The Costs of True Leadership

The military has been on my mind of late, and today I realized it was because of…today.

Each year, the number of veterans returning to Omaha Beach dwindles. Sixty-five years on, a surprising number of them are still with us:

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans estimates that there were probably 500,000 U.S. personnel on or just off the beaches at Normandy and who could be called D-Day vets. Of those, roughly 62,500 are still alive, according to the museum.

Since the youngest are in their mid-eighties, their ranks will thin rapidly in the next few years and another era will pass from living memory. Even now, the ceremonies at Omaha Beach are marked with friction as the nations involved dicker with one another and elbow for position. Sarkozy failed to invite the Queen, and Obama failed to accept Sarkozy’s invitation to dinner. This pettiness is unseemly.

Given Obama’s sullen treatment of the British government, signaled first with his ungracious return of the bust of Churchill to the UK, the complicated political maneuvers of these thin-skinned politicians induces a tedium in those of us who are forced to watch their petty chess games.

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Some weeks ago, in an email exchange with one of our readers, Marine Corps Tom, I suggested he might want to read a new book, Joker One. I had just read a moving review and thought that reading the book itself might move him as well.

Well, my suggestion moved him all right: it moved him to send me a copy of the book from Amazon. He doesn’t read any further forward than…than World War II, I think he said. No doubt he has his reasons.

As it turned out, during my latest convalescence Joker One was a fitting companion; it served to remind me that my own pain was mild indeed compared to many others – for example, what the Marines in Ramadi had endured in 2004. Finishing the book, I felt a certain sadness, not only for those who didn’t come back, but also for those of us who get to the end of Donovan’s story and experience our own losses refracted through the lens of Joker One’s experience.

Are these feelings of displacement part of what returning soldiers feel as they come back, leaving behind the terrible intensity of the battlefield to face the now forever-changed reality of home?

Here’s an excerpt from that review I mentioned to Tom:
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It is appropriate that Donovan Campbell offers an inscription about love from 1 Corinthians 13:13 at the beginning of his book, Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood. That’s because he has written what is essentially a love story. While there are of course many soldier accounts from Afghanistan and Iraq, some that even tell more gripping stories or offer more humor, there may not be one that is more reflective on what it means to be a leader, and what it means to love the men you serve and lead.

This book is receiving considerable press attention and Campbell’s ability to convey love the way he does has to be a big reason for the popularity of the book. Campbell movingly says about his own Marines in the opening chapter, “And I hope and pray that whoever reads this story will know my men as I do, and that knowing them, they too might come to love them.”

Donovan Campbell graduated from Princeton and elected to enter the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School because he thought it would look good on his résumé. Oh, the casual decisions we make when we are young and arrogant! Certain that we are the masters of our fate, we look up in surprise at some point, startled to find ourselves where life has landed us, humbled by the journey it took to get there: finally less self-important, we grow silent about the simplistic ideas which once formed our most assured convictions.

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I was reminded of Campbell a little while ago when I happened upon Jules Crittenden’s description of being present at this year’s Harvard graduation. There he heard General Petraeus speak to the graduates, especially to those young men who were finishing OCS. Theirs was the privilege of having the General preside at their commissioning ceremony.

Mr. Crittenden, an editor at The Boston Herald twittered the event, calling the General’s speech “A Ten Minute Leadership Course”. Here’s a translation of his Twitter-talk into real-time English:

Petraeus’ 10-minute leadership seminar, delivered at Harvard’s ROTC commissioning…”Individuals matter and individual leaders really matter.”

Petraeus: Leaders are the ones history remembers as having made the bigger difference, and each of you is about to become a leader of our nation’s most precious resource, our sons and daughters.

Petraeus: Study and formal education are great but “you’ll learn the most from getting your hands dirty.”

Petraeus: “There is no way you can avoid becoming a leader in the hard test of combat.”

Petraeus: “First, lead by example. If you lean forward in the foxhole, your troopers will too.”

Petraeus: “Be humble. Listen and learn. US soldiers have eight years of ‘been-there-done-that’. They’ll have a lot to teach you.”

Petraeus at Harvard’s ROTC commissioning: Don’t hesitate to make decisions. When the listening is done, you have to make the call.”

Petraeus: “There will be moments when all eyes will turn to you for a decision. Don’t shrink from making one.”

Petraeus: “Don’t take yourself too seriously but take your work very seriously. The tasks we are involved in are deadly serious.”

These are the same lessons that Donovan Campbell from Princeton learned in Ramadi, the same ones that the young men graduating from Harvard face as they leave the Yard.

Mr. Crittenden calls out to each of them:

A big shout out to 2nd Lt. Joseph M. Kristol, USMC, son of the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol; 2nd Lt. Domenico A. Pellegrini, USMC, of West Roxbury, Mass.; 2nd Lt. Vincent M. Chiappini, U.S. Army, of Bridgewater, Mass.: 2nd Lt. Daniel G. West, USMC, of Spring, Tx; 2nd Lt. Thomas M. Barron, U.S. Army, New York, NY; 2nd Lt. Roxanne E. Bras, U.S. Army, Celebration, Fla.; 2nd Lt. Daniel K. Bilotti, U.S. Army, of Orinda, Calif.; and Cadet Andrei A. Doohovskoy of Concord, Mass.

It is remarkable that these young men (and one young woman) managed to step around the anti-military rhetoric so prevalent at Harvard to pursue and stay true to their own course.

It speaks volumes about our elites that these graduates had to take their ROTC training at MIT since Harvard, after kicking the program out in the 1960’s, still does not permit the Reserve Officers Training course on its campus.

Some alumni have taken measures to change Harvard’s position. They founded Advocates for Harvard ROTC in 1988. More than two thousand graduates have signed on to the program and yet Harvard is still without its own ROTC program. Those numbers reflect the remarkable reality of these few graduates of 2009 who managed to avoid indoctrination despite the best efforts of academia. For that feat alone they deserve our admiration.

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So the remembrances of June 6 which we share with all the Allied countries, roll by for one more year, though observed perhaps with less grace and moment than it was when those who had actually served stood at the lecterns on Omaha Beach.

Yet we still are privileged to witness young men setting out to serve their country for the same reasons that impelled their grandfathers: the idea of service, of belonging to something greater than the self, still resonates for these new officers. May they, like the men of Joker One, prevail. Like Donovan Campbell, may they come to love the men they lead, may they learn quickly that genuine leadership entails a rigorous sacrifice of the self. Their men will be able to tell.

And though they won’t all come home, we still hope for them in spite of the odds.

“Down on bended knee I pray, bring courage to these souls
Make them live forever in the heart of the bold
So I say farewell, my friends,
I hope we’ll meet again
When time has come to fall from grace

So this is goodbye, I take leave of you
Spread your wings and you will fly away now

Nothing on earth stays forever
But none of your deeds were in vain
Deep in our hearts you will live again
You’re gone to the home of the brave.”

Hat tip to the future Baron for Glory to the Brave by HammerFall.

5 thoughts on “The Costs of True Leadership

  1. Petraeus: “There is no way you can avoid becoming a leader in the hard test of combat.”

    This is so very true. I think, in a way, this is a microcosm of adulthood–that it is impossible to take responsibility in a crisis and NOT be a leader of some sort. You take on that mantle whether you want to or not.

  2. I suppose you know the famous story about Petraeus being shot in the chest?

    As battalion commander at Fort Campbell in 1991, Patraeus was accidentally shot in the chest during a live-fire exercise.

    A soldier tripped and discharged his rifle about 40 yards away from Petraeus’observation post.

    They airlifted him to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. His surgeon turned out to be the future Senator Bill Frist.

    Petraeus had a laceration to a large pulmonary artery and a lacerated pulmonary vein. A small entrance wound was located in the front, right, middle of his chest with a larger exit wound that shattered his sixth rib located in the back of his rib cage.
    Dr Frist denied Patraeus’ request for release but agreed to allow him to be sent back to a local hospital so he could be with his soldiers. That hospital released him early after he did fifty push ups without resting, just a few days after the accident.

    Later,instead of cutting the soldier who’d accidentally shot him, Patraeus promoted him to Ranger School.

    I’ve read that the General is highly competitive. I’m glad, because I hope he becomes a candidate for President in 2012.

    I think I’d actually get out and campaign for that one.

  3. “Are these feelings of displacement part of what returning soldiers feel as they come back, leaving behind the terrible intensity of the battlefield to face the now forever-changed reality of home?”

    I don’t know about displacement. When I returned from RVN I felt as if I belonged to another time when I was among civilians. I felt old.

  4. the complicated political maneuvers of these thin-skinned politicians induces a tedium in those of us who are forced to watch their petty chess games

    I think we’re all so weary of them on both sides of the pond.

  5. Petraeus: “First, lead by example.

    The only irony of this statement is that we must now use it as a litmus test for Vampire Elite that pretend to lead us instead of the leadership motto it once was.

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