Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Getting In, Staying Out

I just read a review of Matt Gallagher's "Kaboom: Learning to Embrace the Suck in a Savage Little War." I'm glad it was written, because I think although there were a ton of "Siege of Baghdad"-type books that came out based on the push in 2003, and a bunch more that described the exploits of SF soldiers on horseback in late 2001, but that there's a lot missing from the shelf when we're talking military memoirs.

There's not enough out there on the surge, there's not enough out there on the terrible days in the Sunni Triangle from 2004-06, and there isn't enough about Afghanistan, period. If military members want to complain about the way they're written about and portrayed, they ought to "be the change they wish to see" and put the story out there. (Hey, maybe they should start blogs and give themselves regionally-based monikers).

But anyway, the single-most common theme in many of the recent military memoirs is that they're written by so-called "five-and-dive" junior officers. That piece of Academy slang just means they're written by people who served their initial commitment (five years) and then jumped ship, so to speak.

And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Just to lay my biases out front, I'm a "lifer" planning on somewhere between 20-30 years total service in the active Navy and then Army Natty Guard, which still means I've got as much 5/6 of the pie left on the table. But I'm also not a combat arms guy, which matters, because I can't claim to have led dozens of junior soldiers around a war zone as a lieutenant. Not to take away from anything I accomplished, but heck, MI just isn't the infantry, and neither is CA.

But back to the books. Each of the books involves some over-wrought, convoluted explanation of why the author got out of the service, and it's usually some variant on how great he is but how awful everyone with the rank of Major and above is, or was.

The explanation I heard for LT Gallagher (bear in mind, I haven't read Kaboom yet) is that he didn't want to be promoted upwards to the point where he would be sending troops in battle but not going himself.


If he wanted to make Captain, he still could've spent five years in that rank and commanded a Company. Even Majors and above routinely go outside the wire, depending on their unit and their branch. And besides, if he really meant what he said, and just thought he was the ultimate grunt's grunt, he could've resigned his commission and come back enlisted. Yes, it's been done before. We have a Sergeant First Class who was once upon a time wearing the rank of Lieutenant Commander...in the Coast Guard! (Seriously, and he's an amazing guy).

But also, if you think that Majors and Lieutenant Colonels are so terrible, then why not BECOME ONE and lead the way you *really* think it ought to be done?

I have absolute, undying total respect for anyone who leads soldiers in combat. That is an awesome responsibility and an incredible burden to shoulder.

If someone has done that, and then gotten into his late twenties and just said, "You know, I've frankly had enough of this. I'd like to go back to [insert town name], marry [insert girlfriend's name], and get a 9-to-5 and raise kids," I don't think anyone is going to criticize it. In fact, that's perfectly good logic. You've done your time, you're hanging up your hat, and calling it a day. In fact, changing professions every few years is what MOST people do. How many of your friends from college were still doing at 28 what they were at 23? I'd venture to say not many were.

But why not just say that?

If you want to write a great memoir, show some vulnerabilities. Give me more authentic voice, and give me less tripe about how your "warrior's heart" just doesn't beat the same anymore. Give me more Jarhead, and give me less One Bullet Away. Thanks.

Oh, and all that said, I'm still looking forward to reading Kaboom. I'll probably enjoy the book, and will write about it here, but just to clarify, I'm only griping here about the author's purported reason for leaving the Army, not the decision itself.


C R Krieger said...

I think the thing about the rank of major rings true across history. When I was at Da Nang, Viet-nam, in 1966 we were mostly lieutenants in the squadron, with a bunch of majors and only a few captains.  A bad rank distribution.  We lieutenants referred to majors as "snip brains".  That is to say, we figured that when you made major you got an operation and the brain was disconnected.  They snipped the connecting pathways, like hair during a haircut.  We also figured, based upon our experience, that when someone made full colonel the brain was reconnected, backwards.

Then, when we got to Bitburg (Germany)—a whole bunch of us left Da Nang at about the same time and landed in Bitburg—we saw an example in the form of a captain in the Squadron who was selected for promotion to major.  Some days he would be the same old Captain Davie Someone, noting the silliness of it all.  Other days he would be the official Major Someone, explaining why we had to have a squadron meeting at seven in the morning and then another one at five in the afternoon (not often, such things, but enough).  The junior officers would comment on it amongst ourselves and pass on the current state as to if today it was Captain Davie or the Official Major Someone.

Or just read Catch 22.

I won't go on to describe my own operations as I advanced in rank.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...

Haha...I still hear the term "O-4 lobotomy" thrown around quite a bit.

There's another old joke that says you lose your mind when you put on O-4, your heart when you put on O-5, and your spine when you put on O-6.

It sure is nice being a Captain. Many have called O-3 the best officer rank, and I can see why. Thankfully, I am anticipating five more years wearing the railroad tracks..