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They like to talk. (“they” being that mystical conglomeration of people who are too difficult to name in the particular) about preparing for war, preparing for the worst of the unknown. I used to think that I could rely on my leaders to be unflinching in the face of impending danger, but experience has taught me otherwise.
As a young lieutenant so long ago, all the captains and the field grade officers were granted a level of respect that is difficult to comprehend if you aren’t a Marine. Even the other military branches don’t lend such esteem to their officers as the Marines do, and I still think that it is deserved. Yes, there are majors that are overweight. There are some who have “dropped their pack” and are taking it easy. But we know that in the heart of every Marine, especially officers, lives the heart of a lion, a bull, and a wolverine all in one.
But I didn’t find it to be the case when the balloon went up.
In the First Persian Gulf War, my squadron was on the force list to be among the first main forces in the country. Special ops guys were there already, but in the first week of August 1990 immediately after Kuwait was invaded, VMA(AW)-242 and most of MAG-11 were told we were on our way to Iraq.
To put this in context, we had no idea that such a huge army would be amassed in that war. We assumed that we were all that were going because that’s all that the initial plans called for. That it grew to such a huge scale wasn’t expected at the time. My personal impression is that the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade were all that were going to face the entire Iraqi army. I assumed we would be a tripwire, if we were wiped out then the President would send in heavier forces. That’s how things were done until then, with only small forces committed at first so that the Soviets wouldn’t get too alarmed.
My first reaction was excitement, of course. Maybe as a Captain, I was young enough to not be afraid. My biggest concern was that I had all my stuff in my apartment and a lot of petty personal things to take care of. If I left, would my rent get paid on time? Seems silly to me now, but I was worried about it.
I was never worried about going to war itself, but then I wasn’t a pilot. As a maintenance officer, I figured I’d be somewhere at a desert expeditionary airstrip, maybe getting shelled, probably getting gassed (that’s was our biggest concern), but unless things went really badly I wouldn’t be personally manning the barricades or dodging air defenses. I can’t say that I had the same pressure on me that the aircrew did, but that doesn’t make me respect some of them after seeing their reactions.
All the captains in our squadron were serious, but excited and anxious to go. Almost all the majors and lieutenant colonels were reluctant. One, in particular, behaved in what I thought was a particularly craven way, my old boss.
When I first joined the squadron, I worked for a certain field grade officer and he was a bear-sized man with a deep voice and the ability to get everyone to follow him. He was a good officer and taught me to never underestimate the power that size and a deep voice have over others. He never made bad decisions and I admired him in many ways.
In short, though he wasn’t perfect, he was a good, strong leader. Just what you would expect from a Major in the Marine Corps.
And I’m not trying to single him out as an exception to the rule, my shock is that his reaction wasn’t unique. I thought most of the majors and lieutenant colonels in the squadron were afraid to go to war.
I was disgusted by them. By this time, he was a lieutenant colonel. I was the maintenance control officer, directing the effort to get ten 20-year old aircraft ready for war. Several times a day for three days the word would change back and forth, “we’re going,” “we’re staying.”
When the word came that we were going, I would get it via rumor control, and my direct boss, Comet Haley, would come by to tell me with gusto to never stop getting ready because the word keeps changing. Comet was eager for the fight. When the word came down that we were staying, this field grade officer would come down to the hangar and tell us all that we should stop work. The look of relief on his face was unmistakable. Once or twice he even made editorial comments about the undesirability of going to do our jobs.
Before Saddam invaded Kuwait, this officer was considered a good pilot, an aggressive pilot, and someone the junior officers looked up to and wanted to follow into battle. But when the visage of battle loomed ahead, he seemed a different man. And he wasn’t alone.
Our Squadron never got to war, and secretly I’ve always thought that he and the other field grade officers worked it as hard as they could to keep us out of the war. Later, when the air war started and it was clear how lopsided it would be, he was among those latecomers who went over to get combat time on their record. I wasn’t fooled by this newly found courage. That’s the Impression that I got.
You can’t really tell until the time comes who will face potential danger bravely and who won’t. And you probably can’t tell how someone will react when danger is no longer a possibility.
I never got into that war, not for lack of trying. It’s been 14 years now, but I’m finally able to go to Iraq. I might be in an infantry battalion, I might be at force headquarters, I don’t really know yet. But I hope that no young captains or lieutenants or other Marines see in me the craven queasiness I saw in my leaders back then. I want them to see the same resoluteness I saw in Comet Haley. Comet got passed over for promotion and left the Marines as a captain. The reluctant field grade officer got promoted to Colonel eventually.
So is bravery a decision or a reflex? I like to think it’s a decision. If it’s just a reflex, then there is no merit or blame. But if it’s a decision, then I can control it with character and intelligence. I think there is a little of both. Being startled is a reflex. But other times, when there is time to breathe, time to think, time to be a man, there is no excuse for flinching.
And that’s the impression that I get.
Post Script: This was originally written in September, 2004. I got word today that this field grade officer died in January at the age of 71. I’m sad. He was very likable and people did follow him. But I’ll never forget that he couldn’t be trusted to be manly and brave when it counted.Published in