Command Performance

`TEN-SHUN!'' The men of 61st Company, Sixth Battalion, Infantry Officer Candidate School, Fort Benning, Ga., rise and stiffen into the familiar position. The tall man on the auditorium platform, the bill of his hat splashed with the ``scrambled eggs'' of a field-grade officer, his jacket covered with the ``fruit salad'' of multicolored campaign ribbons, levels his gaze at us. ``Welcome,'' he says, ``to the officer corps of the United States Army.''

a hundred and sixty caps sail into the air in the traditional celebration. Then we pull from our pockets the shiny gold bars betokening second lieutenants. The few mothers, wives, and girlfriends present do the honors for their loved ones; mostly we just help each other pin the insignias to the epaulets of our uniforms. We are both proud and relieved; The nine-month ordeal is over.

Of course, in the most important respect, our Army careers are just beginning. We have crossed the great divide between enlisted men and officers; now we will have to live up to the President's trust in us evidenced by the commissioning documents in our hands.

It's August 1969. Most of our thoughts are on Vietnam; nearly all of us can expect to be there within a few months. But our first challenges as officers will come far from the jungles and rice paddies of Indochina. They will come in how we deal with the enlisted men under our command in our interim stateside assignments.

The fact is that - despite the gleaming bars, the parchments, and the likelihood that many of us will lead men in combat - we are as green as the uniforms we wear. Most of us are 22 or 23 and hold college diplomas whose ink is just barely dry. We have had little ``real life'' experience. The Army has done its best to turn us into take-that-hill types, but, while we have mastered a certain military deportment, we still are untried as leaders of men. Sure, we all took our turns acting as platoon leaders and company commanders in Officer Candidate School. The results sometimes were inglorious. I still hadn't lived down the time I almost marched the company into a south Georgia swamp. As captain-for-a-day, I was moving the company across a field at a trot (``Double tiiiiime: 'arch!''). Jogging beside the column, I had dropped to the rear to berate a few stragglers when I realized that the lead platoon was about to disappear down an embankment. I sprinted forward and gasped out the ``Column left'' order just in time to avert catastrophe.

In addition to being untested, we new officers are members of a resolutely non-hierarchal society. Americans, unlike many other peoples, do not have a tradition of deference; they don't ``know their place.'' While they frequently find themselves in vertical relationships, as between employers and employees or teachers and students, those in the subordinate positions do not regard the people above them as their ``betters.'' And Americans will brook little authoritarianism from those whom circumstances have put over them.

This is the social backdrop against which we freshly minted second looies will have to try to perform our command responsibilities. Although we will have military regulations and tradition behind us, these are of only limited use in coping with the dilemma of being vested with nondemocratic authority in a democracy's armed service.

The challenge is multidimensional. First, there's the fact that a young officer is nominally over, but in fact must heavily rely on, noncommissioned officers with years of experience. The best of these noncoms have more maturity, better judgment, and stronger military bearing than the officer, and even the mere time-servers among them have vastly more know-how. They have seen a lot of us young pups come and go over the years. They salute smartly and call you ``Sir,'' but you always suspect that condescension lurks behind their impassive faces. What do they say in their mess halls and clubs, you wonder, and what will happen the first time you issue a controversial order?

Then there are the younger enlisted men. While they are as callow as you in ways martial, many of them are your peers in background, intelligence, and education. This is especially true during wartime, when the enlisted ranks are swelled by the sons of the upper-middle and middle classes who can't avoid the draft but have no intention of serving the additional time required of an officer. How do you deal with these putative underlings?

Some young officers I knew tried to escape the dilemma. A handful became martinets, adopting Prussian mannerisms and treating every imagined challenged to their authority as virtually a court-martial offense. A larger number sought to duck the problem by abdicating, as much as possible, their official status, especially with the younger soldiers. They would joke and pal around with these men and otherwise try to convey that they were regular fellows entertaining no pretensions of superiority

Most of us, however, conscientiously tried to walk this swaying tightrope, attempting to be true to our egalitarian instincts while still maintaining the arms-length relationships necessary to preserve military discipline. We knew we had to earn, and not simply demand, the respect and confidence of the enlisted men. At the same time, we knew that in the military scheme of things, rank is entitled to some respect in its own right; winning our men's obedience couldn't be a matter for endless negotiation.

Somehow most of us muddled through. I learned to listen to the senior NCOs and accept their counsel without appearing to relinquish the decision-making authority. And I learned how to supervise the younger men without tentativeness but also without being overbearing. (Happily, I was never called on to lead men under fire.)

It may be that the democratic underpinnings of America's armed forces are a source of strength. Whatever their ranks, the nation's fighting men and women largely share common values and experiences, and they share a consensus on the worth of the system they are defending. Also, studies have indicated that Americans' traditional independence and self-reliance produce soldiers with initiative and resourcefulness.

Still, it was often discomforting to assume a ``class'' role in a society that comes closer than most to being classless. I would guess that military relationships are easier in countries where ranks correspond more directly to underlying social stratifications. Many of us junior officers, though proud of how we had acquitted ourselves in uniform, felt relief when, after our discharges, we could deal with associates without giving thought to whether we were observing proper military decorum.

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