Friday, May 23, 2008

McCain's mercenary sergeants

"Any officer can get by on his sergeants. To be a sergeant you have to know your stuff. I'd rather be an outstanding sergeant than just another officer." - Sgt. Major Daniel Daly
I finally read Jim Webb's book Fields of Fire recently and was surprised by the skill with which (now-senator) Webb painted a picture of the complexities of men at war. The book is neither pro-war nor anti-war but it is definitely pro-Marine, pro-grunt. As a veteran, one of the scenes that I found most touching involves a young Marine from a troubled, urban background who has come into his own in the Corps and, as his platoon prepares to head out for another in a long series of firefights, heads to the admin tent to re-enlist.

The Marine, known as Snake, is as complex as all the characters and by no means an angel, but he is a fighter and has found that the Corps suits him. He understands the ways of battle and finds that his austere upbringing has prepared him for the challenges of service.

But many of his fellow Marines mock Snake as he leans toward becoming a "lifer." To them, the service has offered only terror and hardship.

I bring this up only to point out the obvious: People enlist and re-enlist in the military for reasons which are their own. Some who enlist for steady money and education opportunities suddenly find themselves loving the physical challenge and the esprit de corps too much to leave. Some who want only to serve their country find service an insufficient reason to remain.

So I'm bothered by John McCain's response to Barack Obama, who pointed out that Webb's remodeled G.I. Bill is something McCain should get behind. In general, McCain makes two points: The first seems to be that a military man (McCain himself) should be trusted to act in the best interests of the military more than Obama who, McCain says, "did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform..." The argument isn't logical, really (and, as Mark Kleiman says, highlights McCain's anger management issues). McCain's service doesn't necessarily equate to perfect policy judgment regarding the military. If that is the case, though, then shouldn't we put even more weight behind the thousands of members of the American Legion and the VFW--every one a veteran--who have thrown their support behind Webb's bill?

More personally, however, I feel a true disdain for noncommissioned officers in what McCain is saying when he says the bill would encourage "people not to choose to become noncommissioned officers." Does McCain really believe those who choose to remain in the military and serve as NCOs only do it because they don't have a chance to go to college? Does he really think money is the only thing that makes a man or woman want to continue to serve? This is a horrible thing to suggest about the NCO corps.

In fact, when you do meet an NCO who has remained in the service for purely financial reasons, you are almost always meeting an inferior NCO. Without a true love of their service, NCOs simply cannot lead well.

In Kandahar a few years back, I ran into a sergeant major I knew from my time in Bosnia and I bought him a cup of coffee. This was a guy everyone respected and (when possible) liked. He led with an easy sense of what soldiers needed to hear to be better, meaning that he rarely had to yell; merely saying he was disappointed in a young corporal was enough. We'd never really talked about ourselves, having a purely professional relationship, but over coffee I learned that he'd come from a dirt-poor family in southern Alabama and had been drafted during Vietnam. I asked him what kept him in and he said (and I paraphrase) that once he'd put the uniform on, he just couldn't bring himself to take it off.

When I first joined the Navy, I met a chief who I still remember as one of the best leaders I've ever known who had joined the Navy with a degree and would be retiring from it with a master's at least. When one of my fellow classmates asked him why he hadn't "gone officer" or gotten out, he smiled and said, "Hell, I'm suprised they pay me to do this shit, 'cause I'd do it for free."

Suggesting that those who choose to become enlisted leaders in the military do so for purely mercenary reasons is not only wrong and disrespectful of NCOs, but enacting policies that keep people in the service for those reasons is detrimental to the military. McCain should know that.

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