the Gulf situation is a mess. It's unconscionable. The complex problem ever coming to be is understandable. After all, man is involved. That there was no proven equally complex remedy (a simple one best) ready to execute immediately bewildering. That sundry 'time is of the essence' equipment delayed and offers of assistance from friendly countries rejected plain stupid. The continued flow frustrating and the consequences heartbreaking--for environment, wildlife, and people. The president's Tuesday evening address way late and largely inconsequential. But all this another Commentary.

Someone's ass does need to be kicked. But not just regarding the gushing oil. And, of course, the president can think it all he wants. He can utter it in private amongst his most trusted advisors. He can even use far richer language than ass; and likely does. The Vice President probably taught him. But what does such a remark in public say about his "education"--a BA from Columbia and a JD from Harvard Law School. And was it commensurate with the decorum we think of and expect from our president? Does such a comment send the American people, our friends, and most importantly our enemies, a message of calmness under pressure and instill confidence in his ability to manage and lead through times of turmoil--in this case a man-made disaster? Then extrapolate that line of thinking out to the dangerous times we are living in the hands of a president whose conduct abroad analogous to pruning rose bushes barehanded while wearing blinders or trying to charm and pet rattlesnakes. Fair questions all. Oh, and when looking for asses to kick a true leader first checks the mirror.

Perhaps Mr. Obama, who has no personal experience in the military, would have been well-served having worn one of our nation's uniforms. Perhaps best served had it been of the Marine colors. Pardon my bias. And it's reasonable to believe that some pit time--the Corps' rose garden--would have helped prepare him for service in the most important Rose Garden in the world; surely. But then again not just anyone can be a Marine.

Leadership, whether President of the United States or a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, is tough. The stress and strain on both are tremendous. Yet there is no room for lapses of judgment nor behavior overtly succumbing to pressure--signs of weakness and possibly incompetence. The president's approval rating continues to drop--recently hitting 44, the same number as his Chief Executive lineal number. That's not good. Much of that number rests in the public's perception of the president's success, or lack thereof, portraying confidence and his ability to solve problems. Boy, how ironic would it be were he to hit 39--Mr. Carter's number?

Mr. Obama has been less than impressive exuding confidence, listening to the people, solving problems and leading. The polls speak. And our talented, highly-skilled orator is proving to be little more than just that--a talker. Even some in his corner are suggesting such and realizing his void of executive-level experience. As an exceptional Marine general once opined to his staff, "Hope is not a course of action." Nor are words.

No one in their right mind wants to see a president fail. And Mr. Obama is not failing. He is succeeding. But not as he envisioned. Though it's a little messy, he's uniting this country like nothing else has in recent history--at least since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the World Trade Center in 2001. The swell against him is growing in size and speed. The Tea Party'ers an insignificant passing fad? Ah, no! With his every thought, word, and deed folks--from all political vantage points--are opposing him. So goes the country.

In the political arena there's plenty of ass-kicking going on--the public is kicking bums out of office. More to come in November. If things continue along the present track, Mr. Obama will be among them in 2012. But the end may come sooner. One savvy gent by the name of Peter Ferrara, with extensive Beltway and White House experience, recently penned an article predicting resignation. Maybe. But, who knows, he may be impeached if criminally linked to the Sestak nonsense. 

Yes indeed, Mr. Obama should have ass-kicking on his mind. But kicking the ass of enemies--foreign and domestic--aiming to do us harm. Of which there is no shortage these days. Our southern border adjoining Mexico, especially in Arizona, is a damn mess; analogous to the gushing oil. The lack of security inane and dangerous to America's safety. And some antagonists in the Middle East and elsewhere are so much as flipping Mr. Obama the bird. What to do? In a calm, polished and gentlemanly manner all he needs to do is turn to Cabinet members for domestic issues. So far--nothing--but criticize and resist a governor determined to fix the problem. For foreign a lean toward his Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and say, "Gentleman, there's "business" to tend to (cite the objective and issue orders)." Then let soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines speak to and execute "the business" of ass-kicking--they are experts at it. And ever ready to open the proverbial "can."

Tough times in the Oval Office and White House Rose Garden. All self-imposed and leaving no time to stroll and stoop for an occasional whiff. America today is no rose garden. And we're not even moving in that direction. As to cause? Look no further than excessive "manure" in and coming out of Washington, D.C. Too much of anything is not good.

As for the Corps and rose gardens...

Back in 1968 a reservist visiting Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, working on a book about recruit training captured a moment on film that epitomizes one element of the loving relationship between recruit and Drill Instructor. Okay, maybe not loving. Just checking as to whom is paying attention. I don't know that the recruit, a few inches taller than his intense, impatient Drill Instructor and somewhat in profile on the right side of the image, was ever identified. The Drill Instructor, Sergeant Charles A. "Chuck" Taliano, at the time less than a month away from receiving his Honorable Discharge and moving on in life, became famous; at least within circles of the Corps. For that image was turned into one of the most iconic Marine Corps recruiting posters of all time:

                                                             "We don't promise you a rose garden."

Sergeant Taliano, immortalized in that famous photograph teaching as only a Drill Instructor can, died on Friday, 04 June 2010 at the age of 65. He lost a dignified and gallant battle to cancer. Ironically, I was in the Parris Island Officers' Club that Friday afternoon when hearing the news of his death. What instantly came to mind was a poster I own with Sergeant Taliano's original signature. The poster presented to me by a Marine (Drill Instructor) whom I worked alongside a couple of decades ago. A special present then--now a treasure. 

You better believe there's many a Marine scattered around this country--this tremendous land of ours--who bears the imprint of Sergeant Taliano. And you better believe, as any Marine can, they recall his face and name, without hesitation, when rattling off the names of their Drill Instructors. Absolutely Sergeant Taliano administered incentive training--an essential ingredient, a time or two, while doing the serious work of making Marines. It was his sworn duty. And with right hand raised he pledged it before his recruits in the following:

"These recruits are entrusted to my care. I will train them to the best of my ability. I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Marines, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of Corps and country. I will demand of them, and demonstrate by my own example, the highest standards of personal conduct, morality and professional skill."

May Sergeant Taliano--among the Corps most famous Drill Instructors--rest in peace. Who knows, maybe he now rests in a rose garden. Taps.

And we, the public, shall see if Mr. Obama, despite no "rose garden" experience, becomes the president he led his voters to believe he would and could be to lead the country. His opponents are doubtful. For they argue the critical tools--compasses, lensatic and moral--to follow the American path are inoperable and nonexistent. We shall see.

Life is not a rose garden. The U. S. Marine Corps does not promise one--never has and best not ever. And shouldering the responsibility of president of these United States is sure no rose garden, either. Yet how interesting when thinking about the proximity of the White House Rose Garden to the Oval Office. Maybe Mrs. Wilson, who had a keen eye for beauty, was also blessed with a clever, sophisticated sense of humor and ahead of her time.

Semper Fidelis.

Post Script

I never spent time in "The Pit." Incentive training was not an authorized training tool at Officer Candidates School. I don't believe it is to this day. It need not be. However, when reporting for duty at Parris Island, the first step before being assigned to a training battalion was completion of the Recruit Training Officers Orientation Course. During that course the Director--a captain with training battalion experience and just as a Drill Instructor would do to recruits, administered a 5 1/2 minute period of incentive training to the class of 20 or so lieutenants and captains. In top physical condition--able to do 20 dead-hang pull-ups, 80 sit-ups in two minutes, and run 3 miles in 19 minutes or thereabouts--I was exhausted after the 5 1/2 minutes. Point made--crystal clear--with the officer's duty to keep a close eye on--that this invaluable tool for making Marines was never, ever to be abused by Drill Instructors. During three years I never witnessed the guidelines for incentive training violated or the spirit of its purpose abused. Such adherence testament to the remarkable men and women who wear "the hat"--the feared, intimidating and respected "Smokey" adorned with a black Eagle, Globe and Anchor centered on the front--and a belt--black or green; the overt signs of the coveted designator "8511"--who we Marines call, "Drill Instructors."

For a taste of the pit, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xk5Nt1m2b4o

Author's Endnote: A couple of months ago a retired Marine friend back east and I were talking on the phone and, for whatever reason, our days together at Parris Island came up. We spoke to many memories and then the topic turned to our Depot commander, Major General J. J. McMonagle, USMC--a Marine and leader we respect and hold in high esteem, I'd not seen or spoken to since those days, and the man who'd signed that 1983 edition of the Depot Order. One comment led to another and within minutes we decided to call him. A quick search of the Internet located him in Southern California. My friend dialed to conference him in. General McMonagle answered on the fourth ring. We re-introduced ourselves and, clearly, had surprised him. To our astonishment he recalled particulars about each of us--which, upon reflection, was not so surprising as he had a penchant for names and tidbits about people. As we were winding down the 20 minutes or so chat, I commented to the general I'd bet a $100.00 when he rose from slumber this morning he could never have guessed he'd be hearing from us. Without missing a beat he said, "No, but I'd have paid a $100.00 for this call." Heart-warming. A few weeks later my wife and I and another mutual friend--also a retired Marine--had the privilege to meet General and Mrs. McMonagle for lunch. Twenty-seven years, goodness,--he was as smooth and polished as ever. What a Marine! He led that place one commandant tabbed, "Where The Difference Begins." Major General McMonagle took that philosophy to heart--he, too, made a difference. A huge difference. I will never forget him. Nor the men I served alongside in Second Recruit Training Battalion on paradise--Parris Island. They, too, made a difference. A huge difference.

And finally,
Read Victor Davis Hanson's "Government by the Faculty Lounge" - a more astute assessment you will not find. http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson061510B.html

1 comment:

Bruce said...

I find myself at something of a loss for words after reading this weeks commentary, Colonel. Surely one of the best ever - I only wish I had your gift for writing.

My profound sympathies on the Corps loss - and yours personally - of Sergeant Taliano. Remarkable men are too often taken from us far too soon.