By Andy Weddington
Friday, 03 June 2011
"Appearances are a glimpse of the unseen." Anaxagoras (500BC-428BC)On Thursday afternoon, 26 March 1987, a horrible accident claimed the lives of five young women and seriously injured 11 others. All were coeds and members of the Chi Omega sorority at the University of Mississippi participating in a charity walk-a-thon to benefit the state's Kidney Foundation. The particulars of the accident are not important per se. Suffice to say freak circumstances ended with a truck, moving fast but not speeding along the highway a few miles from campus, plowing into the group from behind.
I was in my McCain Hall office when learning of the accident.
The campus was stunned. And grieving.
The next day the Semper Fidelis Society of the Ole Miss Naval ROTC midshipmen battalion was to kickoff their annual 24-hour run-a-thon around The Grove on campus. That charity event did not happen. In a display of sympathy, compassion, and leadership the run was postponed. For sundry reasons, to include appearances, that was the right thing to do.
Ah, for appearances and the right thing to do.
While in office President George W. Bush decided playing golf while our country was at war was not a good idea. During eight years he played some two dozen or so rounds. That's all. It was not loss of love for the game, he simply felt uncomfortable with the appearance--to his warriors and country alike. Besides, he had more important matters requiring his time and energy.
Keep the Ole Miss story and President Bush and golf in mind.
On Monday, 30 May--Memorial Day 2011, like most every day I went vertical early; around 0530. I poured a cup of coffee, flipped on the TV, and searched for programs paying tribute to our country's military and our fallen. A handful of cable channels were running war movies and documentaries all day. I watched part of a movie and a program, complete with combat footage, about Marines in the South Pacific during WWII.
Then I tuned in to a broadcast from the White House--President Obama was naming his nominees for Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Chief of Staff of the Army. The current Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General James "Hoss" Cartwright, USMC, a favorite of Mr. Obama's and once on the short list to take the helm from Admiral Mullen (current JCS Chair), was not so nominated and not on hand. A bit more on that later.
Shortly after the White House business I watched the president's appearance at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery for the annual wreath laying service.
Then it was time for me to don coat and tie and meander desert roads 30 miles east to a small cemetery on the outskirts of Twentynine Palms for a Memorial Day service.
Pulling into the cemetery grounds Boy and Girl Scouts welcomed visitors.
As far as I could see small American flags (attached to wood dowels) peppered the grounds.
After parking and while walking to ceremony seating I stopped at gravesites decorated with a flag. Each flat stone indicated name, date of birth and death, rank, branch of service, and years served. Some included units and military specialty and the war(s) in which they fought. Lives led and now at eternal rest with the flags assuring their sacrifices to country not forgotten by a grateful citizenry--a citizenry that does not know them but "knows" of them. That is, knows of the stock from which they came--a special breed who deserve to be remembered; always.
The wreath laying ceremony was simple but classy--ever the case when Marines participate. A Marine color guard and firing detail for the 21-gun ceremonial salute complemented the Marine colonel who spoke. The colonel opened with an architectural description of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial--the Wall, insight as to the symbolism of its design and placement, and some sobering bullets about names of combatants etched in the gabbro--fathers and sons, brothers, women, the oldest, and the youngest--all of 15 years old, among other thought-provoking tidbits. He had everyone's attention as he continued on--reminding that our freedom comes at a price; a high price--fact not foreign to those in attendance but it never hurts to hear someone in uniform say it.
Throughout the service an Air Force B-52 flyer killed 42 or 43 years ago during a combat mission in the Vietnam War came to mind. He left behind a wife and four small boys. I knew the brothers and wondered what's become of them.
Seventeen women, including the spouse of a Marine killed in Iraq and a Navy captain I'm fond of, representing military and patriotic outfits presented wreaths. The gun salute--three groups of seven crisp reports, in unison, from M-16s--and Taps closed the ceremony.
I casually wandered towards the car stopping at gravesites decorated with flags along the way. I didn't know any of these men, but I "know" of them. And I passed a car with an "Obama 2012" sticker centered on the rear bumper, and just shook my head wondering if these folks are paying attention.
An off-site reception--food, drink, and camaraderie--concluded the event.
Then it was home to shed coat and tie, and quietly reflect while reading about the Marine Corps and tuning into another military documentary or two.
The next day I received a casualty notification from the Department of Defense. A soldier supporting Operation Enduring Freedom was killed on Memorial Day. The notification read, "Private First Class Anthony M. Nunn, 19, of Burnet, Texas, died May 30, in Paktika province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit using an improvised explosive device. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky."
I did not know PFC Nunn, but I "know" of him. I know he'd been a soldier less than a year. And I know his kin--parents, brother, and sister, and friends are grieving and Memorial Day took on new meaning for the Nunn family; forever. Imagine.
And later that same day a news item--one for contrast--unexpectedly came my way. It was not covered by a protective main stream media. But, as reported, after his morning Memorial Day "duties," Mr. Obama played golf--70th round while president. For math enthusiasts that's a round every 12 days since taking office.
Considering the solemn importance of the day and holding title "Commander-in-Chief," why not walk the grounds of Arlington and discreetly and respectfully greet those visiting a fallen loved one? Or return to the Oval Office and telephone families of personnel recently killed in action? Or something, anything, more appropriate, in presidential substance and appearance, than a round of golf?
What to think about the president's example? What to think about those advising him?
I can only opine from the platform and through the prism of Marine leadership training which, at the heart, is built upon a time and battle-tested concept that earns followership--"Officers eat last." I wrote commentary titled, "They Who Eat Last" on 23 July 2010. If interested, it can be found in the Commentary Archive left.
Leadership and personal sacrifice are inextricably linked. Example starts with the Commander-in-Chief.
The Commander-in-Chief playing golf on Memorial Day while his charges are engaged in combat operations around the globe is not, at all, commensurate with "Officers eat last" leadership. Simple as that. I cannot, I do not, begin to understand the president.
Granted, Mr. Obama is not a Marine. But he "leads" Marines and therefore has an obligation, a duty, to understand them, or at least try. There is a difference between obedience and following.
Analysts say one of Mr. Obama's political strengths is that he's "likeable."
Mr. Obama was elected to lead. And the president, as Commander-in-Chief, leads largely through appearances. He's failing. Miserably. Or so it appears to me and many Marines known to me. And, not surprising, polling of military families reflect lower favorable impressions of the president.
As for his golfing, different strokes (forgive the pun) for different folks. What else to say? What else is there to say? Other than, our country is floundering--is there not more important matters requiring Mr. Obama's time and energy?
Appearances mattered to a battalion of NROTC midshipmen, learning to become leaders, at Ole Miss more than 24 years ago. Much planning, preparation and hard work had to be set aside on a moment's notice. Too bad. No one ever said leadership would be easy. The battalion commander, a senior, made the call. It was the right thing to do--in substance and appearance. The young man had been paying attention through his four years of training, and led his fellow midshipmen. Today that young man is a Navy captain. No surprise.
Appearances mattered to President Bush. He set aside a game he loves in the name of substance and appearance. As Commander-in-Chief it was the right thing to do.
Do appearances matter to Mr. Obama?
I have no idea. His behavior either innocent obliviousness or contrived indifference. Who knows. But the explanation really does not matter for the impression--the appearance--is the same. Golf on Memorial Day, of all days, as sitting president just another head-scratcher.
Rest assured had it been Mr. Bush teeing off the media would have teed off on him--driving, chipping, putting, and hacking their point home.
Monday was a beauty of a day in the Southern California desert--sunny, rich cobalt blue sky, and enough wind to knock off the heat and to flutter flags--a day tailor made for swinging clubs. But a round of golf never crossed my mind. Never.
I mostly thought of friends who have died in service to country. And thought of those who will lose their lives--in combat and training and senseless off-duty mishaps--in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead. To them we owe much. To their families we owe much. We owe them all much more than we will ever be able to return in kind.
Appearances matter. They really matter. They especially matter if you're the president.
Anaxagoras got it exactly right.
Say a prayer for Private First Class Nunn and his family.
Now to General Cartwright...
Earlier this week commentators on TV suggested it was General Cartwright's advice, in conflict with that of his superiors, offered to President Obama about troop increases in Afghanistan that nixed his rise to chair the Joint Chiefs. The civilian groupthink was he may be rogue with loyalty and trust issues being problematic. That analysis downright silly. Stupid. And insulting.
As reported on a popular military corruption website and covered in multiple media venues, the general was subject of a DoD Inspector General investigation. No need to recap particulars here--Google his name. In short, the investigation had nothing to do with backdoor military advice offered the president but everything to do with allegations of an improper "relationship" with a junior female Marine officer on his staff, and related problematic loyalty and trust issues.
What makes more 'passing the sniff test' sense; 1) Not moving up and retiring because, as a trusted expert advisor to the president and doing what he's supposed to do--think and advise, he gave a differing opinion on a serious issue fighting a war or; 2) Stronger than subtle appearances of inappropriate personal conduct?
Though, "cleared" (on paper) of wrongdoing, the bottom line: A purported thinker not thinking was his demise. Appearances, especially if a general officer, matter. Shiny stars smudged. Ability to lead compromised. End of story. And that executive summary based on experience--as a Marine officer and duty as a command inspector.
The Corps marches on.