03 February 2011


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 04 February 2011

"Reasonable orders are easy enough to obey; it is capricious, bureaucratic or plain idiotic demands that form the habit of discipline." Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989), American historian & author

Today's Commentary is not going in the direction you may first assume. As today is one of those days  seemingly unrelated things come together while addressing a current controversial issue. Yet that last sentence a bit confounding as how is it possible anything in life cannot be related? Somehow? And irrespective of time-space?

"Coincidences"--which many do not believe in--just might be nothing more than notable moments of a far grander scheme of perfect order of our monstrous chaotic world; which is beyond any human ability to grasp much less understand. Though we struggle, hopelessly, for sensibility and even control; both aims absurd. Coincidence, happenstance, luck, irony, whatever you want to call it, makes for entertainment, but mostly head-scratching and head-shaking wonder. Think about it.

One day we may understand. Maybe. In the interim, I continue and ask your kind indulgence.

Five days ago I closed the back cover on Doug Stanton's exceptional page-turner, "In Harm's Way." I was familiar with the story, detailed in a moment, but not like this--not anything like this. And his account includes long overdue actions taken by our government during the last decade to correct our government's deplorable behavior of yesteryear. What a shame justice required six decades. But better late than never, and though the damage, namely lives lost and destroyed, can never be undone, only assuaged, some--earthly and heavenly--now finally rest; especially Captain Charles Butler McVay, U. S. Navy.

Published in 2001, Stanton's riveting story, set during WWII, is the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the extraordinary story of her survivors. "Extraordinary" is an understatement. A huge understatement. For there are no words to truly describe the horrific ordeal the crew of that behemoth warship faced, and some conquered. That said, Stanton did an exceptional job--within the limitations of language--putting the reader helplessly afloat in the daunting, wide-open, merciless sea and causing pause to think, "Could I'd survived?"

That there were any survivors is a miracle. But the survivors serve as proof the will to live (along with a smidgen of luck--if there is such a thing) is one of nature's forces to be reckoned with, and something that can be immeasurably strengthened by the words and deeds of others; even by the most innocent and seemingly inconsequential of words and deeds.

Aboard the Indianapolis, part of ship's company, was a U. S. Marine Corps Detachment--standard for the day. The Det of thirty-nine young Leathernecks was led by a battle-tested captain who'd distinguished himself on Saipan earning the Silver Star; his decoration for heroism presented aboard the Indianapolis by her skipper--Captain McVay. That Marine captain held the admiration and respect of his Marines--he led them.

One of the privates in the Det had fought in the battle of Peleliu and survived the Indianapolis sinking. He was among those interviewed by Stanton. In telling the story, Stanton captured something the private had said to a handful of shipmates while adrift in the sea struggling to survive that struck a chord with me; causing pause to think and for a good long while. Fighting for their lives against the ruthless elements of Mother Nature,  heartless predators of the deep, and the nasty demons that emerge from an abyss within the human psyche when under extreme psychological and physiological stress, he told his shipmates not to worry that he'd take care of them. That moment of remarkable courage and leadership, from a private, was prompted by his memory of another Marine captain, who amidst the gruesome fighting on Peleliu, told the private to stick with him--he'd get him through the battle. He did. The private never forgot it. And he now found himself in another battle--one he could not possibly have predicted. And though a private, he was now "the captain."

The timing of reading "In Harm's Way" was fortuitous and coinciding (hmmm) with the recent release of a short video by our Corps commandant and sergeant major. I was well into the book but had not reached the short paragraph that caused me to pause and think until after watching General Amos and Sergeant Major Kent address Marines.

No, our two top Marines did not talk about the Indianapolis sinking and her survivors, but they did metaphorically speaking. They sounded alot like the captain on Peleliu in 1944 and the private adrift at sea eight or nine months later; July, 1945.

Their topic was "Don't ask, don't tell" repeal--a sensitive issue that has caused many a Marine's heart and soul to sink.

Our commandant fought repeal. He fought repeal on behalf of his Marines who told him straightup repeal is not a good idea. His Marines, many serving in combat, told him repeal would endanger unit cohesion and, in turn, warfighting effectiveness; which led Marines to being blunt about concerns for the safety and survival of their Marines and themselves. Our commandant listened to his Marines, he heard them; loud and clear. He fought for them, for all of us, from a fighting position of priniciple and with conviction not gratuitious defiance, in the face of great pressure. He could have acquiesced but did not. Leadership.

Those empowered to overturn "Don't ask, don't tell"--our nation's civilian leadership--listened to General Amos (and his Marines). But they did not hear.

After testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Amos lost the battle. Marines lost the battle, but only because on that "battlefield" the Marines are "out-gunned"; always.  

I watched our commandant and sergeant major's video several times. After digesting their message I sent a note to the retired Marine who'd sent me the video. I wrote, "Had our commandant not taken the tough stand he did fighting repeal thereby revealing his character and moxie (to Marines--every single one of us), the video would have had far less impact and implementation of new policy more than challenging. It's still going to be challenging. But, Marines respect leadership. Marines respect character. And Marines understand and appreciate following orders; which even our commandant and sergeant major must do. Bravo. Or so is my humble perspective."

The sender came back, "I also think it is well done and obviously ahead of the bow wave. Keeping ahead of the fruitless exercise in social engineering is critical in my view. There will be impacts; but there are many mitigation techniques; one of which we have just viewed."

After reading lines 22 and 23 of the seventh paragraph on page 197 of Stanton's tale it struck me our commandant and sergeant major were saying, "Stick with us Marines, we'll get you through this."

Recalling our commandant's testimony a couple of months back--fiercely but diplomatically fighting repeal--there's no reason to doubt he, teamed with the sergeant major, will successfully lead our Corps through this transition. Besides, our culture's ethos pertains--Marines do not leave Marines on the battlefield; any battlefield. Stick with them, Marines. As if that needed to be said.

Our commandant received his marching orders. He, in turn, issued marching orders to our Corps--from private to general officer; every single Marine. In short, he said we are going to accomplish our mission; implementing repeal--without detriment to our culture, standards, and warfighting capability. Stick with me.

Happy? Not Happy? Sentiments matter not. Repeal is now a non-issue. And now it's business as usual.

Debate, fair and serious or not and with or without valid objective and empirical data, is done. Professionals execute. Marines are professionals. Therefore, Marines salute smartly and respond "Aye, Aye, Sir,"--acknowledging orders received, understood, and will be carried out. As did our commandant so must Marines.

The way ahead stems from our commandant and sergeant major. Yet the Marines who will make repeal happen are young NCOs--corporals and sergeants--squad leaders; young SNCOs--staff sergeants and gunnery sergeants--platoon sergeants; and young officers--lieutenants--platoon commanders. Period.  Seniors--officer and SNCOs--must coach and mentor. That is, lead, by example, in thought, word, and deed.

For now repeal stands. Change will not be easy, though it's simple. Leadership. Discipline. And unwavering allegiance to Core/Corps Values --Honor, Courage, Commitment.

Time. Time will tell if repeal was a mistake.

So with that our Corps, affectionately known as the 'big green machine,' marches on--stepping off a full thirty inches with the left foot and leaning--to attack and conquer anyone or anything foolish enough to test our mettle. For the sake of our Corps survival and continued distinguished service to our country's security and safety it can be no other way. And it won't be.

Our commandant and sergeant major's message--barely a few minutes in length--is a direct, powerful statement of seasoned leadership. As orders must be, our commandant's concise, clear, and stated with sound gentlemanly conviction. There is no chance for misinterpretation. Time to follow--in letter and spirit. And, in turn, time to lead--in letter and spirit.

As Anthony Wayne (1745-1796), U. S. Army general and statesman, said, "Issue the orders sir, and I will storm Hell." Wayne did not add a qualifier exempting orders he disagreed with. Nor will Marines. And no slight to General Wayne, a distinguished and fine soldier indeed, nor the Army, but with such a fiery fighting temperment he'd probably have made a damn good Marine; especially these days. Higher praise does not come to mind. Might we all adopt his spirit.

"The Few. The Proud. The Marines."--our longstanding recruiting slogan. Just like an effective order--clear, concise, and impossible to misinterpret.

Marines will get this done. They always have. Always.

I don't recall our commandant's exact words closing the video but they may as well had been, "Fall in; Right, FACE; Forward, MARCH!"

Enemies--whomever, whatever, and wherever lurking--beware!

Semper Fidelis.

Post Script

General James F. Amos and Sergeant Major Carlton W. Kent leading the way. Take a few moments...

The following paragraphs were initially in the body of the Commentary. Though germane, I believe best suited here. Considering past commentary on the issue, omitting them would have been disingenuous; not my style.    

On behalf of Marines who oppose(d) repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" I've been an outspoken, pointed but polite and unapologetic, critic in a handful of commentaries during the past year or so. In the end, it was clear the repeal effort was never intended nor designed to listen, hear, and seriously consider the opinions of those who wore (including some 1,500 retired flag officers representing all branches of the armed forces) and are currently wearing our nation's military uniform; especially the gunfighters. Gratuitous solicitation and procedural forums with the air of a rubber stamp (the only thing missing was a Staples "Easy Button")  served bureaucratic purpose--for the vocal minority, advocates in the Department of Defense and Congress, and the President. If ever a "project" had a foregone conclusion, repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" is a textbook case. And that assessment supported by the paltry data (which did not support repeal). Not to mention the root of that paltry data--the survey's 28% response rate; most probably and frankly explained by an apathetic community who concluded, and accurately so, repeal was fait accompli. Neither the process, nor the invalid race and gender integration analogies calling for change, nor outcome were particularly palatable but it is what it is. And it's moot.

Marines--past to present--are none too happy with repeal. Sentiments run deep and for many that depth is anchored by upbringing that homosexuality is wrong; regardless. And that homosexuality is disruptive to good order and discipline and incompatible with the unique demands of military service. That said, dedicated and recurring training and education will not necessarily change upbringing and morals but tempering to a point of healthy tolerance, in the best interests of our Corps and country, is a critical objective--and just one obvious objective. Certainly there are indeterminable "opportunities" that will afford Marines a stage to showcase that intangible "something" that distinguishes them (us) from all others. Overcome them Marines will--for all any Marine has to do is recall the moment they earned the right to wear our emblem and be called, "Marine."  Those two special privileges are founded upon the bedrock of personal sacrifice and teamwork and they carry hard-earned and well-understood responsibilities. What  responsibilities?  Professionalism. Duty. And much more. Simple as that.

And finally...

"Manage yourself first and others will take your orders." David Seabury (1885-1960), American psychologist

Author's Endnote

About the USS Indianapolis: http://www.ussindianapolis.org/

"In Harm's Way" -- make a point to read it. All of life's problems--even the great big ones, in a sense, will seem trivial. And don't be surprised to find yourself fetching a drink of water--in a tall glass. Confession--I kept a quart-size bottle, water bottle that is, within arm's reach and filled it when below the half mark. True. Not the sign of a pessimist but a pragmatic optimist; always. And the book is full of eerie "coincidences."

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