Bugle and Bell
musings on the soul of war
Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.
by Anne Sexton ["The Saints Come Marching In"]
The Virtue of Unabashed Awkwardness in Military Leadership and
Command presence is not necessarily squeaky clean.
During the Vietnam War, it was discovered that West Point
graduates were, in general, less effective in platoon and company
grade commands than were those officers who received their
commissions via the ROTC programs in public universities. This
was considered to be an anomaly inasmuch as the elite West
Pointers were more knowledgeable in military matters, were the
cream of a highly selective process, and were more composed in
their personal decorum. They had spent their four years of post-secondary study in a purely military environment, whereas the
ROTC grads studied in a civilian environment with their military
training having been a part-time endeavor.
The catch, of course, was that these were the Sixties and
Seventies. The enlisted men whom both varieties of officers would
command in the field were largely draftees — college drop-outs, would-be hippies, angry, young black men, the offspring of
blue-collar families, and country boys to whom group discipline
was a joke. The ROTC-trained officers had received more exposure
to the awkward diversity of the day — peace protests,
marijuana smoke-ins, the free speech movement with its prevalence
of the F word, long hair and beards, sexual blatancy,
and the universal questioning of everything. They were more
familiar with the grab-bag of men that they would be called to
lead. They were better-equipped to deal with situations –
both in combat and at the base camp – that did not go
by the book.
The ROTC grads did not always have the answer at their
fingertips, but they could – with whatever awkwardness it
took – ask for assistance with an answer, create an answer,
experiment with the answer(s), and/or take an imperfect answer
and run with it. They could decide on the basis of an informed
intuition. They could lead people who had no intention of making
the military a career. They could give high-fives to the grunts
who made it through another day while the West Pointers might be
trying to decide which medal to award to whichever soldier did
not give a shit about medals.
Thucydides said, in the Fifth Century B.C., "It is frequently
a misfortune to have very brilliant men in charge of affairs;
they expect too much of ordinary men." It isn't that the
ROTC-trained officers weren't brilliant; it is that they weren't
hung up on their brilliance.
A situation analogous to this was faced by the Roman Catholic
Diocese of Lansing (Michigan) in the 1970's. Their experience had
been that of training priests at considerable expense in
sheltered seminaries where the subtle nuances of the faith were
dissected and then ordaining them and sending them out to be
leaders in parishes where the same Counter-cultural Revolution
breaking out in the universities was making inroads with the
faithful. Too many of the seminary graduates were either
unequipped to answer and deal with the liberation in the air, or
they became liberated themselves — sometimes by means of
leaving the priesthood and getting married.
The Diocese of Lansing, therefore, took the unprecedented step of
sending some seminarians – during the early years of their
theological training – to do graduate work at Michigan
State University while doing volunteer work in the community.
These seminarians lived in a house provided by the Diocese right
next to the secular campus with all its temptations, diversions,
and opportunities for personal growth. Instead of just saying
no to the world that they would eventually serve, those
in priestly formation more closely identified with that world. If
the clash of the world and of the heavenly ideals proved to be
too much for a seminarian, at least he and the Diocese knew it
before he was ordained and unleashed on a parish.
Although this particular program confronted potentially
awkward situations instead of sweeping them under the rug, it was
the exception rather than the rule in the Catholic Church of the
time. Many dioceses would later – especially in the 1990's
– regret having swept potentially awkward situations under
the rug especially in the wake of revelations of the abuse by
some priests and the havoc that it created in the lives of some
Well-meaning and well-bred men who too often end up stifling any
awkward truths – because they might prove to be
embarrassing – are the cadre of the good ol' boy
networks spawned by the military academies and the seminaries.
Their purpose is to protect and promote their own, but the result
can be a self-deceiving facade. Facades, in the long run, result
in the loss of confidence, the loss of wars, and the loss of
When you're the top dog, you don't have to put on the
Frequently one may observe, on any large, Stateside, military
base, the fact that high-ranking officers are content to drive
non-late-model economy cars while the young bucks in the N.C.O.
ranks are careening about in new Corvettes or equivalent
muscle cars. The corporals and sergeants are trying to
convince themselves that they are somebody; the top brass
know that they themselves (as well as the N.C.O.s on
whom they depend) are somebody.
The epitome of the know-it-all trying to be somebody is
Lieutenant Fuzz in the Beetle Bailey
cartoon strip. The more that he tries to feign not being awkward,
the more awkward he appears.
Occasionally, military leaders have cultivated an affected
humility in order that their humble troops may feel an empathy
with them. The patrician Douglas MacArthur sported a large,
corncob pipe fit for a classic redneck (and the chances are that
any junior officer who would have tried to join him on the
humbler-than-thou bandwagon would have been mercilessly
chastised). General Ulysses S. Grant – who had a greater
claim on genuine humility if not outright crudeness at times
– wore the soiled tunic of a private when accepting the
surrender of the Confederates at Appomattox Court House.
Often cited has been the story of President Lincoln's response to
someone who complained that Grant drank too much. Lincoln
suggested that the brand of whiskey which Grant preferred be
found out, and the president stated his wish that that brand be
sent to all his generals because maybe that would enable them,
like Grant, to fight.
When Lewis Chesty Puller – the Marine of World War
II and Korea fame – ascended the enlisted and officer ranks
from private to lieutenant general, he never forgot where he came
from. When he was base commander at Camp Lejeune and was taking
an early-morning walk, he came upon a hands-on-hips second
lieutenant being saluted over and over by a private. When the
lieutenant recognized the general, he snapped to attention and
"What's going on here?" Puller inquired.
"This private," pointed the lieutenant with an accusatory finger,
"disobeyed the military manual when he failed to observe my
approach within the prescribed number of paces in which he is
required to render to me a salute. So I am helping him to
remember in the future; I am requiring him to salute me one
hundred times before continuing to his destination."
"Very good. Very instructive," said the general. "How many
salutes has he rendered to you so far?"
"Forty-seven, Sir," or some such number was the reply.
"Are you aware, Lieutenant, that the manual also requires that
every salute rendered by an enlisted man to an officer be
returned by that officer? It would appear that you are
forty-seven salutes behind. You shall catch up on your end of the
obligation before continuing to salute back-and-forth with this
private to the count of one hundred."
Enlisted men loved Chesty Puller who was more
comfortable in combat than in standing on ceremony. It is
generally assumed that it is the more ceremonious types in the
military and in politics who prevented this winner of five Navy
Crosses from ever receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor or
becoming Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Colonel Harry Summers of the U.S. Army War College was once
quoted as saying, "A man who cannot love cannot
Love, by its very nature, is awkward.
Whether it is the love of a parent for a child or that of a
bridegroom for the bride, love can be associated with sweaty
palms, a trembling voice, and a red-faced bashfulness.
However, just as courage (according to Mark Twain) is not the
absence of fear but, rather, the will to proceed despite one's
fear, so it is with the awkwardness of love. Love is not the
absence of bashfulness but, rather, the will to proceed
unabashedly on behalf of the beloved.
It is the false lover – the equivalent of the make-out
artist – who is oily and smooth and without awkwardness.
His glibness passes for eloquence; he inspires hope in the short
run while laying a foundation of hopelessness in the long run for
the would-be beloved.
This contention – the interrelationship of courage and love
– is, admittedly, in disagreement with the classic
viewpoint promulgated by Machiavelli: "A prince who is a man
of courage and is able to command, who knows how to preserve
order in his state, need never regret [not] having founded his
security on the affection of the people." In any case, it is
not the purpose of the military leader to be loved by his people;
it is for him to have the heartfelt intent to love his people and
to lead accordingly. Whether that love is unrequited or is
returned is a matter for poetry and not for the accomplishment of
One of the beauties of COMBAT magazine is that
its vision can encompass poetry — that siren song that
allows hardened warriors, however awkwardly, to reveal their
shock-absorbing softness, their inner strength.
I close by recalling a poetic moment which occurred on December
25 – Christmas Day – in 1966. It was about three
o'clock in the morning.
Several other enlisted Marines and I were stationed on an old
French bunker off the end of the runway and along the perimeter
of the Da Nang airbase in Vietnam. The monsoon rains were
relentless, but the proverbial beans, bullets, and
bandages still had to be flown in by gutsy pilots.
A chartered Flying Tiger Airlines craft had been approaching the
runway in front of us when a combination of poor visibility and
malfunction of the instruments caused the craft to descend
prematurely and crash in the Vietnamese village before us. The
deafening fireball was followed by screams of civilians who had
been caught in the wake of the destruction. This was followed
shortly thereafter by the sound of small-arms fire as the ever-present enemy sought to salvage what they could of any remaining
cargo and to kill the U.S. corpsmen and medics sent out from the
airbase to assist and to bring in a number of civilian
casualties. There was the further risk of exploding munitions
that had been part of the cargo.
We were hunkered down in the partially flooded bunker and, with
hearts pounding and eyes trying to focus through the rain and the
smoke to the front, were trying to provide cover for the
beleaguered rescuers. A lone figure startled us when he, with a
splash, joined us from the rear of our bunker. Almost as
disconcerting were the three stars that he wore on his drenched
It was Lieutenant General Lewis W. Walt (what is it about these
men with the first name of Lewis?), the commander of all U.S.
forces in the I Corps region of northern South Vietnam.
He asked that we not let him distract us from our mission to the
front but asked, over our shoulders, the nature of the situation
and if there were any further means at his disposal that might
assist us in meeting it. He complemented us on our conduct of our
mission, and without further standing on ceremony, turned to exit
and to run – making as small a target of himself as he
could – down toward the next bunker and its small
contingent of wet Marines.
"Keep up the good work, Marines!" bellowed Walt. "Merry
Big Lew Walt was a close, personal friend of longtime
Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes. Neither man
could be said to have always had a squeaky clean command
presence, but, to their respective troops and players, they were
both treasured diamonds in the rough.
contributed by B. Keith Cossey