Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Noncoms: The Best and the Worst

If you want to really understand the modern American military -- what makes it great and what makes it unique (both historically and compared with other modern armed forces) -- the first thing you really need to understand is this: the tremendous positional authority granted to noncommissioned officers (NCOs). An NCO, generally speaking, is a sergeant or above in the Army/Marines/Air Force, or a petty officer or above in the Navy or Coast Guard. Sometimes, however, it's used in a way that applies only to E-7 through E-9 (the highest enlisted ranks).

As a Junior Officer (JO), it means quite a bit to me because part of the unique role that our NCOs play is in the way they mentor and train JOs. As I've written about in this blog before, I've seen them at their best when they're offering tough-love and honest-to-goodness mentorship and "steering" that's grooming me for the better understanding I'll need of certain protocols when I move past the JO stage.

So yes, by and large, I've come to love and appreciate noncoms and the role they play in the military. But with anything, of course, there's a flip-side: when they turn into the kid in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs.


Think back to middle or high school. Remember the kid with above-average aptitude who barely passed because he refused to "apply himself"? (i.e. play the game in order to succeed).

To me, the grown-up version of that is anyone in any context (military or civilian) who can't be told anything he doesn't already know, won't listen to any potentially divergent viewpoint before reaching a conclusion, and is quick to label any event a clusterf**k or a goatrope because the leadership is so effed up. Of course, this is always the last person to volunteer to help out or to roger up for any possibly arduous duty (either in actual difficulty or just in the sense that something may go wrong).

Here's what I've noticed in my almost-four years of active duty so far -- every once in a while, you run into noncoms that embody this persona, but it never seems to happen with Commanding Officers, Executive Officers, or just about anyone else that reaches Major or above.


Because it's really hard to be in charge. Being in charge means making -- and owning -- tough decisions with real consequences. It means compromising. It means listening to many sides to understand the extreme complexity of certain decisions.

By contrast, as logic would have it, it's really easy NOT to be in charge.

That's why the people who call ESPN radio on Monday morning are always smarter than all the NFL coaches who had to decide what to do on fourth-and-three the day before. That's why, as one bumper sticker I just saw put it, the people who should really be running for President are all busy driving cabs or cutting hair.

And that's also why there's a certain (albeit small) percentage of noncoms who are always going to be that kid in the back -- smart, yes, and capable, yes, but too busy throwing spitballs at everyone else and making fun of the teacher to ever get involved and really take ownership of anything difficult.

And if there are any sergeants or chiefs reading this -- present or former -- just remember I'm only talking about a tiny percentage here. But you and I both know they're out there.

So why am I even bothering to write about it?

Because I've come to expect better.

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